A Zeitenwende in Europe? The new age of German politics and regional coordination with aspiring NATO members Finland and Sweden

Marion is a third-year International Relations student at King’s College London. With strong interests in diplomacy, strategy, and European politics broadly, she is currently the European editor of International Relations today.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende marks a profound shift in Germany’s defence and security policies. Increases in defence spending and the supply of armaments to Ukraine contribute to Germany’s clear position in the war against Russia. Only a few months after Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications, Zeitenwende paves the way for a geopolitical Europe. 

Olaf Scholtz’s Zeitenwende

On Feb 27, 3 days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave his Zeitenwende speech—outlining a “change of era” in German defence policy. Only a few days after the start of the Ukraine war, Scholz promised to break with Germany’s negligence of military defence and passive attitude toward foreign affairs. Scholz announced to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence annually, and provide an emergency fund of 100 billion euros ($110 billion) to facilitate the increase and supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine. 

The speech was immediately lauded as a historic milestone—not just in Berlin, but also in Washington and other NATO capitals, where the absence of any serious German defence policy has been lamented for years. Under Angela Merkel between 2005 and 2021, Germany was a country of continuity. ‘Wir schaffen das’, ‘we can handle this’ is remembered as one of Merkel’s unblinking statements to cope with challenges. It echoes Germany’s refusal to change the country’s asylum policy to accommodate an increasing flux of Syrian refugees during the 2015 refugee crisis.

Arguably, what Germany is witnessing is a generational change in politics. German author and journalist Anna Sauerbrey explores the characteristics of today’s German politicians in her most recent book “Machtwechsel”. Born with post-1989 world views, she claims, they have consistently rejected realpolitik and the use of the military as an instrument of politics, convinced that they were obstacles to the success of Liberal democracy. While democracy is at war, Scholz challenges the status quo of German politics: Zeitenwende announces a future where Germany is a key security and defence policy player. 

The Ukraine problem

NATO’s defence-spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product is not yet achieved. The regular German defence budget is set to remain at around 50 billion euros until 2026, while an increase of 2% would require around 70 billion euros.  at 

Moreover, German Zeitenwende has faced significant resistance from the left wing of Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party; due to complaints about the potentially damaging political and economic fallout of gas shortages next winter. Scholz will first have to overcome the opposition to keep raising the defence budget and delivering heavy weapons shipments to Kyiv. 

As Wolfgang Schmidt, the chancellor’s chief of staff, warned at a European Council on Foreign Relations conference last Sunday, “[The] Zeitenwende is not a static thing, it is a dynamic situation. We are still trying to find out what it really means”. 

But, with the challenges of the Zeitenwende in mind, Berlin put the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project on hold to reduce Germany’s energy dependency. According to a German government spokesman, an increase in military aid to Ukraine worth €500 million, will follow next year. This includes three additional Iris-T air defence systems, a dozen armoured recovery vehicles, 20 rocket launchers, precision ammunition, and anti-drone systems. 

Germany also decided to purchase American-made F-35 fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons. According to Ingo Gerhartz, Germany’s air force commander, it is the “most modern fighter in the world” and contributes to Nato’s “nuclear sharing” arrangement. 

Germany’s turn in defence and security policy is also supported by countries on the other side of the Atlantic. On 23rd August, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and O. Scholz signed a joint declaration of intent to invest in hydrogen and establish a “transatlantic-Germany supply corridor”, as both countries look to move away from Russian imports. 

A geopolitical Europe?

The shifting geopolitical landscape and creation of opposing blocs pose an existential challenge for Germany, forcing it to reconsider its position within the International System. To preserve itself amid systemic rivalry between Russia and the United, Germany must redefine its security role in Europe and the world

Germany’s new security and defence policy will be instrumental in advancing European defence cooperation. On 26th August, it leapt forward with the adoption of the Strategic Compass, an EU strategy document and work plan for enhancing European defence cooperation in coordination with NATO.  A “factory Europe” that gives itself the means to cater for its own needs but also to conquer world markets and export. A Europe, not withdrawn into its shell and wanting to produce everything itself, but rather, a Europe “that shelters all its supplies from”, writes Thierry Breton, current Commissioner for Internal Market of the European Union.

Six months after O. Scholz’s Zeitenwende, we are witnessing the emergence of a geopolitical Europe. Sharing a Zeitenwende in mindsets with aspiring NATO members Finland and Sweden, thematic and regional coordination could strengthen the territorial and collective defence of Europe. This appears even more important in a time when Europe is an instrument of geopolitical rivalries. “We will intensify our military cooperation, especially in the Baltic Sea region and through joint exercises,” Scholz said in May 2022. “It is already clear that our countries are bound together by an obligation to provide each other with all possible assistance and support for mutual protection”, as members of the United Nations and the European Union, Scholz added.

Image credits: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-03/germany-backs-potential-swedish-finnish-nato-membership-bids 


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