Germany remains haunted by its past but sometimes in perverse ways. The country’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has justified pressing on with the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline – which will bring natural gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Germany – in part as a reparation for the terrible suffering inflicted by the Nazis during the invasion of the Soviet Union.
This is an odd position to take, to put it mildly. The new pipeline is viewed with something approaching dread in countries such as Poland and Ukraine – also victims of Nazi evil – as a tool of Russian geopolitical power. Since it will supply gas directly to Germany, the fear is that it will make it far easier for Putin to switch off supplies to much of Eastern Europe without incurring the anger of more powerful states further west. It will also deprive the likes of Poland and Ukraine of gas transit revenues. And it will all but guarantee decades of profits to the Kremlin and its cronies, not long-suffering Russians.
Nothing, apparently, can derail German enthusiasm for the project. The (bipartisan) view in Washington is that it is a security threat to Europe, an umbilical cord tying Germany to Russia and making Berlin dependent on the Kremlin to keep energy flowing so its heavy industry can continue to turn out exports. The attempted assassination of Russian activist Alexei Navalny, and his subsequent imprisonment in Russia on trumped-up charges, was expected to lead to something of a change of approach, yet it didn’t. Even the drive to make the EU economy more green hardly seems to have dented its progress.
Steinmeier’s attempt to put a moralising spin on a decision based on pure pragmatism is typical of how Angela Merkel’s government has framed its policies during her long reign as Chancellor. With her chosen retirement date in the autumn looming, eulogies of the first woman to lead Europe’s biggest country and economic powerhouse have begun to appear.
“Mutti Merkel”, as the BBC calls her, has been presented as the eco-warrior who scrapped Germany’s nuclear power after the Fukushima accident in 2011 and the humane opener of her borders to a million-plus refugees from the Middle East in 2015. Such actions earned her a reputation, particularly among shell-shocked liberals horrified by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as some sort of moral guardian, wisely guiding Germany and the EU through turmoil while rejecting the baser motives of the populists.
Yet if anything defines Merkel on the world stage it is her track record of bullying the weak and conniving with the strong. For all her sermonising, Germany’s Chancellor has been the arch-power broker of modern times. From Moscow to Beijing and back via Ankara, nobody understood the art of the deal better than her.
In the case of opening borders, the policy that more than any other created the myth of Merkel as Mrs Morality, she made an abrupt change of strategy that was railroaded through despite its myriad flaws and the huge costs it imposed on others. EU neighbours had little choice when told that they would have to take their “fair share of refugees” after her claim that Germany could “handle” the inflow became a political hot potato at home. Greece is still struggling with the consequences while Merkel indulges Turkey’s autocratic President Erdogan even as his navy intrudes on the waters of EU members.
Then there is China. Radical rethinking of Chinese-sourced supply chains has been the order of the day across the West, but those pushing for a united effort to stand up to Beijing ought not to expect too much from Germany. Only a week ago, Merkel told a press conference: “There are many reasons to work with China, such as climate protection and many other issues … I don’t think de-coupling is the way to go.” Merkel’s woke-friendly use of eco-rhetoric about Berlin’s common ground with Beijing is little more than a convenient a way to silence moral qualms about her continued willingness to trade with China.
Merkel has visited China, Germany’s single biggest export market, 12 times since becoming Chancellor in 2005. The country’s industrial powerhouses, such as BMW, Mercedes and Siemens, not only do very good business with Beijing but act as lobbyists for China in Berlin. Doing business with China may be good for profits, but it is naïve to think that this is going to achieve much when it comes to Beijing’s egregious human rights abuses and aggression towards its neighbours. The old theory that trade would encourage China to Westernise has been comprehensively debunked.
Far from a moral hero, Merkel has sponsored business deals with authoritarian regimes and sidelined the victims of abuse of power from Russia to China and beyond. Worst of all, under her most probable Christian Democrat successors, Armin Laschet and Markus Soeder, a post-Merkel Germany is likely to continue to ooze moralisms while making deals with well-paying despots. We can’t say we weren’t warned.