The Role of German Power in post Brexit Europe [II]

  • By Octavian Manea

Germany doesn’t need a new cold war, it needs Russia to help resolve the conflict in the Middle East and end the flow of migrants heading for Europe.

Timothy Less will analyse the potential trajectory of Germany in a Europe without the United Kingdom, in the second of a three part interview (You can read the first part: "Four Scenarios for a post - Brexit Europe" here. Less believes that the key question in European politics over the next decade is what Germany chooses to do with its growing power.


Margaret Thatcher used to say that ‘the history of Europe since 1870 has largely been concerned with finding the right structure to contain Germany’. Are we going to see a reactivation of the German question especially from the perspective of some Eastern countries whose history as borderland regions was never positive when Germany and Russia used to (usually) cooperate against their interests?

Yes, I think there is a risk of that. Germany has been on a remarkable journey in the last few decades. After being defeated and divided in 1945, it built the most dynamic economy in Europe on the territory of West Germany. West Germany then enlarged to encompass East Germany and create mainland Europe’s largest state by population, positioned at the centre of the continent. Through the 1990s and 2000s, German industry advanced far into the former communist bloc, creating a vast economic hinterland from Estonia to Romania. Last year, Germany also unwittingly began to address its greatest weakness, namely its demographic decline, by importing population from outside Europe. By almost any measure, Germany looks like a rising power.

Until recently, the main constraint on Germany was political: its integration into the EU, its reluctance to exercise sovereign power and its commitment to collective decision-making. However, even this has started to break down with the paralysis of the EU’s institutions. As a result, Germany has emerged as the most powerful sovereign actor in Europe, able to impose its preferences on the rest of the continent: over policy in the euro zone, the redistribution of migrants, relations with Russia and EU enlargement into the Balkans, among many other things.

In this respect, perhaps the key question in European politics over the next decade is what Germany chooses to do with its growing power. You ask about the relationship between Germany and Russia and this will be vitally important in shaping European politics. In one sense, the nature of this relationship is an open question because the history of German-Russian relations has oscillated between periods of close collaboration and intense enmity. But my wager is that the two will collaborate, due to the complimentary nature of their two economies. As an importer, Germany will continue to need Russian energy, especially after it finally closes down its nuclear capacity at the end of this decade. As an investor, Germany will need Russian manpower. Central Europe is getting expensive and cannot actually absorb much more FDI because of a shortage of skilled workers. By contrast, Russia has a huge and underemployed workforce which German manufacturers can exploit, not too far from the German homeland. Meanwhile, as an exporter, Europe’s economy may be in for a rough ride if there is a breakup of the euro zone which will increase the importance of the Russian market.

For its part, Russia will welcome Germany. In the last few years, President Putin has stabilised Russia and succeeded in arresting the decline of the economy, notwithstanding the recent effect of sanctions and the downturn in the oil price. However, he has failed to implement the political and economic reforms needed to modernise the Russian economy and sustain growth in the longer term. In this respect, a German offer to export more of its technology to Russia for free, creating jobs and opportunity, will be too good an offer for Moscow to pass up.

For the moment, there is an obstacle to closer political relations, namely Russia’s aggressive behaviour in its frontier regions. However, I don’t expect this to be a barrier even in the short term because Germany needs Russia to help resolve the conflict in the Middle East and end the flow of migrants heading for Europe. Germany also doesn’t want a new Cold War on its eastern border, which will only place further stress on an already crisis-stricken EU. In this context, Germany is already softening its stance towards Russia. Just in the last few weeks, the Foreign Minister has called for sanctions against Russia to be gradually lifted, the Defence Ministry has published a new strategy paper calling for strong cooperation with Russia and Angela Merkel has stated that Ukraine’s bid to join the EU is off the agenda.

There are still sticking points in relations, most obviously the issue of Russia’s involvement in the Donbas, its failure to comply with the Minsk II peace agreement and its occupation of Crimea. But I suspect that these issues will eventually be parked, especially if Merkel is replaced after the next election by a more right-wing leader who places Germany’s core national interests over residual concerns about Russian interference in Ukraine. The upshot is that Russia will have Germany’s implicit consent to pursue what it sees as its strategic interests in its own backward, including the restoration of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine.

The countries in between will not look kindly on any of this, of course. Anti-Russian elements in Ukraine will justifiably panic and the Baltic nations, already fearful of Russian revanchism, will see a powerful Germany coming forward with a settlement that aims to resolve the Ukraine question on roughly Russia’s terms. However benign Germany’s intentions may be, they are likely to cause consternation in a fragile region where interests are zero-sum, memories are long and everyone is tense. Rather than de-escalating tensions, a Germany rapprochement with Russia will probably fuel their fears and accelerate some of the regional trends already underway including rearming by Poland and Baltic States; efforts to involve the US and UK in Eastern Europe; and the crystallising of a new security alliance centred on Poland, which includes the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

The nightmare scenario is that Poland overreacts to the perceived threat by encouraging the Americans to enforce a buffer zone in Ukraine – that is, by deploying troops inside the country. This would panic the Russians, whose own security depends on maintaining a Ukraine as a friendly buffer, and provoke Moscow into deploying its own troops in the south and the east of the country. The two sides would try hard to avoid direct combat, of course, but the geopolitical reality is that a Ukraine would functionally split and a new Iron Curtain would emerge in Eastern Europe.


As of last year, the Polish Presidency has been promoting a loose regional self-help system inspired by an interwar period construct - Intermarium. Is such a framework/project an indicator of EU and NATO weaknesses and fragmentation? Would it be a reaction to a German-Russian alliance?

 The premise of your question is basically correct. The emergence of new Intermarium is, first and foremost, a response to the perceived threat from Russia. And behind this is the fear that NATO’s Article V security guarantee may not be as hard in reality as it is on paper. Much like the EU, the organisation has overreached itself by taking in too many members with divergent interests and foreign policies, and there is no consensus on how to handle Russia. For every hawkish state there is a dovish one which is content to turn a blind eye on Crimea and normalise relations with Russia. Polish politicians have been circumspect in their public comments but their actions suggest they have decided to take care of their own security by creating a regional self-help alliance, reinforced by the Americans and the British, who will resume their historical role post - Brexit of intervening selectively in Europe to preserve the peace and a regional balance of power. I’m not expecting Germany and Russia to create a formal alliance, as such, but instead to pursue warmer relations based on a common economic interest. However, even this will have the effect of weakening the NATO alliance and causing dismay in the Baltic, adding impetus to the creation of the Intermarium.

As a footnote to this, I think Poland will struggle to co-opt any other states in Central Europe into its anti-Russian alliance and that the Visegrad Four will functionally break. The evidence to date is that Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, prefer to balance between Germany and Russia rather than take sides, so any Intermarium will be limited to Russia’s frontline states.

Read the First Part of the interview here

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy. Tim spent a decade working as an analyst, diplomat and policymaker at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where, among others things, he ran the British Embassy Office in Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the EU Institutions Department, and served as the Political Secretary at the British Embassy in Skopje (FYROM).