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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

On Ukraine and on energy, Germany is upsetting its allies in Europe

The village of Wattenbacherau at the foot of the Isar II nuclear power plant in Germany on July 28, 2022.

By Steven Erlanger

At a moment when Germany’s allies seek reassurance and leadership, even its closest partners wonder aloud about its commitment to European solidarity.

Although Germany has long been Europe’s de facto leader, it has been slow to provide serious military equipment to Ukraine. It has also subsidized its own citizens’ energy bills while working to water down a price cap on gas that could alleviate pain in poorer countries of the European Union.

“Can we trust Germany?” Latvia’s outspoken defense minister, Artis Pabriks, asked bluntly last week at an open forum in Berlin, referring to NATO and the risks associated with the war in Ukraine. “You say ‘We are there for you.’ But do you have the political will?” He added: “We’re willing to die for freedom. Are you?”

Those criticisms are coming not only from countries that would be expected to push for a harder line against Russia, like Poland and the Baltic States, but even from Germany’s closest partners.

It is “not good for Europe and for Germany that it isolates itself,” President Emmanuel Macron of France subtly chastised his German counterpart, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, before a European Council summit meeting last week.

Scholz and his advisers bridle at such criticism — and disagree.

Germany is a force for pragmatism and the third-largest contributor of military equipment to Ukraine after the United States and Britain, they argue. Wolfgang Schmidt, the chancellor’s top aide, publicly compared German security policy to a teenager in a world of adults, finding its way with good intentions.

If late and seemingly reluctantly, Germany has recently supplied advanced weapons to Ukraine, like Gepard armored anti-aircraft guns, and at least one advanced mobile anti-aircraft missile system, the IRIS-T. Germany rushed that delivery this month, promising three more systems down the road.

And as part of its effort to counter the criticism, Germany, which is Europe’s largest economy, hosted a multinational conference Tuesday to focus minds on how to help Ukraine reconstruct, both during and after the war — a massive task. Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose role is more symbolic, also visited Kyiv on Tuesday for the first time since the war began, after President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine disinvited him in April, angry over Germany’s tight relations with Moscow.

“It was important to me, especially now in this phase of air attacks with drones, cruise missiles and rockets, to send a message of solidarity,” Steinmeier said.

But there is little doubt that the collapse of Germany’s long-held assumptions — that security in Europe must include Russia; that Russia was a reliable supplier of cheap gas and oil; that war would never again touch Europe; and that trade with autocratic regimes like Russia and China had no geopolitical implications — has been disorienting.

Germany is undergoing an economic and psychological shock, akin to an identity crisis, said Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“The fear here is the end of the promise of prosperity — of Wohlstandsversprechen — that each generation will be better off,” she said. “And now that’s over.”

Scholz, a cautious labor lawyer from Hamburg, is carefully trying to ease the pain, especially among German voters facing a difficult winter of high inflation and soaring energy prices.

But while he acknowledges that the world has changed, “he is not saying that we must change with it,” said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst. “He is saying that the world has changed and that we will protect you,” a major risk for the future.

Scholz himself raised expectations among Germans and their allies alike just days after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 when, in what he called a “Zeitenwende,” or historical turning point, he announced a big hike in military spending. The extra 100 billion euros ($99 billion) was intended to improve the sorry state of the German armed forces, but since then the government has been slow to act on its promises.

The result has been a deepening impression that Germany, with an awkward coalition government that was elected before the Russian invasion, is not able to fill Europe’s leadership vacuum, but is reluctantly joining the consensus when not going alone.

“Germany is not really a team player now — there is the sense of being dragged along,” said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s Germany first.”

Even a major bilateral conference between France and Germany, the “couple” that has so much influence in Brussels, was just postponed from Wednesday until January because of sharp disagreements over energy, arms purchases, collective European debt and Ukraine.

Relations with Poland and the Baltics, which are pushing a harder stance on Ukraine, are rancorous. “But we’re not bonding with Italy or Spain either,” Puglierin said. “I see us alone in Europe, detached.”

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund said some criticism of Germany was necessary and valid, but he feared it had gone too far.

“Criticizing Germany has become a cottage industry, but there’s no pushback from the government here,” he said. And sometimes, as in Poland and Hungary, he said, Germany is a useful whipping boy for nationalist political campaigns, especially among populists, which feeds into a larger anti-EU sentiment.

But on Ukraine, he said, it’s true: Germany is “just not doing enough.”

Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, a Green, has always pushed for more help for Ukraine. “We will supply Ukraine with weapons as long as it takes,” she said. “Ukraine is also defending Europe’s freedom.” The war, she said, “will shape German identity and European identity for years to come.”

Asked about polls that show German reluctance to see Russia as a military adversary, she said: “I’m a politician and not a psychiatrist.” But “people are afraid of war” and of their electricity bills, she said.

On energy, Germany has been sharply criticized within Europe for its unilateral decision to cushion the blow of higher energy prices to its own citizens and companies to the tune of 200 billion euros, which Scholz has called “a double ka-boom,” on top of 95 billion euros already provided.

The amount is somewhat inflated, and other countries, like France and Spain, have also announced state aid for energy costs. But the size of the subsidy is grating to other, poorer nations.

“For a country that talks of multilateralism so much, Germany has always had a unilateral energy policy,” said Daniel S. Hamilton, an American scholar of Germany, citing the sudden decision by Angela Merkel, the former chancellor, to abandon nuclear energy, and its building of the Nord Stream gas pipelines from Russia that cut out Poland and Ukraine.

“For the 200 billion euros, it’s not just the size but the manner of it, simply announced without European solidarity,” Hamilton said.

Speck agreed. “It was a big mistake not to see the European dimension, bringing back the image of Germany as a big egotistic power trampling on its partners,” he said.

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