Germany's post-Merkel foreign policy: more pro-European in Eastern Europe, tougher on Russia. Analysis by Dionis Cenușa



Unlike the reluctant approach of Merkel's period, the red-yellow-green coalition is in favor of a pro-European foreign policy, which benefits neighboring EU states with similar goals. This kind of ambitious foreign policy runs the risk of being resisted by Russia ...


Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor

The launch of the governing coalition with the participation of the Social Democrats (Social Democratic Party), Greens (Alliance 90 / Green Party) Liberals (Free Democratic Party), sworn in on December 8 (2021), allows a necessary transition for development of the German state, after the lasting government of Angela Merkel. While her governance style was praised for its efficiency and solution orientation, it was also criticized for an excessive level of caution, slowing down the decision-making process, both at the national and European levels. In contrast, the new red-yellow-green governing coalition (the "traffic light coalition" with 416 out of 736 seats) has set itself the goal of being more energetic in accelerating Germany's transition to a more diverse society, with a greener society and more digitized economy, but also a more ambitious and pro-European foreign policy than before.

As in the “Merkelian” period (IPN, September 2021), the new German rulers emphasize multilateralism, the rules-based world order (strict application of international law) and international cooperation. However, unlike previous governments, the "traffic light coalition" comes with a major innovation in the field of German foreign policy. The innovation consists of more comprehensive incorporation of the priorities of the European Union (EU) and the elimination of the vision of creating a single economic space with Russia (from Lisbon to Vladivostok), pursued by the previous government and promoted by Vladimir Putin since 2010 (SüddeutscheZeitung, November 2010). In the governing "traffic light" coalition's document, the EU is used as a benchmark in various aspects of future German foreign policy, from the realization of European "strategic sovereignty" to supporting reforms in the Eastern Partnership and the development of a common foreign policy towards Russia.

The first steps of post-Merkelian German diplomacy

For the first time in German history, a woman that also represents the Green camp, Annalena Baerbock, heads the German Foreign Ministry. Also new to German diplomacy, in addition to traditional foreign policy responsibilities, Baerbock aims to intensify international cooperation on climate change. This could serve as an incentive to inoculate the "climate urgency" in Germany's political-diplomatic dialogues at the European, regional (Eastern Neighborhood) and international levels, respectively. The first trips of the new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock were to Paris, Brussels and Warsaw.

In France, the focus of the talks was on two issues: supporting the agenda of the French presidency in the EU in 2022 and continuing efforts around multilateralism. The visions outlined for the French presidency in the EU Council coincide with the new German government's desire for a "greener, socially just and sovereign Europe", but also a stronger commitment to promoting the interests and values of the EU at the international level. The Franco-German priority list also includes the protection and promotion of initiatives aimed at supporting multilateralism (FranceDiplomatie, December 2021), such as the Alliance for Multilateralism established in 2019 (more than 60 states). The two countries are also opting for cohesion to deal with security threats in the eastern neighborhood, currently caused by Russia's military mobilization on the border with Ukraine.

During Baerbock's visit to Brussels, European Chancellor Josep Borrell praised the "absolutely pro-European" foreign policy of the Berlin government. There is consensus on the intentions of the EU and Germany to promote and defend European values and interests more solidly at the global level, in the context of "strategic sovereignty" and the new instruments in the process of being finalized (Strategic Compass). Brussels has sent a clear signal about Germany's crucial role in ensuring the unity of European foreign policy (EEAS, December 2021). The dialogue between Borrell and Baerbock sidelined the concerns raised by the Russian military presence on the border with Ukraine, which had been promised assistance to strengthen state resilience.

The third destination of Baerbock's early travels was Warsaw, with which Germany is trying to establish strategic relationships using the Weimer format. The main issues discussed with the Polish side include the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border, as well as the aggressive nature of Russian foreign policy (, December 2021). Particular attention has been paid to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the certification of which is temporarily suspended until Gazprom meets the legal requirements to establish a subsidiary on German territory (TheNewYorkTimes, November 2021). The objections of the German Foreign Ministry are geostrategic and energy-related and largely refer to the risk of increasing energy dependence on Russia, concerns that are transcribed in Poland's position.

The new head of German diplomacy has shown more courage for the moment in the case of Ukraine. This can be detected in the most recent G7 statement (EEAS, December 2021), which not only vehemently condemns Russia's military mobilization and aggressive rhetoric against Ukraine, but also warns of "massive consequences and severe costs" in case of aggression. This appears to be the breaking point of Merkel's restraint and wariness towards a sharper and harsher foreign policy vis-à-vis Moscow. In the Eastern European region, treatment similar to Putin's Russia will be applied to Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. The beneficiaries of the new political changes in Berlin will be the countries that implement reforms and do not voluntarily create insecurity at the immediate borders of the EU. This category includes countries that, according to the vision of the ruling coalition in Berlin, demonstrate aspirations to join the EU: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. In other cases, the German government has accepted sectoral cooperation as a maximum level of commitment, such as simplifying the visa regime.

Mapping the main elements of German foreign policy

Under the governing agreement of the "stoplight" coalition, German diplomacy will focus both on strengthening its own foreign relations and improving the EU's global position.

On the one hand, Berlin will spend time fortifying existing partnerships, focusing on the Franco-German tandem and the Franco-German-Polish Weimer format. At the same time, it wants to maintain, develop and apply the mechanisms of multilateralism, both at the level of international organizations (UN, OSCE, NATO) and in other more exclusivist platforms (G7, Alliance for Multilateralism). The proposed goals are nothing new, but they are better structured and nuanced in the government coalition agreement in 2021 than in 2018, between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

On the other hand, Berlin sees added value in combining efforts with the EU. New foreign policy chief Annalena Baerbock emphasized that Germany's foreign policy can only be strong if it is "European" (Spiegel, November 2021). The new government in Berlin has indicated that it wants to articulate the strategic sovereignty of the EU in order to reduce external dependence on energy, medicine and the importation of raw materials for chain production. The new government also realizes that the EU's "strategic sovereignty" is incomplete without protecting critical and technological infrastructure at the European level. This vision is not only practical but also urgent given the increasing multiplication and overlap of crises. This juxtaposition is taking place right now when the new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic together with the jump in prices in the energy market is delaying the economic recovery.

Relations with the Eastern Partnership, together with the EU and separately from Russia

The Berlin government's intentions are complementary to the EU's efforts in its eastern neighborhood. The comparison of the government document prepared by the red-yellow-green coalition with the 2018 government agreement shows three important differences:

First, the 2018 document expressly mentions Germany's interest in contributing to the continued development of the Eastern Partnership, together with the EU and other Member States (p. 153). The document signed during Merkel's tenure pointed to the Association only indirectly in the context of collaboration with civil society. In addition, it was included in the chapter on Russia (p. 150). In 2018, Germany's criticism of Russia's military intervention in Ukraine was balanced by a promise to Russia to return to the previous state of balance of interests, remove sanctions, and implement the idea of a single economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The only condition put forward by the Merkel-led coalition was that Russia should implement the Minsk Accords. The same was asked of Ukraine, in exchange for which it would have received substantial support for the restoration of the Donbas.

Second, the 2018 agreement left out other Eastern Partnership countries except for Ukraine. The latter was primarily addressed in terms of military intervention and Russia's annexation of Crimea, as well as a commitment to fighting corruption. However, the 2021 deal seems more inclusive and also includes Moldova and Georgia, as well as Ukraine. They stand out for their aspirations to join the EU. However, the "stoplight" coalition has avoided mentioning the "Trio of Associations", responding to the EU's warning that it wants to avoid fragmentation of the EaP (IPN, July 2021). The latter was conceived as a multilateral platform and is important for European integration at the regional level. The German government's expectations are that the three countries carry out reforms aimed at the rule of law and the market economy. And in the case of Ukraine, more direct language is used to help restore territorial integrity and sovereignty than in the 2018 document. Furthermore, under the current agreement, Germany is committed to deepening its energy partnership with Ukraine (energy efficiency and CO2 reduction). Another EaP country specified in the 2021 deal is Belarus, against which the German government is willing to support tougher EU sanctions to change Lukashenko's behavior.

Third, unlike the 2018 agreement, the post-Merkel government put the proper functioning of the EaP and relations with Ukraine and Belarus before the dialogue with Russia in the governing document. The red-yellow-green coalition is also determined to enter into relations with Moscow, taking into account EU policy and the interests of the Central and Eastern European states, not just its own strategic calculations. The language used by the German ruling coalition is harsher on Russia, accused of destabilizing Ukraine, than in 2018. The chapter on relations with Russia also includes the resolution of "frozen conflicts" in the region, not to mention the situation in Nagorno Karabakh. Overall, the 2021 document takes a more candid, realistic and comprehensive look at the prospects for the EaP and the management of (not comforting) the Russian factor in the region.

Table. Comparative analysis of the governing agreements of 2018 and 2021 in Germania


2018 Governing agreement

2021 Governing agreement



















Eastern Partnership



Source: Compilation of the author with reference to the political documents accessible at  and

In lieu of conclusions...

The new governing coalition in Berlin has a strong pro-European vision in the conduct of German foreign policy. Although in schematic form, the governing document contains the EU's approaches to the Eastern Partnership and Russia.

Unlike the reluctant approach of Merkel's period, the red-yellow-green coalition favors a pro-European foreign policy, benefiting neighboring states for similar purposes. This ambitious foreign policy runs the risk of being resisted by Russia, which will eventually be forced to adapt to the new post-Merkel circumstances, where the Russian factor will be treated as a systemic challenge, in addition to the aggression against Ukraine.

This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.

Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
Follow Dionis Cenușa on Twitter

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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