Foreign Policy Blogs

Germany in the days of Fukushima and Gaddhafi

It’s Saturday morning Central European time and the world has changed significantly in the last week. Fukushima has confirmed the worst suspicions of the possibilities of a nuclear meltdown which industry and political experts had been denouncing as outrageously wild for decades. Meanwhile a French proposition to enact – and enforce – a no-fly zone over Libya to halt the progress of Gaddhafi’s troops moving against the most important rebel holdout in Eastern Libya, Benghazi, has passed as a UNSC resolution. In other words Europe is going to war in North Africa seeing as the US’ desire to actively participate seems to be limited or might just be related to an overstretch of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Germany is playing a peculiar role in both of these crises as its stance went against – international – majority opinion twice.

Immediately following the first developments in Japan, the German government announced that it would put a hold on its four-months old decision to draw out the nuclear energy phase-out, which Schröder government had decided upon in 2000, by an average of twelve years per plant. Said extension of the existing nuclear plants was made in an extremely contested and partisan vote in the Bundestag and is still being contested in front of the highest court for its constitutionality.

The panic-ridden reaction of the Merkel government is reflected in the weak legal reasoning of a three-month moratorium of a law – if I may repeat myself, the same government passed only months ago. A law passed by the Bundestag can only be revoked by a new law passed by parliament (or if found unconstitutional by the German equivalent to the Supreme Court – the Bundesverfassungsgericht). Yet, no law has been passed in support of the moratorium. Instead the government changed its argument in mid-course and went from declaring a moratorium to an emergency situation which allows for a renewed security control in nuclear plants and does not require a parliamentary approval. The problem with that of course is that it is unclear what concretely were to have changed concerning the security of German nuclear plants.

This caused resentment in the majority itself, thus the President of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, has been questioning whether additional parliamentary weren’t necessary and a prominent CDU politician and lawyer, Siegfried Kauder, has been questioning the legality of the move. If the energy firms at some point in the future were to – successfully – sue against this measure, the government could potentially be obliged to reimburse them for the loss in profits that the – temporary? – shut-down of eight nuclear power plants caused them.

Why did the German government surge ahead in such a desperate dash then? Merkel was even cited as saying that Germany may accelerate its exit from nuclear power – basically an opposition demand the the government had ridiculed mere days ago. The German populace’s sentiment of course is largely anti-nuclear and was so even before Fukushima. Last weekend 60,000 spontaneously demonstrated against nuclear energy. Yet, this is nothing new. The difference are the elections in Sachsen-Anhalt tomorrow and Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg next week Sunday. The CDU governs in two of those, Baden-Württemberg in fact has not had a – true – change of government since WW2. Considering the current unpopularity of the federal government and a number of specific regional issues, it looks as if the CDU might lose all three of these. Wildly surprising decisions shortly before important elections? Honni soit qui mal y pense.

Ironically this radical position as a hyperactive outlier facing stoic reactions on their respective nuclear industries from the US and France contrasts with the German self-exclusion from a – mainly – Western intervention in Libya. In the UN Security Council Germany abstained with the likes of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Majority Muslim countries such as Bosnia and Lebanon supported the establishment of a no-fly zone as did African countries (and former colonies) such as Gabon and Nigeria. Over at the ECFR the tantalizing argument of Germany as ‘a BRIC […] who does not need to show that it is aligned with the big three’ was made. I don’t think this a completely invalid argument. It is a necessary condition but far from sufficient. The pre-Schröder Germany, far more dependent on Franco-American approval and less obstinate in adhering to its own opinions, would have undoubtedly voted with the UK, US and France – see its participation in the First Gulf War as an example.

Other factors played a decisive role in the only European, the only Western abstention (and following non-participation militarily or logistically). The German Foreign Minister explained that the saw himself as part of a tradition of military constraint. Germany is extremely nervous about being drawn into an expanding and – potentially – long-term civil war. After all what happens if a targeted air strikes are not sufficient to make Gaddhafi recoil? The German presence in Afghanistan is already extremely unpopular, especially since the population has been starting to realize – and politicians have been obliged to admit – that Germany is fighting in a war there and is not just engaged in armed peacekeeping. Which leads us – once again – to the upcoming elections. Domestic politics determining foreign policy choices? Realists would shudder. Yet, it seems impossible to disassociate the potential loss of two more Länder governments from Merkel’s coalition’s choices – especially since said coalition seemingly has been reeling ever since being sworn into office.

An aspect to keep in mind regarding these governmental decisions is the newly emergent force of the Greens as a – regionally limited – Volkspartei (a catch-all party). Not only is the CDU worried about losing state elections in Baden-Württemberg, the next Prime Minister there might actually come from a Green party which is seen as far more legitimate than either the CDU or FDP on nuclear energy as well as safe-guarding German pacifism (even if the latter is highly ironic considering the Kosovo and Afghanistan interventions).

What do we learn from all this then? That popular opinion matters? At least in the lead-up to elections? We knew this before, see Merkel’s treatment of the Greek bail-out question and how she dragged all of Europe along to avoid making a decision on it before the state elections in Nordrhein-Westfalen. She failed on both counts, but that’s not the point. Merkel – and her government – seems to be following popular sentiment much more than other national leaders. Sarkozy pushed through the Libyan intervention against ridicule and criticism, Cameron, Papandreou and others are defending austerity measures, even Obama pushed through some kind of a health care package against vocal public opposition. Hell, Merkel predecessor, Schröder pushed through a number of labor market reforms that effectively ended his hold on the government a few years later. Merkel’s government acts much less proactive and is far more of a proactive force. Is that good, is it bad? Should a government in a representative democracy not follow its citizens’ opinion anyway? Should it lead or be led? I will not look into answering such a normative question here, but it is clear that at least for the time being Merkel and her fellow ministers are playing catch-up, they are not leading any kind of pack.