After 16 years under Angela Merkel, Olaf Scholz’s assumption of Germany’s chancellorship on Dec. 8, 2021 marked a new chapter in the nation’s politics. Within the “traffic light” coalition government formed by the Social Democrats, the Free Democratic Party, and the Greens, Annalena Baerbock heads the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Before taking office, the co-leader of Alliance 90/The Greens was known for both her welcoming attitude toward immigrants and her full-throated condemnation of human rights violations by authoritarian governments. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has no shortage of the latter: According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, 17 out of the 20 countries in the region are “authoritarian” and not one is characterized as a “full democracy.” Beyond human rights, other key MENA policy issues for the new government include Iran, Turkey, ongoing conflicts in the region, and immigration. The challenges are numerous, if well-known, but how will Berlin respond? Is Germany's policy toward MENA likely to change or remain the same under the new government?
Iran and the future of the JCPOA
The German government continues to support negotiations aimed at shoring up Iran's compliance with the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and bringing the U.S. back into the deal. German companies, some of the biggest beneficiaries of the 2015 compromise, suffered when President Donald Trump reinstated sanctions against Iran in 2018. Germany's current support for this process, however, is conditional. Berlin is monitoring developments in Iran and will not hesitate to break off negotiations if it senses that Tehran is acting in bad faith. On June 9, Germany, along with France and the United Kingdom, issued a joint statement intended to put pressure on the Iranian authorities: “There has been a viable deal on the table since March 2022, which would return Iran to compliance with its JCPOA commitments and the U.S. to the deal. We regret that Iran has not seized the diplomatic opportunity to conclude the deal. We urge it to do so now. We are ready to conclude the deal.” This call to action clearly reflects Europe’s impatience with the prolonged deadlock in the negotiations as well as its unwillingness to tolerate further violations of the JCPOA provisions by Iran. The European powers may, however, soften up on Iran if the partial ban on Russian oil imports leads to further energy insecurity. In this scenario, as Europe looks for alternative suppliers, it may need to increase its reliance on the Middle East. Iran can certainly use this as a bargaining chip.
The conflict in Ukraine has already caused Germany to revise significantly its plans to decommission fossil fuels. From the start of the crisis, the Greens faced a dilemma: either keep up the pace of the green transition or ensure Germany's energy security through fossil fuels for the coming years. Up to this point, German policymakers have opted for the latter and will likely continue to do so for the duration of the war in Ukraine. In the short term, this is good news for suppliers from the Middle East. In the long term, however, the Ukraine war may speed up Germany’s green transition because it has brought home the urgency of gaining energy independence from authoritarian states.
Turkey and the EU
The new government will continue its current policy toward Turkey. In his first six months in office, Scholz has already proven his readiness to make demands on Ankara and to criticize its policies when he deems it appropriate. Germany will counterbalance the transactional elements of its relationship with Turkey — such as the aid it gives to Ankara in exchange for stemming migrant flows — with criticism and advocacy for human rights. On June 1, Germany chided Turkey for violating Greek airspace while calling on Ankara to avoid any action that could threaten unity within NATO at this critical moment. Given her ideological convictions, Minister Baerbock will be hard-pressed to overlook violations of civil liberties in Turkey. In April, she condemned the life sentence handed down to Turkish philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala. In her statement, Baerbock argued that the verdict failed to uphold the human rights standards “to which Turkey … as a candidate for EU membership, had committed itself.” At the same time, the government must tread lightly due to Germany’s large population of Turkish immigrants and native-born citizens of Turkish origin. (During Turkey's most recent presidential election in 2018, 65.7% of the votes from Turks residing in Germany went to Erdogan, as opposed to 52.6% from within Turkey itself.) The divisive question of Turkey's potential accession to the EU complicates German policymaking. While the CDU/CSU and the Liberals categorically reject Turkey’s bid, the Social Democrats take a more balanced position, and the Greens are against breaking off negotiations. Given the sharp differences on the issue, it is convenient for the German coalition that there be no progress in the negotiations. To join the EU, candidate countries must prove that they have met minimum standards for membership across 35 “chapters” covering issues that range from commercial law to labor rights to education. Over the past 17 years, Turkey has provisionally closed only one of the 35 chapters.
Germany and conflicts in the region
The German government prides itself on its pacifism. Officially, all its activities aim to maintain or restore peace and stability in countries threatened or affected by armed conflicts. With support from his coalition, Chancellor Scholz extended the embargo on the sale of arms to countries involved in the conflict in Yemen, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Germany will also maintain its current policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cognizant of the atrocities committed against Jews during World War II, Germany generally refrains from criticism of Israel, even when the Israeli government enacts oppressive policies against Palestinians. Berlin is well aware that any harsh statement against Israel is bound to conjure up Germany’s fraught history with the Jewish people. During a speech to the Knesset in 2014, Martin Schulz, a prominent figure in German domestic politics then serving as president of the European Parliament, quoted Palestinians who had brought to his attention Israel’s discriminatory allocation of water in the West Bank. Despite tempering his words with the admission that he hadn’t “checked the data,” Schulz was heckled and several right-wing MKs staged a walkout. Among Schulz’s most vocal detractors was now-outgoing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who at the time held the position of economy minister: “I won’t sit in the Knesset and hear a European, certainly not a German, saying such things.” Although walking on eggshells in its remarks about Israel, Germany still ranks as the second largest donor to UNRWA, the U.N. aid agency that supports Palestinian refugees, and trumpets its commitment to a two-state solution.
Germany has kept its borders open to immigrants from the MENA region. As of 2020, slightly more than 800,000 Syrians (mostly refugees) live in Germany, while Turks constitute its largest immigrant community. Nonetheless, the new government must pay attention to public opinion. Although Germany has leaned into the notion of a national “Willkommenskultur” toward foreigners since the 2015 migration crisis, 67% of citizens still consider refugee-related expenditures — 23 billion euros as of 2018 — an “additional burden on the welfare state.” Meanwhile, 66% of respondents fear social unrest and tensions between native Germans and immigrants. Nothing presages a migration crisis approaching the scale of the one in 2015, but armed conflicts and the deteriorating economic situation in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran could still drive an increasing number of people from the region toward Europe.
To date, the new government's policy toward the MENA region does not markedly differ from that of former Chancellor Merkel. Nevertheless, things may change going forward, especially as the Scholz government navigates the challenges presented by a particularly fluid and unpredictable state of international affairs. The long-term consequences for the MENA region of major geopolitical events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remain uncertain. Yet the need to strengthen existing alliances or increase fossil fuel imports from the region may force the government to modify its policies in the coming months.
Przemysław Osiewicz is a non-resident scholar at MEI and an associate professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, specializing in EU policy towards the MENA region, Iran, and Turkey. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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