Ina Fassbender / REUTERS Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a rally in Bochum, Germany, September 2009.

Steinmeier Steps Up?

The Next German President Could Shape Transatlantic Relations—at Merkel's Expense

At the end of January, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then German minister of foreign affairs, exited the political stage. He’ll be back in March, but this time as president, after being elected by a parliamentary assembly on Sunday. As the consensus candidate, his victory was no surprise. For Germany, the timing is fortuitous, since the country faces unprecedented foreign policy challenges. But for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his presence could pose a risk as she campaigns to be chancellor for a fourth time. 

At first glance, it might appear that Steinmeier has been sidelined. After his time engaging in shuttle diplomacy from Tehran to Minsk during two stints as Germany’s top envoy, Steinmeier’s new ceremonial role at Bellevue Palace might seem like a letdown. But this dyed-in-the-wool public servant will be a trusty wingman for Merkel as Germany faces several existential threats. And in that, the federal presidency offers an ideal perch from which he can underscore the chancellor’s commitment to democratic values and multilateral cooperation. 

But there is a danger for Merkel that he will win the hearts of German voters by standing up to U.S. President Donald Trump and inadvertently buoy his fellow Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD is beginning to position itself as the country’s only bulwark against Trumpist America, while Merkel, head of the Christian Democrats, is cautious in her approach.   

The global economic crisis, the eurozone’s troubles, and the ongoing influx of migrants have not toppled Germany as Europe’s leading power. The country has maintained its export prowess and a low unemployment rate. Its role on the international stage has gone from novel to normal, and a dedication to European unity has guided the country. Even so, ongoing trouble in the EU and eurozone have transformed into marked fissures, with Brexit and a surge in populism across the continent.  

Yves Herman / REUTERS Martin Schulz, then the European Parliament president, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels, March 2016.

Brexiters and their admirers across Europe will further test the European Union with elections in the Netherlands and France this spring. Euroskeptics have always been a part of the scenery, but for the first time, populist sentiment at the polls could halt European integration. The British departure will be messy and arduous enough, but a French exit from the EU would upend the European project, since the Franco-German partnership underpins it.

To compound the problem, Trump has also voiced his disdain toward Brussels and openly congratulated the “Leave” campaign after the referendum. The American president and his advisers surmise that the EU and the euro are vehicles for German power, although, of course, the European project was initially conceived as a restraint on German hegemony and an insurance against future wars. For the first time since the implementation of the Marshall Plan nearly seven decades ago, Germany faces a White House that is nonchalant about Europe at best and at worst ready to undermine the EU by encouraging nationalist forces to break free of Brussels.  

Last November, 59 percent of Germans thought the United States was a trusted partner; today, that figure has dropped to 22 percent.

German voters are aware of the risk. According to DeutschlandTrend, last November, 59 percent of Germans thought the United States was a trusted partner; today, that figure has dropped to 22 percent, which is on par with their outlook on Russia. This presents a problem for Merkel because she will have to navigate a now-complex U.S.-German relationship. As chancellor, she must be pragmatic and not indulge in too much tough talk, which might disappoint an electorate showing signs of Merkel fatigue. In the last year, she has lost her coveted spot as one of the top three most popular politicians in Germany. Not only is she facing attacks from the left, but voices in her own conservative caucus have criticized her for her refugee policy. They also blame her for leaving a vacuum open on the right for the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is stridently against eurozone bailouts and for limits on migration.

Feeling the pressure, Merkel is catering to her voters by tightening domestic security. She will not always have the space to admonish Trump, since the United States is an essential partner for intelligence-sharing and trade. And this is where Steinmeier will come in. He is used to playing a supporting role—at one point, he was vice chancellor. Merkel will need his help holding Europe together and remaining principled when faced with antagonistic rhetoric from the White House.

The cloak of the presidency will allow Steinmeier to speak with moral authority on a values-based transatlantic relationship and the benefits of a Europe that is whole and free. Merkel will appreciate this cover, since she will have to pivot from the international stage immediately after hosting the G-20 this summer to campaigning for her own reelection. She will advocate for course continuation and try to focus on her steady leadership, but the backdrop has changed considerably since she became chancellor over a decade ago.

Pawel Kopczynski / REUTERS A view of the Reichstag in Berlin, November 2010.

Meanwhile, as foreign minister, Steinmeier did not mince words about Trump; he labeled him a hate preacher and has openly mused about the end of the world order of the twentieth century. To be sure, the international liberal order was fraying before Trump, but he will attract most of the blame during the German election campaign, especially by voices from the left in the political spectrum.    

Steinmeier will have to be careful, though, lest he get pulled too deep into the political fray during a German election season that will be fraught with emotion. Merkel has readily admitted that it will be her most difficult campaign yet—and she did so even before her party’s coalition partner and main rival, the SPD, announced that Martin Schulz would be its candidate. Schulz, the former president of the EU parliament, has injected some energy in the race by somewhat ironically positioning himself as an outsider in the Berlin bubble. For the first time since 2012, the SPD has reached above the 30 percent mark in the polls and is within striking distance of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its partner, the Christian Social Union. 

Whether Schulz’s momentum will be sustained until the vote in September is debatable, but certainly the SPD and others will take a stance on the transatlantic relationship. The SPD’s shuffle of Steinmeier to Bellevue Palace, Sigmar Gabriel to the foreign ministry, and Martin Schulz to Berlin has boxed in Merkel with figures that will push back against Trump on policies that endanger Germany and the EU. The SPD was successful in tapping negative sentiments toward the Iraq War in 2002 during Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s reelection campaign and could be tempted to use similar tropes this year. The German presidency is a non-political platform, and Steinmeier’s tone and substance can certainly help Merkel defend transatlantic values, but they can also give a boost to the SPD at Merkel’s expense.

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