How tangible is Germany’s “Zeitenwende” moment?
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, made a case for changes to the European Union a few months following the beginning of the Russian incursion in Ukraine. Scholz argued in favor of the EU's membership expansion while speaking at the Party of European Socialists' Congress in Berlin, stating that “a unified EU of 27, 30, 36 nations with over 500 million free and equal individuals can bring its weight to bear even more firmly in this world.” Scholz also supported tighter coordination of military activities among member states and increased military autonomy for the union.
“In Europe, we need a better interplay between our defense efforts. In the future, Europe will need a coordinated increase in capabilities, more joint procurement, an EU rapid response team by 2025 and an EU headquarters with a clear command structure”, stated Scholz as he pushed for a new strategy that will allow Germany to become independent of Russian gas. The German chancellor also advocated radical reforms for his country, such as the reconstruction of the German army.
The ideas offered by the German chancellor follow the historic speech he gave soon after the start of the war in Ukraine. Scholz referred to the conflict as the “Zeitenwende”, a brand-new turning point or watershed moment for both Germany and Europe. According to Scholz, many facets of daily life in Europe have undergone significant upheaval because of the recent war. He urged the governments of Europe to consider this.
Analysts exercise caution when it comes to Scholz's “Zeitenwende” speech. For them, despite Berlin's promise to play a more active part in defending the liberal international order in the new period, the German coalition government hasn't yet achieved the expected outcomes. They argue that Germany must first adjust its attitudes on a variety of issues if it wants to lead Europe. Berlin is asked to abandon its previous strategies and to pursue more aggressive policies in the areas of defense and energy while it also reconsiders Europe's destiny.
“Germany has a long way to go before fulfilling its goals”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech on 27 February felt like the beginning of a new era for Germany’s security and defense policy. Indeed, for many observers, his announcements heralded a complete overhaul of German foreign policy. Six months on, however, there is little evidence that a process of radical transformation has begun.
“It is now time for Germany to show that the speech itself was not the solution to a Zeitenwende in security policy but the start of a more coherent and substantive process,” stresses Angela Mehrer and adds: “As part of his Zeitenwende announcements, Scholz proposed a €100 billion special fund to close the critical gaps in military capability that had emerged and widened in the preceding decades. He also pledged to meet the 2 per cent NATO target ‘year after year’ from then on.”
Mehrer reminds us that Germany has a long way to go before fulfilling its defense goals. Berlin still has a significant distance to cover in the energy field. Since the start of the war, there have been no notable advancements in Germany's renewable energy sector, leaving Germany at the whim of Gazprom and Putin's weaponization of gas supply.
Mehrer underlines: “The biggest challenge is to bring about a change in mindset. Scholz needs to reposition the country as a security and defense policy player. And he will need to take German voters along with him–not only to persuade them to accept greater investment in the long term but also to change the way they think about the military as a tool of policy. This will require strong leadership and a clear political will. Six months after Zeitenwende speech, the results aren’t what most listeners were hoping for.”
“Despite her flaws, Germany represents Europe's greatest chance”
Similarly, Helmut K. Anheier, professor of sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and adjunct professor of social welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, claims that Scholz's Zeitenwende speech is historic because of the complete collapse of strategic principles that date back to the late 1960s. In those days, the hope was that involvement with real and potential enemies on an economic, cultural, and other levels would lead to eventual rapprochement. After 1989, the peaceful political transitions that took place in several Central and Eastern European nations were the standard for how the rest of the world should operate. These presumptions were disproved by Putin's aggressive war, which prompted Scholz to make some of the most dramatic policy changes in German postwar history.
“Scholz committed Germany to a far more active role in the defense of the liberal international order. But while none of these policy changes have been reversed or derailed; some have stalled, and others have progressed too slowly” stresses Anheier and adds: “While (Germany’s coalition) government has forged a political consensus on key issues, it has failed to deliver on many fronts, owing to inherited problems, ineptitude, and, in some cases, political opportunism. The armed forces turned out to be in far worse shape than was assumed. (At the same time) Germany’s budget policies are entirely at odds with the imperatives the country must confront. Germany also is woefully behind in e-governance and digital administration. While the government recently announced a new digital strategy, it will be many years before it shows meaningful results.”
Anheier claims that despite its flaws, Germany "may represent Europe's greatest chance in the current problems". It has a relatively stable economy, a firm commitment to the liberal order and the EU, and a functioning government.
“There is much to do across the eastern front”
Giselle Donnelly concurs with Anheier regarding Germany’s significance for Europe. The expert contends that Russia's February assault on Ukraine created a crisis of European security for which one of Europe’s strongest nations, Germany, was especially poorly prepared.
Donelly stresses: “The renewed Russian offensives of February were of a scale and obvious intent—erasing Ukrainian sovereignty and independence—that Scholz and his coalition partners could not ignore. Within three days, the chancellor made his dramatic Zeitenwende—usually translated as ‘turning point’—speech. But it became plain that this was a response cobbled together in two hurried days with little planning; it was a message, not a strategy. Germany is finding its old habits hard to break.”
For Donelly, there is much to do across the eastern front to realign its flows of energy and commerce while protecting against further Russian revanche. In order to maintain its leadership position in contemporary Europe, Germany will need to concentrate on several dramatic reforms in the coming years. Germany’s three-party government may begin reforms in the energy and defense sectors. Berlin could pave the way for other European Union countries to implement several drastic changes if it were successful in these areas. Should this be the case, Germany's “Zeitenwende” moment in Germany would go from theory to practice.
*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece.