You’d think Germany was about to have a new chancellor in the coming days, even though the next federal election is not due until 2021.

This is because Angela Merkel’s decision to bow out of office by relinquishing her leadership of the Christian Democratic Union party has focused already on her legacy.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Regardless of who will succeed Merkel at the party’s annual congress on December 6-8, he or she will discover that the lines dividing domestic and foreign policy are no longer clear-cut.

Just take any of the following issues: the refugee crisis, the future construction of the eurozone and the European Union, security and defense policy, or Germany’s relationship with its eastern neighbors, particularly Russia and Ukraine.

That’s not even including the transatlantic relationship, climate change, or how digitization is going to transform the way economies, politics, and societies function. In short, foreign policy impinges increasingly on the domestic agenda—and, increasingly, vice-versa. Just think about how Merkel’s decision to open the country’s borders to one million refugees fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq affected the rest of the EU.

When she first became chancellor back in November 2005, Merkel did something that previous German leaders left until they had settled into the job. She plunged into foreign policy.

Her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schröder had left the country’s reputation in pretty bad shape. He was more interested in cultivating very close ties with the Kremlin and Beijing at the expense of working on improving relations with Germany’s immediate eastern neighbors or even thinking about the future direction of the EU.

At one point, because of the way Schröder opposed America’s invasion of Iraq, his challenge to Washington led to divisions inside NATO and the EU which became so deep and bitter that it took several years to repair the damage.

For her part, Merkel moved quickly to improve relations with the United States, with Poland, and with the EU as a whole. But apart from these efforts to undo Schröder’s foreign policy decisions (barring the Nord Stream 2 pipeline), there is one defining aspect of Merkel’s foreign policy footprint. It’s certainly not her strategic outlook, which is almost nonexistent. It’s not her support for strengthening Europe’s staggeringly underperforming security and defense policy or trying to make NATO more effective. It’s her commitment to values and freedom. Her 2015 refugee policy was a case in point.

That commitment impinged on her foreign policy. She had no qualms in telling former U.S president George W. Bush about her opposition to Guantanamo Bay or to torture. And after she had tried to forge a different relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin—far removed from Schröder’s chumminess and uncritical stance, and instead based on a more pragmatic policy and support for civil society—she shifted further Berlin’s stance toward Russia.

The decades-long German Ostpolitik so revered by the Social Democrats was discarded after Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in early 2014. Then, Merkel managed to get all EU leaders to agree to impose sanctions on Russia, which to this day are still in place. She believed Putin had to pay a price for his military ventures and for disregarding international law. Such decisions by Merkel would have been inconceivable under a Social Democrat-led government in Berlin, when Germany’s eastern neighbors were viewed through the prism of Moscow.

Yet the temptation—or rather the desire—to retain Ostpolitik runs deep among some SPD quarters. Former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is close to Putin, blamed Ukraine for trying to drag Germany into a war.

Yes, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is trying to win as much support as possible back home after Russia blocked Ukraine’s access to the Azov Sea. In reaction, he has imposed martial law in some parts of the country and banned Russian men from entering the country in the hope of improving his poor standing in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential election. 

But as Merkel made clear after Russia seized Ukrainian vessels and their crews, Russia was squarely to blame for this escalation. No ifs or buts. Yet sooner or later, she or her successor will have to decide what kind of relationship—short- or long-term—Berlin wants with Russia.

And sooner or later, Germany will have to spell out how it sees the future direction of the EU—and that includes dealing with difficult issues such as further enlargement, the stability of the eurozone, and the continuing big, divisive issue of migration.

As it is, the EU is not in good shape. What with Brexit, large protests in France against President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms, and the Italian government challenging the EU’s rule book on budget deficits, Merkel’s successor will not have the luxury of believing that dealing with domestic issues will not impact the rest of the EU. Separating domestic policy from foreign policy is not an option, neither for Berlin nor for other EU member states.