Germany, Italy, and Trieste are preparing for the post-Merkel era. Interview with Lorenzo Monfregola, expert in German geopolitics

10.02.2021 – 12.30 – Lorenzo Monfregola is a freelance journalist, an expert on German geopolitics and political violence, based in Berlin.
He writes for various Italian and foreign magazines, including Aspenia, Il Tascabile, Eastwest, Il Grand Continent and others. We interviewed him to understand how Europe is preparing for the sunset of Angela Merkel‘s long chancellorship, a transition that will have decisive effects not only on Germany, but also on Italy and its most integrated city in the German-speaking and post-Habsburg milieu: Trieste.

Let’s start with the fundamentals: what are the imperatives of German geopolitics and what tactics can it employ today to pursue them?

From a purely territorial point of view, Germany has a natural barrier only to the south, a complex and crowded access to the sea to the north and huge undefended spaces to the east and west. Its historical strategy is to protect itself primarily to the west and east. This strategy can be pursued in two ways: through a paranoid attack in the name of its own defence, its own enlargement, or through solid trade links that guarantee perpetual peace with its neighbours. The first option marked the German mistakes and crimes of the twentieth century. The second option gave birth to the European Union (EU), passing first from the Franco-German axis to the enlargement of the bloc towards the East. Today, however, the EU is something much more complex. Berlin, which has to preserve the Union in order to preserve itself, must also be able to look beyond the West-East axis. In the world of globalisation, after all, Germany has developed very long-range transnational projections, moving along all trade routes that allow the export of Made in Germany.

On 16 January Armin Laschet was elected secretary of the CDU. A Merkel loyalist like the outgoing secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is succeeded by another Angela Merkel emulator. Can we interpret Laschet’s rise to the helm of the Christian Democrats as a definitive victory for Merkelism, or will everything depend on who will actually be the CDU’s chancellor candidate in the elections on 26 September?

For now, it is a victory for Angela Merkel, who confirms that she still has a grip on the party. If a more right-wing candidate like Friedrich Merz had won, Merkel would have had an inglorious exit. Laschet is the candidate of the party’s core leadership and Merkelian centrism. This means that he brings with him all the strengths but also all the contradictions of Merkelism. If Laschet is also the candidate for chancellor, this means that post-Merkelism will develop with all possible caution. If, on the other hand, there are other candidates, such as the Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder (CSU), the change will be more accelerated and there will be more points of rupture. So it will be the candidacy for the Chancellery of the CDU/CSU that will be the really decisive moment.

Today the polls do not seem to leave much room for doubt: the next government will probably be supported by a majority made up of the Christian Democrats, the CDU/CSU, and the Greens, the Grünen. What impact would a Schwarz-Grün (Black-Green) government have on the EU? How would German foreign policy change?

Surveys show that even Germany’s top management elite want a Schwarz-Grün government. Big business still wants a Christian-democratic leadership, but is certain that this is the time to absorb the Greens into government responsibilities. Keeping environmentalism in the opposition is now considered geo-economically wrong. For the EU, a Black-Green government is certainly better than a more right-wing government, such as a coalition between CDU/CSU and Fdp, Christian Lindner’s liberal democrats.

The Grünen are traditionally pro-European, and are very open to greater financial integration, including ideas such as Eurobonds. They do not dream of a quick return to a policy of austerity. The Greens are also very attached to the Franco-German axis, although now more culturally than tactically. Of course, if they go into government, the Greens will also have many contradictions to resolve in foreign policy. Moreover, they are the expression of a very Euro-Nordic political family that does not really know how to dialogue nimbly with the Mediterranean, as the democrats, the SPD, do. But a green participation in the next executive is in any case a strong guarantee for Berlin’s anchorage to the EU.

After the attempted poisoning of Aleksej Naval’nyj, today’s main opponent of Vladimir Putin, pressure has increased on Berlin to renounce Nord Stream 2 (Ns2), the Baltic gas pipeline that would pump energy directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing the traditionally Russophobic (and, latently, often Germanophobic) middle Europe. Can Berlin really abandon this project?

In Germany there are currently two fronts on this issue: against Ns2 we have some neo-Atlanticist sectors of the various parties and, in its entirety, the Green Party itself. In favour, however, there is a broad cross-party political spectrum and a large part of the economic-industrial world. The Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI), the German employers’ federation, has spoken out very strongly against the sanctions imposed by the US because of the construction of NS2.

I believe that Berlin will try to safeguard the infrastructure again, at most by freezing the dossier. But the pressure is increasing, as shown by the new French criticism of the pipeline. If Paris also comes out consistently and decisively against SS2, then things will change. If the project were to be cancelled, this would be a step with crucial consequences. Germany relies heavily on Russia’s cheap energy supply, especially now that it has decided to accelerate its move away from coal. Russian gas also arrives via Central and Eastern Europe, so it is obvious that the Ns2 is an emergency route in case the overland pipelines have problems. So on the one hand Berlin is pursuing its absolute economic interest, on the other hand this interest inevitably has geopolitical consequences on other countries. This is very clear, the Germans will not be able to deny it forever.

But there is more: SS2 is also part of an Ostpolitik that for Berlin remains indispensable, albeit within the limits imposed by NATO membership. Having stable and structured trade relations with Moscow is also the way Germany wants to protect itself to the east. Avoiding conflict with Russia is a dogma of German peace. Even Karl Haushofer, who inspired the very geopolitics of Nazism, believed that Berlin should always coexist with the great Russian Bear. Of course then, in its actuality, the whole scenario also always depends on how (and by whom) Russia is governed: in these days, precisely starting from the Naval’nyj case and with the growing street protests, Putin is in difficulty.

Talking about the USA: do you expect a rapprochement between Berlin and Washington after Biden’s inauguration or do you think the rift is structural and likely to widen?

There has already been a rapprochement in practice, for the simple reason that the two countries are again talking to each other in a normal way. It is difficult to explain the harshness of the (non-diplomatic) tones reached between Germany and the US during the Trump presidency, for example when the ultra-trumpian Richard Grenell was at the US Embassy in Berlin. That said, it is known that there are transatlantic dossiers that are very difficult regardless. They existed before Trump and will remain on the table. We have just mentioned Russia, then there is of course China. What is certain is that there will be no going back to the days when Germany was simply top of the class in the pax americana. Even Biden will have to continue with a certain economic nationalism and numerous industrial reshoring plans: measures that do not help the classic German trade surplus policy.

Moreover, Biden also seems to have already decided that he wants to talk more with Paris than with Berlin. From a diplomatic point of view, however, there will first of all be a containment of the US-German structural fault mentioned in the question. For example, an attempt will be made to collaborate as much as possible on the issue of the environment and the Green New Deal, a channel that will in any case be increasingly loaded with geopolitical consequences, because it also means going to recreate new import-export standards. What is certain is that Germany cannot yet renounce its Atlanticism: even its global commercial projection is still tied to sea routes that are protected and controlled by the American Navy.

How does Berlin deal with China’s New Silk Roads project and, more generally, how does it intend to relate to China?

As we have explained, the ideal world for the current German strategy would be a big free market where one can export and have commercial relations with whoever is convenient. This was the dream of globalisation that the Germans bet on after Reunification (1990). Obviously, things are no longer so easy and so Berlin has a similar approach to China as it has to Moscow: trying to do business without coming into irreparable conflict with Washington and without getting caught in the US-China clash. An increasingly complex game, which Merkel knew and knows how to play with inimitable mastery, but which it is not known how it will be done after the Kanzlerin. In 2019, Germany exported almost 100 billion euros to China. With a total import-export trade of 209 billion euros, China was Germany’s top trading partner for the fourth year in a row.

However, while Beijing was once complementary to the German export effort, it is now also competitive on high technology, so German industry still needs to structure the relationship. Berlin’s insistence on signing the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), the macro trade agreement between the EU and China, has also been emblematic in this sense. From a German perspective, the Cai is both an agreement for the development of trade relations and a way for Berlin to try to prevent Beijing from penetrating too freely and haphazardly into smaller European economies, such as those of the Central and Eastern European countries united in the 17+1 format.

In this context, how would the possible launch of an EU port strategy drawn up by Germany fit in, a project advocated by Zeno d’Agostino, president of the East Adriatic Sea Port System Authority, among others?

A port strategy at EU level can be envisaged as an integral part of a broader strategy that is linked to Berlin’s desire to define and regulate relations with China. Enlarging the EU’s trading space with China territorially is an optimal solution for Germany, because it allows it to trade without having Beijing on its doorstep.

Can the Recovery Fund be seen as a turning point in German-Italian relations?

Certainly, it was a turning point and a great success until this summer. If the CovidCovid-19 crisis had been contained in the first wave, the Recovery Fund could have really been a Hamiltonian moment. Unfortunately, Europe then sank into the second wave and is now writhing in the sluggishness of the vaccination campaign. Crises are an incentive to restart when they are short. When they are long, however, they disrupt the balance. The question, for example, is whether the Recovery Fund will be sufficient to revive the most ailing economies. In a shorter crisis it would have been largely sufficient, and the question of what the Recovery Fund really is for Germany should not have been asked so quickly: is it a new EU structural instrument or was it a one-off emergency move?

Could Italy play an important role in the post-Merkelian EU?

It is difficult to answer. In Rome at the moment, attempts are again being made to form another government. Each of the Italian political parties is asserting its own reasons, but this crisis from Berlin is viewed with some surprise, despite the fact that we are used to the historical fragility of Italian executives. It is not even a question of the crisis, but of the fact that there is no certainty that a new government can guarantee greater stability or better management of the Recovery Fund dossier.

After the recent entry of the Hamburg-based company Hhla into the Trieste logistics platform, the headline was ‘Germans land in Trieste’. Is this true? What role can the port of Trieste play in the German geo-economic strategy?

There was surprise at Hhla’s move. If one looks at the map of Europe and sees where Trieste is, however, it would have been surprising if no German company had made such a move. Let’s go back to what was described earlier: the integration of European territory into the German strategy with Beijing (and beyond). Trieste is not only a free port, but one of the most European ports there is. Considering the functionality of its railway network and the fact that almost half of the oil going to Germany and almost all the oil going to Austria passes through there, it is clear how crucial Trieste is for Central Europe. We certainly cannot look at a German company as a Chinese company because it is a direct emanation of the government. But the fact that Hhla is largely owned by the city-state of Hamburg is obviously more than emblematic.

Hamburg has also made a very specific choice for itself. While Trieste has a unique natural draught, Hamburg is a river port which the acceleration of climate change will make increasingly difficult to reach. For Hamburg, investing in Trieste also means containing and making the most of a future scenario in which the German port may be downsized. This is very far-sighted management for a company with a public majority. Above, we said that if Germany wants to remain in its European dimension, it will have to look southwards: Trieste is a clear example. Obviously, the operation was facilitated by the fact that the Julian port is located in a territory that was once Hapsburg, where there is a historical link with Central Europe and integration into the German production chain, especially in Bavaria and Baden Württemberg.

So, yes, it is true that Trieste is not Piraeus and notoriously maintains its autonomous control over itself, the Germans have indeed landed. But this is made possible by the existence of the EU and must be maintained within a Community framework, in which Trieste can certainly make the most of the opportunity. The alternative would have been a more direct presence of China, with all that this entails in geopolitical terms. The option left out is instead that of a more important investment in Trieste by an Italian company. But this is not Germany’s problem: it is a problem of Italy’s industrial policy.

[Simone Benazzo]