What to Expect from Frank-Walter Steinmeier As New German President
On February 12, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s former Foreign Minister, was elected President as the agreed-upon candidate of the CDU, CSU and SPD parties that form the German government coalition.
He was elected at a combined assembly of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, and the Bundesrat, the upper house, which represents Germany’s 16 regions.
While the role is mostly ceremonial, German presidents have some influence in setting the tone on foreign policy as well as retaining powers to veto laws they believe violate the constitution. A German president has little executive power, but Mr. Steinmeier is one of the country’s most popular politicians considered as a moral compass for German people.
As former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s chief of staff, he was associated with Schroeder’s 2003 package of economic reforms and welfare cuts to make the German economy more robust. A prominent Social Democrat, he was an opposition leader and served twice as foreign minister. The new president is liked and respected in Germany despite losing out as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in 2009. In 2010, he took a break from politics to donate a kidney to his sick wife. It boosted his popularity.
Chancellor Angela Merkel described Steinmeier as an outstanding candidate for the presidency, saying «Mr. Steinmeier is a person representing a political center. He is well-respected by the business community, by the society, both in our country and abroad». «For this reason, I believe that he is an outstanding candidate for the position of the federal president», she said.
Steinmeier criticized Donald Trump as a «hate preacher» during the election campaign and warned that US foreign policy would become «more unpredictable» after the Republican candidate’s victory.
Steinmeier’s election means a change in Germany’s policy on Russia. Steinmeier is widely expected to be friendly to Moscow. His predecessor, President Joachim Gauck (pictured), severed all ties with his Russian counterpart and never visited Russia. In 2013, he boycotted the Sochi Winter Olympics. Unlike Mr. Gauck, the president-elect seeks to continue the Social Democratic tradition of investing in dialogue with Moscow.
He has criticized NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe as «warmongering» and called for phasing out the European Union sanctions against Russia if there is substantial progress in the peace process in Ukraine. «What we should avoid today is inflaming the situation by warmongering and shrill war cries», German Foreign Minister Steinmeier told Bild in an interview. According to him, «What we shouldn’t do now is to inflame the situation by loud saber-rattling». «Whoever believes that symbolic tank parades on the alliance’s eastern border will bring more security is mistaken», he said. «We are well-advised not to create pretexts to renew an old confrontation».
In a separate interview, Steinmeier said the European Union sanctions against Russia should be gradually eased if there is substantial progress in the peace process. «Sanctions are not an end in themselves. They should rather give incentives for a change in behavior», Steinmeier told the Redaktions Netzwerk Deutschland, a network of local newspapers. In October, 2016, he opposed the imposing of the new sanctions against Moscow over the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The idea was floated at the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxemburg. The president-elect believes Russia has a key role to play in managing crises across the world, especially in Syria.
Steinmeier has spoken out in favor of bringing Russia back into the G8. The president-elect boasts good working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (pictured). Personal chemistry is a very important factor for improving relations.
It’s worth emphasizing that as President Steinmeier can contribute to addressing the burning security problems posed by the dangerous background of arms control erosion. Last August, he published an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily which put forward proposals to negotiate a new multilateral treaty on conventional arms control in Europe. In November, 2016, his arms control initiative received support from more than a dozen leading European nations.
Russia withdrew from the original Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (the CFE treaty) in 2015. At present, the OSCE Vienna Document and the Treaty on Open Skies are the only mechanisms still effective but they are too limited in application to curb the rising tensions.
Steinmeier’s rich foreign policy experience will stand him in good stead at a time when global politics is in flux, the EU’s future looks more than uncertain especially after Brexit, the problem of migrants is unsolved, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and France are facing key and likely turbulent elections, and the Eurozone crisis can be repeated at any moment. Germany is facing troubled times and Mr. Steinmeier, a man who is so popular and respected by the German people, appears to be the right choice.
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About the author
Andrei Akulov is a retired colonel and Moscow-based expert on international security issues