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24 September, 2013

The Last Word Belongs to Merkel

How the September 22 Bundestag election will affect Berlin’s policy towards Ukraine

This year’s parliamentary election in Germany will be remembered for the dullest and longest political debates since WWII. At least, that is what many German experts think. “The electoral race will exhaust voters,” says political scientist Peter Lösche. Sociologists expected the lowest voter turnout ever this year. 

Even the television debate of the two top candidates that took place in the early September could not guarantee high turnout during the election. Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rival, Social-Democrat Peer Steinbrück who worked in a coalition in 2005-2009, parted after a peaceful talk.

The apathy of political players in this campaign results from overall satisfaction in the country. The eurozone crisis that hit many EU member-states was hardly noticeable in Germany, even if it is not doing as well economically as it did over the past few decades. So, why would the Germans debate politics or show any interest in it at all?

Given the sluggish election race, it is no surprise that few in Germany are interested in foreign policy. The Syrian war or the troubles in Egypt are very distant on Germans’ mental maps. News from the Middle East leaves most of them dispassionate. In light of this, Merkel and Steinbrück focused on domestic policy during the debate. They did not mention foreign policy until 77 into their 90-minute debate.

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Consequently, it is of little surprise that Ukraine’s development or the Eastern Partnership played no role in the current parliamentary campaign. What is happening in Kyiv is currently not a hot topic in Berlin. So, a different question should be asked: what does the election in Germany mean for Ukraine? Clearly, the new Bundestag will have to make quick geostrategic decisions, including those on Ukraine’s accession to the EU.

The Association Agreement toward which Ukraine and the EU have been moving for so long is finally ready. The Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November will be decisive. Both parties intend to sign the contract to ensure close political cooperation and free trade. However, the EU still expects Ukraine to conduct reforms and end selective justice before the Association Agreement is signed.

The issue of imprisonment of the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko remains key. The more pressure Germany exerts, the more likely the ex-premier is to be released and allowed to take treatment in Germany. All people involved in this in Kyiv and Brussels know that there will be no Agreement without a “yes”.

The positions of German parties on Ukraine vary even if the discrepancies do not lie on the surface. All political parties call for justice and democracy in Ukraine, and Tymoshenko's release as a result. This is the right scenario not only for CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union of Bavaria), Angela Merkel and her coalition peers from the Free Democratic Party headed by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, but for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by Steinbrück, too, as well as for other opposition parties, including the Greens and the Lefts.   

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Readiness for a compromise with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych varies in the German political domain. Its primary supporter is the SDP which in following the Ostpolitik tradition initiated by former chancellor and Peace Nobel Prize winner Willy Brandt highly respects the “change through approximation” principle. According to this principle, reforms cannot be implemented with pressure alone, while changes occur after approximation.  

The party’s position is best demonstrated by ex-EU Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen. “It is in our long-term interests to integrate Ukraine into our structures step by step. If the Association Agreement comes into effect, it will mean that Ukraine has made a clear, irreversible choice and will no longer be up in the air between the EU and Russia.”

Verheugen  no longer holds a political office and can speak openly about how he sees Berlin’s foreign policy. Another German Social-Democrat and President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, has specific levers of pressure. He was the initiator of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission to Ukraine that failed negotiations with Viktor Yanukovych on the imprisoned Tymoshenko in the past year. Just like Verheugen, Schulz is convinced that Ukraine should be tied to the EU and freed from Russian influence.  

One question that remains open is how willing the SDP is to compromise. Just like other party members involved in foreign policy, Verheugen believes that it would be a mistake to make the signing of the Association Agreement dependent on what happens to Yulia Tymoshenko. This stance has a chance only if the SDP enters a “great coalition” with the CDU/CSU led by Merkel. Only in that case will “change by approximation” be on the agenda.

Meanwhile, the SDP is reluctant to unite with Merkel’s party for internal reasons and because of its platform. Still, their union is a plausible scenario. The German parliament and government have two realistic scenarios: the conservative-liberal alliance of the CDU/CSU and Free Democratic Party can remain or a new coalition between Merkel’s party and Social Democratic Party may be formed. In theory, the former may unite with the Greens (which would be a sensation) or a red-green alliance (SDP and Greens) could emerge. However, these assumptions are no more than that.

Clearly, the Greens will never agree to sign the Association Agreement as long as Tymoshenko is in jail. Free Democrats will be at the crossroads, just like now. Merkel may well remain chancellor which means that she will have the last word to say on Ukraine. Having the SDP Foreign Minister on her side will make it easier for her to reach a compromise in this issue. But does she want it?

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There are few signals now that Angela Merkel will continue political bargaining with Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine’s President has already failed expectations of the German Chancellor once, or so rumour in Berlin has it. Two years ago, before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw, he had promised her to solve the Tymoshenko case quickly, but never did. And people know that the Chancellor does not forget these things.

So the real situation hardly fits into the SDP’s “change by approximation”. Why then should the EU, still in the worst crisis in its history, tie another partner – Ukraine – to itself if the political situation in it is far from desirable? Ukraine may have great economic potential. But it will not mobilize Western investors without normal implementation and enforcement of laws and the rule of law. One thing all German parties have in common regarding Ukraine is that trusting Ukrainian justice is like playing a lottery. The Tymoshenko case merely proved this.

So, as long as top decision makers in Ukraine fail to realize that democratic reforms do serve the interests of the state, approximation to the EU will remain a dream that scares Brussels off with its excessive excitement. So far, the question of whether the SDP and Free Democrats will govern together in Berlin is not timely for Ukraine. After all, Merkel has the last word here, just as she did with crisis-tormented Greece. Approximation with the EU will not take place unless Kyiv takes certain steps. Association is impossible without compromise in the Tymoshenko case.

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