Rethinking Europe

North Stream 2: What the Germans Must Do for Transatlantic Solidarity

As much as the current German government would wish otherwise, the North Stream 2 pipeline controversy continues to threaten European unity as well as transatlantic solidarity.

Credit: Alistair Hamilton www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Joe Biden is a great friend of Europe and a foreign policy pro. But he won’t appreciate Germany continuing to bury its head ever deeper in the sand regarding North Stream 2.
  • Putin’s remark that North Stream 2 is just an “economic project” has put the German government in the uncomfortable position where it now finds itself parroting his talking points.
  • North Stream 2 is a geopolitical project that cannot simply be put into a commercial box. Blaming the Americans for crass commercialism is the height of German arrogance.
  • Stubbornly worshipping crass commercialism is actually the core conviction exhibited by the German government.
  • The European Parliament has just voted for a halt in the construction of North Stream 2. That makes plain that the real unilateralists are the Germans.
  • The concrete task before German policy planners is whether their country can bring European allies together to defend European sovereignty -- while countering increased Russian influence in Europe.
  • To act more imaginatively and with strategic coherence, Germany should take the initiative by asking the EU to suspend operational licensing for North Stream 2.

Joe Biden is a great friend of Europe and a foreign policy pro. As such, the new U.S. President will primarily look to Germany to resolve the North Stream 2 issue in a strategic and forward-looking fashion.

What he won’t appreciate, however, is the German government’s continued tendency to bury its collective head ever deeper in the sand.

The evidence of Russia’s actions being in crass violation of European sovereignty and international norms of behavior are visible every day.

These actions also impossible to deny in a purely German context. And the concern expressed by German government politicians about Alexei Navalny rings ever hollower.

When the German government parrots Putin

Putin’s recent remark that the pipeline is just an “economic project” has put the German government in the uncomfortable position where it now finds itself parroting the Russian President’s talking points.

Berlin would be well-advised to understand that self-centered commercialism devoid of strategic rationale won’t play well with Joe Biden and his team.

North Stream 2 is a geopolitical project that cannot be separated from geopolitics and simply be put into a commercial box. Blaming the Americans for crass commercialism — with their opposition to the pipeline supposedly being driven by the desire to sell shale gas — is the height of German arrogance.

Why? Because stubbornly worshipping crass commercialism is actually the core conviction exhibited by the German government.

Transatlantic solidarity via pipeline management?

Against the assertion of a need for Europe’s strategic autonomy, the concrete task before German policy planners is whether their country can bring European allies together to defend European sovereignty while countering increased Russian influence in Europe.

That is all the more necessary as the European Parliament has just voted for a halt in the construction of the North Stream pipeline.

This robs the German government of the false excuse that it is just the Americans who want to interfere in European affairs. The European Parliament’s vote makes plain that the real unilateralists are the Germans.

How to get out of the box

To get out of the box, the German government should propose talks by the United States and the European Union with Russia to set up transatlantic co-management of U.S.-European relations with Russia.

The purpose would be to establish some standards for politically acceptable behavior across a broad range of geopolitical issues. This initiative should include the resolution of the North Stream 2 issue.

To be sure, current German hopes that improved transatlantic coordination essentially stays limited to the United States re-engaging in the Paris Climate Treaty process fall far short of the mark.

European autonomy means no North Stream 2

To act more imaginatively and with strategic coherence, Germany should take the initiative by asking the European Union to suspend — yes, suspend — operational licensing for North Stream 2. It would do so pending results of the transatlantic dialogue with Russia about observing international law.

The current German practice of treating the pipeline as a purely commercial project ignores the Russian violations of international law. Allowing its completion and operation without holding Russia accountable digs deeper into complicity in these violations and is simply not worthy of a good ally.

The project creates more dependency on Russian gas and increases Russian political leverage — hardly strategic goals of Germany.

The suspension would incentivize Russia to address its aggressive foreign policy with Europe and the United States, namely Ukraine, cyberattacks, hacking, assassinations and intervention in democratic elections.

Need for a broader dialogue

The moratorium on the North Stream 2 pipeline operations would open a broader dialogue among Russia, the United States and Europe. Germany could invite the United States to a German/EU dialogue on an acceptable commitment from Russia in return for the United States and NS2 opponents in the EU dropping their opposition.

Then Europeans can co-lead a transatlantic working group with the Biden Administration to address those issues with Russia.

A united position should not decouple the geopolitical questions from the importance of energy policy and the pipeline. The goal is to reach a stable, productive and non-threatening relationship with Russia.

Absent the resolution of the U.S.-EU agreed on interests, the suspension should continue — and additional U.S.-EU sanctions on Russia considered.

A time for choosing

It is a time for Russia to choose as well. If it aspires to global status and claims to be a European nation, it must act accordingly.

In the end, the constant stream of nefarious actions emanating from Moscow has not bought the Russian people anything.

So far, the German government is evidently still deluding itself that it can somehow continue the “strategic holiday” of separating North Stream 2 from geopolitics that it took during the Trump years when it resisted that administration’s “overtures.”

Will Germany take a leading role?

Despite the German preference for Cold War détente relations with Russia that lead to ducking or sitting out issues, this is a time for choosing. Will Germany take a leading role in the EU to defend the rule of law and discuss myriad concerns with Russia?

Indications are that the Biden Administration would support such an initiative — not least because it could eventually enable Joe Biden to end the U.S. sanctions against friends and allies on the construction of the pipeline.

But the eternal German hope that it can continue to reach its preferred goals essentially by ducking may find more than a reality check in the Biden Administration. It may discover formidable Washington opposition to continuing German finagling.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

About J.D. Bindenagel

J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and is currently Senior Professor and founding Henry Kissinger Chair at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategy and Integration Studies, Bonn University.

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