A new age in Europe, 30 years later

Why We Wrote This

The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to promise a more democratic and cooperative Europe. But a historical rivalry between Germany and Russia is reasserting itself – even as the US seems to retreat. 

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer waves after being elected party leader during the Christian Democratic Union party congress in Hamburg, Germany, on Dec. 7. She is widely seen as a successor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (r.).

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Nearly three decades ago, I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of a new era. Now, following the passing of one key figure in that process and the start of a political retreat by another, the post-wall era has passed. The geopolitical picture in Europe is shaping up like “Back to the Future,” dominated by two historic rivals: Germany and Russia. Without the late US President George H.W. Bush, it’s not clear German reunification would have followed the fall of the wall. Without German Chancellor Angela Merkel, tensions with Russia over Eastern Europe would have been harder to navigate. Today, the European Union is under strain. Britain is on the way out. French President Emmanuel Macron faces political upheaval. Former Soviet-bloc EU states are constraining democratic freedoms. Russia has viewed EU and NATO enlargement as a threat. Germany’s importance as a counterweight, meanwhile, is growing. With uncertainty over the US approach to Europe, it does suggest a view that Germany should prepare to assume a responsibility that once fell primarily to the Americans: to champion democracy in Europe and signal limits beyond which meddling will trigger a response.

It was a damp, chilly November evening nearly three decades ago. Yet no other memory from my years in journalism has remained as vivid. First, because the event had seemed so toweringly unlikely just a few hours earlier, when I set out from my hotel for a government news conference a few blocks away. Then, because of the sheer outpouring of emotion that I witnessed and, inevitably, felt a part of. Finally, because the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 truly fit the definition of that most overused of reportorial clichés. It was, for the continent of Europe, the end of an era.

Now, following the state funeral of one key figure in that process and the start of a political retreat by another, it’s clear that the post-wall era, too, has passed. The geopolitical picture in Europe is shaping up a bit like “Back to the Future,” dominated by two historical rivals: Germany and Russia.

Without the steady hand of late US President George H.W. Bush, it’s not at all clear that the fall of the wall would have led to the reunification of Germany, only a few decades after a world war in which Nazi aggression had scarred the memory of Europe. And without the stewardship of German Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2005 – who last week passed on the leadership of her Christian Democratic Union party, and has confirmed this term will be her last – the tensions with Vladimir Putin’s Russia over the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe would have been even harder to navigate.

Yet Europe’s political landscape has been undergoing dramatic changes. With Mr. Bush in office at the turn of the 1990s, it was hoped that, with the end of Communist rule, the continent might transition to a more democratic, politically cooperative, and economically integrated whole. 

For President Putin, in charge of Russia now for nearly 20 years, the subsequent enlargement of the European Union and NATO to include countries in Eastern Europe was viewed as a security threat and a political affront. He has been deploying political and economic pressure – and in Ukraine, as recently as last month, military force – in a bid to reassert Russia’s role as a major power.

Germany’s importance as a counterweight has meanwhile been growing. The Germans have long been Europe’s leading economy. And with the Trump administration showing ambivalence toward both NATO and the EU, many European leaders see the start of a US political retreat from transatlantic engagement.

The EU itself is under strain, also making Germany’s role more pivotal. Britain, barring a dramatic U-turn amid the enormous uncertainties surrounding Brexit, is on the way out. French President Emmanuel Macron, who had been pushing for a joint French-German initiative to renew and consolidate the EU, is facing political upheaval at home. The leaders of former Soviet-bloc EU states have been moving to constrain immigration, press freedom, and the rule of law.

At least for now, Germany seems to have put in place a path toward centrist continuity under Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the new CDU leader and Ms. Merkel’s preferred successor. Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer has spoken of a need for Germany to take on a larger diplomatic role, and spend more money on its military. While she’s often called a “mini-Merkel” for her close relationship with the chancellor, she’s also been more forthright in urging a response to Russian assertiveness and aggression.

After the Russians’ seizure last month of Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov, she suggested the possibility of barring Russian ships based there from European and American ports. She also raised concerns about a major new pipeline, Nord Stream 2, to carry Russian gas exports to Europe. Though no prominent German politician seems to feel it is practical to halt the project at this stage, she said that especially after the naval incident, it had to be assessed “not just as an economic project, but a political one.” She floated the possibility, for instance, of an EU limit on the amount of gas allowed through the line.

None of this means she, or Putin, would be likely to seek military confrontation if, as is widely expected, she becomes chancellor. But with uncertainty over how deep and lasting the shift in the US approach to Europe will prove, it does suggest a view that Germany should prepare to assume a responsibility that before 1989 fell primarily to the Americans: to champion stability and democracy in Europe, and signal limits beyond which meddling, aggression, or other potential threats will trigger a response.

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