Why you should care
Because the U.K. poisoning case is a turning point for Europe.
When the name of Germany’s new foreign minister was announced last month, it left diplomats and foreign affairs analysts scratching their heads. Despite a long career in German politics, Heiko Maas had no previous international experience. His most senior job to date was as minister for justice and consumer protection. Little was known of his views on foreign affairs — or whether he had any at all.
Two weeks, five trips and a diplomatic clash with Russia later, both the style and substance of Maas’ diplomatic approach are starting to become clearer. Most important, the minister has been markedly tougher in his rhetoric and approach toward Moscow. On his first day in office, Maas issued a frank warning about Russian “aggression” and chastised Moscow for “defining itself in antagonism to many in the West.” Russia’s stance, he added, “changes the reality of our foreign policy.”
The big difference to Sigmar Gabriel is that Maas was very quick to raise the issue of the rule of law — in a diplomatic way, but very determined.
Omid Nouripour, German MP
Words were followed by deeds this week, when Maas announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Berlin over the nerve agent attack in the U.K.
“The Russian government has so far not answered any of the open questions and has shown no readiness to play a constructive role in clearing up the attack,” Maas said.
Officials in the Foreign Ministry have been pleasantly surprised by their new boss, who seems to have lived up to his reputation as a quick and diligent learner who listens to expert advice. Coverage in the German media has been favorable and moved on from an earlier focus on his dapper dress sense (GQ voted him best-dressed man in 2016) and his actress girlfriend, Natalia Wörner.
In many crucial areas — such as EU policy and Franco-German relations — the 51-year-old Social Democrat has promised continuity. On Russia, however, the change in tone is evident, with Maas emphasizing repeatedly the need to defend the rule of law as a guiding principle of foreign policy.
In his first speech, he warned that the “erosion of liberal, rules-based, democratic order that we believe in has gone further than we thought possible five years ago,” adding: “We have to defend things that we took for granted until now.”
His remarks were widely read as a rebuke to Germany’s still-sizable contingent of Putinversteher — supporters and defenders of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — and to policymakers in Berlin pushing for a softer approach toward Moscow. Among them was Sigmar Gabriel, Maas’ popular but erratic predecessor, who repeatedly held out the promise of an end to Western sanctions against Russia.
“Maas has obviously decided to distance himself from Gabriel and the Putinversteher in the German Parliament,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “He is trying to repair some of the damage inflicted on the credibility of the German position by Gabriel. That is important.”
Omid Nouripour, a member of the German Parliament and the foreign affairs spokesman of the opposition Green Party, says: “The big difference to Sigmar Gabriel is that Maas was very quick to raise the issue of the rule of law — in a diplomatic way, but very determined. And he seems to have understood that the question of Russia is a neuralgic one for the unity of Europe.”
In some ways, Maas’ stance flows naturally from his political past. As minister for justice, he lashed out at the resurgent far-right in Germany, and emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the Alternative for Germany and similar right-wing populist movements.
Maas also published a book on this last year. One chapter — “The Dangerous Longing for the Strong Man” — draws a direct line between the Russian president and the recent rise in support for authoritarian leaders in Europe.
His book offers personal insights as well. Maas was born and raised in Saarlouis, just a few kilometers from the French border, in a part of Germany that has shifted back and forth between the two countries for centuries. His grandmother, he recalled, lived her whole life in the same house on the same street — but changed passports five times.
Like most natives of the Saarland, Maas said he was instinctively committed to both European integration and a strong Franco-German alliance. The book makes clear that Maas’ political views have been shaped by German history. He wrote about a formative trip he took as a young student to Verdun, the site of a World War I battle that claimed the lives of more than 300,000 French and German soldiers (and which later became a symbol of the two countries’ reconciliation).
Maas also revealed that he went into politics “because of Auschwitz” — a phrase he repeated in his address to Foreign Ministry staff. On a trip to Israel this week, Maas spoke warmly of the German-Israeli relationship, describing it as a “great gift.” German solidarity with Israel, he said, was “at the center of our foreign policy system of coordinates.”
After a tempestuous phase in the bilateral relationship — Israeli leaders had a rare public falling-out with Gabriel last year — Maas’ words signaled a willingness to patch up recent differences.
“Sensible foreign policy is always a blend of a clear system of value coordinates on the one hand and the art of the possible on the other. In Germany, foreign policy has all too often simply swung between moralism and opportunism,” says Stelzenmüller. “Maas is trying to show that he has a very clear system of value coordinates. On everything else we just have to wait and see.”
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