German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday (9 March), in his first major speech on transatlantic relations since new US President Joe Biden took office, urged a reset with the US. However, he did not address the main bone of contention between Washington and Berlin.
Speaking at an online event organized by the Washington-based Brookings think tank, Maas told Americans that “Germany is at your side”, in reference to Biden’s “America is back” slogan at the Munich Security Conference three weeks ago.
Maas said a reset should include a common struggle for democracy and both the US and Germany should work to tackle anti-democratic threats.
Improved relations with the US under Biden would enable both the countries to impose joint sanctions on Russia and China over human rights and other issues, Maas said.
“We have reacted to the crackdown on civil society by Moscow and Beijing and the violations of international law by both countries,” Maas said, speaking out in favour of more German responsibility in resolving conflicts in the European neighbourhood and a common strategy towards China and Russia.
He said he hoped that the countries on both sides of the Atlantic would work on common positions “on targeted sanctions, something that was not possible over the last four years.”
Germany has clearly an interest to participate in the decision-making of common restrictive measures, to avoid being itself negatively affected by US sanctions, as in the case of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which aims to bring more Russian gas under the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine.
Germany has imposed sanctions on Russia with its EU partners over Moscow’s arming of separatist forces in Ukraine and attacks on opponents of President Vladimir Putin, but has resisted the push of other EU countries, notably Poland, to stop Nord Stream 2.
The German FM supported Biden’s idea of inviting the world’s democracies to a summit very soon to find international measures against misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The COVID-19 pandemic had underlined why countries should work together, Maas said, adding that closing ranks will prevent losing ground “to those who claim that authoritarian regimes can better deal with a crisis like this.”
Trump’s presidency was marked by intense pressure on Germany over its failure to meet defence spending obligations as mandated by the NATO military alliance, Germany’s insistence on buying Russian natural gas, and trade policies.
In his remarks, Maas committed to a further increase in German defence spending, saying that Germany would “continue on the path it has taken,” having already hiked its military budget by 50% since 2014.
However, in contrast to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, he did not explicitly acknowledge NATO’s goal of spending 2% GDP on defence.
“Investing in European sovereignty means investing in the transatlantic partnership,” Maas added, emphasising that Europe does not want to decouple itself from the US when it comes to security policy, contrary to statements by French President Emmanuel Macron.
No mention of Nord Stream 2
Maas said nothing with respect to Nord Stream 2, which Washington believes will make Germany overly reliant on Russian energy. During the tenure of Donald Trump as well as under the watch of Joe Biden, this is the crucial point of contention between the US and Berlin.
As Maas didn’t take any questions during the event, the matter remained unaddressed.
Last week, leading Republicans had warned Biden in letter against striking a “deal through the back door” with Germany on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. They are also calling for further sanctions against companies involved in the Baltic Sea project.
While stopping Nord Stream 2 has long been a bipartisan priority, as President Biden has publicly called the pipeline a “bad deal for Europe,” and a sanctions package on the project is continuing to be work in progress.
The German government and businesses have repeatedly said they will not abandon the Nord Stream 2 project, despite US sanctions.