On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.
On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.
However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.
From Freedom to Courage
Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.
Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.
Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.
But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.
The “Anti-Trump” President?
Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.
In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”
Or the “Pro-Russia” President?
Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.
However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accused the organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”
Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.
Emphasizing German Leadership
In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.
Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.
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