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Mittel power Australia and Germany

Posted By and on April 17, 2018 @ 06:00

Malcolm Turnbull’s travel to the UK, Germany, France and Belgium next week reinforces the higher priority that his government has put on relations with key European countries.

A major focus of Turnbull’s visit will be to push for the rapid conclusion of an Australia–EU free trade agreement, but security is likely to occupy at least as much time in his meetings with Theresa May, Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall has Australia had such pressing security interests to discuss with European allies. The list includes China, North Korea, Russia’s increasingly risky and assertive behaviour, Afghanistan’s prospects, Syria, intelligence and cyber cooperation, and the next wave of terrorist threats after the defeat of Islamic State. Relations with the Trump administration, including US trade policy, will no doubt also figure in the Prime Minister’s meetings, as will Brexit and the future evolution of the European Union.

Australia has rapidly established deep defence industry connections with France and Germany, with the future submarine project and the announcement in March of a $5.2 billion contract with German firm Rheinmetall to manufacture combat reconnaissance vehicles for the Australian Defence Force.

The Turnbull visit is a welcome reassurance that Europe remains of great importance for Australia. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper describes Australia as ‘a regional power with global interests’ but the treatment of Europe in the statement is, at best, cursory. There are many in Canberra who stick to the view that the best way to demonstrate Australia’s ‘Asianness’ is to dismiss as old-fashioned any connections to Europe.

Turnbull and, to be fair, his predecessor, Tony Abbott, have been much more bullish in promoting closer ties with Europe, Germany and France in particular. In both cases it’s important to ask if our engagement with Berlin and Paris will be sustained in an imagined post-Turnbull future.

ASPI has written recently on the Australia–France relationship. Here we review how the closer relationship with Germany evolved and look to next steps. During Chancellor Merkel’s brief visit to Australia in 2014, both governments agreed that the then Australia–Germany bilateral relationship did not reflect the political and economic weight of both countries, regionally and globally. We needed a more modern and substantial relationship and we had a lot to offer each other.

So the Chancellor and the then-Prime Minister established an Australia–Germany Advisory Group (AGAG), chaired at ministerial level and reporting directly to the two leaders, to identify what we should both do. That group made 59 far-reaching recommendations across all areas, including on strengthening our strategic dialogue, trade, science, education and innovation, and cultural links. The Chancellor and Prime Minister Turnbull accepted all recommendations in Berlin in 2015 and the implementation of those recommendations has already transformed Australia–Germany relations.

It’s important to note that, on the German side, the Chancellor’s agreement to go down this path reflected a very deliberate decision by the German government to build as strong a relationship as possible with a country like Australia. In doing so, the Germans recognised not only that Australia is deeply embedded in an area of great economic and strategic interest to Germany, but is also a democracy with similar (Western) values.

Even more importantly, the decision by both governments to build a vastly better relationship preceded the Brexit referendum. It was a conscious, strategic decision by the Australian government to broaden significantly our ties with Europe beyond the United Kingdom, to embrace Europe’s largest and best-performing economy and most important country.

Brexit has made that decision even more vital for Australia. The arguments for a stronger Australia–Germany relationship are self-evident. But, for good economic and strategic reasons, when Britain leaves we will also need very good friends within the new European Union.

This will require a determined and sustained effort, going beyond the excellent work of AGAG: we will need to work hard to continue to get the attention of the Chancellor and her government to better relations with Australia. And there are a lot of distractions for Angela Merkel.

She has only recently—and with great difficulty—formed a new German government, a ‘grand coalition’ (GroKo) with the Social Democrats. It’s early days for the GroKo but it is already clear that government will not be at all easy. And this could well be her last term as chancellor, so succession speculation is already rife.

She is facing a serious challenge in creating a new EU, with major differences of approach between those members states (for example, Hungary, Poland and Austria but also, in all likelihood, Italy) that do not support greater European integration and want power to be returned to capitals from Brussels, and those (like Germany or France) that argue for much greater European integration. Germany and France are also not necessarily on the same page regarding President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for strengthening the Eurozone.

And there are other big issues to deal with, including how to handle illegal immigration. The Chancellor’s views on this difficult problem are strongly opposed by many of the populist/nationalist governments within the EU; she also faces strong opposition on this issue from within her own party, not to mention from her coalition partner.

The list goes on: continuing economic stagnation in EU member states; great uncertainty about the Trump administration, including very deep concern about its trade policy; Russia; negotiating Brexit.

So what more can and should we be doing to maintain the momentum? The newly created Australia–Germany ‘2 plus 2’ meeting of foreign and defence ministers needs to set a cracking pace of joint policy development in ways that push both countries’ bureaucracies to do more things and to do them more quickly. We need to be sharing our thinking on how to address the internal subversion threats presented by China and Russia. We need a plan on how to leverage our new defence industry cooperation into closer engagement with Southeast Asian countries.

We should also do more to boost the already successful bilateral cooperation on scientific research. If Australia genuinely does have global foreign policy interests, why not extend Julie Bishop’s New Colombo Plan scholarship scheme to Europe, with France and Germany in the lead as the two most consequential countries in our post-Brexit relationship with Europe. We could also expand our education cooperation into other areas too, such as in technical and further education, where we have much to offer each other.

In addition, we need more German ministers—and the Chancellor, when she has time—visiting Australia. Despite the recent visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, there have been far too few senior German visitors here. We need to strengthen dialogue at ministerial level across all areas. Getting together in the margins of international meetings is not enough.

These recommendations—and no doubt there are many others—should be in Malcolm Turnbull’s reading pack for next week’s visit. We hope that Turnbull’s pro-European instincts will make him push the bureaucracy to deliver more and bigger initiatives for closer engagement with Europe.

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[1] Australia–EU free trade agreement: http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/trade-investment/business-envoy/Pages/january-2018/working-towards-an-australia-eu-free-trade-agreement.aspx

[2] 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper: https://www.fpwhitepaper.gov.au/foreign-policy-white-paper

[3] Australia–France relationship: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/australia-france-strategic-partnership

[4] Australia–Germany Advisory Group: http://dfat.gov.au/geo/germany/Documents/progress-report-australia-germany-advisory-group.pdf

[5] grand coalition: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/merkel-secures-fourth-term-after-spd-back-grandcoalition-5vbmpv90m

[6] Australia–Germany ‘2 plus 2’ meeting of foreign and defence ministers: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/statements/joint-statement-inaugural-german-australian-22-ministerial-meeting

[7] New Colombo Plan scholarship scheme: http://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/new-colombo-plan/scholarship-program/pages/scholarship-program.aspx