Berlin Urgently Wants an EU Debate on Russia Sanctions

Before the year ends, says "all options" are on the table – the news here being that for the first time suspension is mentioned as a real possibilty

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This article originally appeared at Financial Times

German chancellor has hard task to maintain hard-won consensus.

<figcaption>Ms Merkel starts from a better position than at the outset of the crisis. But the ground is beginning to shake under her feet.</figcaption>
Ms Merkel starts from a better position than at the outset of the crisis. But the ground is beginning to shake under her feet.

It was hard enough for German chancellor Angela Merkel to secure support for economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis in the face of protests at home and abroad.

It could be even more difficult to keep that hard-won consensus from breaking apart.

In Berlin’s view, the EU needs a full debate before the end of the year, with all options on the table, from the suspension of existing measures to the imposition of new ones.

Time is tight because the sanctions imposed this year expire after 12 months. The first round – asset freezes and travel bans imposed on individuals involved in the Crimea annexation – run out in March 2015. The much wider economic sanctions imposed during the summer fighting in eastern Ukraine expire in July.

“Keeping sanctions in place is a challenge for German policy,” says Gernot Erler, Social Democrat MP and Russia expert who is the government’s special representative for eastern Europe.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin launches new military action, beyond the territory held by pro-Russia separatists, the EU will be forced to contemplate more sanctions.

Conversely, if Mr Putin unexpectedly signals that he wants a negotiated settlement, the EU will come under pressure to relax sanctions, notably from dovish member states including Italy.

The difficult ground lies in the middle: what to do if the crisis continues at the current level, with violence interrupting the ceasefire agreed by Russia and Ukraine in early September and Moscow keeping the west guessing about its next moves?

For Ms Merkel, four points matter: de-escalate in Ukraine; keep the Kremlin out of other countries; hold together the EU; and maintain domestic support.

Her biggest asset is her record. Moscow did not expect Germans to close ranks behind sanctions – let alone the fractious EU. Ms Merkel made both happen, helped by Mr Putin’s mishandling of the Malaysia Airlines disaster.

German public backing for sanctions remains strong. A poll last week by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, a research body, showed support at 58 per cent – up from 52 per cent a month earlier.

But German officials fear support may fade, particularly if people start feeling the effects on their own pockets.

While Russia accounts for only 4 per cent of German exports, businesses engaged in eastern Europe are feeling the pinch with a 20 per cent plunge in exports to Russia.

The BDI, the German industry association, is sticking to a promise to back government policy.

But the Eastern Committee, the country’s industry lobby group for eastern Europe, is increasingly calling for an end to sanctions. Rather than challenge Ms Merkel directly on the rights and wrongs, the committee is questioning whether sanctions are effective.

The Kremlin is increasing its propaganda in Germany, with Russia Today, the state-run broadcaster, launching a German-language website next year, while Russian business people quietly lobby their German counterparts.

One former German diplomat argues that public opinion could shift if the crisis gets no worse. He says that at the margins Germans are already “asking why the [traditional] detente with Russia should be put at risk. They say, ‘For God’s sake let’s forget about Crimea.’ ” It will be “increasingly difficult domestically speaking for Angela Merkel.”

And if it gets harder at home, it will be harder abroad. While the US is expected to continue backing a tough line, the EU could grow softer.

With the eurozone economy depressed, crisis-hit states far from Russia, such as Italy, will increase pressure on Berlin to split from hawks such as Poland and adopt a conciliatory approach.

For now, Ms Merkel’s conservative-Social Democrat coalition holds firm. Officials insist that there is no difference between Ms Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD foreign minister. But some politicians point to a distinction in tone, with Mr Steinmeier playing good cop to Ms Merkel’s bad.

As far as German and EU unity is concerned, Ms Merkel starts from a better position than at the outset of the crisis. But the ground is beginning to shake under her feet.

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