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The complacent centrism of Frank-Walter Steinmeier

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's history of ugly compromise catches up with him.

“White-haired uncle to the nation” Photo: IMAGO / Bernd Elmenthaler

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier must be sitting in his Bellevue palace wondering where all this anger suddenly came from. It’s not him that’s changed. After decades at the top of German politics, his careful moral centrism was still doing spectacularly well in February, when he was re-elected as German president uncontested by any real opposition candidate.

Two months later, the white-haired uncle to the nation has been unceremoniously disinvited from a solidarity visit to Kyiv, after having his special concert for Ukraine snubbed by Andriy Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, who went on to tell the Tagesspiegel that Steinmeier had spent two decades constructing a “spider’s web of contacts” to Russia. It looks bad.

A German president doesn’t have to do much more than make speeches and hand out state awards. That’s the whole point of his constitutionally neutered office: the German system is built so that presidents will never again be able to hand power to random genocidal dictators leading minority governments. But the fact that Steinmeier strolled into his second term shows that everyone thought that he did what he had to do quite well. He was diplomatic, he made eloquent, moral Christmas speeches about the Nazi times, and no one ever really found anything to disagree with him about.

But Steinmeier’s mild-mannered, moral-touchstone persona came with a history of ugly compromises. He has been haunting politics for well over two decades now, wielding quite a lot of power in his time. He was Angela Merkel’s foreign minister twice (2005-2009 and 2013-2017), in between which he led the Social Democrats in opposition and became one of their failed election candidates against her. During those years, his moral track record was dubious: in 2002, he refused to accept the German citizen Murat Kurnaz back to Germany from Guantanamo Bay, ensuring that an innocent man would be detained there without charge for five more years; in 2008, he refused to meet the Dalai Lama for fear of offending China; in 2013, it emerged that he had facilitated the BND’s cooperation with the NSA in the early 2000s, ensuring that Germans could also be spied on by the US intelligence agency; and in 2015, he opposed recognising the Armenian genocide, and, like Angela Merkel, did not show up when the Bundestag voted on its resolution. He didn’t want to offend the Turkish regime.

As for Russia relations, there from the start. He was Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s chief of staff during Russia’s siege of Grozny in 2000 and was foreign minister when Crimea was annexed in 2014. He’s a man who, like Angela Merkel, worked hard to temper anti-Putin anger in Germany.

He’s sorry about all this though. “We failed on many points,” he said in an interview with ZDF in early April. “It is true that we should have taken the warnings of our eastern European partners more seriously, particularly regarding the time after 2014. We held onto bridges that Russia no longer believed in and that our partners warned us about.” Ukraine’s Melnyk welcomed those words as a good start but, well, his country doesn’t have time for other people’s guilty feelings right now. They’d rather see the guilt be turned into extra tank deals. In the meantime, Germans have found out that complacent centrism isn’t always the perfect moral Goldilocks-zone to live in.