Germany – President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the unofficial foreign minister

After more than seven years as Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier stepped down from his cabinet post to become the country’s 12th Federal President in early 2017. Despite his new role and the limited prerogatives of the office, Steinmeier remains the most prominent voice in German foreign policy – almost as if he had never left the foreign ministry.

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier | © German Presidential Office / Henning Schacht 2018

The constitutionally prescribed role of the German president is generally limited to representative functions, although it affords office-holders with some leeway in times of crisis. The representative function extends to foreign affairs and as head of state the president signs international treaties on behalf of the German Federal Republic. Nevertheless, contrary to other countries the president does not take part in substantive foreign policy decision or represent the country at intergovernmental meetings.

Steinmeier was elected by the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in early 2017 and it can arguably be credited to his exceptionally strong leadership that parties renewed their coalition following the autumn 2017 legislative elections (in particular, persuading the Social Democratic leadership to make themselves available as junior coalition partner once again). Already shortly after his inauguration, Steinmeier harshly criticised developments surrounding the Central European University in Hungary during his speech to the European Parliament and his criticism of the far-right Alternative for Germany has likely been noted internationally. He furthermore made no efforts to retract or soften any statements he had made during his ministerial tenure (most prominently his assessment of U.S.-president Donald Trump as a hate preacher and danger to democracy).

Having just conceded his post as party leader and designated Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, his immediate successor in the foreign ministry – vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel – had a more difficult start and only slowly came into his own. However, Gabriel already lost his post less than a year later in the cabinet reconfiguration following the renewal of the grand coalition. His successor, former minister of justice Heiko Maas, has only formally been in office since March this year and is still trying to make his mark. His open criticism of Vladimir Putin’s re-election and arguments in favour of ongoing sanctions as well as his opposition to tariffs introduced by the U.S. against car imports were widely noted. Nevertheless, he still lacks the reputation and gravitas that enabled Steinmeier to assert German interests on the European and international level.

In contrast, president Steinmeier has been able to maintain a much more influential voice in Germany’s foreign policy. During his recent state visit to the United States (notably yet unsurprisingly lacking an invitation to visit the White House), although once again largely representative in character and not an event that would usually make the front pages of any newspaper, he articulated more clearly than ever his vision of Germany as a leader in promoting democracy and becoming an antipole to the politics of the current U.S. administration.

However, the reason Steinmeier has been able to maintain such a vocal role in Germany foreign policy is not merely the result of his own strength and political opportunity. Appearances by the president are closely coordinated with the Chancellor’s office and the the foreign ministry (a few years ago, government MPs even sought to find legal means to ‘muzzle’ the president with regard to foreign policy). Thus, at least partly Steinmeier is taking an active role because he is allowed to do so. Yet at the same time, the Federal government is currently caught up in discussions about refugee policy (any European solutions are regarded as remit of the Chancellor, so that the foreign ministry does not play a role here) and the respective conflict between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Coalition parties (including Steinmeier’s own Social Democrats) may thus also benefit from Steinmeier’s activism in foreign policy given that they currently lack the resources to set the tone in this area and the president has not majorly deviated from their preferences. Yet, the more the president is afforded freedom, the more difficult it will be to rein him in once government priorities change. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has already set a precedent through his active involvement in government formation; he may set one in the formulation of German foreign policy as well.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 28 June 2018

Travelling presidents – Slovak presidents abroad

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 1 September 2015

One of the main responsibilities of presidents in any republic is representing the country abroad. A number of presidents (particularly if they are elected by popular vote) also play an official role in (shaping) foreign policy, giving their visits to other countries more relevance. For instance, after Ukrainian presidents paid their inaugural visit to Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s first foreign trip brought him to Brussels in a bid to counterbalance his otherwise pro-Russian stance. Newly elected Polish president Andrzej Duda on the other hand chose Estonia as the destination of his first trip abroad, underlining his Russo-sceptic stance by showing support for the small Baltic nation which due to its border with Russia and sizeable Russian minority has feared to become the victim of further Russian provocation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Yet even if the government is in charge of a country’s foreign relations presidential visits abroad can carry great symbolic importance and are indicative of political alliances and networks.German presidents traditionally pay their inaugural visits to neighbour and ally France, neighbour Poland (although only more recently) and EU institutions. In this blog post I am looking at foreign visits of Slovak presidents between 1993 and 2015 and map and explain some differences between time periods and presidents.

sk prespow foreign visits

After Slovakia became in independent nation on 1 January 1993 it suddenly had to shoulder many tasks which before then had been performed by the Czechoslovak institutions, most of which – including the foreign ministry – were located in Prague so that hardly any structures were available (the lack of tradition in the foreign ministry is part of the reason that Slovakia is still known among foreign policy officials as ‘the country without protocol’). Although the Slovak presidency still lacked resources, the institution came to play a key role in the country’s recognition abroad – not only because the worldwide recognition presidents Walesa and Havel in neighbouring Poland and the Czech Republic seemed to make presidents the natural contact in the emerging nations of post-communist Europe, but also because Slovakia’s neighbours soon saw inaugural president Michal Kovač as their ally against the illiberal reign of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Beginning with the term of Rudolf Schuster in 1999 (and after 15-month vacancy in the presidential office from march 1998), Slovakia’s first popularly elected presidents, the presidency’s actual role in foreign policy decreased. Nevertheless, the preparation of the country’s EU accession still gave sufficient reason for presidential travel to summits and international meetings (see peak in 2004). Schuster’s fondness of travelling also earned him notoriety among the country’s politicians and civil servants. Travel activity once again decreased under president Gašparovič (2004-2014), who was also generally less keen to engage in foreign policy. The sudden peak under new president Kiska can be explained by the fact that already shortly after his inauguration he had to attend several summits relating to the Ukrainian crisis.

sk prespow top tenn

When looking at overall numbers, it should not be surprising that neighbours Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany top the list of most visited countries by Slovakia’s presidents. The United States as a traditional ally of most Central European states and Hungary, Slovakia’s neighbour to the South, too, should not be surprising given its proximity. The fact that Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also appear on top of the president-specific lists is also conditioned by the countries’ association in the Visegrad group which holds regular meetings with locations rotating between member states. Relatively frequent visits to Ukraine, too, appear to result from its geographic proximity.

An interesting pattern are the relatively frequent visits to the Vatican. Slovakia is ca. 62% Catholic with comparatively high church attendance and although although the quick succession of three popes in less than a decade certainly contributed to the number of presidential visits, it underlines the political weight of the church (although – as the anti-LGBT referendum showed – its influence is waning). The fact that Italy appears in the total number of visits more often than a powerful European nation such as France can be thereby likely explained by the ‘convenient’ location around Vatican City. Until now, Slovak presidents have visited 42 different countries, most of which very clearly mark the country’s alliances with others. While presidential visits abroad tend to be organised in close collaboration with the foreign ministry and are often connected to international summits or other events, Rudolf Schusters travels show that there is still some leeway. Schuster completed the greatest number of foreign visits in one term (74) remains the only Slovak president to have ever visited another country in the Americas than the USA, i.e. Canada.

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The data for this article comes from the official website of the Slovak president (http://www.prezident.sk) and Michal Kovač’ biography ‘Pamäti. Môj príbeh občana a prezidenta’ (MilaniuM 2010); it relates to both official visits and ‘working visits’ but excludes private visists. A MS Excel spread sheet with the data for this post can be downloaded here.

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

This post first appeared on presidential power.com on 29 April 2014

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.