2021: What’s on the Agenda?

The Kurt-Schumacher, an A350 Airbus of the Federal Ministry of Defence’s Special Air Mission Wing

The Kurt-Schumacher, an A350 Airbus of the Federal Ministry of Defence’s Special Air Mission Wing, © Thomas Imo/photothek.net

20.01.2021 - Article

After a very busy and turbulent year, German foreign policy is setting its sights on what lies ahead: coronavirus, regional conflicts, climate change mitigation and many other issues requiring urgent attention.

Also in the sphere of foreign policy, 2020 will be remembered first and foremost for one thing: the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, efforts to tackle the health and economic consequences tied up a large share of (foreign) policy resources. What is more, the virus has made many global challenges – including regional crises, hunger, poverty and inequality – either reappear or grow worse. Purely digital diplomacy, without face-to-face meetings, has made it more difficult to find solutions to conflicts, as well as compromises. Nevertheless, Germany last year actively promoted important issues during its Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the second year of its membership of the UN Security Council. This included making progress in peace efforts with regard to the conflict in Libya and in the Near and Middle East.

In 2021, German foreign policy will continue to be shaped by the fight against COVID-19 and its consequences. However, there will be much more happening in the sphere of international relations: With the inauguration of a new US administration under Joe Biden, Germany and the EU are preparing for a new start in transatlantic relations. Common issues to be addressed include, first and foremost, multilateralism, strengthening democracy, what approach to take towards China, and the fight against climate change. Staying engaged in efforts to resolve conflicts in North Africa and in the Near and Middle East are also at the very top of the agenda.

Europe: vaccine distribution and economic recovery

During its Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Germany helped broker a new EU budget, which is referred to as the Multiannual Financial Framework, and a coronavirus Recovery Fund – the two of which form the foundation for economic recovery and greater investment in the areas of climate change mitigation and digitisation. The aim is to swiftly disburse money from the Recovery Fund in 2021. With the EU Commission now having approved a number of vaccines, the conditions are in place for Europe to permanently put the pandemic behind it – although new variants of the virus do remain a cause for concern. All of the vaccines have been developed in record time, often with decisive contributions by German and European scientists and researchers. Testing and approval of additional vaccine candidates, equitable distribution of vaccines and solidarity in this regard will shape the EU’s political agenda this year.

However, negotiations on fundamental issues will also be a focus in 2021: The Conference on the Future of Europe is designed as a platform for citizens, civil society and institutions to debate ideas on how to further develop the EU. This can reinforce the EU’s self-perception as a global player and strengthen its legitimacy. During Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, progress was made on the planning for this conference, and a foundation was laid for it to begin in the near future.

In its external affairs, the EU will address its relationship with the United Kingdom in 2021 and develop a new, constructive partnership with its neighbour – for the UK will remain our closest partner and friend in terms of shared values, trade and joint global and regional interests. This year, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement is set to be ratified and implemented, and the two sides will also address their cooperation on security policy issues.

At bilateral level this year, the German Government will continue to work on implementing the decision taken in the German Bundestag to create a memorial and meeting place in Berlin dedicated to the Polish victims of the Second World War.

Regional conflicts, security policy and disarmament

In 2021, German foreign policy will also address the global security architecture. Disarmament remains a top priority for the German Government, as it believes that reliable rules and international agreements in this sphere are key. Efforts in this regard will focus on extending the New START Treaty and preserving the Treaty on Open Skies.

Other topics on the German foreign policy agenda in 2021 include North Africa and the Near and Middle East. Whether tensions can be reduced will to a very large extent depend on the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Together with France and the UK, Germany will continue to campaign for upholding the JCPoA, and the new US administration under Joe Biden could give this issue new impetus. Other areas requiring attention are the regional conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, as well as the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean – all these involve rivalries between regional powers and a difficult role played by Russia.

The internal, Libyan-owned peace process is heading into its final stretch: 24 December 2021 has been set as the date for national elections. Until then, a transitional government needs to be formed that will include groups from both parts of the country. The German Government will continue to support the important work to this end of UN Special Envoy Ján Kubiš. Another key pillar of Germany’s engagement with respect to Libya is the EU operation IRINI to monitor Libya’s compliance with the UN arms embargo.

Fighting continues in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis in the country is becoming even worse. Germany is doing its utmost to support the United Nations, in terms of humanitarian assistance and political engagement (aimed at a ceasefire and resumption of the political peace process).

Turkey’s foreign policy and the country’s relations with Germany and the EU are also highly significant for most conflicts in the region. In the Eastern Mediterranean, there are signs of a slight lowering of tensions thanks to the announcement that direct dialogue between Greece and Turkey will resume, so that there are grounds for hope that Turkey will adopt a constructive approach.

The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the Sudan and Morocco has created new diplomatic opportunities, also for the Middle East Peace Process. Germany remains engaged, both bilaterally and with France, Egypt and Jordan in the Munich format, with a view to keeping the possibility of a two-state solution alive and, if so desired, to supporting a return to direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Partners and interests in Asia

In Asia, as well, security and trade policy, as well as efforts to promote human rights and a rules-based order are key priorities for the German Government in 2021. Intra-Afghan negotiations were taken up again on 5 January, and Germany is supporting efforts to achieve a ceasefire as soon as possible. Subject to further developments and in consultation with NATO Allies, a decision will be taken in March about whether to extend the deployment of German soldiers in Afghanistan. The current Bundestag mandate for the German military mission in the country ends on 31 March.

Another key focus of German foreign policy in 2021 will be the regional and global role of China and how to strike a strategic balance between partnership and strategic rivalry. After the EU and China reached agreement in principle on a comprehensive investment agreement at the end of December during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, Germany’s intergovernmental consultations with China are scheduled for the first half of 2021. These talks will address economic issues as well as human rights – for example, in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong – and adherence to international rules. Intergovernmental consultations are set to be held with India, as well, in the first half of 2021.

Germany intends to further strengthen its activities in the Indo-Pacific over the coming year. This includes visibly stepping up Germany’s security policy engagement in the region. As part of these efforts, Germany intends to join the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

Climate change mitigation

Germany and the EU remain pioneers in climate action. Germany has made a clear commitment to sustainable development with the goal, agreed during the German Presidency of the EU, of cutting carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030 as well as with the focus on a Green Recovery. 2021 will above all be remembered for COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference that will be held in Glasgow in November. Involvement by Germany and the EU in these efforts will be guided by the European Green Deal.

Strengthening multilateralism, engagement in Africa

The Global Summit for Democracy that Joe Biden intends to host will be an opportunity for Germany to further develop the Alliance for Multilateralism. There are many issues that call for greater cooperation: Global health, regulating the global data economy, arms control, regulating cyberspace and trade issues. All this, too, will be on the German foreign policy agenda. Furthermore, Germany will remain engaged on the issue of Women, Peace and Security in the context of the United Nations. Germany has just assumed the Vice Presidency of the Executive Board of UN Women and will submit a National Action Plan in February, under the auspices of the Federal Foreign Office, that aims to further increase its domestic and foreign policy focus on this issue.

In terms of regional foreign policy, Germany will continue to devote greater attention to cooperation with Africa. In 2021, there will be meetings between EU and African Union foreign ministers as well as heads of state and government. Germany is also very much staying engaged in UN peace missions: On 1 January 2021, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) took up its work, which is headed by the German Volker Perthes. Ten German police officers are participating in the mission. Moreover, early this summer, the Bundestag is scheduled to vote on whether to extend several mandates for involvement of German personnel and assets in international and EU peace operations in the Sahel. Germany will remain strongly engaged in this part of Africa, which is of key importance to regional peace and security.


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