Ulrike Gu?rot explains why we're unlikely to see radical change in a cautious, careful Germany's international stance after this month's federal elections.

Anyone looking for the answers to Europe's travails, or to a clue as to how Germany will use its growing economic and political muscle in the world will find few answers from the imminent elections. A relatively contented electorate includes only a small minority who share the concerns that are obsessing most people outside Germany. They are not looking for the victor on the 23rd of September to take on the responsibility for Europe's future. Instead the focus of debate has been elsewhere, on domestic issues, many of them mundane to outside eyes.

In a recent article the well-known British commentator Timothy Garton Ash posed what he called 'The new German question' - namely 'Can Europe's most powerful country lead the way in building both a sustainable, internationally competitive eurozone and a strong, internationally credible European Union'? Yet in these elections the Germans have shown themselves to be disinclined even to address this question, still less to try answering it.

However, the reality is that, reluctantly or not, decisions taken in the coming years by German politicians will have reverberations far beyond Berlin. So, assuming that Angela Merkel wins again - something still likely, even if the race is closer today than a few weeks ago - what can we expect? How should we understand how Merkel will approach her nation's foreign policy challenges?

More of the same: constrained leadership in Europe

There continue to be loud calls from various part of Europe for further European integration, leading first and foremost to banking union, preferably with some form of common deposit scheme. So how might post-election Germany, under Merkel's continuing leadership respond? The truth is that, even if she was minded to, domestic pressures mean Angela Merkel cannot do what many in Europe want her to do. But even so it is misleading to just argue that this means Germany will stand selfishly against greater integration. The main reason for German caution is its concern about the situation of two other of Europe's biggest players - France and Britain.

Any banking union would require constitutional treaty change - with, as a precondition, perhaps even a constitutional change in Germany itself - and such a major step is not on the cards. There are two reasons why. First, the UK's position on Europe remains in a state of flux; and, second, there is a lack of clarity over what the French are willing to give up in terms of budget sovereignty in exchange for a mutualised fiscal capacity of the eurozone.

Looking over the channel, most Germans voice the fear that venturing down the path of treaty change is to open a Pandora's box which a Eurosceptic UK government would exploit as the basis for a strategy of treaty unravelling. Still, attitudes towards France are even more negative. Most Germans tend to believe that the real European problem lies currently in Paris, not Berlin or Karlsruhe. Among the charges against the French are that they have failed to deliver economic reform, failed to embark on necessary political modernisation and failed to curb the use (by all sides) of aggressively sovereignist language.

So, viewed from Berlin, it is unreliable European partners, not simple German reluctance, which is holding back the treaty change needed to pave the wave for deeper integration. Berlin may take the blame, but in reality its ability to lead is constrained by others.

However, none of this means German policy on Europe won't evolve and lead to new ideas. Up until 2017, when the next German elections are due, and in particular after a new European parliament and European commission are in place after 2014, Merkel will be looking for pragmatic 'second-best' solutions which edge the eurozone system towards more integration, without blowing up the whole constitutional and institutional set-up.

Furthermore, Germany does at least seem to have a concrete set of ideas on where the European system should move to. These include:

  • a different legitimacy base with a reformed parliamentary set-up
  • a bigger role for national parliaments (not only the Bundestag) through what is called 'verschr?nkte Legitimit?t' (crossed legitimacy) between national parliaments and the European parliament
  • a clearer distinction between the executive and the legislative branch in the euro-governance system
  • a rebooted European stability mechanism, or ESM, which will take over some aspects of the management of the fiscal capacity and the coordination, if not integration, of new policy areas, such as taxation, social policies or employment policies.

This is decent enough programme, but it does not amount to the radical push for integration others are seeking with Germany in the vanguard.

For the future of Europe, as in all of politics, events matter. Many pro-Europeans will look to 2014 with some trepidation: some are forecasting that the European parliament elections will return a 40 per cent anti-European vote across the EU. This could spark a major political or social backlash, even if the economic prospects for southern Europe start to pick up. Any underlying tensions concerning the push for further integration are likely to come into sharp focus around this time.

And then we will not only see the next German elections, but also a French election, a general election in Britain, and potentially a UK referendum on staying in the European Union. Taken together, these events may represent the greatest threat to the future of the EU since its inception. Certainly a perfect storm of a large anti-European protest vote across the continent, a British 'no' vote in a referendum, and the deepening problem of a France that is weak, ineffective and seems to have forgotten about its European ideals, would create unprecedented conditions for Europe, which even the most proactive, pro-European German leadership would find intensely challenging to combat.

Wider German foreign policy

Aside from direct EU matters, there are two main questions to address. First, is there such a thing as a German foreign policy worthy of the name? Second, what if anything will change after the election?

The answers are different depending on your perspective. From outside of Germany, most observers argue that Germany is underperforming, in part through its failure to lead the EU to a global and responsible role as a force for good, but also through not taking enough advantage of its own economic and political on the global stage - for example in its dealings with China or Russia.

The critics point to abstentions on key UN security council votes, the recent reluctance to engage in Mali, foot-dragging on improving the European security defence policy and common foreign security policy and the shrinking of early ambitions for the European External Action service. The recent German approach to Syria, on show at the St Petersburg G20 meeting, did nothing to comfort those concerned about Gemany's willingness to take responsibility in European foreign policy.

However, inside Germany this tendency to inaction is viewed as sensible caution rather than a failure of the country to punch its weight on the international stage. There remains strong commitment to the 'culture of reservation' (Kultur der Zur?ckhaltung) and continued resistance to military intervention, expressed in the so-called 'Parlamentsvorbehalt', the need to consult the parliament before sending troops.

This tendency might be challenged if there was a strong strategic community in Germany. But in fact there is a striking absence of such a community. For the five decades after the second world war, Germans have been taught to do anything but think strategically - and to the extent that there was a German strategic community it was NATO-driven and US-educated. That community is now in retirement, and nothing has grown up to replace it. There is a real vacuum on strategic thinking which spreads from academia to politics. In a way, Europeans who are asking for German strategy or a German foreign policy are requesting the impossible: Germany does business, not strategy. So expect little change on this front.

The one thing that will change, however, is a very strong commitment to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks (which will happen irrespective of the NSA spying affair). As a result, transatlantic relations will likely be even more business-driven and much less NATO-driven, and the institutional framework of the TTIP agreements may even replace NATO as main institutional channel through which Germany interacts with its allies. TTIP is also transparently a strategy for 'western' retrenchment, designed to secure the trade interests of the west against other emerging global players. Hence, for better or worse, it is also a strategy for Germany to reduce its strategic dependence on trade with China and so to bring trade, values and interests closer together again. In other words it could represent the reversal of a 'mercantile' drift in German foreign policy in recent years. This drift led to German foreign policy largely followed trade patterns which pulled Germany towards Russia and China. Trade and energy policy therefore became a substitute for foreign policy; strategic relations were - to be provocative - reduced to battles over solar panels.

However, with respect to Russia, Germany has not only become much more critical during Angela Merkel's second term, it has also undertaken serious efforts to 'Europeanise' its Ostpolitik. In response to huge criticism over its position on issues such as the 2008 Georgian crisis, Berlin orchestrated an honest and deep rapprochement with Poland. This new Ostpolitik can be expected to remain dominant.

On China, despite other changes, relations should remain stable. In recent months Germany has been criticised for bypassing the EU commission on some industrial policy issues - telecommunications and solar panels. But given that Germany alone accounts for some 48 per cent of EU-China trade it is only to be expected that it will dominate EU-China relations.

If foreign policy is to secure a country's energy and other resources in a peaceful way, then Germany is actually performing pretty well. It has no real enemies, and it currently ranks highest on the sympathy curb in 25 countries. This is a good precondition to do business, without exerting much, if any, global strategic ambition. Many in Europe (and in the wider world) may complain that Germany seems to aspire to being nothing higher than being a 'bigger Switzerland' in global affairs, but most Germans actually like it this way. They are happy that Germany projects its power softly through things such engineering, football and vocal training.

The fact of the matter is that there is little if any domestic pressure for change and any outsiders harbouring a hopeful vision of Germany leading Europe to a stronger global future after these elections will probably be disappointed.