Potential partners - and what connects us to them

Europe and North America

Europe and North America are the primary points of reference for Germany's foreign policy. They are the decisive – albeit not the only relevant – regions toward which all foreign policy action must be directed. The EU and the transatlantic partnership, symbolised by NATO, form the cornerstones of German foreign policy.

Status quo

Europe and North America are the primary points of reference for Germany’s foreign policy. They are the decisive – albeit not the only relevant – regions toward which all foreign policy action must be directed. The EU and the transatlantic partnership, symbolised by NATO, form the cornerstones of German foreign policy.

The EU is without doubt the decisive basis for German action (and not only in terms of foreign policy). The common approach in the EU enables Germany to play a role on the global stage and to represent common European interests. The EU is also a community of values, whose members share normative ideas, along with a common history and culture. Thus, Germany has an existential interest in maintaining the EU as a functioning framework. This framework is, however, precarious. Not just Brexit, but also deep structural challenges are revealing the fragility of the EU. The coronavirus pandemic is also acting as a catalyst for the divergent realities of Northern and Southern Europe, which have existed at least since the financial crisis. Thus, continued efforts are needed to maintain and develop the EU in the face of internal and external challenges.

Transatlantic relations are and will remain another central pillar of German foreign policy. They too are based on shared values – as well as on shared interests. The shared values are grounded in the inviolable dignity of human beings and the freedom and responsibility of the individual. This common basis continues to exist. At the same time, the transatlantic relationship is subject to change, meaning that it needs to be redefined. This is particularly true as far as interests are concerned. The increasingly asked question is which specific interests actually connect Germany with the USA in particular. It was not just the advent of President Trump that contributed to this situation. Differing priorities, for example with regard to Asia, have also put in question the extent to which the USA and Europe remain core partners. Nevertheless, Germany has no closer ties to any region of the world outside Europe.

Beyond these two pillars, there are additional value partnerships and interest-based relations between Germany and other players in Europe that need to be explored and, where appropriate, intensified. First and foremost is Switzerland, which, due to its self-image as a neutral state, belongs neither to the EU nor NATO. As a direct neighbour and because of its complex economic and social interdependencies with Germany, Switzerland still plays a special role in German foreign policy. In addition, Switzerland shares a broad set of values with Germany and therefore remains an important partner for Germany in strengthening international norms (not least in multilateral organisations). This rings true especially in times of transatlantic uncertainty, fragility within the EU, and geopolitical competition from autocratic states.

Moreover, the EU’s neighbouring countries also deserve special attention, and not just because the countries of the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe hold the prospect of accession to the EU in accordance with EU treaties (this process being already well advanced, especially in the Western Balkans). There is already a vigorous, multifaceted exchange with this region, which requires continued and intensified German involvement in the course of the EU accession or pre-accession processes for the Western Balkan countries. This is true especially because the Western Balkans are geographically and culturally not on the periphery, but in the centre of Europe. The developments in this region have a direct impact on the EU, which became particularly clear in the 2015 refugee crisis.

Germany, like its EU partners, also has an interest in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the countries of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, which have so far been less strongly associated with the EU, and in some cases are seeking other foreign policy paths or alliances. Here, too, experience has shown that Germany and the EU will sooner or later import both positive and negative developments from their eastern neighbours, and so it is in the interests of the former to support positive transformations in the latter. At the same time, Germany must also assert itself against external players in the EU’s neighbouring countries, each of which is trying to exert its own influence.

Finally, there can be no doubt about the importance of Russia for German foreign policy. The two countries have been closely intertwined, both historically and culturally, but the developments in recent decades, and especially since the annexation of Crimea by Russia, have led to alienation that continues to grow. Russia is challenging the international order and its legal norms in many different ways, and Russia’s activities in many regions are affecting German and European interests. Without Russia, there will be no solution to the conflicts in the Middle East which are having a major impact on Europe. Russia is also playing an important role in other regions, such as the Arctic – which is becoming increasingly important. It is therefore in the interests of Germany and the EU, on the one hand, to adhere to international standards and to continually persuade Russia to comply with them, and on the other hand, it is equally important to have a dialogue with Russia about balancing interests. This will work best with a coordinated EU-Russia policy. However, there are still differing approaches in the EU, which result from the different experiences and interests of the Member States and which are often exploited and deliberately reinforced by Russia.

German foreign policy operates in the EU Member States and in exchanges with its transatlantic partners via a complex network of multilateral institutions and bilateral initiatives. To achieve its goals, Germany uses a broad range of political instruments. Since the focus of this article is on the implementation of German foreign policy with European countries and regions who are not members of the EU or NATO, the following will primarily describe cooperation with these partners.

Germany’s cooperation with Switzerland is based on a dense set of agreements that is unparalleled outside the EU. It comprises several hundred international agreements, the core of which are the packages of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU, which, from the free movement of persons to free trade and cooperation in a wide range of policy areas, lay the most important foundations for German foreign policy towards Switzerland. There is also a close exchange on the shaping of common policies at various bilateral levels and by working together on multilateral bodies. With a total trading volume of around 100 billion euros, Switzerland is also Germany’s 9th most important trading partner, while Germany is Switzerland’s largest trading partner. Switzerland is also the third largest foreign direct investor in Germany, after the EU countries and the USA.

Cooperation in the Western Balkans is structured primarily by the accession processes and the stabilisation and association agreements. A framework for German foreign policy is provided by the Berlin Process in particular, a joint initiative of EU countries and the European Commission aimed at promoting the process of accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU and their eventual entry into the EU (as well as regional exchange). Germany’s engagement with countries to the east of the EU is also structured primarily by a series of association process instruments and by free trade or partnership agreements. The EU Eastern Partnership initiative serves both as a political linchpin and a technical roadmap for implementing closer ties. However, the extent to which it can be seen as a path to EU membership is disputed both in the EU and in Germany.

In addition, the Council of Europe and the OSCE represent inclusive platforms where Germany works with its European and, to a certain extent, its transatlantic partners to coordinate cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe.

The cooperation between Germany and Russia is also diverse and more intensive than with many smaller neighbouring countries in the region, and yet it is overshadowed by the Ukraine conflict and the tense relationship between NATO and Russia. This situation has led to many high-level communication channels being blocked (such as bilateral government consultations). At the same time, dialogue with Russia, within the context of the aforementioned bodies, remains important. The reduced but still significant economic exchange with Russia remains a driving force in current German-Russian cooperation; despite sanctions, Russia remains Germany’s 13th most important trading partner.

German foreign policy is thus already pursuing its interests in Europe and North America with a variety of means and in the most diverse bilateral and multilateral formats. Nevertheless, there is potential for further targeted development of these interests and for increasing the focus on individual countries, thus giving Germany’s foreign policy strategy a clearer profile.

In order to further exploit the potential that already exists in Europe and North America, the first step must be to define Germany’s geopolitical role more clearly and, from this, to deduce interests and premises for action within the EU and in transatlantic relations. This will result in tangible measures for relations with other countries.

It can be assumed that the spread of the coronavirus and the consequences it will have for Europe will again lead to increased expectations towards Germany (depending on how the crisis is managed here). The chosen path of assuming more responsibility, and of underpinning this with an appropriate security policy, for example, must be followed consistently after initial steps have been taken. This means that Germany must increasingly take a stance, assert this stance in Europe and align it with its European partners. Depending on the specific interests at hand, partners outside the EU come into play, in order to jointly exert interests with non-EU members, as well as using these partners as leverage.

This vision of a more clearly defined geopolitical role for Germany must, therefore, be conceived in terms of fundamental German interests. Various starting points exist within the foreign policy network of interests discussed below which will enable a more effective use of untapped potential in Europe for German foreign policy. Depending on the potential for collaboration and the willingness to cooperate in a partner country, the form of collaboration can range from closely defined cooperation to comprehensive partnerships.

In Southeast Europe, Germany should seek greater cooperation with Serbia, with the ambition of creating peace and stability among the EU’s neighbours. Existing ethnic tensions and unresolved border issues in the Western Balkans harbour the latent danger of violent intra- and inter-state conflicts, as well as the risk of revised border demarcations on the basis of ethnicity. External players are trying to exploit ethnic tensions; Serbia is the gateway for attempts to exert regional influence. In order to ensure that security and stability in the region are maintained, it is in Germany’s interest to strengthen Serbia’s resilience to external influences and to work towards a constructive Serbian foreign policy.

Serbia should also continue to be seen as a partner for regulating global migration flows. Germany is the main emigration destination for people from the Western Balkans, and the Balkan route continues to represent a transit corridor for illegal migration from the Middle East and South Asia. It is therefore in Germany’s interest to offer the region’s people local economic prospects, along with opportunities for legal migration of skilled workers (while at the same time preventing illegal migration). Serbia, as the anchor country of the Western Balkans, remains an essential partner.

The natural gas exporters Russia and Azerbaijan play a certain role in securing important resources, especially energy supplies. Most natural gas is imported, and much of this currently comes from Russia. Against the background of declining export capacities on the part of other energy partners, the country is thus becoming increasingly important for maintaining these energy imports; securing these imports is therefore in Germany’s interests. At the same time, pragmatic partnerships (such as energy cooperation with Russia) must not be strengthened at the expense of a common EU foreign policy and cooperation with transatlantic partners. Ultimately, further diversification of energy imports appears to be necessary in the light of the strong dependence on Russian gas supplies. With regard to this, opportunities could be provided by intensifying exchanges with Azerbaijan, which is a significant gas producer. However, given the democratic and constitutional situation in Azerbaijan, this can only be a narrowly defined expansion of cooperation.

There is also potential for taking a closer look beyond the EU at other European countries in order to maintain prosperity via free trade and innovation. As described at the outset, the economic exchange with Switzerland is the most advanced. In view of the significant trade of goods and services and high bilateral investments, no fundamental change is required. However, cooperation should be expanded in a goal-oriented manner. There is enormous potential for this, especially with regard to digitisation (a development which must also be promoted more strongly in Germany).

Concurrently, German foreign policy should not neglect Russia and Ukraine as potential partner countries for increased trade and economic exchange. At its peak in 2012, bilateral trade with Russia was a third higher than it is today. Rebuilding this significant economic exchange would therefore take German economic interests into account but must be weighed against foreign policy objectives (such as preventing conflicts among the EU’s neighbours). Ukraine, which is often viewed exclusively in the context of security policy, also offers potential for economic cooperation. After all, Ukraine covers the largest geographical area in Europe after Russia and possesses fertile soil, meaning that Ukrainian agriculture can become an important economic factor for German imports. As the eighth most populous country in Europe, it also offers great economic potential: on the one hand as a sales market, and on the other hand for integration into European supply chains due to its low labour costs.

Finally, German foreign policy should also take a closer look at countries such as Ukraine and Switzerland, with an aim to strengthen a values and rules-based international order. On the one hand, Ukraine has committed itself to European values, which the EU should strengthen as a basis for further rapprochement. On the other hand, the basic principles of the rules-based international order were violated by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. In order to strengthen the validity and credibility of international law, it is in Germany’s interest to strengthen Ukraine’s resilience and to help the country defend its claim to territorial integrity and its right to self-determination.

All the while, Switzerland’s status as a partner with shared values outside of the EU and NATO should not be pushed into the background by the prevailing focus on Switzerland’s great economic importance. Because Switzerland sees itself as a mediator and home to many international organisations, especially the United Nations, Switzerland – like Germany – is committed to the rules-based international order. Switzerland is a close ally pursuing similar goals, especially in multilateral organisations, for example in questions of WTO reform. There is certainly room here for cooperation to be developed further.

The possibilities outlined above for new or strengthened partnerships in Europe will be explored in detail below for individual countries and accompanied by substantive policy recommendations. This will not include each of the countries mentioned above; rather, individual examples will be used to initiate a debate on expanding German foreign policy strategies.

Lars Hänsel is head of “Europe and North America” in the European and International Cooperation Division;
Philipp Dienstbier was Desk Officer for Eastern Europe in the European and International Cooperation Division until April 2020.



as a partner for the security and stability of Europe, its neighbourhood and other regions of the world

When the Partner Atlas was first developed (2019), Belarus was chosen as the fifth country in the region Europe and North America. Persistent repression following the rigged Presidential elections of 2020, however, make it impossible to think about a deepened security partnership with the regime of Aliaksandr Lukaschenka. The Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation keeps working actively on Belarus. Please go to  the website of the KAS country office as well as our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram (@KasBelarus) for the latest information and analyses on the current situation.


as a partner for securing essential natural resources and protecting the climate

When the Partner Atlas was first developed (2019), Russia was chosen as one of the partners in the area of Resources and Climate Protection. The war perpetrated by Russia against Ukraine, however, makes it impossible to think about deepening cooperation with the Putin regime.

If you are interested in the work of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, please visit the website of the Department Europe and North America as well as our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to find up-to-date information and analyses.


as a partner for safeguarding our prosperity via free trade and innovation

In many ways, Switzerland is a key partner for Germany in terms of values and interests, particularly in the area of trade and innovation. The economies of both countries are closely intertwined: Germany has been Switzerland’s most important trading partner with more than 22 percent of foreign trade. Conversely, Switzerland is also a key economic partner for Germany: in 2020, it ranked eighth among Germany’s foreign trade partners (making it the fourth-largest non-EU country in this ranking behind the U.S., China and the United Kingdom).


as a partner for regulating global migration flows

Serbia is of central importance for Germany in terms of regulating global migration flows. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2014, a large proportion of refugees from the Middle East, Central, and South Asia have moved along the so-called “Balkan route”. The main route leads from Turkey and Greece via Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Serbia to Hungary and Croatia, which form the border of the EU. Continuing from there is difficult because especially the Hungarian government has implemented very tough border controls to prevent entry without valid travel documents.


as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

Please note: this article reflects the situation in 2020. Due to the volatile developments in Ukraine following the war unleashed by Russia on February 24, 2022, keeping this article updated is all but impossible. The role Ukraine plays as a partner for a rules-based international order, however, has been clearly vindicated by the war. This is the reason why it was decided to keep the article in the atlas in its 2020 version.

Please visit our topic page on the Russian aggression against Ukraine, to get up-to-date information on the situation. If you want to find out more about the work of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Eastern and Southeatern Europe, we recommend going to the website of the Department Europe and North America as well as our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.