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 Covid 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. There is no other world region outside Europe to which Germany has closer ties. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has prompted NATO partners to close ranks. Two additional, neutral countries to date – Sweden and Finland – have submitted membership applications. 

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. A question that is asked more and more often is which specific interests actually connect Germany with the US in particular. Diverging priorities, for example with regard to Asia, have also put in question the extent to which the US and Europe remain core partners. 

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, is neither a member of the EU nor of NATO. As a direct neighbour and because of its complex economic and social interdependencies with Germany, Switzerland 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), 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 have been given the prospect of accession to the EU in accordance with EU treaties and because this process is 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.

In view of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, it is currently impossible to predict how the relationship between the European Union and the Eastern Partnership countries as well as the relationship between the European Union and Russia will develop in the long run.

In the EU Member States and in dealing with its transatlantic partners, German foreign policy operates 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 discussion will primarily look at 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). As far as the Eastern Partnership countries and Russia are concerned, it is currently impossible to predict, how relations will develop in the future, due to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. 

German foreign policy already pursues 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 to derive interests and premises for action within the EU and in transatlantic relations from this baseline. This will result in specific actions to shape relations with other countries.

It can be assumed that the spread of Covid 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, explain its position 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 defend these interests vis-a-vis 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 closer 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 borders being re-drawn 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 be a transit corridor for illegal migration from the Middle East and South Asia. It is therefore in Germany’s interest to offer people in the region economic prospects in their communities, 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.

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 this context. 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 targeted manner. There is enormous potential for this, especially with regard to digitalisation, which also needs to be pushed more aggressively in Germany.

Despite the primary focus on Switzerland’s major economic importance, the country‘s status as a partner with shared values outside of the EU and NATO should not be underestimated.. Because Switzerland sees itself as a mediator and is home to many international organisations, especially the United Nations, the country – like Germany – is committed to the rules-based international order. Switzerland is a close ally pursuing similar goals, especially in multilateral organisations, for example on the issue 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 detailed policy recommendations. There will be no separate article on each of the countries mentioned above. Rather, individual examples will be used to initiate a debate on expanding German foreign policy strategies.

Dr. Lars Hänsel is head of the department Europe and North America in the European and International Cooperation Division.
Philipp Dienstbier was policy advisor for Eastern Europe in the European and International Cooperation Division until April 2020.

Last update: 31 May 2022



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 strengthening a values and rules-based world order

In many respects, Switzerland is a key partner to Germany in terms of both values and interests. Switzerland’s domestic and foreign policy is based on the same spectrum of values of human rights, democracy, freedom and the rule of law.


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.