German foreign policy-making – IFAIR meets parliament

German foreign policy-making – IFAIR meets parliament

To conclude the work of the Impact Group “EU-ASEAN Perspectives”, IFAIR had arranged a background discussion with Dr Thomas Gambke, Member of Parliament for the Green Party and chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentary Friendship Group. At 10 February 2014, a delegation of IFAIR members, participants of the IFAIR Impact Group “EU-ASEAN Perspectives” as well as student discussants from universities in Berlin met Dr Thomas Gambke and two research assistants from the Green Faction, Christine Polsfuß and Martin Wilk. The discussions were centred on three main topics: The Bundestag’s competences in foreign policy-making, the work of the ASEAN Parliamentary Friendship Group as well as general aspects of the relations between Germany, the EU and ASEAN.

Foreign policy-making in the Bundestag

As pointed out by Mr Wilk, there is no doubt that the main actors of German foreign policy-making are institutions of the executive branch, i.e. the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery. Nevertheless, the Bundestag disposes of several points of influence. Most importantly, it holds the power of parliamentary reservation, e.g. for the ten military missions with German forces currently running: If the German government intends to send military forces abroad, it depends on the Bundestag’s consent. Further, the parliament is in disposal of control functions over the government’s external activities and has a say in EU related issues. Finally, a means to exercise long-term oriented soft power in Germany’s international relations are parliamentary friendship groups. Without being tied to the requirements of the diplomatic protocol, these friendship groups have certain discretion for agenda-setting and can engage with opposition groups or NGOs. In this, the Bundestag’s foreign policy-making complements the activities of the executive branch.

The ASEAN Parliamentary Friendship Group

The ASEAN Parliamentary Friendship Group is the largest among currently 54 friendship groups. As explained by Mrs Polsfuß, it disposes of three main instruments: first, the organization of visits and exchange programmes with parliamentarians from partner countries, which usually take place twice per legislature; second, meetings with ASEAN ambassadors and NGO activists in Germany; and third, the publication of press releases about topical events in ASEAN countries in order to influence the German public opinion. Due to its informal nature as well as its limited budget and staff, it has to contend itself with giving political impulses through personal communication but has no capacity to back its initiatives on a day-to-day basis.

Concerning political conflicts in the partner region, the Friendship Group remains neutral but is supportive to general values. Despite being a multi-party group, Dr Gambke emphasized that its work rests on a broad political consensus among the German MPs about the ASEAN region. With 50 members from all parties represented in the Bundestag, it sees its main task in the promotion of parliamentary structures. More specific topics dealt with in the last legislature include the promotion of minority rights in all ASEAN countries over land grabbing in Cambodia and Laos or palm oil production and environmental issues in Malaysia.

In line with general European policies towards ASEAN, the Friendship Group does not target the ASEANs as a group but concentrates on bilateral relations with individual member states. Dr Gambke argued that this tendency was mainly due to organizational decisions made on the ASEAN side. He reacted positively towards suggestions from the participants to foster inner-ASEAN cooperation and dialogue using the Friendship Group’s agenda-setting power, although he expects a range of difficulties that would be associated with an implementation of this plan.

The current relations of Germany and the EU to the ASEAN countries

In an open discussion, the IFAIR delegation raised a range of questions about the relations of Germany and the EU to the ASEAN countries. There was a consensus that ASEAN countries are not attributed a high importance among German and European policy makers, especially compared to BRICs, the US and the MENA region. Asked about the reasons for this, Dr Gambke pointed out that ASEAN is very difficult to understand for Europeans due its heterogeneity both in political and economic terms. ASEAN not only assembles countries with both high and low accounts in democratic standards, but also unites some of the world’s richest states like Singapore with some of the poorest ones like Myanmar. Mr Wilk emphasized that the EU faces a lack of coherence in its strategic approaches to other world regions, which is particularly obvious in its contradictory behaviour towards ASEAN.

A further point of discussion was the way MPs from the ASEAN states perceive the EU. Dr Gambke had observed a tendency to be critical about the European way of regional integration especially due to the euro crisis. ASEAN MPs are not overly responsive to attempts to promote the EU’s as an important partner to engage with. Against some participants’ expectations, ASEAN parliamentarians hardly ask for advice or best practice examples to foster regional integration. Exchange about institutional aspects of the legislative branch is a rare case and exclusively focuses on the national, not the regional level. Dr Gambke raised the expectation that interest for cooperation with EU level representatives might increase when actual exchange among the ASEAN’s legislatives develops.

Finally, the discussion revealed a significant discrepancy between political engagement and private sector involvement. Dr Gambke argued that German small and medium-sized businesses have demonstrated remarkable flexibility in adapting to the rising importance of the ASEAN region, which is reflected in the high amount of foreign direct investments in the ASEAN countries. The German ‘Mittelstand’ even exercises a remarkable social function because its investments tend not to look for mere short-term profit but support long-term development. Dr Gambke concluded that in this sense, the political level in Germany and Europe lags behind private enterprise with regard to the ASEAN region.

by Steffen Murau for the IFAIR Impact Group “EU-ASEAN Perspectives”