For Foreign Policy Innovation, Dare Look at Public Transport in Germany

For Foreign Policy Innovation, Dare Look at Public Transport in Germany

The emerging global divide may be geopolitical in nature, but its effects are felt widely, from companies closing to citizens collecting wood for the winter. Time for foreign policy wonks to get some inspiration from other policy areas adapting to change.

One thing German citizens will remember from the summer of 2022, apart from the heat, is the “9-Euro-Ticket” for nation-wide public transportation. Passed as an ad-hoc measure against rising energy prices in the wake of the Ukraine war, this scheme was much more than just rock-bottom cheap. It transcended the boundaries of locally-run public transportation by offering for the first time a ticket for the entire country.

For the price of an average lunch at the office canteen, you could use public transport in any German city plus on all regional trains between them – an entire month long. Whereas the gas discount introduced in parallel offered you something like 30 cents per litre at the pump, this ticket allowed you to travel to the beach or to the mountains, no matter where you lived (provided you had the time and stamina to board one of the packed trains).

With more than 52 million tickets sold, the measure provided direct financial relief to citizens, to the point where it effectively lowered Germany’s inflation rate between June and August when the offer was valid. More importantly, however, this low-cost ticket embodied an innovation applicable to other policy areas: Properly understood, even the country’s foreign policy could benefit from it.

Spare some change? Here’s Nine Euros

After all, the “Zeitenwende”, or sea change, announced eight months ago, is still poorly understood in its dimension. Of course, boosting the Bundeswehr with 100 billion Euros, as the government has done, sending arms to Ukraine and imposing harsh economic sanctions against Russia are, for Germany, real policy U-turns. Yet, these are primarily military and economic responses to the war itself, not innovations in foreign policy as such.

So what would actually be inventive? How could foreign policy – analogous to the ticket – transcend existing boundaries, tailored to the population’s needs while benefiting from additional financial resources? First, important international issues would have to be addressed through interdepartmental coordination; second, citizens should be more systematically included in the foreign policy debate; and third, money needs to flow not just to the army (sorry as its state may be) but to external action broadly understood, i.e. the trias of diplomacy, development cooperation, and defence.

For over a decade, policy wonks have debated the merits of a Federal Security Council comprising crucial expertise from various departments. This would come close to having a public transport ticket across municipalities, but has not come to pass for a number of reasons. These range from the constitutionally mandated organizational autonomy of federal ministries to coalition tradition dictating that the three outward-oriented dossiers (foreign affairs, defence, and development) are each given to one of the governing parties.

Even less than a year ago, the Social-Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats pondered this option in their coalition talks, but couldn’t agree. Instead, the three parties decided to develop a first-ever national security strategy by the end of this year. This comes quite handy given the necessary rethink in the face of Russian aggression – whether in Ukraine or on the energy markets. Yet, its success will only be decided through its application over the coming years.

Working across departments and broadening the debate

To bolster inter-ministerial cooperation on security issues without creating a new institution, a system of task forces should be introduced. Led by a special representative, teams of delegates from the relevant federal ministries would come together to work together on a particularly virulent issue for a limited period of time: three months to formulate an initial response to a crisis; six to help initiate its implementation; or twelve to address longer-term challenges. Either the Chancellery or one of the line ministries would be in charge, also organising a parallel consultation process with select experts. Based on this joint work, seconded officials can then drive a much more holistic approach from within their respective department.

Consultation, in turn, is also what’s needed vis-à-vis citizens. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the post-Cold War European security order. This means that politically and militarily, but also economically, three decades of relative geopolitical bliss have come to an end for Germany. Policymakers need to engage the people on what this means, discussing their proposals for coping with the new situation as well as taking on board the citizens’ own ideas and concerns.

Particularly in view of the emerging systemic rivalry at global level, an intensified civil dialogue on foreign policy issues is indispensable. Admittedly, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock went on a “listening tour” in the summer, and an outreach process had citizens discuss their views on security to provide input for the official strategy. Neither of the two should be a one-off exercise. Only by explaining its actions in a turbulent world can democratic governments gain the public support necessary to build societal cohesion in the face of the coming competition with authoritarian states.

The “three-percent target” for international action allows for a holistic view on the budget

On the money question, the coalition treaty already offers a conceptual basis to justify additional funds by pledging to use three percent of Germany’s GDP for international action. This would bring together diplomacy, development, and defence under budgetary terms: The 100-billion special fund for the Bundeswehr helps Germany achieve NATO’s two-percent target; development cooperation could increase over time to the long-promised 0.7 percent of GDP; and the remaining 0.3 percent of GDP would add a couple of billion Euros for foreign affairs, crisis prevention, and humanitarian aid. This could finance the required increase in personnel at home as well as substantial and forward-looking support for countries in conflict regions, making the far costlier later (often military) interventions unnecessary in the first place.

Obviously, foreign policy needs more than a quick-fix subsidy in response to an acute crisis. Still, the core of the 9-Euro-Ticket contains an inspiration going far beyond lowering mobility cost over the summers months: Just as the ticket was valid beyond municipal boundaries, the federal government must organise its work on international challenges beyond departmental confines, for example by setting up ministerial task forces with expert input. To explain the necessary changes in Europe’s global posture, democratic governments must extend citizens’ dialogue to foreign policy issues. Finally, diplomacy, development, and defence must be thought together as an expenditure by using the three-percent formula for international action.

In sum, these issues represent an institutional, discursive, and financial innovation for Germany’s – and any other country’s – security. So that in the future, when travelling across the country, finding a seat and arriving on time are the citizens’ only worries.



Dr Cornelius Adebahr is a political analyst and consultant living in Berlin, Germany. His work focuses on European foreign policy issues, transatlantic relations, and Iran. Since the end of 2000, he has been the owner of Wirtschaft am Wasserturm – Political Consultancy, Project Development, and Training. In addition, he is a non-resident fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and an associate fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), as well as a member of the Team Europe of the European Commission.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad

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