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The German federal elections: What implications for Europe?

Germany’s general election held on 24 September was one to watch closely from London to Paris, and Brussels to Moscow. The victory of Angela Merkel and her parliamentary faction consisting of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) means continuity and stability in the eyes of many both within and beyond Germany. However, the winning CDU/CSU alliance and its current coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), have achieved a historically low performance. The painful proportion of seats lost in the Bundestag by the coalition’s central parties will now be with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the classical liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), neither of which had a single parliamentary seat in the previous term. In addition, Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament and current head of the SPD, has ruled out another grand coalition, leaving Ms Merkel in the hands of the four small parties. As a coalition with the AfD or the left-wing radical Die Linke (The Left) is out of the question, Ms Merkel’s only option to secure a majority in the parliament seems to remain an agreement with the FDP and the Green Party, which are deeply divided on numerous fronts.

The composition of Germany’s future government will, without doubt, greatly impact the future of the European integration. Macron’s speech held at the Sorbonne on 26 September called for a shake-up of the European Union (EU) that he sees as ‘too weak, too slow, and too inefficient’. Berlin’s future position on his proposals to have a common European budget and finance minister for the Euro zone will be decisive. To get an early glimpse of the election’s possible international implications, Europe Matters reached out to Ulrike Guérot from the Danube University in Krems, as well the European Democracy Lab in Berlin, Rainbow Murray from the School of Politics and International Relations at QMUL, and Claudia Major from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs on the day after the vote.

To set the scene, Rainbow Murray starts by arguing that “the result represents continuity but with a slightly higher degree of uncertainty”, adding that we cannot be sure what lies ahead until the new government is announced. And as Claudia Major notes, this might not happen until Christmas, if it happens at all without a repeat of the election. Nevertheless, a few conclusions can already be drawn. For instance, Ulrike Guérot highlights that the election outcome is consistent with current global and European trends. The slow but steady “implosion” of social democratic parties induced at least in part by their opening towards economic liberalization and their move to join grand coalitions with (neo-) liberal parties has left the less well-off without credible representation in several countries. Just like in the 1920s and 1930s, the growing disappointment has turned many to the radicalized fringes, causing the gradual “meltdown of the centre”. This process, continues Ulrike Guérot, has been further accelerated by the establishment of the EU’s “hybrid structures”, resulting in losses in the nation-state’s redistribution power. In her view, this has created a vacuum concerning the “social question” that could no longer be fully addressed at the national level, but was not sufficiently taken up by the EU either.

Yet, as Rainbow Murray highlights, the continuation of Angela Merkel as German Chancellor means that the pro-European leadership of Germany will endure. Does this imply, however, that the enthusiastic proposals of Emmanuel Macron for a more federalist Union will get the green light from Berlin? Well, not necessarily. As Rainbow Murray points out, Angela Merkel's weakened position indicates that she will need to think carefully about how any European proposals will play with a domestic audience, while Macron has similar worries given his plummeting ratings. In addition, the Chancellor will also have to negotiate with her coalition partners, which could be tricky due to the wide ideological gap between the eurosceptic FDP and the pro-EU Greens. Therefore, as Ulrike Guérot adds, the future of the EU is the least likely issue to reach an agreement over in such a coalition, which will possibly prompt the new government to put this matter aside for a while. In sum, it seems that with Schulz’s SDP out of the government coalition, the momentum for an ambitious transformation of the EU is gone.

Regarding Germany’s assumed role as the ‘leader of the free world’, Claudia Major thinks this is not something Angela Merkel has ever aspired to. Indeed, while many seem to desire for the German government to act more dominantly on the world stage, Berlin has shown no sign of willingness to do so. And with the current coalition prospects in mind, such ambitions are even less likely to feature among the Chancellor’s concerns. Instead, Major expects that the new government’s priority will be to focus on domestic policies to regain voters’ trust and support. Therefore, an issue that will certainly be on its agenda is migration, a subject that divides citizens across the continent and which played a crucial part in the expansion of the AfD running on an anti-immigration programme. As Ulrike Guérot notes, with Angela Merkel’s turn from a ‘Willkommenskultur’ (welcoming culture) to the politics of closed borders, coalition talks will be driven by the pressing question of family reunification. What is at stake here is the fate of millions of possible additional immigrants who may wish to join their family members already settled in Germany. Whatever path the German government might take in this question, it is likely to trigger passionate reactions all over Europe.

Similarly, Berlin’s stance on Russia continues to be observed with caution. However, while there are differences in how the two possible ‘government-newcomers’ see Moscow, with the FDP using a friendlier tone, Claudia Major does not expect to see fundamental changes in the Chancellor’s current ‘principles-based’ approach. And as for the future of Germany’s foreign and security policy in general, she adds that the best-case scenario would be to have continuity in this regard as well. However, chances are that the opposing views of the smaller government parties could weaken the international reputation Germany has earned in the past years.

Indeed, it appears that Germany’s near future is marked by “continuity but with a slightly higher degree of uncertainty”. And so is Europe’s.

David Gazsi
PhD Candidate (CER), Research Assistant (QMUL SPIR)

photo credit: Reichstag exterior, Wikipedia

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