Decisive Elections in an Undecided Germany
All around Europe, eyes are on Germany this summer. No wonder, as the German federal elections of 26 September 2021 will end the era of Angela Merkel, 16 years after she moved into the top job of Germany’s government. Beyond that, only a few things seem certain about the federal elections today.
One foreseeable thing is that the Christian Democrats (CDU) will once again constitute the largest Parliamentary group with opinion polls showing support rates of around 28 percent over the past weeks. If the CDU comes out strongest, it does not however necessarily imply that a Christian Democrat will be the next German Chancellor. Even if the Conservatives teamed up with the party that comes in second, which will very likely be the Greens or the Social Democrats (SPD), they could fail to gain the majority of seats in Parliament. In that case, a Green or possibly Social Democrat-led three-party coalition is likely to govern Germany.
Search for a Leader
Another given is that none of the lead candidates of the CDU/CSU, the Greens, or the SPD today have strong voter support to succeed Angela Merkel in office. The Conservative, Armin Laschet, has failed to position himself successfully after a tedious intra-party leadership battle. A recent poll shows that only 15 percent of Germans would vote for him if they could do so in a direct vote. Germany’s current Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in similar polls come out strongest with support rates at about 20 percent. But it is unclear whether his highly personalized campaign will allow him to actually make more Germans vote for the SPD whose leadership he failed to win. Since the beginning of the year, the SPD has ranged third after the Greens with a few percentage points less, currently at around 17 percent.
In all likelihood, in autumn 2021, Germany will be more focused on itself than on the challenges out there in Europe and the world.
In a nutshell, the results of the German elections are uncertain. Various coalition constellations are possible and any of the three candidates can become Chancellor. Neither of the three would come in from a position of strength: both the CDU’s Laschet and the Green Annalena Baerbock are fighting allegations of plagiarism. Scholz has to smartly leverage the support he has without decoupling from his party. Coalition negotiations, in particular, if they include two parties of rather comparable strength (the Greens and the SPD combined with liberal and likely rather assertive smaller FDP), could be long and tedious. In all likelihood, in autumn 2021, Germany will be more focused on itself than on the challenges out there in Europe and the world.
Role in the World
And yet it should. Due to its European and international openness that is the base for its economic success model, Germany is particularly affected by transnational risks like pandemics or climate change, global transformation processes like digitisation, and the advancing systemic conflict between liberal democracies and rising autocracies around the world. As a trading power in the center of Europe, the Federal Republic is highly dependent on economic openness and political cooperation with countries all over the world.
Possibly more than ever before, the question of whether Germany’s economic model and its values-based foreign policy remain a credible and tangible combination is out there.
The more difficult the world gets out there, the more Germany needs to rethink its foreign policy and international positioning: Germany’s sources of strength – international openness and economic partnerships – have not only turned into a source of vulnerability as the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects have lately illustrated. International dependencies, even if mutual, restrict Germany’s willingness and capacity to act internationally. Possibly more than ever before, the question of whether Germany’s economic model and its values-based foreign policy remain a credible and tangible combination is out there.
Another question is how Germany can protect its major source of strength: its economic competitiveness. In the race for technological and digital leadership Germany, like the EU, fell far behind competitors. The only way to catch up and regain leadership positions, which are necessary in order to be able to co-shape the norms and structures of order in the digital world, will be for Germany and the EU to partner with like-minded countries, in particular the US, but also Asian partners. The goal here is not only to strengthen economic competitiveness but more fundamentally, to co-shape the regulatory framework for technologies that are at the heart of the conflict between liberal democracy and rising autocracies. These are some of the key questions that Germany’s new leader will be facing – and the way she or he will position the country will crucially impact transatlantic relations, and Germany and the EU’s strategy towards China, Russia, Turkey, and others.
If there is one certainty from the German perspective, it is that a strong EU continues to be essential; EU membership and Germany’s leadership position in the Union of 27 has increased its prosperity and power, and, alongside NATO, it is the essential political framework that defines Germany’s geopolitical position. The EU – or, with Brexit, Europe – remains the prism through which the next German leader will very likely think of Germany’s international role and concrete strategies to deal with the most pressing foreign policy challenges.
It will be a key task for the next German government, as it was for the outgoing Chancellor, to hold the EU together – in Europe’s and Germany’s very own self-interest.
The EU, ridden by more that 15 years of consecutive crises, is deeply divided internally. It will hence be a key task for the next German government, as it was for the outgoing Chancellor, to hold the EU together – in Europe’s and Germany’s very own self-interest. Berlin will likely try to continue to bridge the north-south and east-west divides. While they of course deserve a granular analysis and do not cleanly group countries in homogeneous camps, both notions highlight important tension in the EU. The former stands for socio-economic divergence and conflicting visions of economic governance, while the latter is used to describe deeply differing notions of national and European identity, sovereignty, and, for some governments like the current ones in Hungary and Poland, the understanding of liberal democracy.
The new German leader will have the task to build trust and reliable relationships with leaders all around the EU. This will take time and require strong political engagement. The leaders are keenly aware that they are about to lose their longest-serving peer in the European Council; Angela Merkel. No other Head of State and Government has seen the EU through so many crises starting with the financial crisis of 2008, the following sovereign debt and banking crises, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, the migration crisis, Brexit, and finally COVID-19 and the deep economic and social repercussions it entails.
The French Presidential elections in spring 2022 from a German and European perspective will likely be the most consequential political event for the future of Europe in the first half of next year.
While some of the positions Germany took under her leadership were highly conflictual, Merkel is recognized for her calm and stamina in helping build European compromise, over and over again. France, which is traditionally less interested in reaching out and building broad compromise, will continue to be a key partner to Germany – and the French Presidential elections in spring 2022 from a German and European perspective will likely be the most consequential political event for the future of Europe in the first half of next year.
In her 16 years at the helm of Germany, Merkel built a leadership position that went well beyond the European Council. When US President Donald Trump started to deconstruct the liberal international order and put an axe to democracy and liberal society at home, hope was projected onto Merkel as the “new leader of the free world”. While she took strong positions in transatlantic relations during the Trump Presidency, she decisively pushed back on attacks on liberal democracy within Europe, as the Hungarian and Polish governments started to change their constitutions and weaken the free press and civil society.
It is against that backdrop of a divided EU and challenges to liberal democracy that Germany’s new Chancellor will have to take clear positions and show ambition and pragmatism – and a very strong sense of partnership with like-minded countries across the EU and globally.
Almost a decade ago, German leaders discussed a new and stronger role for Germany, with landmark speeches at the time given by then federal President Joachim Gauck, then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and then-defense minister Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich Security Conference in 2014. With the growing power of the Federal Republic within the European Union and in the international structure, there was a high demand – internally and externally – that the Federal Government assume more responsibility. Merkel delivered on some aspects, but on others, expectations were never met. And yet, compared to today, things were comparatively simple then. The international environment has changed so decisively that it is increasingly difficult for Germany, as it is for any other country, to actually assume meaningful leadership and shape developments in the EU or internationally.
This is why the challenges for the next German government are so hard. The multitude and simultaneity of risks and challenges facing Germany and the EU require a preventive and comprehensive approach to deal with them – and they require an ability to act quickly. However, Germany, like its partners in the EU, is struggling to adapt its economic, political and social model to the fundamental changes in the international environment. It is by now clear that international and domestic developments are closely intertwined and require coherent approaches. National ones will not suffice. Deeper, more pro-active, and inventive European cooperation among like-minded governments is key, given the internal and external challenges our continent is facing.