Germany is seen as Europe’s dull but stable backbone. But for how much longer, asks JASON WALSH?
It should have been a resounding victory, and looked at through squinted eyes, perhaps it is. Angela Merkel will be re-appointed chancellor of Germany, leading the country for a fourth term – something that has only happened once before in post-war history.
The fly in the ointment, though, is that ‘Mutti’ Merkel – whose slogan may as well have been ‘strong and stable’ – will have some difficulty forming a government. Worse still, for the first time since the end of the war, a hardline right-wing party, in the form of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) won enough votes to earn representation in parliament.
The result surprised, if not quite shocked, many who have been watching growing German restiveness about immigration, identity and integration with concern in recent years, not to mention the shifting of electorates in Europe and further afield.
The centre ground, long the natural territory of any politician with designs on grabbing the levers of power, has shrunk, with ever more voters demanding change, whether it comes from the left or the right. Germany has not entered the twilight, however, so much as it has entered retreat.
Fears of throwback to the Weimar Republic, or even to Nazi Germany make for good headlines, but they are also absurd. Despite the easy historical analogies, the difficulties thrown up by the election are entirely contemporary in their composition.
For a start, winning four terms is a tough act to pull off. The only other chancellor to ever achieve it, the late Helmut Kohl, also faced tremendous difficulties. Indeed, his decision to hold on to the reins of power for 16 years as he did is now considered a serious error or judgement, and one that cost his party dearly, ushering in a period of Social Democratic Party (SPD) government.
Many are now asking if history is repeating itself, with Merkel is making the same mistake. There is no sign, however, that she will be usurped any time soon by potential rivals, such as defence minister Ursula von der Leyen. Instead, Merkel’s immediate task is in assembling the support of the parties that her Christian Democratic Union (CSU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) bloc will need to govern.
While the precise arrangement is yet to be finalised, what is already clear is that Germany will start to turn inward, as divided country’s with coalition governments tend to do, and something that is, in any event, a natural political position for Germans.
This will be exacerbated by the nature of the likely government. The so-called ‘Jamaica Coalition’ (so named because the colours of its constituent parts – CDU/CSU [black], the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) [yellow] and Die Grünen [green] – match those of the Caribbean country’s flag), will find its ministers have precious little to agree on.
The FDP is a straightforward European liberal party, dedicated to free markets, low taxation and socially liberal policies. The Greens, meanwhile, are a centre left formation, organised around social justice and ecological issues. The only obvious factor they have in common is that both have been fishing in the same voter pool: urban, well off, middle class – and ageing. Their policy differences – one pushing for tax cuts, the other for increased spending – seem diametrically opposed and will be hard for Merkel’s dominant bloc to paper over.
Germany’s mighty manufacturing industries are particularly concerned by the presence of the Greens. Crucially, Germany’s powerful car industry – a looming presence in the Brexit debate – is in the party’s sights, with plans to scrap internal combustion engines by 2030. FDP leader Christian Lindner says his party has ‘no problem’ with environmentalism, but the parties are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on either that issue, or on state spending and fiscal policy – and there are other hazards waiting in the long grass.
Not least among them is the EU itself. As Germany has long been the bloc’s economic powerhouse, not to mention the post-Trump hoisting onto Merkel’s shoulders of the mantle ‘leader of the free world’ – a role she herself rejected, and one which Germans have no appetite for – the election naturally has implications for the Union.
Here, the threat does not come from the AfD itself, whose 12.6% of the seats in the Bundestag will not bring any actual power. Instead, it comes from a divided Germany.
Coming amidst the Brexit negotiations and not long after an economic crisis that still stalks many countries and has inexorably altered politics across the continent, the timing of Merkel’s slim victory couldn’t be worse for those who say the answer is ‘ever greater union’.
That is not to say no-one will still be making the argument, however. French president Emmanuel Macron has spent months telegraphing his European ambitions, primarily the creation of a parliament for the euro zone currency area, complete with a finance minister and budget. In order to achieve this, Macron desperately needs the assent of Germany, something he is unlikely to get from a more introspective country. Nevertheless, he went ahead seemingly undaunted, making a speech in Paris on Tuesday, saying that Europe ‘as we know it is too weak, too slow and too inefficient’.
Controversially, he proposed a shared European military intervention force with a shared defence budget, and signalled his desire to revive failed plans for an EU-wide financial transaction tax. Many wondered, though, if his speech had been toned down in response to Merkel’s weakened position.
Certainly, Merkel’s likely coalition partners in the FDP have drawn the line at further EU integration: while not eurosceptical, the liberal FDP has already said it will oppose Macron’s plans.
FDP voters don’t want pan-European economic burden sharing, such as eurobonds or fiscal transfers, which they interpret as Germany paying for everyone else’s mistakes. The FDP has strongly opposed to Macron’s plans for a euro zone finance minister, and favours a ‘multi-speed Europe’, effectively a looser EU centred on a core of northern European states with the economically weaker southern and eastern European countries outside the bloc.
The FDP has also called for phasing out of the ‘European Stability Mechanism’ bailout fund, a facility which Macron wanted to make permanent.
Simon Tilford, director of the Centre for European Reform said that Macron’s kite was unlikely to fly in Germany even without the election result. ‘The chances of a big agreement between France and Germany on euro zone reform were always slim – even if we see another ‘grand coalition’ in Berlin, they’d still be reluctant to agree, despite those reforms being fairly modest,’ he said.
But, of course, the full impact of Germany’s election cannot be analysed without an understanding of the new force in the country’s politics: AfD. For it is their surge that will be the biggest cause of German introspection.
Immigration and issues of identity have now been pulled to the forefront of political debate. The so-called culture wars we are seeing across different countries will now rage all the more fiercely in Germany – whose unhappy history does not need stressing.
The AfD polled best in the former communist east of the country. Somewhat ironically, given the party’s anti-immigration platform, this is the area with the lowest levels of migration. But it is undeniably a region where economic recovery since reunification has been long and painful.
Meanwhile, there are increasing grumbles that the country’s policy of wage restraint may have helped it become an export powerhouse, but has done little for people’s wallets.
Against this backdrop, Siobhán Dowling, a Berlin-based commentator who previously worked as an editor at German financial daily Handelsblatt, said the CDU’s campaign was bland, and that many felt it didn’t address their concerns.
‘There are fascists in the [AfD], but there are also others: conservatives and nationalists, and many of its voters were protest voters,’ she said.
The AfD’s rise, then, has more in common with the fragmentation of old political certainties as a whole, than incipient fascism. Without a doubt, Germany’s small far-right voted for the AfD, but a lot of others did too, primarily as a protest vote, and not only against immigration.
But the fact that the AfD has, up to a point anyway, become acceptable in polite company – salonfähig, as the Germans say – suggests the country’s days as the dull but stable backbone of Europe are changing. Germany isn’t turning fascist, but it will likely turn inward.
Jason Walsh is a Paris-based reporter