Not so fast: Germany’s political scene is a lot more unpredictable than it seems
“Angela Merkel is the new leader of the free world,” trumpeted the international press following Donald Trump’s US election win. It was the reaction to a simple statement she gave the morning after the election results.
Stepping in front of the cameras, she opened up a plain black folder and calmly read out a short statement: “… democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. On the basis of these values, I offer close cooperation to the future president of the United States of America, Donald Trump.” And then she walked off.
The six words “on the basis of these values” were an astonishing caveat for a leader of Germany—the country which the US helped back on its feet after the war and taught how to be a liberal respecter of human rights and democracy. Now that pupil was rapping the teacher over the knuckles with a brisk reminder of Western standards. President Obama’s visit to Germany a week later, originally supposed to be an innocuous diplomatic jolly, was suddenly seen as handing over the mantle of upholder of liberal Western values. It’s all quite a change from the incessant ill-informed Merkel-is-about-to-fall rhetoric which for years has been a staple of the British and American press.
“Leader of the free world” is not an image that Germans are comfortable with. And it’s certainly not one Merkel wants. “Grotesque” was her comment about the new title when she announced that she would run for another term as chancellor. That’s because, although standing up to Trump might have short-term electoral value—catering to the latent anti-Americanism always present in Germany—it won’t help with her party base. Since the refugee crisis, conservatives already suspect that she’s focusing too much on leftish human rights rather than traditional right-wing issues. So she needs to win back her reputation for pragmatism.
Germany is a notoriously reluctant leader of nations. Berlin is aware that 20th-century German history still looms, meaning that hackles are easily raised in the rest of Europe. There may be calls for Germany to be more assertive on the global stage, but as soon as it is—such as during the eurozone crisis—the Nazi clichés and banners depicting Mrs Merkel as Hitler get wheeled out.
Germany is also still wary of military engagement. The country’s modern political culture is founded on atoning for past wars, rather than glorifying them as is the case elsewhere. Half a century of lectures from the rest of the world about the evils of German 20th-century barbarism has worked, producing a country of pacifists. And although the West has changed its mind, and would now rather like Germany to start fighting again, many Germans themselves are unconvinced. Botched Western interventions in Libya and Iraq confirm rather than persuade people here of the folly of foreign military involvement. So any proposals to increase defence spending go down badly with voters.
Many German voters are also wary of NATO. Germany often sees itself as halfway between Washington and Moscow. And when foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that NATO deployments in Eastern Europe could provoke Russia and be seen as sabre-rattling, he was reflecting a common view in Germany. Washington may believe that it was tough talk and a bellicose stance that won the Cold War, but the German view is that the fall of the Berlin Wall was thanks to years of tireless negotiation and conciliatory Ostpolitik.
But as soon as Mr Trump brought the Alliance’s mutual defence clause into question, suddenly many Germans started wondering whether maybe NATO isn’t rather useful after all. Mr Trump’s erratic musings that Washington’s adherence to the Alliance’s Article 5 will depend on spending has rattled Germany—particularly because, if NATO is undermined, then Europe, and particularly Germany, will be forced to do and spend more to defend itself.
With parliamentary elections due next autumn, the political landscape in Germany is now in flux—particularly on the left. The centre-left SPD is desperate to escape its suffocating position as junior coalition partner with the centre-right CDU. The SPD is losing both credibility and its identity, as is always the case with a weaker partner. And for many voters a continuation of the grand coalition would be stultifying.
So a more radical and more assertive SPD is emerging, as it tries to convince voters that a left-wing governing coalition with the Green Party and the far-left Linke party is feasible. Arithmetically the numbers could add up. But there are policy differences that could be unsurmountable. And many left-wing moderates are distinctly uncomfortable about getting into bed with the Linke party because of its links to the communist regime of the former East Germany.
In preparation for the elections, European Parliament president Martin Schulz is heading back to Germany to take up a major domestic role, either as foreign minister or as left-wing candidate for chancellor against Merkel. The most likely candidate, however, is the present SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel. He may have catastrophic ratings, but he has support from his party and is seen as suitably ferocious on the stump to take on Merkel.
On the right, meanwhile, it’s the new anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) which is shaking things up. Set to win seats in the national parliament for the first time next year, the party has already entered ten of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments. Centrist voters and politicians are rattled. Since Trump’s election win, Berlin is taking the threat of far-right populism at home even more seriously. After all, this is a country that knows where mob rule can lead. “Been there, done that” was the pithy comment from young anti-Trump Germans on social media after the US elections.
Riven by factions and notoriously unruly, the AfD’s political prospects are nonetheless limited. Their anti-Islam and anti-foreigner policies make them toxic in the eyes of many voters. So no other party will form a governing coalition with them, either regionally or nationally. This means, given Germany’s coalition system, that they can never enter government. And with polls hovering around 13% their impact is similar to that of previous insurgent parties which have since vanished from Germany’s political landscape.
But since Brexit and Trump, polls are of course seen as increasingly unreliable. And given how wrong recent electoral predictions have been, the only thing that seems certain is that nothing is certain.
Although the German economy is doing well, there is dissatisfaction in some sections of society. Often the roots are economic, particularly in rural parts of formerly communist eastern Germany, where unemployment is high. But more often it’s about a shift in values that has left many conservative voters behind. From shutting down nuclear power to paying for childcare and giving gay couples more rights, Mrs Merkel has dragged her CDU party to the centre. It’s an electorally strong place to be, and reflects the majority view of mainstream Germany. But it’s also left some voters who don’t share those progressive values homeless, with the AfD their only option.
The worry for Mrs Merkel’s CDU is that the more the AfD chips away at her voter base by attracting disaffected conservative voters, the more difficult it will be for her to form a stable governing coalition.
It’s the refugee crisis which accounts for the AfD’s success. The influx of migrants has polarised the country, between those who are proud of a tolerant, open and multicultural Germany and those who believe the country can’t cope. In fact, Germany has coped remarkably well with the one million new arrivals over the past year and a half. And on a logistical level, there is no actual crisis. But many people, particularly in racially homogeneous eastern German areas with few migrants, are unsettled. The AfD is capitalising on these fears.
In Britain, faced with the challenge of UKIP, successive conservative-led governments tried to court the populist mood and “out-ukip” UKIP with anti-migrant and anti-EU rhetoric. At the same time, much of the British press whipped up populist anti-migrant sentiment to boost flagging sales. The result was a referendum that the government lost. And now the UK is about to hurl itself out of the European Union, without knowing where it’s going to land.
In Germany, the political and media establishment is doing the exact opposite. Mrs Merkel is not following public opinion on migration but trying to lead it by appealing to the country’s humanitarian spirit, while much of the media, including the mass-circulation tabloid Bild and many of the publicly funded broadcasters, are overtly pro-refugee.
The danger of course is that this is essentially an elitist approach, which in today’s Trumpian world of Brexit-style referendums is deeply unfashionable. This could further marginalise voters who don’t like the things seen as moral goods in Germany’s political mainstream—from feminism and gay rights to the EU and taking in refugees. They feel disenfranchised and say they don’t have a voice in the mainstream media—hence the revival of the Nazi term Lügenpresse, or lying press.
But without anyone really talking about it, Berlin is in fact already shifting its position on migration. On the surface, Germany is still open to refugees and EU migrants. In reality, more rejected asylum seekers are set to be deported. And new laws mean welfare can only be paid to EU migrants after a certain period working in Germany. If David Cameron had listened less to the UK press and more to the noises coming out of Berlin, he could have negotiated something similar for Britain last year in his attempts to get a special deal out of the EU to sell to voters before the referendum.
The German government is also trying to tackle the root causes of disaffection among certain voters. The first move is an agreement to raise pensions in eastern Germany in an overt effort to win over older voters who may be tempted by the AfD.
The problem for Mrs Merkel, though, is that the more she is touted as the liberal-minded leader of the cosmopolitan free world, the more the AfD will be able to portray her as someone who cares more about the elite or refugees than she does about ordinary German voters. So although at first glance Merkel’s position looks unassailable, the situation in Germany is much more volatile than international observers assume. After years of centrist politics, with everyone crowding in the middle, the debate in Germany is becoming more radical. Similarly, populist voices on the far left and far right mean the traditional left–right political divide is disintegrating. And six parties potentially ending up in parliament next year will make it difficult for anyone to form a stable government.
“Leader of the free world” might be a push. And it’s certainly not a title Merkel wants. But if she can remain at least the leader of Germany, then the free world stands a chance.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.