September 21, 2017

The Campaign May Seem Sedate — but the Results of Germany’s Election Will Have a Big Impact on Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) for the upcoming general elections, speaks during an election rally in Hamburg, Germany, September 20, 2017.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a top candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) for the upcoming general elections, speaks during an election rally in Hamburg, Germany, September 20, 2017.

It’s been dubbed the dullest election ever

Angela Merkel’s strong lead in the polls means she looks set to win a fourth term as chancellor in elections set for this Sunday, 24 September — thanks in part to a booming economy. Meanwhile, her centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) rivals are struggling. Merkel has borrowed many of their traditional left-wing issues, and after four years as the junior coalition partner, the SPD has not managed to communicate exactly what it would do differently. The TV debate between Merkel and her SPD challenger Martin Schulz was more duet than duel.

But don’t be fooled by the soporific campaign. With six groups likely to enter the Bundestag, up from the current four, it’s impossible to predict who Merkel will end up governing with. She has ruled out working with the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the far-left Die Linke(The Left). But the SPD, the Greens and the free-market FDP all stand a chance of becoming part of the next government. Each could affect Berlin’s foreign policy in a number of key areas.

First is eurozone reform. The SPD is calling for more burden-sharing within the EU, and would be open to French president Emmanuel Macron’s suggestions of a single eurozone budget or minister. The Greens, keen to show solidarity to poorer EU countries, are also amenable to the idea. But the FDP views the creation common liabilities within the eurozone as a red line; in fact, it even argues that Greece should leave the currency area. Thus, a government including the FDP would alarm France — particularly if the party gets its longed-for finance ministry position.

Second is Russia. Traditionally the SPD, with its fond memories of Ostpolitik, is seen as the party most accommodating towards Moscow. But during the campaign the FDP has been more vocal, arguing that German businesses have sacrificed enough while calling for the annexation of Crimea to be accepted and for Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia to be eased.

Third is migration. This explosive issue has been largely avoided by both the CDU and the SPD. The numbers of new asylum seekers have dropped and neither party has much to gain from rehashing the debate over a migrant crisis that happened on their watch. But the AfD has done its best to reactivate the issue in voters’ minds. In practice new tougher asylum laws mean that Merkel’s government is not quite as pro-refugee as it is often portrayed by the international media. But if the AfD scores well and becomes the third biggest party in parliament, expect the CDU to get tougher still in order to avoid being outflanked. This is also one of the issues that would make it difficult for Merkel to form a coalition with both the pro-migrant Greens and the FDP, which wants refugees to be deported once their countries are safe.

Some foreign policy issues are however less divisive. There is widespread support for Merkel’s pragmatic stance on Trump, i.e., as someone who needs to be dealt with but not pandered to. Equally, there is also some consensus on NATO. Reaching NATO’s two percent of GDP target is unpopular with German voters. But since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, many in Germany’s political establishment have accepted the need for more spending on defence. Despite occasional grumbling on the issue from the SPD, only The Left, which is unlikely to enter government, would be prepared to make a serious issue about NATO spending.

One issue that definitely won’t be affected by the election’s outcome is Brexit. In the British pro-Brexit press there have been reports that, if it enters government, the FDP will put pressure on Merkel to push for a special trade deal with the UK in the interests of German business. In fact German business is more interested in keeping the single market intact. FDP leader Christian Lindner has moreover denied the reports, supporting Merkel’s position that the sole mandate for negotiating Brexit lies with Brussels. British pro-Brexit politicians would be wise to take note.