As Germany goes, so does Europe. Now, at the end of the Angela Merkel era, that statement is truer than ever. The German election sent voters to the polls to elect a new chancellor after 16 years. The whole continent watched and cared, which is rarely the case with other European nations.
The results were mixed and no party came close to an absolute majority. The center-left SPD barely overtook Merkel’s center-right CDU, and Germany is now in a (perhaps long) period of coalition formation. Based on the results of the vote, the country is likely to see a coalition that pairs one of the two historically dominant parties – the CDU or, more likely, the SPD – at the head of a group that is likely to include the ascending Greens and the classic liberals. FDP.
Other variations are possible but would be a surprise, and a major feature of the Merkel era is a palpable German loathing for surprises. So while an agreement will be difficult to strike between the two potential junior coalition partners, there is little reason to speculate otherwise at this point.
German election brings stability with a hint of uncertainty
Yet some of the reactions from observers outside of Germany show the esteem with which German power is largely held in Europe. Browsing the broadsheet newspapers in Italy, for example, readers might find this election referred to as a “double revolution”, referring to the rebirth of the dying SPD alongside the fall of the post-Merkel CDU. More dramatically, we speak of the “end of the first republic”, founded and operated on the backing of the two dominant centrist parties, now reduced to sharing around half of the votes.
A sense of apprehension is felt by the EU institutions, where the short-term fear is that delays in forming a new German administration will lead to delays in important negotiations on issues such as the Stability Pact obsolete of Europe (an agreement on fiscal rules) or cooperation on European Defense.
More nervousness is reserved for the larger question: is Germany entering an era of greater political fragmentation? (As Hans Kundnani points out, the likely tripartite coalition would be the first of its kind in Germany since 1957.) And if so, how could this impact Berlin’s leadership at EU level? ?
To fend for success
Geopolitics teaches us that individual leaders make a lot less of a difference than we think because they are severely constrained by the constraints they face. Even so, a leader like Angela Merkel succeeds best when she becomes the expression of the will of her people, and in the case of Germany, this will still be able to guide Europe to a large extent, for the better. or for the worse.
Merkel succeeded, whether we like her politics or not, because she understood it. As George Friedman points out, she was there when the idea of the EU took full effect, and she was there for the series of crises that threatened to immediately shatter it. She understood how crucial the Union is for the survival of the economy dominated by exports from her own country. She rarely needed to say it out loud, being malleable enough to give way on the international stage when necessary – but always in the German interest. She also understood the importance for the whole continent to maintain at least some form of unity and the dependence of that unity on some basic level of observance of standards. Thus, his administration was sufficiently rigid and even ruthless with countries like Greece and Italy when possible and the situation demanded.
The EU lost Britain in the process. But in the course of the story, it’s not much of a surprise. Amid the following many shakes from Grexits, Frexits, Nexits and Italexits, Europe, for a while, held its ground. “Getting confused” became the definitive description of the era and Merkel its icon, and while it was never a complimentary joke, it described a real achievement. (Just look at the socio-political chaos that unfolded in so many parts of the globe during the same time period.)
For those of us looking at German politics from the outside, we will wonder what comes next, even if, as Kundnani points out, the September vote was not an election for change. Only Germany will exert a German-sized influence on the European scene at any time for the foreseeable future. Only Germany is capable of producing leaders capable of offering singular advice outside their own borders and of serving as lightning rods to absorb criticism and protect the European home. Talented leaders can emerge elsewhere, of course, but they face too many constraints to be a true substitute.
Many questions for post-Merkel in Germany
While it may not have been an election for change, it nonetheless marked the end of the Merkel era. As such, what becomes interesting is not this German election but the next one. Will German leadership retain the qualities that allow it to avoid fragmentation? Looking at the most likely coalition, with the SPD as the main party, we have seen elsewhere in Europe that center-left governments with a classically and economically liberal component tend to alienate their voters. Can this coalition prevent this?
For the ascending Greens, will their rise to power be the source of their own downfall in the next election if a compromise with the FDP means they cannot meet the expectations of their new supporters? With Merkel’s departure, will the new leaders be talented enough to deal with the lingering political divide between East Germany and West Germany? Will his successors handle the country’s growing focus on tackling climate change and housing issues, without alienating average citizens? In short, will German voters continue to value a strong center in their national policy, or will they increasingly detach themselves in favor of future marginal parties?
These are matters of national interest for the future, but they are also of interest to Europe. And the very last thing Europe wants is an interesting election in Germany.