Germany to Continue Leading Europe Despite Domestic Political Uncertainty

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WASHINGTON — Germany’s federal election in September is about more than that country’s future; it’s about Europe. Germany has emerged from the multiple crises of the eurozone as the continent’s pivotal power. U.S. President Barack Obama understood this early in his tenure and it has also been openly acknowledged by the likes of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who called for more German leadership in a speech in Berlin. Germany’s indispensability is also acknowledged, albeit less openly, in Britain and France, both of which are still coming to terms with Germany’s preponderance of economic and political power (and its lack of comparable military power). And in countries such as Greece, Spain, and Italy, anti-German sentiments are a grudging acknowledgement that these nations’ fates are determined in Berlin as much as in their own capitals.

But such great expectations, even if overblown, are unlikely to be met after September, as recent local elections have injected a new degree of uncertainty into Germany’s electoral calculus. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition government in Lower Saxony was narrowly supplanted by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party. More importantly, the FDP only managed to cross the 5 percent threshold needed to stay in the legislature because of massive tactical voting shifts by CDU voters.

If the Lower Saxony polls are any indication, the FDP may not be able to survive in the general election and Chancellor Angela Merkel may lose her primary coalition partner in the Bundestag. Merkel is by far the most popular politician in Germany and leads her challenger for the position, the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück, by more than 40 points in public opinion polls. As the most recent Transatlantic Trends survey also revealed, Merkel is the most respected leader in Europe, even outpolling Spain’s prime minister among his own electorate. But Germany’s is a parliamentary system, and coalition politics are what will ultimately matter.

The good news is that whatever the result of the German election, the country is likely to remain a steady supporter of the European project and of the euro. Either Merkel or Steinbrück, the finance minister in her first government, could become chancellor, and the most likely coalition outcome is another grand coalition of the CDU and SPD. Both parties are solidly pro-Europe, as is the third largest party, the Greens. Merkel may have been slow to react to the challenges posed by the euro crises, but she has found support from the opposition at each step. The Transatlantic Trends survey also showed that the German public remains among the most pro- European publics in Europe, and the euro is seen by Germans today as vital to their country’s prosperity. Chancellor Merkel echoed that when saying recently that the European Union could not survive the end of the euro.

Europe has been an unwritten part of the German constitution and an integral part of postwar German identity. The euro was a project of Helmut Kohl and every German leader has recognized that a united Europe was the only way of preventing a return of “The German Problem,” which is essentially Europe coping with the dominance of German power by encircling it with countervailing alliances.

The most substantial resistance to “more Europe” has come from within Merkel’s own coalition, from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and from some within the FDP. Questions will continue about the nature of German security policy and its implications for European defense. Germany under Merkel has been an uncertain strategic partner for France, Britain, and others looking to make Europe into a strategic player. The inclusion of the SPD or the Greens and the departure of the FDP’s Guido Westerwelle as foreign minister could open the possibility of Germany becoming more European and reliable in this sphere as well. And if a German government emerges in September that includes the SPD or Greens, the pressure for more stimulus will increase and that may ease some of the current tensions with France over macroeconomic policy.

There is, in short, every indication that there will be a more pro-European government in Berlin after September than there is now. While angst is a German word and often a German condition, it will not apply to an election that promises to offer hope for both Germany and Europe.

Stephen F. Szabo is the executive director of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC.

  • Katinka Barysch

    Thank you for the insightful piece.
    I doubt that an SPD-Green coalition government would be a more reliable strategic partner in the security sphere. Peer Steinbrueck, the SPD’s candidate for the chancellery, said in London last week that he fully supported Merkel’s decisions on Mali. He said in such cases, Germany should contribute logistics but not troops. He added that the Germans’ reluctance to get involved in conflicts (“especially after Afghanistan”) was a political decision and not based on constitutional constraints.

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