Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.
In September, Angela Merkel will step down as German Chancellor after sixteen years in office. Regardless of how one may judge her record, Merkel’s influence over the substance of European governance has been immense; from stamping her mark on EU fiscal rules to her open-doors policy during the migrant crisis to her final ascent for the UK’s post-Brexit deal.
The cast of names that have come and gone during her term in office – Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Jacques Chirac, Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, George W.Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump– is without modern compare.
Partly because of constitutional constraints and partly due to post-war caution and conservatism, stability is a feature of German politics. Since 1982, Germany has had only three Chancellors. In the same period, the UK has had seven Prime Ministers. Italy has had twenty-two.
The Große Koalition between the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) has now largely served in office since 2005. This has effectively resulted in the two main parties adopting a similar, centrist persona, with disagreements tending to focus on tweaks and cadences of policies rather than fundamentals.
This has arguably hurt the SPD most, whose traditional platform, once grounded in patriotic labour unions and cosy accommodations with big businesses, has fractured as Germany has become more ethnically diverse, more start-up friendly and more ecologist in its views. The party won 41 per cent of the vote in 1998, yet polls around 15 per cent today.
The CDU has its own problems. Distinct from what “voting Merkel” meant – centrism, no surprises and the social market, with a strong nod to environmentalism – the CDU’s platform has a rather hollow feel. It is accepted, for sure, that the party stands for the defence of Germany’s social market economy and a punchy approach to German influence at an EU level, yet its pro-immigration stances and seeming intransigence on tax cuts and deregulation have separately irked working class voters and entrepreneurs.
With the CDU and SPD unable to define their appeal effectively, an opportunity exists for other parties to gain ground.
While the hard-left Die Linke and market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are polling well enough to have a respectable presence in the next convocation of the Budestag, it would be wise to follow the public remarks of Die Grünen, Germany’s Green Party.
Overseas perceptions of the Greens are somewhat outdated and tend to revolve around images of the “68ers” – a radical student movement founded on ending the military draft, opposition to the Vietnam war and the modernisation of a stodgy political system still inhabited by the wartime generation.
Their march to the mainstream has, though, been a long one.
The decision in 1998 of Joschka Fischer, a veteran 68er and the country’s Foreign Minister during the Green coalition with the SPD, to advocate NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis upended the party’s pacifism-at-all-costs agenda, and led Germany into an overseas conflict for the first time since World War Two. A Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, has governed the manufacturing-dominated state of Baden-Württemberg in coalition with the CDU for more than a decade; implementing a pro-business, R&D-friendly agenda that feels more modern than the SPD’s staider rhetoric.
The issue of immigration is as polarising or more so an issue in Germany as in other European countries, yet polling suggests that recent-naturalised Germans and the descendents of the Gastarbeiter generation which moved to the country from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s lean strongly towards the Greens. This offers the party another electoral advantage over the SPD.
There is much to dislike – or even, given the party’s more extreme factions, fear – in the Green Party’s platform, but the fact remains that the party appears to be on the verge of stitching together arguably the most electorally-appealing platform in German politics today.
With the CDU on course to win roughly a third of the vote when September’s elections come, the Greens on upward or around 20 per cent of the vote and all other blocks trailing far behind, the prospect of a CDU-Green, Schwarz-Grüne coalition is a distinct possibility.
The election of Armin Laschet as the new Chairman of the CDU on Saturday morning would, on the face of it, appear to represent a “safe” choice for the party. Coverage of his victory has focussed on his jolly nature, centrist political brand and stewardship of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of Germany’s most important manufacturing hubs.
A debate will take place in Germany during the coming months as to whether Laschet will be the party candidate for Chancellor (he faces a potential contest including the guttural Bavarian Governor, Markus Söder, and the liberal Health Minister, Jens Spahn), yet this is a battle he is likely to win. The fact he was able to see off the socially-conservative, immigration-sceptic Friedrich Merz and media-friendly Norbert Röttgen to win the top job suggests the party is looking for stability, not revolution.
There is little debate about whether the CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, will win the plurality of votes in September. With Laschet as their candidate, a Große Koalition with either the rump remainder of the SPD or resurgent Greens would appear to be both mathematically and politically possible.
CDU/CSU voters have proven to be a loyal block, yet their combined 45 per cent vote share in 2013 is a distant memory. They now poll 35 per cent. The price of such a fall in support is that no clear path exists for Laschet to pursue a coalition with the CDU’s traditional partners, the liberal FDP. His only options are on the left.
Given the recent momentum of the Greens, it is not beyond the realms of possibility they could further erode support from the SPD and Die Linke, leading to an electoral percentage showing in the high twenties. In this scenario, the pressure from both Green insiders and those on the left, battered by sixteen years of losses, for a leftist GroKo may be insatiable. The price of such a coalition, particularly for Die Linke, would likely be the shelving of Green moderation in favour of a distinctively leftist agenda.
The implications of such a centre-left coalition would be profound – for both the UK and EU.
Notwithstanding recent Coronavirus-related speeding, a coalition of this kind would see the abandonment of the ‘Schwarze Null’ fiscal policy that mandates a balanced budget domestically and higher taxes on personal incomes and business.
For a post-Brexit UK, seeking to steer a path as a low-tax, regulation-light economy, a malcontent leftist coalition in Germany would likely serve as a Trojan Horse in the European Council for policies designed to disadvantage and undermine UK interests.
For all the criticisms of Laschet’s unambitious centrism and the gap that exists between British conservatism and the CDU’s social market economy orthodoxies, the preferred outcome for the UK is clear.