Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
What direction will Germany take in the post-Merkel era? Change is coming, but the German electorate appears to be undecided on the form it should take. With only a month to go, the outcome of the federal election on 26 September is currently impossible to call.
German politics has become increasingly fragmented in recent years as traditional party loyalties fade. This has been compounded by the end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as Chancellor. More than ever, this election campaign has been dominated by personalities rather than policies, but no standout heir has emerged.
Armin Laschet, Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, was chosen as the conservative candidate best suited to continue Merkel’s brand of consensual, pragmatic politics. He was preferred over Markus Soeder, leader of the CDU’s smaller Bavarian CSU sister party, even though Soeder was the more popular figure with the public.
But Laschet has not enjoyed much personal support and he is perceived to have made several personal missteps in the campaign. The CDU/CSU have fallen from polling numbers of 35 per cent in February, before they announced their candidate, to under 25 per cent in recent weeks, which could herald the party’s worst ever performance.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green’s candidate, enjoyed a short honeymoon after her selection over party co-leader Robert Habeck. The Greens briefly overtook the CDU/CSU as the largest single party in the polls. But after riding high in the spring, the Greens have fallen back into third place, in part following accusations against Baerbock of plagiarism and inflated claims on her CV. Some commentators suggest the Greens, like the CDU/CSU, have chosen the wrong candidate.
Making a late surge to rival the CDU/CSU as the biggest party is the centre-left SPD. The party has struggled following several years as the junior partner in successive Merkel-led ‘grand coalitions’, but its lead candidate, Olaf Scholz, is now by far the most popular choice for Chancellor. Scholz, whose party is largely to the left of him, has benefitted from the lacklustre performance of Laschet and Baerbock, and is the only candidate with experience in senior government posts, currently serving as Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister.
Meanwhile, Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberal, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) has also had a strong campaign. The party has benefitted from the Greens’ rise, since the FDP is seen by many centre-right voters as an economically conservative counterweight, and it now stands a strong chance of entering government. The FDP has successfully positioned itself as the defender of small government as the CDU has moved to the centre. At the same time, the FDP’s reputation for modernisation and digitisation has been beneficial as the pandemic, and slow start to the vaccine roll-out, revealed inefficiencies in the public sector.
Ultimately, the race remains wide open. A Forsa poll this week put the SPD on 23 per cent, one point ahead of the CDU/CSU on 22 per cent, the Greens in third on 18 per cent, the FDP on 12 per cent, the Eurosceptic AfD on 10 per cent, and the Left party on 6 per cent.
If recent polling is correct, the only possible governing coalitions would need three parties to work together, likely with either the CDU/CSU or SPD at the helm in combination with the Greens and/or the FDP. An outside possibility is a left-wing coalition of the SPD, Greens, and the Left. Coalitions of three parties have often been adopted at the state level, but not at the federal level, potentially making post-election negotiations complicated.
This makes the future direction of the EU’s most powerful member state very difficult to predict.
On the domestic front, the big economic debate is about fiscal restraint versus greater levels of investment in climate policies and greater digitisation of the economy. Most of the coalition options would straddle this divide uncomfortably.
When it comes to European and foreign policy, the Greens have offered the most comprehensive change from the Merkel era, but have fallen away in the campaign. The Greens are explicitly in favour of deeper Eurozone integration, calling for the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund to become a permanent fiscal capacity, and favour a loosening of the EU’s debt rules.
In contrast, the CDU insists the recovery fund, which allows the EU to borrow collectively, was a one-off crisis measure. Despite describing it as a “Hamiltonian moment”, Scholz has been cautious when asked whether the recovery fund is a step towards a permanent EU borrowing capacity. “That’s not a debate we’re having right now,” he has said. Both the CDU and the SPD seem unwilling to break from Merkel’s cautious, piecemeal approach, where action was often prompted only by crises.
Meanwhile, the Greens are calling for a more active German foreign policy, which is tougher on authoritarian powers, focused on values and human rights. They have suggested that the EU impose import duties on state-backed Chinese companies to prevent environmental dumping and human rights abuses. The Greens have also called for the Nord Stream 2 Germany-Russia gas pipeline to be scrapped, arguing that it undermines security in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
It should be noted that the Greens have not completely shed their pacifist roots. They remain opposed to nuclear weapons and have criticised demands to meet the NATO two per cent spending target, which Germany has consistently missed under previous governments. But, taken together, the Greens’ stance would tilt German policy in a more Atlanticist direction on the big issues of Russia and China.
While the CDU considers the transatlantic relationship and NATO central to Germany’s prosperity and security, it has also sought to preserve its economic engagement with China and Russia, resulting in a degree of geopolitical ambiguity. Merkel was instrumental in pushing the EU-China investment treaty over the finishing line, despite misgivings from Joe Biden’s team. Both the CDU and SPD have pushed for the completion of the Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline, and Scholz has called for a “new Ostpolitik”, referring to the Cold War-era detente strategy towards the Soviet Union pursued by Willy Brandt, SPD chancellor in the early 1970s.
The situation in Afghanistan is understandably the issue of the moment. Policymakers and commentators will digest the implications for Global Britain and the broader role of the West. Some have argued that the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the episode is that the UK needs closer foreign policy cooperation with European partners to reduce its dependence on the United States.
There are of course many areas where UK cooperation with the EU and individual member states, such as Germany and France in particular, will continue to be important and this can be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, it is worth noting the lack of a German, and therefore European, consensus on the major foreign policy challenges facing the West, particularly on Russia and China. Whether desirable or not, any ambitions for a more geopolitical or assertive EU have always been limited, among other reasons, by Germany’s reluctance or inability to take on a leadership role in such a project. There are few signs this is likely to change in the medium term and it is therefore not clear that there is much for the critics of Global Britain to reengage with.