Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
When Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as German Chancellor comes to an end this autumn, the political landscape is set for a major change. Her legacy is likely to be viewed as a mixed bag, but Merkel has been a fixture of EU politics, and her departure after September’s federal elections leaves a vacuum that poses important questions for Europe’s future.
Globally popular, Merkel’s style is often described as centrist and consensual. Yet German domestic politics is increasingly displaying the same fragmentation we see elsewhere across the continent.
In 2005, the two post-war volkspartei – the centre-right CDU (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU) and the centre-left SPD – secured roughly 70 per cent of the popular vote. After four terms of Merkel-led governments, three of which, including the last two, have been CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalitions, their combined vote share has fallen to well under 50 per cent in recent polls.
Viewed by many as a pragmatic, incremental crisis-manager throughout the Eurozone’s struggles, she kept the show on the road. However, she has also been reluctant to grasp the nettle of fundamental Eurozone reform or lead a candid debate about the options for the bloc’s future.
She has also made bold, and some would argue impulsive, decisions. The most notable include opening her country’s borders during the 2015 refugee crisis and closing Germany’s nuclear power stations following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The political fallout from Merkel’s refugee policy, and the decision to reposition the CDU on what was traditionally SPD ground, has created a significant opening to the right, which has seen the AfD enter the Bundestag. The party enjoys a steady 10 per cent vote share in opinion polls.
Meanwhile, the turn against nuclear power has contributed to the German government’s support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, intended to bring Russian natural gas via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine and Poland. Berlin had hoped that Joe Biden’s White House might soften US opposition to the project. However, earlier this month, the US Department of State issued a statement describing the pipeline as “a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security” and warning any firms involved risked US sanctions.
The dispute illustrates that transatlantic strains over German and EU foreign policy were not simply a phenomenon under Donald Trump. Attitudes to China have proven to be another example, although efforts are being made to increase US-EU coordination.
In recent weeks, the CDU/CSU has seen its support decline significantly due to a pandemic procurement scandal involving some of its MPs and growing dissatisfaction with the government’s wider handling of the pandemic. There are now several potential governing coalitions in play, the most likely of which include two or three parties from the CDU/CSU, Greens, SPD and the liberal FDP. It is conceivable that the CDU/CSU loses its grip on power altogether.
Either way, the high likelihood of the Greens entering government should prompt our Government to consider how to reach out to key figures in the party. The UK’s hosting of the COP26 in November presents an excellent opportunity to do so.
It should also be noted that there is still a long way to go in the campaign. The CDU/CSU has yet to announce its Chancellor candidate and, although the vaccine programme has faltered, Merkel’s government has promised to offer a first dose to all adults who want one by September 21, a week before the election is due.
It is therefore still unclear exactly what the German election will mean for the future of the EU as it continues to wrestle with the pandemic and its aftermath.
Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron undoubtedly hopes that Merkel’s departure will pave the way for him to become the EU’s most influential leader and present an opportunity to reboot his ambitious vision for European integration.
Macron faces his own electoral test in next year’s French presidential elections. Current polling suggests he is again likely to face Marine Le Pen in a second-round run-off and it could be a closer contest than in 2017, when Macron beat Le Pen by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. Le Pen has sought to further detoxify her party and moderated her euroscpeticism by abandoning proposals to leave the euro or the EU.
Macron’s domestic economic reforms have been stalled by the gilets jaunes protests and now the pandemic, so his electoral hopes would benefit from demonstrating that he is able to steer the EU in a direction that he believes amplifies France’s power. However, to date, Merkel’s response to Macron’s grand visions for European reform could largely be described as lukewarm.
The jointly-financed €750 billion EU recovery fund, agreed in response to the pandemic, is potentially a major integrationist step, since it would allow mutually-issued debt for the first time. However, despite receiving support from a large majority of German MPs, ratification has been held up pending a decision from the German Constitutional Court, where its legality is being challenged. Any hopes that a pan-EU response to the pandemic would vindicate his ideas have been dashed by the poor vaccine rollout.
The next German Chancellor is likely to want to be seen to be helpful to Macron, in fear of what a Le Pen presidency would mean for the EU. Germany’s Greens are likely to find this easier as they are instinctively pro-EU integration and open to many of Macron’s ideas, but a coalition led by the CDU/CSU could retain much of Merkel’s reluctance to make the great leaps forward Macron has proposed.