Ten things to know about the German elections

On Sunday Germans will vote in a general election – but what does it mean for the rest of Europe? Can we expect more decisive leadership and a greater vision for Europe from Germany after the elections? Here is a short guide why this election matters to Europe.

On Sunday Germans will vote in federal elections – but what does it mean for the rest of Europe?  ECFR experts from our Berlin office – Olaf Boehnke, Sebastian Dullien, Stefan Meister, Felix Mengel and Matthew Jenkins – put together this short guide on the European dimension of the German elections looking at German attitudes to the EU and the eurozone, the role of eurosceptic parties and the future of Germany’s foreign policy.

Why are the elections important?

“Since the onset of the European financial crisis, Germany has found itself in an enviable position; the fourth largest economy in the world, one of the continent’s lowest unemployment rates and an almost balanced budget”, says Sebastian Dullien “It is also Europe’s manufacturing powerhouse, with a current account surplus that rivals China’s.” Germany’s political and economic clout ensures that the make-up of its government is of central importance for the rest of Europe – particularly when it comes to issues like the Euro rescue strategy and EU institutional reform.

Merkel is going to win, right?

The probability that Merkel will still be Chancellor this time next year is very high. The composition of a ruling coalition in Germany, however, has – due to the system of proportional representation – yet to be determined. It is questionable whether Merkel’s current coalition partner, the FDP, will even receive a sufficient proportion of the vote (5%) to make it into Parliament. Even after the votes have been cast, much depends on the horse-trading to establish viable coalitions. According to a poll this week, nearly half of all Germans would like be governed by a grand coalition of CDU and SPD, 41 percent are in favour of a SPD-Greens coalition, 38 percent prefer the ruling constellation of CDU-FDP, while only 21 percent support a coalition of CDU-Greens.

What is the general German attitude towards Europe after more than two years of euro crisis?

Another recent poll indicated that German public opinion has remained strongly in favour of the Euro and the EU more generally. 60 percent of Germans surveyed supported the EU as an institution and 54 percent agreed that the German economy has benefitted from European-wide economic integration. Moreover, just over half would support further transferal of powers from Berlin to the EU if it meant resolving the economic crisis, and two-thirds are in favour of maintaining the Euro as Germany’s currency. As Merkel herself has said, the German answer to the crisis seems to be “more  Europe”.

Can we therefore expect more decisive leadership and a greater vision for Europe from Germany after the elections?

“Angela Merkel has never outlined a European vision during her entire chancellorship and it seems most unlikely that she will in her third term”, says Olaf Boehnke. “Her political approach is mainly focused on troubleshooting and staying in control. In accordance with public opinion and the wider political class in Germany, she lacks in ambition to provide strong leadership.” In a recent ECFR policy brief Ulrike Guerot argues that this phenomenon is not just limited to Merkel but that Germany “sees itself as a role model rather than as a power with an obligation to lead.”

Will anything change regarding the reform of the financial system or management of the euro crisis?

Behind the scenes the Chancellor has already loosened the reins on questions of regulation within the Eurozone. In all likelihood, the next German administration will continue this course, and, especially if the SPD form part of the government, we can expect more emphasis on a growth-led recovery strategy. Indeed, a Grand Coalition involving the CDU and SPD would probably be the most pro-Europe constellation, as well the most likely to make headway on European issues. The broad majority it would command in Parliament would enable it to implement a series of small but incremental changes.

Nonetheless, there are particular legal and constitutional hurdles which make it difficult for Germany to radically alter its history of foot-dragging over issues like banking union. The biggest challenge to overcome for the next German administration could be the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe, which may call for treaty change.  

So could a new German government make headway on reforming EU governance mechanisms?

The Greens, FDP and the SPD all have (similar) clear-cut proposals for the future governance of the EU – such as strengthening the European Parliament and transforming the Council of the EU into a chamber representing national interests. What makes predicting the next government’s attitude to reforming EU governance difficult is the opaque stance of the CDU/CSU. While Merkel has announced her support for “more Europe”, it remains unclear what exactly this entails, particularly as she has alluded to the repatriation of some powers from Brussels to national parliaments under this banner of “more Europe.” We will have to wait until the CDU outlines its position on EU institution reform and political union in its election manifesto for the European elections in 2014.

Would different coalition constellations have distinct foreign policy objectives?

With the exception of the Left Party, there is a general consensus among the major parties about primary German foreign policy objectives. Particularly on questions of military intervention there is agreement across the German political spectrum that Germany should not get involved. Indeed, the election campaigning has been tightly focused on domestic issues such as income inequality and energy policy. The occasions where questions around intervention in Syria and other foreign policy or security matters were mobilised as an election issue have been few and far between.

Whatever the colour of the next administration in Berlin, German attitudes to topics such as intervention in Syria are not going to change overnight. Or as Stefan Meister put it: “SPD involvement in government could lead to a more clearly defined foreign policy that goes beyond mere mercantilism, I think a Grand coalition would be more prepared to adopt a coherent position internationally, especially with regards to European-Russian relations.”

What is the future of Franco-German motor within the EU?

Thomas Klau believes that regardless of the exact nature of the post-election German government, the most important feature of the Franco-German relationship is the recent convergence between Merkel and Hollande. Hollande recently listed (alongside improved coordination of economic policy) the energy sector, new technologies and defence cooperation as priority areas of Franco-German collaboration in the next few years. If anything, it seems that a Grand Coalition with a vision of European-wide growth initiatives of the kind favoured by Paris would only strengthen the Franco-German relationship.

Is Germany going to witness an increase in support for populist anti-EU parties as we have seen elsewhere in Europe?

The anti-EU populist backlash during the crisis has remained limited in Germany. The country has, nonetheless, witnessed the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a Eurosceptic party along the lines of UKIP in Great Britain. While the AfD will probably try to ride a protest vote of first-time or disillusioned voters, it is hard to predict if they will be able to attain the 5 percent of vote required to achieve representation in the national Parliament.

What impact could the German elections have on the upcoming European elections in 2014?

Even in the unlikely event of a ruling centre-left coalition in Germany, the policies coming from European Commission are not going to radically change. Equally unlikely, but perhaps more concerning, a substantial vote for the AfD could provide an unexpected boost to centrifugal forces seeking to dismantle the Brussels apparatus.

Nonetheless, Polish EU-expert Wawrzyniec Smoczyński argued at a recent expert workshop on the German elections hosted by ECFR Berlin that the rise of explicitly anti-EU parties across the continent will force the mainstream parties to come up with a real strategic vision to justify the existence of the EU. Moreover, if Europe perceives a greater drive, vision and leadership from Germany after the elections it could perhaps increase the public’s confidence in the EU more generally going into the European parliamentary elections in 2014. Conceivably, this could undermine growing support for explicitly Eurosceptic parties.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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