Turning the page: Germany at the peak of continuity

Germany’s coming election campaign will be the last of its kind — the final page in the first chapter of the history of the Berlin Republic

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German politics these days seems rather exceptional by international comparison, if not even boring. Its degree of stability and continuity is reassuring to all those who see disorder wherever they look. And it’s not just a myth — Germany really is different. Not even the Bavarian Christian Social Union — the conservative sibling of the Christian Democratic Union — is out to turn the course of the country by 180 degrees as the Brexiteers did in the United Kingdom. Of course, like so many other countries, Germany has its populist anti-immigration and nationalist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), but its impact and public resonance pales into insignificance when compared to the respective debate in the United States, United Kingdom or France. It seems that the German voter still perceives politics as something serious, even though trust in politicians runs about as low as it does anywhere else.

But the public mood isn’t the only thing unique to Germany. Unlike in other large EU countries or the United States, Germany has a Green Party of significance. Since their first entry into the German Bundestag in 1983, they have broadened and mainstreamed the discourse on environmental sustainability, despite the strong industrial character of the country. Germany’s two largest parties — the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) — are both committed to an inclusive and consensus driven model of social market economy. The ideological cleavages which ran high in the 1970s, have largely subsided, and it is with amazement that Germans who take some interest in American politics have observed increasing polarisation since the 70s, while it went the other way at home.

Populations across Europe, whether in Poland, the UK, or even France vote seem to be voting for distinct policy change, while the German mood points towards continuity and predictability.

Populations across Europe, whether in Poland, the UK, or even France seem to be voting for distinct policy change, while the German mood points towards continuity and predictability. This country neither needs nor wants the kind of overhaul Matteo Renzi is struggling with in Italy; it has no appetite for a “cultural revolution” as pursued by the Law and Justice government in Poland; and it’s not naïve enough to believe that leaving the EU will make things better. The German political elite is far more grounded in social reality than its counterpart in France, and the country certainly has no appetite for ‘making Germany great again’.

In part, this is because it actually is ‘great’, and doing rather well, economically, politically and socially, in an uncertain international environment. In a number of ways, Germany is the solution to European problems – and that, in itself, is a problem. With relief, the Germans turned inwards following unification in 1990, after decades on the front-line in the Cold War and the potential battleground for a war between the two rival blocs. Nowadays, many Germans fail to realise how often Berlin is bowling alone in Europe instead of seeking to embed its preferences in a European consensus. Those who take note will often believe it to be fully justified as the better way forward. But at the same time, both elites and the public shy away from assuming a clear leadership role, because of the costs in political and fiscal terms, and because of the risks associated with leading – not least because of the exposure and resentment it would meet. In effect, Europe is deprived of both a benevolently German Europe as well a European Germany.

Against this background, Germany’s political parties are setting the stage for the general elections in September 2017. Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently announced her decision to run for a fourth term. She is the essence of continuity and predictability, and no one in Europe but Vladimir Putin has more years at the helm. Her campaign will focus on trust. Unlike the last campaign in 2012 she will no longer try to demobilise the electorate because it is alarmed already by the changes happening around Germany. Merkel will seek to frame that change and the uncertainty that comes with it to present herself and her party as a responsible guardian. Her team is tried and tested. Wolfgang Schäuble, finance minister and the towering figure of her cabinet, is running again in 2017 at the age of 75. Also, Merkel has managed more diversity in government than any of her predecessors. If anyone can claim to lead a grand coalition or a multi-party coalition, it is her.

The main issues of the campaign will be domestic. The next wave of innovation in industry, employment prospects, social cohesion, immigration, and security in this age of disorder, will all be on the agenda. The Chancellor will not want a fundamental debate about Europe and Germany’s role in it, but the international agenda will become part of the campaign as the issues listed above all are driven at least in part by European and international events. This time, however, her framing of the European and international context will be challenged more than in earlier elections. The fringe parties on the left and right — the Left Party and AfD — will seek to mobilise the anti-internationalist and anti-interdependence mood in segments of the population. And the challenge posed by Merkel’s coalition partner — the Social Democrats — could become more serious in the run up to the elections.

Many Germans fail to realise how often Berlin is bowling alone in Europe instead of seeking to embed its preferences in a European consensus.

At the beginning of the electoral campaign, it seems that the Social Democrats are set to counter Merkel’s opening move by dividing tasks among three lead actors to position the party and to attack the chancellor. First, the current foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been nominated to be elected Federal President on 12 February 2017. This has been agreed among the coalition partners – a major tactical win for the SPD’s leader Sigmar Gabriel, made possible because Merkel didn’t find a suitable candidate herself. Steinmeier is the most popular politician in the country, of undeniable presidential stature and character, and a Social Democrat to the core. He will be the symbol of responsibility and reliability in the eyes of the public, someone whose values transcend the noise of electoral politics.

Second, Steinmeier would be succeeded in the Foreign Office by Martin Schulz, the equally straight-forward and eloquent President of the European Parliament whose term in Brussels ends in January. Schulz is something of a fresh face in German politics as he has never held office in the country other than on the local level. But, he is probably the best known fresh face due to his role in the “Spitzenkandidaten” duel with Jean-Claude Juncker in the European parliamentary campaign in 2014. Schulz is the most credible voice in the SPD on Europe, and better placed than anyone to challenge Merkel on her policies in the EU. He has a talent for language and he is as unpretentious and authentic as Merkel herself. At the same time, the nomination of Schulz as foreign minister would reverse the weak role of the Social Democrats on EU matters. Without a fight, Steinmeier had left this important policy area in the hands of the Chancellor instead of insisting on the traditional partnership between the two in EU affairs. Schulz will not accept being sidelined and that will put pressure on Merkel. Moreover, as foreign minister for eight months Schulz would not bear the burden of past government but still benefit from the visibility and means of the office. He may even be the SPD’s best bet for a decent result as Merkel’s contender for the Chancellory.

On the other hand, there is a third player, Sigmar Gabriel, currently Vice-Chancellor, Minister of Economics and Chairman of the Social Democrats. With Steinmeier and Schulz in place, he could choose to leave government and free himself from cabinet discipline. Gabriel could move to lead the faction of his party in the Bundestag. This role would allow for more freedom, both politically and rhetorically. Gabriel could do what he likes: to attack from the side-line, to mobilise the public and to present himself as an advocate for change, knowing that both bases of responsibility and competence are covered well with Steinmeier and Schulz. If Merkel, at times, acts as valium to the electorate, Gabriel wants to be its caffeine. The open question is whether he will play this role as front-runner of his party or leave it to another figure, such as Martin Schulz or Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg. In the logic of German party politics that would result in his eventual resignation from the chairmanship, so Gabriel might want to go for broke and give it all he has in the coming campaign.

In the end, the prospect of a Social Democrat occupying the Chancellory are dim. The next Bundestag will likely be made up of seven parties, with the CDU and CSU commanding the largest faction. The two conservative parties will unite to form a faction to prevent Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer joining the government and trying to put a numerical limit on immigration. The SPD, Greens and Left Party are unlikely to have a majority in Parliament as they currently do. Merkel might think of forming a coalition with the Greens and the Liberals, which also could fall short of the absolute majority required to elect her as Chancellor. Pundits might engage in extended debates about why the Germans dislike minority governments, but in the end another grand coalition will probably form under Merkel’s leadership, one in which Sigmar Gabriel doesn’t want to sit at the cabinet table, and Martin Schulz is in charge of flying the SPD colours during the struggles of Angela Merkel’s last years at the helm of the smallest “grand coalition” the Federal Republic has ever seen.

All of that and all of them will be history in 2021, if not before in 2020, when this coalition will come to an end, and a new generation will set out in search of new majorities. In this sense, the coming campaign will be the last of its kind — the final page in the first chapter of the history of the Berlin Republic.

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


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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