European democracy is at stake in the German election

Europe must hope that the next government in Berlin will come to the Franco-German relationship with fresh thinking and clear suggestions for how to deal with the democratic deficits in the heart of the EU, as well as the human rights challenges on the union’s southern flank

View of the Bundestag’s plenary hall from the Reichstag’s dome in Berlin
Image by Jan Brosowski

Europe eagerly awaits the outcome of the German federal election on 26 September. The contest will affect the future of the entire continent. German voters are not primarily concerned about foreign policy or EU affairs. All the same, many analysts have focused on the election’s effects on issues such as relations with China, Russia, and the United States; the functioning of EU institutions; and Germany’s export-oriented economic model. Disappointingly, there has been little reflection on how various potential coalition governments could affect the state of democracy, most notably within the European Union – despite the fact that this is significant for both Germany and the rest of Europe.

All parties in the Bundestag, except for Die Linke and the Alternative for Germany, dutifully claim they will promote democracy and a values-based foreign policy in the EU. These clichéd commitments notwithstanding, one can expect three events in the first half of 2022 to test the German government’s resolve to defend democracy and the rule of law in the union – both of which are already on shaky ground. These are the French presidential election, the parliamentary election in Hungary, and a significant influx of asylum seekers into the EU.

As the French presidential election edges closer, one can expect President Emmanuel Macron to increasingly pander to right-leaning voters. That will further dent France’s already mediocre human rights record, which has led the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index to include the country on its list of “flawed democracies” since 2020.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and allies the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) will feel comfortable with Macron’s messaging on the campaign trail if they receive enough support to lead the next ruling coalition. If the Greens play a major role in this coalition, however, Macron may prove to be a problem, for two reasons. Firstly, they have a partnership with their counterparts in France. The French Greens challenge Macron and advocate a radically different agenda for France. Secondly, the German Greens have been faithful to their commitment to human rights and climate justice. Finding a common language with Macron may prove to be a significant challenge. The next German government will resort to its traditional fence-sitting rather than challenge Macron, with the spectre of a France governed by the radical right looming large.

And yet, Europe must hope that the next government in Berlin will come to the Franco-German relationship with fresh thinking and clear suggestions for how to deal with the democratic deficits in the heart of the EU, as well as the human rights challenges on the union’s southern flank. If Berlin sticks to business as usual – inertia, in other words – the Franco-German relationship may be preserved, but democracy in Europe will be the biggest loser.

It is quite easy to picture a scene in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, fall over each other to congratulate a victorious Orban, while Germany’s ruling coalition takes several weeks to come up with a consensus statement about the value of democracy

The parliamentary election in Hungary, scheduled for March 2022, could be the first litmus test of the next German government’s commitment to democratic values. The vote will certainly not be fair. The fact that the 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections were not has been well documented by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

But this election may turn out not to be free either. It is already unacceptable that the European Parliament has to wrangle with Hungary, Poland, and other member states over the application of Article 7, and that the European Commission has to deal with constant violations of EU directives on the rights of some minorities, most recently LGBTQI people in Hungary. An unfree election in Hungary would shake the EU’s model of democracy to its very core – in the absence of all other measures, a democracy is still a democracy if its elections are free.

A so-called ‘traffic light coalition’ in Germany – comprising the liberal Free Democratic Party, the SPD, and the Greens – may be the only one that would call this out. Despite all its rhetoric on freedom, the FDP would likely be hesitant. The party would come under pressure from big and overexposed German businesses with significant interests in Hungary. The CDU/CSU might no longer pander to Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the same extent that it has in the past decade but would keep a low profile in any such dispute, under the pretext of protecting German national interests. It is quite easy to picture a scene in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, fall over each other to congratulate a victorious Orban, while Germany’s ruling coalition takes several weeks to come up with a consensus statement about the value of democracy. From the Western Balkans to Ukraine and Moldova, no political leader would ever take German political elites at their word on democracy. With that, the EU’s standing would be diminished.

Finally, for a decade now, migration has not only been an issue of managing flows of economic migrants and asylum seekers into Europe. It has also been a powerful tool of domestic politics. For as long as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s government has kept flows of asylum seekers from Turkey at bay, Germany’s ruling coalition – comprising the CDU/CSU and the SPD – has been happy to turn a blind eye to his removal of checks and balances on power, and to his efforts to shrink the democratic space using laws that curtail freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. If the CDU/CSU lead the next German government (as unlikely as that currently seems), they will almost certainly continue this practice.

The CDU/CSU’s desire to protect German and EU interests is somewhat legitimate, but the price they pay by downplaying democracy is too high. Again, the Greens appear to be the only hope for a more principled stance. But the burden of expectations and the perils of coalition negotiations and trade-offs are bound to blunt their statements and drive them into unhappy compromises. This would be mutually damaging for both the Greens and their coalition partners. The Greens’ most loyal supporters at home and those that place high expectations on them abroad would be disappointed when the right words were not followed by the right deeds.

Europeans have such expectations of the next German government on every major policy issue. The government cannot fulfil all those expectations, be it on the economy, foreign policy, or migration. However, unless Germany quickly shows its mettle on democratic values in its relations with other member states, democracy will fade even more rapidly as the governance system within the EU, not only outside it. And that will be the end of the EU’s major comparative advantage over its authoritarian rivals.

Goran Buldioski is director of the Berlin office of the Open Society Foundations and director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. He is a Council Member of ECFR.

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

Help us improve ECFR’s website

Share your feedback and help us improve our website’s design and usability. It won’t take you more than 5 minutes.

Give feedback

Author

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will never send you any content that is not ECFR related. We will store your email address and your personal data as detailed in our privacy notice.