Angela Merkel’s long goodbye as Germany’s chancellor finally draws to a close this weekend as votes in the federal election are tallied – at least in theory. If the latest opinion polls are to be believed, there will be no clear winner. No party is expected to command an overall Bundestag majority. Coalition talks on forming a new government could take months. In the meantime, in practice, Merkel remains in charge.
The uncertainty over who will replace her is a big change from the often predictable politics of the past 16 years. But it would not do to get overexcited. Neither Olaf Scholz, who leads the Social Democrats (SPD), the biggest centre-left party, nor Armin Laschet, Merkel’s conservative choice as her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) successor, offers radically different agendas. Both men stress continuity while promoting modest, incremental change.
This is a problem. The campaign highlighted pressing issues that were ignored during the Merkel era. One is pension reform for an ageing population. Another is inadequate public investment in healthcare, utilities, housing and broadband. Recent floods in western Germany revealed a lack of structural resilience. Critics say Merkel has done far too little to address climate change.
Would a hypothetical Scholz-led ruling coalition including the Greens and the pro-business Liberals (FDP) have sufficient clout and unity of purpose to tackle such challenges? Would a similar combination of parties led by Laschet? It’s possible the Greens leader, Annalena Baerbock, could yet emerge on top, but her ability to effect real change is also circumscribed by her need for allies.
The risk for German democracy amid all this horse-trading is that a resulting weak, compromise coalition may disappoint and alienate and push frustrated voters towards the extremes represented by the far-left Die Linke and the far-right AfD. Neither party is expected to do particularly well this time. But that may change if a post-Merkel government serves up more of the same.
That would be bad news for Germany but also for Europe and Britain, which both need a strong, confident partner in Berlin. Merkel, a consummate consensus-builder, helped hold the EU together during successive financial, migrant and pandemic crises. On the other hand, she famously lacked strategic vision. She far preferred cutting energy and trade deals with Russia and China to confronting the authoritarian threat they pose.
Both Scholz and Laschet advocate closer integration with the EU. Both support the creation, in parallel to Nato, of a European army and defensive union. Unlike anti-American pacifists to her left, Baerbock also backs Nato, urges a tougher line towards Beijing and Moscow and wants a “values-driven foreign policy”. She says the EU must be “self-reliant” as the US alliance grows less predictable.
Yet it’s unclear whether any of these chancellor candidates will throw their weight fully behind President Emmanuel Macron’s ideas about EU “strategic autonomy” or how far they might go towards fiscal and economic union, ideas Merkel always kept at arm’s length. In Scholz’s case, there are potential tensions, too, with Ursula von der Leyen, the German EU commission president and longtime Merkel crony.
In the absence of a strong lead from Berlin, Macron may try to expand his influence over the EU’s future direction. But a difficult re-election battle in April will distract and could even defeat him. The greater danger is paralysis within the EU, matching that in Germany, over the big geopolitical, climate, trade, energy and technology challenges it faces – and a rising risk of internal fragmentation.
All this could negatively affect Britain, which will rely on German goodwill and common sense if it is ever to forge a rational post-Brexit political and security relationship with Brussels and resolve disputes over trade, Northern Ireland and cross-Channel migrants. Merkel provided both. Her successor, whoever that is, may not do so.