What does the outcome of the German elections mean for the future of Europe?
When Angela Merkel announced her intention to stand for a fourth term of office, the ongoing fragility of the European Union (EU) might well have been the overriding factor in her decision. As the largest and most influential member state, Germany’s fortunes are closely tied to those of the EU. With the UK on its way out and a charismatic but untried French President set on making his mark on the European stage, Merkel would have wanted to deploy her experience with Putin, Erdoğan and the Brussels elite to uphold Germany’s interests at this critical time. Ironically, the uncertainties cast up by the election outcome will hamper her efforts to achieve this.
As ever, Germany’s coalition arithmetic represents a harsh reality check for any incoming chancellor (prime minister). In the German system, a new government must win a majority vote of investiture before it can take office. After the election, the main opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) ruled out a continuation of the current ‘grand coalition’ with Merkel’s christian democratic Union parties and committed itself to an opposition role. This left only one potential coalition that would be both ideologically and arithmetically viable: a three-way ‘Jamaica’ coalition, so called because the traditional campaigning colours of the partners – the Union parties, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens – echoes the Jamaican flag. In practice, this variation is a four-way coalition, as the Union parties comprise Merkel’s moderate Christian Democratic Union and the more conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union.
The task of reconciling these four parties on European policy is a daunting one. Divisions on the Eurozone debt crisis and Europe’s migration crisis – aspects of which are handled at EU level – are deep and complex. Merkel’s austerity approach towards the Eurozone crisis is essentially a default position for a German leader in the context of Germany’s own post-war economic recovery. On international currency issues, Merkel tends to fall back on a cautious position and remains unwilling to take risks on root and branch reform of the Eurozone. The FDP’s charismatic new leader, Christian Lindner, has revived his party under a liberal conservative business-oriented platform incompatible with that of the left-liberal Greens. Merkel’s humanitarian preferences on asylum policy are off-message even within her own moderate wing of the CDU and deeply at odds with the ultra-conservative approach of Bavaria’s CSU.
Specifically, Merkel would accept the formation of a European Monetary Fund to support struggling Eurozone countries but opposes more far-reaching plans to integrate the member-state economies. The Greens support a reduction in Greek debt, but the Union parties and the FDP are strongly against this. The FDP wants to strengthen the EU’s no bailout’ rule and to punish breaches of fiscal rules with sanctions. It would facilitate member state exit from the Eurozone and supports a ‘variable-speed’ Europe where member states could move towards deeper integration at their own pace. With the added complication of parliamentary opposition pressures from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the populist radical right and the SPD with its reform-oriented European social and economic policy, this spells a much reduced freedom of manoeuvre for Merkel in the European policy arena.
By extension, Merkel’s more demanding domestic situation will impact on her hitherto unchallenged leadership role in Europe. Historically, constructive cooperation between France and Germany has been essential in reviving the European project at times of crisis. Under François Hollande’s ailing presidency, the Franco-German engine of Europe all but stalled, leaving Germany to take a more prominent role in fire-fighting and policy direction, particularly in the Eurozone. Merkel’s loss of support at home offers Macron an opportunity to assert himself in a rather more equal Franco-German relationship.
For Macron, Europe is a vehicle for his personal aims as President, for modernising the French economy and for restoring France’s fortunes on the world stage. His Sorbonne speech of 26 September on his vision for Europe offers a taste of things to come. The timing took advantage of the inevitable distraction of post-election coalition negotiations in Germany. In a direct challenge to Merkel’s EU leadership, he invited Germany to partner France in his European venture. The strategic and symbolic significance of his speech overshadowed its content, which largely restated positions on a ‘core’ EU (in a Europe of 27 members, he proposes to spearhead EU integration with a 15-head Commission) and proposals for a common budget for the Eurozone. His vision will strike alarm for a cautious German leadership suspicious of France’s casual approach to fiscal policy and perceptions of over-reliance on German funding in Europe. At the same time he seeks to reassure Merkel that no plans will be set in stone prior to comprehensive consultation.
Macron’s intervention will be sure to stress Germany’s new coalition government before it even comes into being. In asserting his role in the EU power hub, he must carefully balance his aim to gain status and economic influence with Merkel’s ability to deliver agreed European positions at home. The German federal election has offered Macron a chance to share the international stage with Merkel, but he may find the reality less glamorous than the dream.
Dr Patricia Hogwood is a Reader in European Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) at the University of Westminster