I gave this talk at a Zoom meeting of British journalists on May 18. Seems a pity to let it go to waste.
Before talking about Germany after Merkel, we need to talk about her legacy. Now I have been consistently critical of Merkel, but I have to admit that over the course of the past 16 years Germany has become a more pleasant place to live in.
It’s easy to underestimate how deeply Angela Merkel has changed her country. When she was elected in 2005, Germany was in some ways more like Hungary today than like Britain then. Especially as far as immigration was concerned, while West German cities like Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich or the western half of Berlin were already multicultural, the official line of the CDU/CSU was that „Germany is not a country of immigration“. There was talk of a Christian „Leitkultur“, and as for sexual mores, the previous Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer were criticized for their multiple marriages, and when Berlin’s gay Mayor Klaus Wowereit came out in 2001, it was a scandal.
Under Merkel, Germany has become more like a normal Western European country by embracing multiculturalism, immigration, women in the workforce and men in the kitchen and even gay marriage. Merkel herself has no children, her health minister is a gay married man. Germany has also become more of a consumer and services economy, with Berlin leading the way as one of Europe‘s start-up capitals. Also, not least as a reaction to and result of Brexit, Germany has reluctantly committed to common European debt and an expansive monetary policy by the European Central Bank, thus accommodating the wishes of the „Club Med“. Thus, in many ways, Merkel has continued the work of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, who worked to overcome German exceptionalism, the so-called „Sonderweg“, and to integrate Germany into the West, by joining Nato, co-founding – and funding – the EU, repudiating Gaullism, and giving up the D-Mark for the Euro. And like those predecessors, Merkel has done this without calling too much attention to the fact.
However, while Adenauer and Kohl were willing to pander to conservative and even reactionary elements at home while keeping their eyes fixed on Western integration, Merkel’s politics have alienated those elements. This has led to the rise of the right-wing populist AfD. One can ask whether this was inevitable, given that Merkel, unlike Adenauer and Kohl, was forced into a coalition with the SPD for all but four years of her Chancellorship. But she was more than a reluctant accomodator of social democratic ideas. In fact, though she had campaigned in 2005 (and lost) as a radical free marketeer and friend of George W. Bush, she then developed the strategy known as „assymmetric demobilization“: marginalizing the SPD and the Greens by adopting many of their policies. Think abandoning the more radical bits of Schröder’s „Agenda 2010“, adopting greenish energy and climate policies and avoiding confrontation with Russia and China.
One result has been a dangerous de-politicization of the main parties. Though one may decry the radicalization of the two main parties in the USA or – at least as long as Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader – in the UK, the opposite is even worse and has led to widespread cynicism, conspiracy theories and radical talk, especially on the extreme right. When even a member of Merkel’s own party, the disgraced former head of the internal security agency, Hans-Georg Maaßen, talks darkly of the „Great Reset“ and of a „globalist“ political elite that is out of touch with ordinary people, there is a whiff if not of Weimar in the air, then at least of Budapest.
At the same time, Merkel has shown little understanding for the fears of Germany‘s European neighbours and has often pursued a nationalist course at the expense of Western solidarity. The most obvious example is the German „Energiewende“, Merkel‘s populist decision to abandon nuclear power and coal at the same time, which has led to a dangerous dependency on Russian gas. This has angered not only the USA but also Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine, not to mention the European Commission. But there are other examples. Germany‘s initial reaction to the Greek sovereign debt crisis was to impose a counterproductive austerity regime on the country, including the sale of Piraeus to the Chinese. Indeed, talking of China: Merkel has visited China 12 times and was a main driver of the Investment agreement between the EU and China. The hurried signing of that deal in the hiatus between the US election and the swearing-in of Joe Biden provoked not only the anger of sitting President Donald Trump but also serious concerns in Biden‘s camp, which quite rightly wanted a multilateral approach to the rising superpower. Merkel brushed all American protests aside, and if the Chinese hadn’t reacted so stupidly to very limited European sanctions on Party officials responsible for the genocide on thne Uigurs, the agreement would have been ratified by now. As it is, the european Parliament stopped the ratification process, a signal victory for the European idea, and a slap in the face for Merkel.
To continue with the litany of Merkel’s „Germany first“ approach: Merkel’s much-lauded open-border policy at the height of the refugee crisis was unilateral and unsustainable and probably contributed to the pro-Brexit vote a year later. Her attempt to impose refugee quotas on all EU countries via majority vote in the European Council not only alienated the so-called Visegrad group but has proved unenforceable and has thus underlined the powerlessness of the Council. She has subverted stricter European emission targets on automobiles to protect German industry and torpedoed the proposed merger of Airbus and British Aerospace for the same reason. Her initial reaction to the Covid crisis was to prohibit the export of desperately needed ICU equipment to Italy. The list goes on.
And then there was Germany‘s abstention when the Security Council voted to approve the use of force against Gaddafi. At the time, Helmut Kohl quite rightly said that Germany had „lost its compass“. This is true. And dangerous.
Since Bismarck united two thirds of Germany (leaving out Austria and its Balkan Empire), the German conundrum has been this: Germany is too weak to dominate the continent alone, but so strong that it cannot help intimidating its neighbours. With Britain‘s departure from the EU, that problem has been exacerbated. But nobody seems to know what to do about it. Emmanuel Macron’s futile attempts to restart the Franco-German „motor“ and thus ensure France a leading role in Europe and by extension in the world testify to a dangerous deafness in the German Foreign Office and Chancellory. 16 years of Merkel have instilled a culture of „auf Sicht fahren“, as she herself puts it: driving as if in a fog, punctuated by sudden and unpredictable reactions to crises, like a driver alternately hitting the brakes and the accelerator.
Election maths: the Germans don’t know what they want
It’s difficult to see how any of this will change after the election. This is primarily due to coalition mathematics. At the moment, some polls see the Greens in first place in front of the CDU/CSU, others put the CDU/CSU in the lead. But we are talking numbers of around 25%. The SPD follows with around 15% , the FDP with an astounding 12%, and the radical parties of the left and right mange not quite 20% between them. And while 60% say they want a „change in government“ and over two thirds say they want „different policies in many areas“, it’s obvious that there is no agreement what those policies should be.
55% want a different policy on climate and the environment, and 54% on immigration and integration. So these two issues are at the top of people’s agendas: not Europe, not foreign or defence policy, policy, not Russia, China, the USA.
But at the same time, climate and immigration policies are the two most contentious issues. While there may be broad agreement between the CDU/CSU, the SPD, the Greens and even the FDP on the need for maintaining a liberal refugee policy and opening Germany for legal immigration, these two issues split the country. Whereas men and East Germans tend to consider immigration the most important issue and want a more restrictive policy, women and West Germans tend to consider climate policy the number one issue and to favour stricter policies on emissions and so on.
Theoretically, one might wish for a „Green-Red“ or a „traffic light“ coalition between the Greens, the SPD and the liberal FDP after September‘s elections, which would allow the CDU/CSU to formulate a consistent conservative opposition policy and further marginalize the AfD. But the numbers only just add up, and it’s hard to see the FDP enabling a coalition that would be under pressure from its green and social democratic base and from a very vocal section of the media to be very radical on climate change and social issues like LGBTQ rights, immigration and racism, housing and jobs.
A Green-Red-Red coalition like in the capital Berlin is an even less likely, as the positions of the Left Party („Die Linke“) on Nato, defence in general, relations with Russia, America and Israel are anathema to the leadership of the Greens and – albeit to a lesser extent – the SPD. Anyway, the numbers don’t add up.
In all probability, it will boil down to a coalition between the Greens and the CDU/CSU, possibly with the FDP added to make up the numbers. This „Jamaica“ coalition was what Merkel would have preferred after the last elections in 2017, and it only foundered on the FDP’s feeling that the CDU/CSU and the Greens were intent on sidelining the Liberals on energy policy. Since the Supreme Court has now ruled that Germany needs an even stricter climate regime than the one the FDP didn’t want to underwrite four years ago, it seems that the Liberals could swallow their pride this time around and join the coalition. The SPD, while fielding Olaf Scholz as a candidate for the Chancellorship, are really eager to get out of government. They have been part of the ruling coalition since 1998, first with the Greens, then with the CDU/CSU with the exception of the years 2009 – 2013, and during this time their numbers have dropped from 41 to 15%. It would seem suicidal not to attempt some sort of regeneration from the opposition benches.
So, my money is on a coalition between the Greens and the CDU/CSU, and for what it’s worth, I think the CDU/CSU will squeeze past the post first, if only by a hair’s breadth. A recent poll, while giving the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock a plurality of the vote, showed that while only about a quarter of the voters said they wanted to vote for the CDU/CSU, almost a third think they should lead the government. Go figure. It will be up to Armin Laschet, who will be leading the much-diminished CDU/CSU into the election, to narrow that gap and convince voters that what he lacks in charisma he makes up for in experience and solidity.
Laschet is indeed well qualified for government. He has been Prime Minister of Northrhine-Westphalia since 2017, a Federal State of almost 18 million people, and still an industrial powerhouse. At first blush, he is a Merkel clone. He is hardly prone to the „vision thing“ and seems to have no big ideas of his own. However, as a Rhenish Catholic like Adenauer and Kohl he has more affinity to Europe than the East German Protestant Angela Merkel and may be more receptive to French blandishments, if Macron can win a second term in office. This may not be a good thing, however. Macron, for all his economic liberalism and pro-European rhetoric, shares the French instinct to define Europe in contrast, if not in opposition to the USA and the „Anglo-Saxons“. Macron, who has called Nato „brain dead“, seems to hope that Europe can attract Russia into its orbit and ween it away from China. Which is a dangerous illusion. Laschet, too, is softer on Russia than others in his party, notably Norbert Röttgen. He has opposed stopping work on NordStream 2, the Russo-German gas pipeline intended to finally circumvent and isolate Ukraine.
… and Foreign Minister Baerbock
The joker in the pack are the Greens. Polls give them a slim chance of capturing the Chancellorship, but they will more probably join Laschet‘s government as a very strong junior partner, hoping to gain a majority in the 2025 elections, after having proved that their green bark is worse than their bite.
Though the Green rank and file are often pacifist, sceptical of capitalism in general and the USA in particular, their leader Annalena Baerbock – and the majority of the Green leadership – is decidedly pro-Western and much more critical of Russia than the SPD and elements in the CDU/CSU and the FDP. The Greens are the only party committed to stopping NordStream 2, and their espousal of a human-rights-based foreign policy means that as foreign minister Baerbock would be more like Joschka Fischer than Heiko Maas. Indeed, Baerbock has talked of a „Climate Alliance“ with the USA. In the European Parliament, the Greens have been very vocal in their condemnation of China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. It was the Green member of the European Parliament and ex-leader of the party Reinhard Bütikofer who was instrumental in stopping the planned investment agreement with China.
As the Greens have also espoused the idea of a Federal State of Europe, they too, like Laschet, might be interested in Macron‘s ideas. Though these are worrying in the long-term, in the short-term a revival of European foreign policy is to be welcomed. Indeed, only a concentration on beefing up border controls, solving outstanding disputes like in Cyprus or the Ukraine, developing European defence capabilities and managing the conficts with Russia and China can unite the EU, which is at the moment fragmented along similar lines as Germany itself. Ursula von der Leyen, the damaged Commission President, would probably be able to work well with Baerbock.
Much, if not everything, hinges on the ability of the next government to deliver on climate change without crippling the German economy. A poll of German bosses shows they would prefer Baerbock to Laschet as Chancellor. Maybe they are banking on a Green-led government to make serious changes to energy policy once they realize the extent of the problem. Nobody but the Greens, for instance, would be able to contemplate a reversal of the counterproductive German policy on nuclear power, which would, almost in an instant, change the geopolitical situation in Europe. A recent article in „Russia Today“ attacked Anna-Veronika Wendland of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a thinktank close to the Greens, of being a „Nuclear Pride Frau“.
And the Brits?
Germany remains a medium-sized power masquerading as a small country, with all the frustrations that entails for our allies and friends. And there is no guarantee that Germany will not continue down that road. But not least thanks to Merkel’s reforms which leave the majority of the country more comfortable with itself than at any time in its history, there is a chance that Germany will be more ready to assume the responsibility its size and geopolitical place in Europe demand. A lot, by the way, will depend on whether Britain remains tied up in the mess created by Brexit – the Scottish bid for independence, the resurgence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, stupid confrontations over vaccine deliveries or fishing rights – or whether it can offer Germany a credible partnership in leading the continent. I’m afraid, however, this might just strain Boris Johnson’s attention span to breaking point.