The German elections and the European Union: Und jetzt?

Tuesday 10 October 2017

The media recently greeted the “victory” of the German chancellor Angela Merkel in the last parliamentary elections of the German Federal Republic. Reality however, is somewhat more nuanced: the chancellor will be elected by the Parliament depending on the majority of votes she will obtain there. In order to have any capacity for action during her mandate, she will need to obtain an absolute majority, only possible with a coalition with other parties. This is however going to prove challenging, as her potential coalition partners are at odds between each other as Europe is shaken by crises.


What happened, and what is left to do

These German elections have been marked by a significant performance drop of Merkel’s CDU/CSU “Union” as well as its ally of the previous mandate, the SPD, in favour of the extremist Europhobic AfD. In order to prevent AfD, now the third largest party of Germany, to claim the legitimacy of opposition leader, the second-largest party SPD has signalled its intention not to form any coalition with Merkel[1].

This leaves only one reasonable alternative for the Union: an uneasy coalition with the liberal FDP and the ecologists Greens, who are opposed on many issues, the so-called “Jamaica coalition”. However, the potential partners’ internal agenda is also an issue: Merkel needs to re-establish her bloc’s unity by combating the right-leaning stance of the Bavarian CSU leader Horst Seehofer, while the CDU  wants to wait for the 15th of October elections in Lower Saxony before starting the negotiations. The Greens leaders would have to sell the coalition to their base, traditionally more leftist than its leaders.

The negotiations themselves could last several months, during which the German government would refrain from any initiative[2].

The most probable: a “Jamaica” government. Positions

Although Merkel marked the campaign by her calm and her refusal to discuss sensitive topics, it is clear that the latter will be at the heart of the coalition debates, which will determine the future of the European Union.

The first topic can be summarized in a word: Obergrenze. It is an upper limit to the amount of migrants authorised to enter Germany. Merkel knows that the conservative wing of her bloc, notably the CSU are putting this as a necessary condition to a coalition, to which the Greens and the chancellor are opposed. Additionally, the CSU leader Horst Seehofer openly defies Merkel in the hopes of attracting AfD votes in Bavaria[3].

Secondly, the most important rift is on the economy and the finances at the European level, notably the propositions of French president Emmanuel Macron: to create a European budget and a European Finance Minister. This is not acceptable for the liberals, who wish to maintain German economic sovereignty. The Greens on the other hand rather support integration, albeit not at the cost of the competitiveness of German industries[4].

Lastly, although Merkel is often named “the climate chancellor”, she has come under fire for the maintenance of subsidies to a very polluting coal industry, as well as to the German car industry, which has recently been hit by ecological scandals. Despite the fact that it is not a problem for the FDP, it is certain that a new environmental policy will be subject to hot debates for the possible coalition[5].

Europe: Macron, Catalonia, Brexit

What should one expect of a CDU/CSU-FDP-Greens government? Although the formation of such a coalition is not guaranteed, the gradual softening of the FDP and Greens leaders, as well as the surprising performance of the AfD party and the marks of trust of European leaders towards the chancellor, notably by Macron, hint towards a higher probability of this particular scenario. It would have to face many challenges:

  • European Union: the “engine of Europe” was widely criticised during the Merkel/Hollande duo, and Macron’s dynamism now seems to make Europeanists hopeful. However, Merkel will have to deal with an uneasy coalition without a comfortable personal power base. It is therefore probable that Germany will be extremely reticent to any ambitious reform programme. His main partner paralysed, Macron’s capacity to rally allies and sell his reforms will be severely tested, notably regarding the reform of the Eurozone and the creation of a European budget. On this issue, although the Greens and Merkel are favourable to Macron in general, the main convergence is on the “Multispeed Europe” extolled by the French president, which enjoys a wide support in Germany[6].
  • Migrants: As one of the reasons attributed to the emergence of the far-right AfD is the chancellor’s welcoming policy towards refugees, it is probable that the coalition government will continue to implement measures such as the contention agreement with Turkey, but without officially stopping the influx of migrants. The Greens being the main opponents of an Obergrenze, this symbolic limit will probably not be put into place, but hardened measures against migrants are to be expected.
  • Catalonia: the Spanish problem is an unknown quantity. While Europe is expectant, separatism is not acceptable in a recently unified country. It is very unlikely for the chancellor to take position unless German interests are directly threatened. Moreover, German public opinion supports the Spanish government, while recognizing that mediation has become necessary[7]. Merkel called Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy the day of the referendum and has reiterated her line of non-interference with “Spanish internal matters”[8].
  • Brexit: London’s exclusion from the European Union reinforces the economic influence of Frankfurt and Berlin, all the while improving European solidarity. Berlin will not make any more concessions than it sees fit. It is one of the points on which little changes in policy are expected.

As conclusion, the results of the German elections are the best proof of the mixed success of Merkel’s government and the inherent fragilities of Germany. The contributions to the Greek bailout and then the strong influx of refugees gave to the Germans the feeling of “Europe’s moneybag” similar to the British feeling of “paying more than you get”. As consequence, Germany sees a rise of extremism and a destabilisation of the “Iron Chancellor” who counted on her spotless economic results to be free to implement European reforms during her fourth mandate. Her European allies having also based their reform agenda on this hope will have to ride alone: Merkel will not be allowing herself any daring move, be they political or economic. This paralysis risks creating what the Union fears most: a multispeed Europe, whose already existing divisions might become rifts.



[1] POLITICO : Merkel’s party wins the German general elections (English) : http://www.politico.eu/article/merkels-party-wins-german-general-election-exit-poll/?utm_source=POLITICO.EU&utm_campaign=fc6502eacd-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_10_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_10959edeb5-fc6502eacd-189933197

[2] DIE ZEIT: Voting results (German):

 http://www.zeit.de/politik/2017-09/angela-merkel-eu-afd-wahlkampf-bundestagswahl#/p100,p500

[3]  POLITICO : Angela’s Ashes : 5 takeaways from the German elections (English) 

http://www.politico.eu/article/angela-merkel-election-germany-ashes-5-takeaways-from-the-german-election/

[4] EUObserver : Merkel’s victory heralds uncertain times (English): https://euobserver.com/elections/139138

[5] EURACTIV: Climate and energy policy could decide of the next German government (English) : http://www.euractiv.fr/section/climat/news/climate-and-energy-policy-could-decide-next-german-government/

[6] EURACTIV : Macron’s speech triggers multiple reactions across the EU (French) :

https://www.euractiv.fr/section/avenir-de-l-ue/news/le-discours-de-macron-declenche-de-multiples-reactions-dans-lue/

[7] Tagesspiegel : Before the Catalan referendum, protests erupt in the whole of Spain (German) : http://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/vor-referendum-in-katalonien-proteste-in-ganz-spanien/20400054.html

The Liberals : Catalonia seeks a new start (German) :

https://www.liberale.de/content/katalanen-suchen-einen-neustart

[8] Wall Street Online : Catalonia : Merkel phoned government premier Rajoy on Saturday (German) : https://www.wallstreet-online.de/nachricht/9939313-katalonien-merkel-telefonierte-samstag-spaniens-ministerpraesident-rajoy

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