German parliamentarians used to pride themselves on being boring, but the past two years have turned Teutonic politics upside down. After a decade of dreary stasis under Angela Merkel, a system designed to run on tramlines has become a rollercoaster ride. So why has the political scene in Germany suddenly become so volatile? And what are the implications of this change of pace for Britain, and the EU?
The drama began when Merkel welcomed a million migrants into Germany, a decision which almost destroyed her political career. ‘Wir schaffen das!’ she told Germany. ‘We can do this!’ Unfortunately for her, a lot of Germans disagreed. Her ratings slumped, while those for Germany’s anti-immigration party, Alternative für Deutschland, soared. That’s no surprise, when you see that the Project 28 survey shows, for example, that 85 per cent of Germans believe illegal immigration is a serious problem in their country. In last year’s state elections in Mecklenburg (her own constituency, in one of the poorer parts of eastern Germany), AfD beat her conservative Christian Democratic Union into third place; the Chancellor had been humiliated in her own backyard by a party formed only three years earlier. It seemed her days were numbered.
Merkel apologised to outraged voters and deported up to 100,000 migrants, but it looked like too little too late. Brexit was a further body blow to her beleaguered government, and another boost for AfD. Last summer, even her allies turned against her. The Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, contemplated fielding a rival candidate if she ran for re-election. Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine, and one of her most loyal supporters, suggested it might be time for her to step aside. With rising stars such as Ursula von der Leyen (Merkel’s dynamic defence minister) waiting in the wings, the chances of her even contesting — let alone winning — this September’s elections began to look increasingly unlikely. And then Donald Trump came along, and gave ‘Mutti’ a way back.
Britain isn’t the only country that prides itself on its special relationship with America. America saved Germany from Nazi tyranny and Soviet invasion. Germans know that without the Marshall Plan, there would have been no Wirtschaftswunder; without the American Army, there would be no Bundesrepublik. A close relationship with the USA has always been the cornerstone of foreign policy. That’s why, for German voters, Trump’s victory was such a shock.
Since the foundation of the Bundesrepublik, no US President has been so hostile to German trade, or so ambivalent about Nato. Without the support and protection of the US, Germans feel intensely vulnerable. Seeking a safe haven from the gathering storm, they’ve returned to Merkel’s CDU in droves. Foreign policy has always been Merkel’s strongest suit, and Trump has shifted foreign affairs to the top of the agenda. Thanks to Trump, she’s back where she feels most at home — on the international stage. Thanks to Trump, her immigration policy (or lack of it) is no longer front-page news.
The flip side of Merkel’s revival has been the decline of the Social Democrats. For their new leader, Martin Schulz, this is a blow indeed. Schulz stepped down as President of the European Parliament last year to return to German politics, and the SPD had high hopes that his leadership would restore their fortunes. (An EU bogeyman in Britain, Schulz is a popular figure in Germany — his humble background gives him the common touch.) At first the signs looked promising, but support for the SPD has stalled, culminating in a crushing defeat by Merkel’s CDU in May’s state elections in North Rhine Westphalia, a historic SPD stronghold. If the CDU can win there, in Germany’s industrial heartland, they can win anywhere. A dead woman walking a year ago, Merkel is odds-on to secure a record-breaking fourth term as Chancellor in September.
In a first-past-the-post contest September’s election would be a done deal, but Germany’s system of proportional representation means there’s still all to play for. This electoral system was installed by the victorious Allies after the second world war, to ensure that no single party ever again had overwhelming power in Germany. Under this system it’s almost impossible for any party to govern alone, so since 1945 Germany has been ruled by a series of coalitions. Unless one party wins a colossal landslide, it’s like a hung parliament every time.
To British voters this sounds a recipe for disaster, but for the past 60 years or so it’s actually worked pretty well. However, the recent rise of several small parties has scrambled the old arithmetic and made German elections much more unpredictable. For the first time, there could be seven parties in the next Bundestag. Even if Merkel’s CDU wins comfortably, any of these smaller parties could end up holding the balance of power.
The CDU’s favourite coalition partners have always been the Free Democrats (FDP), a classical liberal party with a healthy respect for market forces. But at the last federal election, in 2013, the FDP was wiped out, forcing Merkel into a so-called ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD. This unwieldy alliance of conservatives and socialists tied her hands at home and abroad. She’d far prefer a coalition with the FDP, but to get this she needs both a decisive victory over the SPD and a strong showing from the Free Democrats. It’s these tricky permutations that make the forthcoming election so precarious. Bizarrely, it would have suited Merkel better in 2013 if she’d lost half a million votes to the FDP, giving them enough support to enter parliament, and team up with her CDU.
What makes this election even more complex is that two of Germany’s smaller parties are cuckoos in the nest. Alternative für Deutschland has nosedived since it parted company with its charismatic leader, Frauke Petry, but it still looks set to win enough votes to enter parliament for the first time. Yet none of Germany’s other parties is willing to work with AfD, a party which evokes disconcerting echoes of Germany’s troubled past. For the first time since the war, a party with significant popular support will be shunned in the German parliament. In a nation that prides itself on compromise and cross-party co-operation it’s a sign that something, somewhere, has gone badly awry. Germany’s far-left party, Die Linke, is already in parliament but has never been in government. Yet if Merkel comes unstuck before September even that could change. The SPD has refused to work with these former communists in the Bundestag, but lately the two parties have teamed up on a local level, and if it gave the SPD a majority, a coalition with Die Linke would be hugely tempting — and hugely controversial.
For political trainspotters, it’s all fascinating stuff, but normal, well-adjusted Britons may well ask, why on earth should we care? We’re leaving the EU, aren’t we? Actually though, now we’re leaving, German politics matter more not less. A new relationship with Germany is up for grabs, and it could be a great deal better or worse than the one we had before. Like it or not, we’re bound up with them, economically and militarily, EU or no EU.
There are no Eurosceptic parties in Germany (not yet, at any rate — and the Project 28 data shows only 24 per cent of Germans would vote to leave the EU). But the CDU and FDP have a far more pragmatic approach to foreign trade than the SPD or Die Linke. The government the Germans elect in September will govern Germany throughout Brexit and beyond. Sensible Britons will be hoping Merkel wins big enough to team up with the business-friendly Free Democrats, rather than resorting to another ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD, and their Eurofederalist leader, Martin Schulz.
It’s natural for Brits to whoop and cheer at German setbacks, but this is not a football match. The better they do, the better we do — and vice versa. Unlike in the World Cup or Eurovision, in politics Anglo-German relations have never been a zero-sum game.