The End of “Merkelism”: What Future for Germany?
Lorenzo Monfregola 16 December 2019

Until the 30th of November 2019, almost nobody knew who German social democrats Walter Borjans and Saskia Esken were. International journalists had to quickly learn their names when, in a surprising mutiny against the party elite, 53% of SPD members chose the left-leaning outsiders as their new leading duo. During the previous weeks of internal campaign, Borjans and Esken had voiced strong opposition to the so-called GroKo, the SPD-CDU Grand Coalition which constitutes the current Merkel government. When officially proclaimed leaders on the 6th of December this year, the duo softened their criticism of the coalition. But nevertheless, the Merkel government has become weaker than ever. The SPD is now requesting to revise the coalition contract, aiming for a stronger infrastructure spending plan, the raise of German minimum wage to €12 per hour (from the current €8.84) and the implicit removal of the so-called “schwarze Null” principle (which effectively stops the German government from making deficit investments). After years of center-leaning leadership, the new SPD is clearly attempting to reposition itself on the left side of the political spectrum – a risky move for at least three reasons.

Firstly, the CDU doesn’t seem ready to concede much to the Social Democrats, and an early end of the current government could put the SPD on the path to so-called “Pasokification”. Secondly, Germany already has a strong leftist party, Die Linke (The Left), and even if (part of) the SPD is considering the Linke as an ally on the federal level, it could also become their direct competitor, leaving no win-win opportunity for either force. Thirdly, although the SPD may be trying hard to understand the future socio-economic challenges that the country faces (for example in the labor market), the German media is particularly critical of the Social Democrats, and the party repositioning itself to the left could result in an even less favorable media climate. The biggest challenge for the newly elected leaders Borjans and Esken, might therefore be to ward off a rift within the SPD and keep it together in the face of concerns about its future.

 

Kramp-Karrenbauer’s uneasy CDU leadership

Angela Merkel’s designated successor, CDU president and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (often nicknamed AKK) is having her own difficult time keeping together the Christian Democrats. On the 22nd and 23rd of November, the CDU had its annual convention. If someone had been expecting the total collapse of the president’s leadership, Kramp-Karrenbauer proved to be tactically prepared and was able to reaffirm her grasp when needed. The CDU, nevertheless, remains a confused party still wondering how to emerge from the long Merkel era. Christian democrats know that they must find their path in a much more nervous and polarized political climate than before. But while the Kanzlerin steps increasingly further away from German politics, nobody really knows how to organize the future without her. While AKK seems to be supported at times by her internal adversaries, it may only be because they are still figuring out what to do next. It’s safe to say that there is no guarantee that Kramp-Karrenbauer will be the next CDU candidate for the Chancellorship.

 

The end of Merkel’s centrism

A government reshuffle or new national elections could take place in Germany before the natural retiring of the last Merkel executive, which is expected in 2021. Since no one believes that a new GroKo will exist in the future, the CDU seems destined to find its next executive ally in Die Grünen (the Greens). Carrying incredible hype in the media, the liberal-environmentalists are a solid second force in the country and, based on the current polls, could easily help to form a green-black government. Things, however, aren’t that simple. The Greens may become too strong and too demanding an ally for the CDU, especially on topics like industrial policy, immigration, and EU affairs. A section of the Christian Democrats is therefore still searching for a less center-left oriented solution for governing Germany. The conservative-liberalist area of the party, unofficially led by Friedrich Merz (who lost to Kramp-Karrenbauer when it came to choosing Merkel’s successor), seems to be dreaming of a CDU successful enough to form a government with the FDP liberals (even if, given the current polls, this sounds absolutely impossible). Bavarian CDU’s sister party, the CSU, may also be skeptical about a too-binding alliance with the Greens. On top of this, a minoritarian but visible ultra-conservative faction of the Christian Democrats, represented by the so-called Werte-Union (“values union”), remains actively against any alliance with the left. Even if they aren’t directly calling for a collaboration with the right-wing identitarian Alternative für Deutschland, and despite the current CDU leadership clearly stigmatizing the AfD, the Werte-Union has surely thought about the option (perhaps to be first tested on a local level in eastern Germany).

To make a long story short: the centrist extremism of Angela Merkel’s reign has reached its end, leaving the German politics unusually nervous, tactically fragmented, and ideologically disoriented – a scenario which has a direct impact on German foreign policy in a moment when Europe is expecting much more clarity from Berlin.

 

The economy and the military

In July 2020, Germany will take on the temporary presidency of the Council of the European Union, leaving many technical dossiers for Berlin to manage. From a broader point of view, the presidency may give Europe the opportunity to understand where Germany will stand on two topics that are inseparable from any discussion of the EU’s future: the economy and the military.

Newly elected German President of the European Commission German Ursula von der Leyen has recently said she wants to build a “geopolitical” Union – an ambitious and necessary goal for anyone who wants the EU to have a tangible future in an increasingly multipolar and competitive political landscape. The alternative to a “geopolitical” Union, indeed, would be its progressive dismantling through external pressure.

On the economic side, the EU must remain financially solid and compact to retain any geopolitical strength, which is why many EU partners keep asking Berlin to take further steps in matters such as the banking union. Germany, nonetheless, remains cautiously indecisive here and seems physiologically unable to reconsider its dogmas on eurozone shared debts. Given the current German political scenario, it’s hard to imagine a German leader ready to take any “Europeanist” leaps of faith in terms of financial integration.

In a world turning upside down, the EU will also have to thoroughly examine its defense position. The not-so-diplomatic statements given last November to The Economist by French president Emmanuel Macron, who called NATO “brain dead” and championed for (French-led?) European technological and military sovereignty has created a tense discussion about the intersections of the EU and NATO. Chancellors Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer dismissed Macron’s comments and reaffirmed that any EU defense framework should be complementary to the Atlantic Alliance. Even if Macron’s words were simply a neo-Gaullist provocation, they show how Europe can still be confused when it comes to any concept of shared defense – a condition already proved last October, when Kramp-Karrenbauer herself tried to suggest an international (European?) military presence in Northeast Syria. AKK’s activism here may have sounded disruptive for a German Ministry of Defence, but the results have been few to speak of.

 

What will Berlin do?

No matter what the issue, European partners are waiting for German answers, but Germany is not responding with any clarity nor communicating any coherent strategy. It seems that Berlin is still in shock about how quickly and drastically the default liberal order has begun to mutate in world politics. A large portion of the German political and intellectual elite would surely love to go back to the old status quo. But the fact is that the old status quo belongs to the past and that Germany now has to take on an amount of responsibility proportional to its weight in Europe. The country must reach decisive conclusions on topics such as finance, defense, immigration, technological and energy autonomy, as well as on relations with the US, China, and Russia. With the end of “Merkelism”, Germany has reached a critical turning point: one way or another, a new political course will soon emerge. This course, though, must still define its nature.

 

Photo: ODD ANDERSEN / AFP


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