Contemporary Peace Research and Practice By Herbert Wulf  |  24 September, 2021

German Politics in the Post-Merkel Era

Image: European People's Party/Flickr

The German Parliament will be elected on 26 September 2021 after its four-year legislature. The biggest change will be that the new government will definitely be formed without Chancellor Merkel who has held this position for nearly 16 years. No wonder many speculate about politics “beyond-Merkelism” – fueled by the fact that a whole range of different coalitions seems possible, looking at the present polls. According to these polls, the present coalition, the “Groko” (grand coalition) could continue, but the mood within both parties (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) is weariness of each other and the majority of the voters are tired of stagnation. The catchword is: “kein weiter so” (no more of the same).

This leaves a number of different coalition possibilities with two likely options. The Social Democrats (with Olaf Scholz, the present Vice-Chancellor) as Chancellor along with the Greens and the Liberals or the Left. Alternatively, the Christian Democrats (with Armin Laschet, the leader of the party) as Chancellor along with the Greens and the Liberals. The third alternative, the Greens in control (with Analena Baerbock, the co-leader of the party) as Chancellor is unlikely, according to present polls. Coalitions, unlike minority governments, are quite common in Germany.

Despite a few clear differences in the parties’ election programmes and their past records, there are a few definitive outcomes:

First, the right-wing party AFD (Alternative for Germany), presently expecting 10 or 11 percent of the seats in parliament, will remain an outcast. In contrast to developments in some other European countries, none of the other parties in Germany will cooperate with the right and their xenophobic programme.

Secondly, Angela Merkel has embodied a strong pro-European Union (EU) policy. A new government, whoever the Chancellor might be, will certainly also stress the importance of Europe. The four European crises during the Merkel era (the financial crisis in 2008/09, a high number of immigrants in 2015, Brexit finalised in 2020 and the present Covid-19 pandemic) have illustrated the need for European cooperation. No European nation could have managed the crises alone. But the typical and often praised Merkel consensus policy approach, managing the status-quo, is no longer sufficient. The present situation seems to be a watershed for the EU.

In a recent study, entitled “Beyond-Merkelism”, the co-author, Piotr Buras, told the British Guardian: “…the challenges that Europe faces now – the pandemic, climate change, geopolitical competition – require radical solutions, not cosmetic changes. The EU needs a visionary Germany.” Whether a new German government will offer strong leadership remains to be seen. Merkel’s reputation in the EU and in the world is not easy to match. A number of internal EU problems are left unsolved in the Merkel era: the treatment of immigrants where the EU has struggled unsuccessfully for years to come to an acceptable common policy that goes beyond strengthening “fortress Europe”. Also upholding the rule of law and guaranteeing a free press, particularly in Poland and Hungary, is in doubt. The decision about additional member countries in the EU, especially Balkan countries, has been postponed for too long. The above cited study concludes: “Paradoxically, to fulfil many Europeans’ expectations, Berlin will need to revise the principles of Merkelism that created this trust.”

In a third policy field, climate change, strong and innovative German policies can be expected in the post-Merkel era. All parties stress the need for immediate and forceful action; the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is not ambitious enough. There remain differences in approach. Particularly the Greens push for a drastic change in policy and call for innovative large-scale climate investments while the liberals continue to emphasise the magic of market forces. Even Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who often only paid lip service to climate policy, seem to have recognised that a more aspiring policy is needed. The catastrophic flooding this summer in Germany, with almost 200 people dead, has apparently helped to promise more ambitious policies.

Fourth: Security policy remains a fairly stable policy area since it has always been a largely uncontested field of mainstream politics. What surprises is that after the recent debacle of NATO after a two-decade long war in Afghanistan, with the strong participation of Germany, none of the fundamentals of security policy has been questioned. Military interventions have never been popular among the German public. Thus, there might be second thoughts about the past approach. But so far there is no serious discussion about the future role of NATO. Membership in NATO and strong financial support is unchallenged, except for the pacifist Left party which can expect about six or seven percent in the upcoming election.

One of the reactions after the disturbing experiences in transatlantic relations during the Trump years is a call for EU strategic autonomy or sovereignty. This goal, which has been on the EU agenda for at least for five decades, has been exacerbated by the Afghanistan experience, where European governments were not even asked about the time and terms of the departure. Governments simply accepted the Biden administration’s decision. Therefore, the new government in Germany is likely to take the French and the EU Commission’s impetus for a strengthened EU role more seriously than the Merkel government. The EU is set to invest more in hard power. If a Social Democratic Chancellor is selected, the emphasis of an EU military posture will probably accompanied by a general call for arms control. At the same time, previous experiences teach us that gradual, rather than drastic, changes are likely.

Even in the complicated security relations with Russia, we cannot expect a radical change, since options are limited. There might be different nuances about the forcefulness of sanctions or the willingness to consult with the authoritarian government of Vladimir Putin about pending issues like Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and their hybrid war in East Ukraine. In the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, the German concept is closely in line with EU policy. There are reservations about subscribing to the confrontational US course against China and governments try to find a modus for assertive competition and cordial cooperation with China at the same time. The new government in Germany is unlikely to depart from that path.

So, what will be new or changed? Except for climate policy, hardly anything in foreign and security policy. Despite fatigue and calls for “no more of the same”, continuation of past policies are the most probable agenda. The outside world should not be surprised to experience a lack of visionary foreign and security policy. The major differences of the parties are in German internal policies: tax, education, social welfare, the job as well as the housing market. These are the political fields that will influence voters’ preference. But given the plurality of coalition options, it might take quite some time until a new government is installed.

Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.