While Europe has been attentively following the outcome of Germany’s elections, Europe and foreign policy in general has played little to no role in the German election campaign. This is noteworthy, given that there were more than enough reasons for it to matter. Zooming in on the parties most likely to end up in the coalition, we analyse what the German parties’ foreign policy objectives are and how prospective coalitions will influence Germany’s future course.
While foreign newspapers were full of analyses about the German election and what it would mean for Germany’s position in Europe and the world, foreign policy remained noticeably absent in the German election campaign. The exceptions were maybe two of the most radical parties: the right-wing Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which is opting for leaving the EU, and very left-wing party Die Linke, which pursues a pacifist foreign policy and seeks to transform the NATO into a peace alliance, with Russia as one of its members. The actual parties likely to end up in coalition, however, barely mentioned their views on Germany’s future foreign policy course. In none of the three ‘Triells’ (the live TV debates of the – for the first time – three chancellor candidates) foreign policy or the EU was mentioned. Instead, the focus lay very much on domestic topics such as climate, social security (including poverty and the pension system), taxes, digitalisation and the Covid-19 pandemic. With Angela Merkel, whom the New York Times gave the title ‘leader of the free world’, leaving the chancellorship behind, questions of how Germany wants to position itself in Europe and the world are of increased importance.
Wherever you open a newspaper in Europe these days, chances are that they will have at least one article reflecting on Angela Merkel’s legacy in Europe. She is praised as someone very well respected in the international arena, a tough negotiator, with incredible knowledge on all dossiers and someone who has bound Europe together in times of crisis. Known as the ‘crisis-chancellor’, Merkel has ‘sat through’ the financial crisis, the Euro Crisis, the so-called ‘migration crisis’, and the Covid-19 crisis. Many people feel worried that just as Europe is facing at least two other key crises – the climate crisis, and the Afghanistan crisis – while still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, the German chancellor who has so much experience with handling these situations, is leaving.
For the first time since 2002, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is the strongest party in government with 206 seats. The CDU – Merkel’s party – and CSU together have gained 196 seats in these parliamentary elections – a record low, having lost almost 9% of the votes. Because of their unwillingness to pursue yet another ‘great coalition’ – a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD – the two smaller parties Die Grünen (The Greens) and the FDP (The Liberals) have become ‘kingmakers’, they will decide who they want to be in a coalition with. It has already been suggested that they will start negotiating among themselves and then decide which bigger party – the SPD in a stoplight coalition or the CDU in a Jamaica coalition (the names are derived from the colours of the parties: the SPD is red, the FDP yellow, the Greens green and the CDU black) – they want to have onboard. Foreign politics will play an important part in that negotiation as the parties have quite different ideas about the EU and foreign policy issues, as we will discuss below. Regardless of which coalition will eventually be established, it will be a unique coalition Germany, which has so far only seen two-party coalitions at the federal level.
The CDU/CSU – A weaker ‘Weiter So’?
Armin Laschet, the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate, was born in Aachen, close to the Dutch and Belgium border. As the prime-minister of the state North-Rhine Westphalia, Laschet has experience in the European arena and likes to present himself as a European at heart. When it comes to European policy not much is likely to change should Laschet follow up Merkel as chancellor. The CDU seeks to strengthen international alliances such as the UN, NATO and especially the EU. After the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDU/CSU wants to return to the conditions of the Stability and Growth Pact and fiscal rules as soon as possible, and strengthen – and sanction – stability criteria. The CDU/CSU does not want to repeat the recovery plan for the Covid-19 pandemic, which foresaw that the EU would borrow on the markets for the Member States, rather debts should be covered by the Member States who make them. Merkel has been criticized for letting her foreign policies be guided by the interests of the German industry, especially the car industry, when it comes to dealing with autocratic countries such as China. Critics felt that trade was more important to her than having Europe play a strong geopolitical role in the world. This line of thinking is likely to continue under a leadership by Laschet, who has warned in an interview against a too strong demarcation from China and instead said that China is a “system competitor and partner” and that it is impossible to only do foreign politics with countries similar to Germany.
While policies might not change very much, Laschet as a chancellor will be in a much weaker position than Merkel ever was: not only does he lack the immense international experience Merkel has, he is also weak in his own party, being held responsible for the worst election result the CDU/CSU has ever had. On top of that, he is widely unpopular in Germany, with only 24 percent of German voters wanting him to be chancellor (compared to 63% that want Olaf Scholz (SPD) as chancellor). Already now, calls for him to step down are being voiced – should he become chancellor despite these, the world will surely have taken notice of his weak position internally.
The CDU/CSU supports the European Green Deal and wants to appoint a EU-climate representative. However, for Germany itself the CDU/CSU has no particular ambitious climate plans. The CDU/CSU foresees that Germany will become carbon-neutral by 2045; the coal-exit should take place in 2038. The CDU/CSU hopes that technological innovations (like collecting CO2 from the air) will help address the challenges of climate change. The programme of the CDU/CSU has been criticized as too vague and too unambitious to fulfil the 1.5°C goal. With a CDU/CSU in government, progress towards the European Green Deal is likely to be limited.
The Socialdemocrats (SPD): A closer Franco-German alliance on a way to more social Europe?
Olaf Scholz – the chancellor candidate of the SPD – as the current minister of finance has a lot of experience in the international arena. He made a name for himself especially by reaching an agreement on the global minimum tax, but has also shown to the Southern EU member states, Germany’s willingness to support them in times of need, with the Corona emergency fund. When it comes to foreign financial policy, the SPD is striving for a capital market union through the completion of the banking union. The aim is to create a European capital market that ensures competitive financing for European companies.
The SPD is committed to a more social Europe and wants to introduce a minimum social standard and fair taxation of companies. Further, the SPD seeks to enforce this in particular in cooperation with France. With them, the SPD wants to create, among other things, a European social pact that secures fair minimum wages and focuses on more common investments. In the Netherlands this is seen as a cause for worry. Carsten Brzeski from Dutch bank ING has argued that it seems likely that after this election, Germany will work closer together with France than with the frugal four (the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark) that often argue for a smaller budget for the EU and are very strict on the fiscal rules.
In particular, Olaf Scholz has been very vocal on the need for a European army and the need for a strong European cooperation on security and defence issues – against many in his own party. European Views argued that Scholz as chancellor will be pushing much harder for a ‘realpolitical’ EU. However, divisive projects like Nord Stream 2 – the gas pipeline directly from Russia to Germany – will not likely come to a halt under an SPD leadership, too many in the party support the project (as well as closer cooperation with Russia – although this is not necessarily true for Olaf Scholz himself).
The SPD wants to achieve a socio-ecological restructuring of the German economy, whereby the 2019 introduced European Green Deal will play a decisive role. Nevertheless, looking again at the goals of the SPD for Germany, there are more concrete numbers and goals than for the CDU/CSU but these are still too unambitious to reach the 1.5°C goal. Especially on issues like the coal exit, little progress is expected from the SPD.
The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen): A greener and more human-rights based foreign policy?
With the election result of 15 percent, the Greens fell well short of expectations. However, compared to the last federal election in 2017, they have increased by 6.1%, showing that their ideals have gained more support.
Among the under 25s, the Greens are the most elected party, probably because climate change is high on the agenda of under 25s.
Climate activists nationwide are demanding that the Greens, as well as all other democratic parties, will now enforce the 1.5 degree target which has been used widely during the election campaign. Needless to say, the Greens are a strong supporter of the European Green Deal.
The Greens want to strengthen the public discussion in and about Europe. In particular, they want the European Parliament to be the central place for all European decisions. In foreign policy in particular, they advocate majority decisions in co-decision with the European Parliament. It is also intended to create a public European and digital platform, without any political influence, to bundle Europe-wide content.
With regard to international security policy, the Greens no longer want to deliver German weapons to international conflict zones.
The Greens also advocate that Germany should take on more responsibility in other European countries, especially with regards to its Eastern neighbors. They want to support democratic civil societies there. A three-party alliance with the Greens could, however, deteriorate relations with China, Turkey and Russia, as the Greens strongly criticize the human rights violations there. As a result, the Greens are also closer to the Biden government, as both speak openly for human rights and this would mean a departure from the very neutral course of the old government. It is also important to mention that the Greens are in favor of a common European asylum system.
The Liberals (FDP): Strict on the fiscal rules, strict on China?
Also the liberals, under the leadership of Christian Lindner, are looking to strengthen the EU, especially the EU’s foreign policy. They want to increase the democratic workings of the EU by for example reforming elections for the European Parliament with cross-state candidate lists. The Liberals find that the EU must be able to act more quickly internationally. They therefore demand that unanimity in the EU Council of Ministers should be converted to a qualified majority. The Liberals are furthermore calling for the foundation of a European army. With regards to dealing with autocratic states like China, the FDP is opting for a stronger stance, with Christian Linder stating in an interview that “the velvet gloves have to go. We can’t go treat countries like these as before.” Although the FDP sees itself as representing German businesses, China with its abuse of human rights, international law and its dumping prices, is seen as bad for international trade.
When looking at European reactions to the election results, Poland has shown itself happy with an FDP-led foreign ministry: FDP-foreign ministers like Hans Dietrich Genscher have always been good for Poland. The Polish ambassador also feels that the FDP will be necessary to balance out a left-leaning coalition of Greens and SPD.
When it comes to fiscal rules within the EU, the position of the FDP is most comparable to that of the CDU/CSU. They are calling for a quick return to the rules of before the Covid-19 pandemic. This is seen as worrying by many southern Member States, whom Lindner has criticized repeatedly for their loose debt policy. Under an FDP-led finance ministry, relaxed fiscal rules and initiatives like the European Commission lending on the market to support its Member States, is likely to be very difficult.
With the Greens and the FDP in government we can for sure expect Germany to take a stronger stance against rising autocratic regimes in Europe and outside of Europe. These two parties are also advocating for the EU to become a stronger geopolitical force, closely aligned with the US. The Greens and the FDP are also on the same page in wanting to reform the EU to make it more democratic, for example by reforming the European Parliamentary Elections.
The SPD and the Greens are advocating for a more social Europe and a deepening of European integration. It also seems likely that these two parties will cooperate more closely with France in pushing European integration further, rather than with the frugal four. These point to a potential for more European solidarity in a new traffic-light coalition. Any closer financial cooperation will be closely watched by a potential FDP-led finance ministry, which is pushing very strongly for a “solid debt policy”. Nevertheless, Germany – and this includes the SPD, CDU, the FDP and to a lesser extent the Greens – has always seen itself, and will continue to see itself, as a moderator between France and the more sceptical states, especially in Eastern Europe.
All parties are – on paper – supportive of the European Green Deal, however only the Greens have actually presented slightly ambitious climate change plans wanting Germany to exit coal by 2030. Advocates of the Green Deal in Europe such as Frans Timmermans will have a supporter in the German government with Greens.
While Angela Merkel has taken over the lead in foreign politics from her foreign ministers on many occasions, having two junior partners in government will mean that these parties are likely to want to profile themselves in the important ministries of foreign affairs and finance. This was unlikely under Merkel with her strong international presence, but a new chancellor – regardless of whether they are CDU or SPD – will have to give visibility to their junior partners in these fields.
And another important issue that might change the face of European politics is whether the new government – should it not be CDU/CSU-led – will propose Ursula van der Leyen for a second term as Commission President in 2024. Although the Commission is voted in by the European Parliament, the federal government of Germany will have to suggest van der Leyen as a candidate – and why would they do so if the CDU/CSU is relegated to the opposition?
Both the SPD and the CDU/CSU have said that they would like a new chancellor to be installed before Christmas. A very ambitious goal – given that the last coalition talks took 5 ½ months. However, realising a new government quickly is not only in the interest of the German citizens, but also for European citizens. France does not only need a working German government to make the French presidency a success, but is also facing an election in the spring of 2022. If Germany and France are both occupied with their own domestic issues for too long, the EU will likely to be leaderless for more than one year – which gives rise to opportunities for autocratic leaders inside and outside of the EU.