Continuity or radical turn? The Germany that awaits Europe after Merkel

The European Union experienced a historic moment last week. Sixteen years of government (and four French presidents) later, Angela Merkel visited the Elysee for the last time. And this Sunday, the Germans go to the polls to elect the Chancellor’s successor in elections that, in addition to unleashing a profound transformation of the country’s political system, will have important consequences at the European level.

The end of the Merkel era will mean a turning point for a European Union that will lose its de facto leader during three of its last major crises: that of the Eurozone, that of refugees and that of the coronavirus.

With its prudent style, its aversion to the politics of the show, and its unequivocal defense of liberal democracy, as suggested by a recent editorial by The Guardian, the chancellor has been a “bulwark” of political “stability” for more than a decade. Merkel has also shown herself capable of learning from her political mistakes, of recycling herself when circumstances required it and of taking steps to the front to save the European project when it was most faltering (as happened, for example, through the approval of the fund of recovery, which left behind the austerity of past decades and decisively strengthened a European Union threatened by the pandemic).

It is true that the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the big favorite in the elections, has adopted a similar style throughout the campaign. In an election dominated by the search for a new Merkel, as she writes Jeremy CliffeThe Saxon has known how to sell himself as the statesman who will give continuity to Merkelism.

But if the electoral campaign has made something clear, it is that none of the three candidates for the chancellorship [el propio Scholz, Armin Laschet (CDU) y Annalena Baerbock (Los Verdes)] it has neither the levels of valuation nor the political weight that Merkel herself has. His departure, therefore, will leave the bloc orphaned of its main political leader. A position that his successors, most likely, will not be able to fill.

German Gatopardism

After 16 years of Merkelism, the new chancellor is unlikely to impose a radical turn on the country’s European agenda. First of all, because of the consensus that exists between the main German parties. CDU, SPD, Greens and FDP, despite their undoubted programmatic differences, are staunch defenders of European integration; they are, to a greater or lesser extent, reluctant to the strategic autonomy that France demands; and they lack a clear narrative about Germany’s role in the new world order, being reluctant to let Germany lead one of these poles.

The ambition of the next chancellor will also be limited by the complex negotiations that will open from Monday. According to the polls, the new federal government will be made up of three parties (most likely, from different political blocs), which will compete with each other to enter the Executive, impose their program and take over the most important portfolios, including the powerful Ministry of Finance. .

Even an SPD-led coalition could encounter internal resistance to further European integration

The latter will be, in fact, one of the factors that will most determine the European agenda of post-Merkel Germany. A government Jamaica, led by Laschet’s CDU, could win back orthodox Germany from the Eurozone crisis. Your economic brain, the veteran Friedrich Merz, belongs to the most right-wing and eurosceptic wing of the party and, in recent months, has denounced the “centralizing instinct” of Brussels, attacked the fiscal policy of the European Central Bank and defended the recent economic judgments of the German Federal Constitutional Court.

But even a coalition led by Scholz’s SPD could encounter internal resistance in tackling further European integration. Despite the ambitious European programs of the SPD and Greens (in their “program of principles”, environmentalists go so far as to ask for a “European federal republic”) the key to such a government could be held by the FDP, a party whose European agenda is more similar to that of the CDU, which has been the flag of fiscal rectitude throughout the campaign and which is opposed to the relaxation of the fiscal rules that countries like Spain are asking for.

Throughout the campaign, your leader, Christian Lindner, has made it clear that it aspires to take over the Treasury portfolio of the next government in order to set its economic agenda. In a scenario in which both SPD and CDU have options to govern, those of Lindner will be fundamental not only to configure the next government, but to endorse (or reject) some of the most ambitious European policies proposed by SPD and Greens.

The decline of the traditional right

While the elections will not lead to major shifts in Germany’s European agenda, they can trigger major changes in Brussels. The elections will, for example, have consequences within the European Council itself, whose political balances would be significantly affected.

In the first place, Merkel’s departure may grant (especially if the government negotiations are prolonged) a greater role to other countries in the bloc. Good because Emmanuel Macron go on to lead the new Franco-German axis. Good because leaders like Pedro Sanchez O Mario Draghi choose to play a bigger role. Or because political alliances such as the Visegrad group, the Mediterranean countries or the self-styled frugal take advantage of Merkel’s departure to acquire greater relevance.

Just as important, in the event of an SPD victory, would be the new balance of forces between the main European political families.

For the first time in decades, the European People’s Party (EPP) could be seen outside the main governments of the continent: those of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. This would confirm, on the one hand, the electoral crisis that the European center-right is experiencing, increasingly similar to that suffered by the Social Democracy a decade ago.

The void left by Angela Merkel will be, above all, personal

On the other hand, and if this situation consolidates (Macron, Sánchez and Draghi will go to the polls in the coming years), the German elections would leave the popular in a very delicate situation for the next distribution of European portfolios, which will take place at the end of 2024. For the traditional right, therefore, the loss of the German chancellery may be the prelude to a loss of political weight at the continental level.

It is still too early to know what the 26-S will mean for European politics. However, any radical turn in this direction would be surprising. Both due to the fragility and heterogeneity of the next executive and the existing consensus, at the national level, regarding the role of Germany in Europe.

The void that Angela Merkel will leave will be, above all, personal. For more than a decade, the bloc has been used to looking to the German chancellor in times of crisis, trusting its fate to her political skills. The course that the Union takes in the medium term, therefore, will depend mainly on three factors: the composition of the next government; the interest that Merkel’s successor shows in the bloc’s policies; and the eagerness of governments such as Italy, Spain and (above all) France to fill the gap left by the so-called European Iron Lady.

*** Guillermo Íñiguez is a political analyst with a master’s degree in European Law from the London School of Economics.

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