Can Europe Make It?

The German Election: what does it mean for Europe?

As predicted, Sunday’s German federal election resulted in a resounding victory for Angela Merkel. But with growing German euroscepticism and hesitation about the country's future role in the Union, the results for Europe are not yet in.

Nicole Scicluna
26 September 2013
Flickr/European People's Party. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/European People's Party. Some rights reserved.

As predicted, Sunday’s German federal parliamentary election resulted in a resounding victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) secured 41.5% of the vote, which translates into 311 out of 630 seats in the lower house of parliament; just five shy of an outright majority. The centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) came a distant second with 25.7% of the vote and 192 seats. The only other parties to pass the 5% threshold needed to enter the Bundestag were the far-left the Left, which won 8.6% of the vote (64 seats), and the Greens with 8.4% (63 seats).

The outcome is, to a significant extent, an endorsement of the highly popular Chancellor and her leadership style. Indeed, on the eve of the election, in a sardonic reference to the German electoral system (whereby voters cast one vote for a party list and another for a specific candidate), Die Welt noted that Germans could choose anything with their first ballot, but ‘with the second always Merkel’. 

What do the results mean for Germany’s role in the European Union?

The election results were keenly anticipated by policymakers and citizens across Europe who, in turn, both crave and fear stronger German leadership on the euro crisis and the direction of the integration project, more broadly.

Despite this, and despite the importance of resolving the crisis, European issues did not feature prominently in the election campaign. This is not entirely surprising. Merkel, who in government has eschewed grand visions of European unity in favour of a cautious and pragmatic approach to crisis management, had little interest in discussing financial assistance to heavily indebted euro area states, plans to establish a banking union, or other matters that are linked in the German imagination to fears that the EU is becoming a ‘transfer union’ and that the state of law is being undermined.

For its part, the SPD, in opposition, largely supported economic assistance to struggling eurozone members – indeed it was more willing than Merkel to countenance debt mutualisation (in the form of so-called ‘Eurobonds’). As such, SPD leader Peer Steinbrück had little to gain from campaigning on European issues either.

Thus, Berlin’s post-election posture towards the eurozone, and the EU as a whole, remains unclear. To some extent it depends on the make up of the new government. For the past four years, the CDU and CSU governed with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). However, the FDP has been haemorrhaging support for the past couple of years, and only polled 4.8% of the vote on Sunday, meaning that it has failed to win seats in the Bundestag for the first time since its establishment in 1948. Such is Merkel’s popularity – she sweeps before her opponents and allies alike.

A similar fate befell the centre-left SPD in 2009 when, after four years of governing as part of a ‘grand coalition’ under Merkel’s chancellorship, its share of the vote plummeted from 36% to a post-war low of 23%. The party, which this year celebrates its 150th birthday, achieved the second worst result since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany on Sunday and party leaders must be less than enthusiastic about the prospect of once again taking up the mantle of junior coalition partner. Still, ‘black-red’ does appear to be the most likely form for a CDU/CSU-led coalition government to take. The prospect of joining with the Greens seems less likely, due to ideological differences, and any agreement with The Left, which has its roots in the former East German communist party, is unthinkable.

Growing German euroscepticism?

If the two major parties were reluctant to discuss Europe, this was not the case for the newest political force, the eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (known by its German initials, AfD). Formed in February of this year by economist Bernd Lucke, AfD sought to capitalise on popular frustration with the mainstream political consensus on the handling of the eurozone crisis.

The party’s name alludes to ‘alternativlos’ (no alternative), a favourite catch-cry of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which was voted ‘das Unwort des Jahres’ in 2010 (this is an annual competition to identify the ugliest and most undesirable word in public language). AfD has fallen just short of entering the Bundestag, securing 4.7% of the vote, but it is a remarkable result for such a young party, and one that may still have ramifications for Germany’s EU policy.

Comparisons have been drawn between AfD and the British eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP). While it must be noted that the two movements have different premises, owing to their countries’ very different political cultures, historical relationships to European integration, and current roles within the Union, such a comparison may be instructive. UKIP wants to take Britain out of the EU – an objective that has become more realistic since Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from the eurosceptic wing of his own Conservative Party, promised to hold an in-out referendum by 2017.

On the other hand, AfD is not opposed to Germany’s EU membership, but it is anti-euro and its positions are strongly eurosceptic by German standards. In its 2013 policy programme, AfD calls for ‘an orderly dissolution’ of the eurozone, on the grounds that ‘Germany doesn’t need the euro’ and that ‘[o]ther states are harmed’ by it. The party argues that either national currencies be reintroduced or a smaller and more stable currency union created. It also rejects political union, instead affirming the narrower vision of ‘a Europe of sovereign states with a common internal market’.

Whether AfD is a one-election-wonder or if it will build on Sunday’s result to become an enduring presence in German politics remains to be seen. It has already sought to become more than a single-issue party by embracing a broader, socially conservative agenda. Its policy programme, which was launched at the founding party congress in April, for example includes sections on family, education and energy in addition to European policy.

In terms of electoral trajectory, AfD would perhaps hope to emulate the UKIP model. That party, which was founded in 1993, is now aiming to establish itself as the third force in British politics, overtaking the Liberal Democrats, who are – SPD style - also suffering from junior coalition partner blues. At the European level, UKIP may become the highest polling British party at the 2014 European Parliamentary elections. Whether AfD follows a similar path depends partly on economic conditions in the eurozone and partly on whether Merkel abandons her cautious approach to EU policy, in order to move more decisively towards political union – something that would require difficult legal and possibly even constitutional reform within Germany.

The other voice of German euroscepticism

With the federal parliamentary election out of the way, there is another decision pending that will have significant implications for Germany’s handling of the euro crisis. The German Federal Constitutional Court is currently considering the compatibility of the eurozone’s permanent rescue fund – the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – with Germany’s constitution, as well as the legality of the European Central Bank’s (ECB) euro area bond-buying programme. No date has been set for a ruling, but it is expected in the coming months.

For the last several decades, the Constitutional Court has been the primary channel through which citizens have expressed resistance to, or dissatisfaction with, European integration, since political elites maintained a cross-party, pro-EU consensus. The Court’s more critical appraisal of the integration project is chiefly informed by its reading of Germany’s constitution and the delicate task of reconciling it, and the German culture of Rechtsstaatlichkeit (respect for the rule of law), with the political exigencies of European integration. Indeed, AfD’s election programme expresses similar concerns, for example, through its calls for a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the law and greater respect for the budgetary prerogatives of national parliaments.

Despite its occasionally strong rhetoric, the Constitutional Court has not yet declared an EU treaty to be unconstitutional according to German law or ultra vires according to European law. Nevertheless, even the imposition of conditions on Germany’s participation in the ESM or the Bundesbank’s participation in ECB programmes, could significantly constrain German crisis policy, with consequences for the euro area as a whole. Thus, the election may be over, but the results for Germany and for Europe are not yet in.

Are you currently living in Germany or maybe not, but still are a passionate observer of German politics? We'd be very interested in publishing your thoughts  - do drop us a line at europe (at) opendemocracy.net!

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