Garvan Walshe: Germany’s new government may be tougher on Russia and China. Which would suit our own. But there’s a snag.

30 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Foreign policy rarely features much at election time, and Germany’s election last Sunday was no exception. It scarcely appeared during the three Chancellor candidates’ debates, conducted against a background of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Franco-American spat over AUKUS. The result, however, sets the stage for an change in German foreign policy to which the UK will need to adapt.

The centre-left SPD came out narrowly on top with 26 per cent of the vote and 207 seats in the Bundestag. Their Olaf Scholz is likely to move to the chancellery once coalition negotiations conclude.

Angela Merkel’s successor-to-be, Armin Laschet, suffered a true shocker. He gave his CDU/CSU Uniuon their worst ever result ever (24 per cent of the vote and 196 bundestag seats).

Next came the Greens, up a third to 15 per cent and 118 seats, and the liberal FDP (92 seats and 12 per cent).

The far right AfD and far left Die Linke got 10 per cent and five per cent respectively, as their core electorate of elderly former GDR residents dwindles. Fans of the Schlewsig-Holstein question will be delighted to observe the seat won by Stefan Seidler of the Danish minority SSW.

The big electoral shift is not so much the revival of the SPD, up a fifth on their 2017 result, or unmet expectations of the Greens, who did not do as well as their early summer polling suggested, but the decline of the CDU/CSU. This was partly down to an uninspiring and gaffe- prone candidate, but also because of its difficulties in keeping its vote together at a time of electoral fragmentation.

An important strand of the CDU has come to think that a hard-boiled national conservative politics could consolidate the right-wing vote by winning back supporters lost to the AfD. Friedrich Merz, who narrowly failed to become CDU leader after Merkel’s successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was forced out, epitomised that thinking. This week’s results put its futility beyond doubt. The CDU picked up 80,000 votes from the AfD this time around, but lost almost three million to the SPD, Greens and FDP. If even ultra-moderate Laschet was too right-wing for that many CDU voters, it is hard to see how an AfD-lite offering could not have done even worse.

This election has moved German politics in a liberal, pro-European, pro-green direction. Norbert Röttgen is the CDU man best placed to take advantage. Yet after its battering, the CDU/CSU is now divided about whether even to take part in coalition negotiations. Though Laschet claimed a mandate to enter talks with the Greens and the FDP, many in his party, including the influential Bavarian sister party leader, Markus Söder, are wary. After sixteen years in power, an exhausted Union could do with some time in opposition to refresh itself.

Though a CDU-led government remains an outside possibility, the most likely coalition will be the so-called “traffic light” made up of the SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and the Greens. In a savvy move, the smaller Greens and FDP have decided to forge a joint neogtiating platform (together they acccount for 210 seats, four more than the SPD) that they will then put to the bigger parties’ leaderships.

And although Greens and FDP differ on economics, their positions on foreign affairs are much closer than might be expected. With the Green co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, tipped for the foreign ministry, German foreign policy is not set for radical revolution (this is Germany after all), but it can expect to receive a sizeable shove.

Both parties want to see more foreign policy made at the EU level, and by qualified majorities (rather than unanimity as it is now). The FDP are explicitly in favour of a European army. And while the Greens have a pacifist inheritance that makes them skittish about anything involving nuclear weapons, they have come around to multilateral military deployments abroad. Watch for an effort to change the EU’s treaties to bring all this about. If the new coalition is with the SDP, policy towards Hungary and Poland will also toughen.

Beyond Europe, both these parties are also tougher on Russia and China than both the SPD (whose former leader works for a Russian state oil firm) and the CDU, more focused on human rights, and less on industrial exports. Though they are unlikely to be strong enough to stop the Nordstream 2 pipeline in Germany, expect them to push to have it subjected to tougher EU-level regulation.

Overall, this is an agenda with which the UK can work well — provided it realises that the new government will be even more disposed to conduct its foreign policy through the EU. Bilateral relations will remain polite, of course, but London will find it much easier to pursue its interests if it comes to terms with the growing EU foreign and defence establishment in Brussels and engages with it.

Stephen Booth: As next month’s federal election draws closer, is Germany set for three party government?

26 Aug

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

What direction will Germany take in the post-Merkel era? Change is coming, but the German electorate appears to be undecided on the form it should take. With only a month to go, the outcome of the federal election on 26 September is currently impossible to call.

German politics has become increasingly fragmented in recent years as traditional party loyalties fade. This has been compounded by the end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as Chancellor. More than ever, this election campaign has been dominated by personalities rather than policies, but no standout heir has emerged.

Armin Laschet, Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, was chosen as the conservative candidate best suited to continue Merkel’s brand of consensual, pragmatic politics. He was preferred over Markus Soeder, leader of the CDU’s smaller Bavarian CSU sister party, even though Soeder was the more popular figure with the public.

But Laschet has not enjoyed much personal support and he is perceived to have made several personal missteps in the campaign. The CDU/CSU have fallen from polling numbers of 35 per cent in February, before they announced their candidate, to under 25 per cent in recent weeks, which could herald the party’s worst ever performance.

Annalena Baerbock, the Green’s candidate, enjoyed a short honeymoon after her selection over party co-leader Robert Habeck. The Greens briefly overtook the CDU/CSU as the largest single party in the polls. But after riding high in the spring, the Greens have fallen back into third place, in part following accusations against Baerbock of plagiarism and inflated claims on her CV. Some commentators suggest the Greens, like the CDU/CSU, have chosen the wrong candidate.

Making a late surge to rival the CDU/CSU as the biggest party is the centre-left SPD. The party has struggled following several years as the junior partner in successive Merkel-led ‘grand coalitions’, but its lead candidate, Olaf Scholz, is now by far the most popular choice for Chancellor. Scholz, whose party is largely to the left of him, has benefitted from the lacklustre performance of Laschet and Baerbock, and is the only candidate with experience in senior government posts, currently serving as Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister.

Meanwhile, Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberal, pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) has also had a strong campaign. The party has benefitted from the Greens’ rise, since the FDP is seen by many centre-right voters as an economically conservative counterweight, and it now stands a strong chance of entering government. The FDP has successfully positioned itself as the defender of small government as the CDU has moved to the centre. At the same time, the FDP’s reputation for modernisation and digitisation has been beneficial as the pandemic, and slow start to the vaccine roll-out, revealed inefficiencies in the public sector.

Ultimately, the race remains wide open. A Forsa poll this week put the SPD on 23 per cent, one point ahead of the CDU/CSU on 22 per cent, the Greens in third on 18 per cent, the FDP on 12 per cent, the Eurosceptic AfD on 10 per cent, and the Left party on 6 per cent.

If recent polling is correct, the only possible governing coalitions would need three parties to work together, likely with either the CDU/CSU or SPD at the helm in combination with the Greens and/or the FDP.  An outside possibility is a left-wing coalition of the SPD, Greens, and the Left. Coalitions of three parties have often been adopted at the state level, but not at the federal level, potentially making post-election negotiations complicated.

This makes the future direction of the EU’s most powerful member state very difficult to predict.

On the domestic front, the big economic debate is about fiscal restraint versus greater levels of investment in climate policies and greater digitisation of the economy. Most of the coalition options would straddle this divide uncomfortably.

When it comes to European and foreign policy, the Greens have offered the most comprehensive change from the Merkel era, but have fallen away in the campaign. The Greens are explicitly in favour of deeper Eurozone integration, calling for the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund to become a permanent fiscal capacity, and favour a loosening of the EU’s debt rules.

In contrast, the CDU insists the recovery fund, which allows the EU to borrow collectively, was a one-off crisis measure. Despite describing it as a “Hamiltonian moment”, Scholz has been cautious when asked whether the recovery fund is a step towards a permanent EU borrowing capacity. “That’s not a debate we’re having right now,” he has said. Both the CDU and the SPD seem unwilling to break from Merkel’s cautious, piecemeal approach, where action was often prompted only by crises.

Meanwhile, the Greens are calling for a more active German foreign policy, which is tougher on authoritarian powers, focused on values and human rights. They have suggested that the EU impose import duties on state-backed Chinese companies to prevent environmental dumping and human rights abuses. The Greens have also called for the Nord Stream 2 Germany-Russia gas pipeline to be scrapped, arguing that it undermines security in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

It should be noted that the Greens have not completely shed their pacifist roots. They remain opposed to nuclear weapons and have criticised demands to meet the NATO two per cent spending target, which Germany has consistently missed under previous governments. But, taken together, the Greens’ stance would tilt German policy in a more Atlanticist direction on the big issues of Russia and China.

While the CDU considers the transatlantic relationship and NATO central to Germany’s prosperity and security, it has also sought to preserve its economic engagement with China and Russia, resulting in a degree of geopolitical ambiguity. Merkel was instrumental in pushing the EU-China investment treaty over the finishing line, despite misgivings from Joe Biden’s team. Both the CDU and SPD have pushed for the completion of the Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline, and Scholz has called for a “new Ostpolitik”, referring to the Cold War-era detente strategy towards the Soviet Union pursued by Willy Brandt, SPD chancellor in the early 1970s.

The situation in Afghanistan is understandably the issue of the moment. Policymakers and commentators will digest the implications for Global Britain and the broader role of the West. Some have argued that the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the episode is that the UK needs closer foreign policy cooperation with European partners to reduce its dependence on the United States.

There are of course many areas where UK cooperation with the EU and individual member states, such as Germany and France in particular, will continue to be important and this can be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, it is worth noting the lack of a German, and therefore European, consensus on the major foreign policy challenges facing the West, particularly on Russia and China. Whether desirable or not, any ambitions for a more geopolitical or assertive EU have always been limited, among other reasons, by Germany’s reluctance or inability to take on a leadership role in such a project. There are few signs this is likely to change in the medium term and it is therefore not clear that there is much for the critics of Global Britain to reengage with.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.