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.