The return of German politics

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Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as German Chancellor is coming to an end. Whatever feelings we have for her, she left her mark on a whole era. But political eras rarely end quietly, and “Mutti’s” long farewell is no exception.

German electoral politics have finally started to heat up. The first two state elections of what will be a great election year highlighted the possibility that the September 26 federal elections could produce a new governing coalition without Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and her sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union.

In Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, large losses for the CDU coincided with equally large gains for the Greens and a stable share of votes for the Free Democrats (FDP). Thus, it is now a question of a possible coalition “at the traffic lights” between the Social Democrats (red), the FDP (yellow) and the Greens. Suddenly, a change of government in Berlin seems like a realistic possibility.

Additionally, criticism of the Merkel government’s handling of the pandemic, including a staggering amount of Corruption in the purchase of masks – has become increasingly noisy. And for now, the power vacuum at the top of the CDU / CSU has not been filled. Unconvincing CDU leader Armin Laschet takes on CSU’s more charismatic Markus Söder.

Whoever wins, the CDU / CSU faces a tough battle, especially following resounding defeats in two states where the CDU has presided over a quasi-hereditary stronghold for decades. These losses, and the steady rise of the Greens, bode well for potential disaster for the CDU / CSU. With each passing day, the Germans find it hard to realize that Merkel’s Chancellery is actually coming to an end. His departure will be all the more painful given the power vacuum within the conservative camp.

The Merkel era largely coincided with the height of globalization, that is, with the opening of China’s massive export market. Domestically, however, it was characterized by resistance to reform and will be remembered more as a time of discussion than of political dynamism. Numerous working groups, stacked with the usual laudable experts, have been formed to discuss topics such as digitization. But nothing ever really came of it all.

Consider climate and energy policy. Although Germany gave up nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 in Japan, Merkel had reversed its decision to phase out nuclear power a few weeks earlier. Although the decision was nonetheless courageous, she had to perform a sort of “double turn” to help her party in the Baden-Württemberg regional elections. But the maneuver failed. Since 2011 Baden-Württemberg, a central German industrial region, has been governed by a Green Minister-President (Winfried Kretschmann).

Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s doors to refugees fleeing violence in Syria and other parts of the Middle East was even more courageous. But these achievements were exceptions that confirmed the rule. The Merkel era was characterized primarily by quietude, a characteristic that German voters, having re-elected her three times, obviously appreciated. With the economic sun apparently still there, why take the risk of reform or strategic daring?

After such a long period of appeasement, it’s no surprise that the country now faces massive structural challenges. Along with the European Commission and other EU member states, the German government will have to work hard to overcome the loss of confidence following the botched deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine in Europe. The fallout from the pandemic will need to be high on the agenda, regardless of who forms the next government.

As the pandemic has accelerated digitization, this momentum must now be harnessed to help Europe catch up with the United States and China. Success here and more generally on digital innovation would be a decisive contribution to European sovereignty, helping the German and European economies to remain competitive in the 21st century. This will require huge investments in research and development, as well as the modernization of education systems. Fortunately, the EU’s 750 billion euro ($ 884 billion) stimulus package, Next Generation EU, offers a historic opportunity to advance all of these goals.

The biggest challenge, however, is in greening the economy while protecting workers and maintaining social cohesion. Here the task is too big to be managed at the national level. This will have to be done collectively, at European level, through a European Union that has become a world power in its own right.

Fortunately, Donald Trump has left the White House (hopefully for good), and Europeans recognize that a well-functioning transatlantic alliance will be crucial to protecting their interests in this century. But to strengthen this relationship, Europe will have to share more of the security and political burden and do its part to meet the challenges introduced by China’s rise to power.

Neither task will be easy for Germany. But the elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate made it clear that Merkel’s era of rhetoric and inaction is over. Reality is knocking hard on Germany’s door, and later this year new goalkeepers could finally open it.


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