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Barring a last-minute surprise, Angela Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party will emerge victorious when Germany goes to the polls on Sunday.
Earlier in the year, the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s coalition partners over the past four years, briefly looked able to end her four-term rule.
However, the enthusiasm for the party’s new leader, former head of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, proved temporary, and the SPD is unlikely to do much better than its score in previous elections (23% in 2009 and almost 26% in 2013).
The election will nevertheless bring a change to German politics. The Free Democratic Party (FPD) will return to the Bundestag after a humiliating 2013 election failure to pass the 5% voting threshold required to enter parliament.
Joining them is likely to be the anti-EU populist and xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD), the first party to the right of the CDU to make it into the Bundestag post-1945.
The Greens and the Left, if elected, as is likely the case, will make the new Bundestag the most diverse since the foundation of the federal republic at the end of the Second World War. So, while Merkel looks set to remain Chancellor, she could be able to pick a new coalition partner: the FDP and the Greens are seen as potential candidates, along with the SPD.
The election will nevertheless bring a change to German politics. The Free Democratic Party will return to the Bundestag and the populist anti-EU Alternative for Germany will enter parliament for the first time
German foreign and defence policy has not played a major role during the campaign. The European refugee and migrant crisis has understandably been a partial exception to this. There have been more than 1.35 million asylum applications since 2015, but even this highly charged debate has primarily been confined to the domestic context of focusing on integration and internal security.
There are two reasons for this absence. First, foreign policy has not really got out the vote for the opposition, especially not in times of geopolitical instability and uncertainty. Merkel knows this, and as the electorate sees chaos all around – from Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia, to a nuclear North Korea and the Middle East – she sees it as sufficient to merely promise the electorate a continuation of business as usual.
Second, apart from the AfD and the Left, there is very little disagreement among German parties about the country’s foreign policy. The CDU and SPD are particularly closely aligned, not least because they have been governing together for eight of the past twelve years (2005–2009 and since 2013), with the foreign ministers coming from the SPD, and the ministers of defence from the CDU.
During the election campaign, both the CDU manifesto and incumbent SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel have advanced the same vision for Germany’s role in the world – to be a ‘stability anchor’ in a sea of chaos.
There is, however, disagreement over Germany’s defence budget. The CDU wants to significantly increase spending from 1.2% of GDP (€37 billion) to reach the 2% NATO target. The SPD – and the other parties for that matter – regard this as both unnecessary and unrealistic. Instead, they want more money invested in diplomacy and foreign development assistance.
Ultimately, while even a CDU-led government looks unlikely to fulfil the 2% pledge anytime soon, the budget for the Bundeswehr will almost certainly rise. There is a need for investment in the force, especially as its troops are involved in thirteen overseas missions, including in Afghanistan, Mali and against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).
Brexit looms large, and the politics of a number of eastern members are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the purported notion of European democratic values
However, despite the absence of foreign political issues in the campaign, the new government will have to face a series of major global challenges. Five stand out in particular:
First, within Europe, Germany has to find a way to deal with countries – such as Hungary and Poland – that refuse to take in refugees and thereby undermine already strained European unity.
Second, in Libya, the main transit country along the migration route to Europe, Germany and its European partners risk becoming complicit in aggravating an already desperate humanitarian crisis. By supporting local militias to keep migrants from embarking on the journey across the sea, they are fuelling Libyan instability while abandoning hundreds of thousands of people suffering in the militias’ makeshift detention camps.
Third, Berlin will also have to intensify its efforts to address the conditions that are leading so many people to leave their homelands in search of a better life in Europe.
The fourth foreign policy challenge for Germany, and perhaps the most one at a strategic level, is setting the tone and direction for the EU’s future. During the election campaign, both Merkel and Schulz have tirelessly advocated for the EU to assume a more proactive role on the world stage – this included the Chancellor’s comments in May that Europe should become more independent from its US and British allies.
However, before the EU can become a more robust and effective security and defence power, it has to deal with a host of internal issues. Brexit looms large, and the politics of a number of eastern members are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the purported notion of European democratic values.
The need for political and economic reforms is glaring, and if the EU is to have a future, Germany will have to take the lead in driving the necessary changes – probably in close cooperation with President Emmanuel Macron’s France.
An area where both the CDU and the SPD have already committed to a more decisive foreign policy direction is in the relationship with Turkey. Merkel and Schulz have both condemned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move to increasing authoritarianism and have demanded the immediate release of at least a dozen German citizens arrested for what Berlin is convinced are purely political reasons.
The need for political and economic reforms is glaring, and if the EU is to have a future, Germany will have to take the lead in driving the necessary changes
During last week’s TV election debate, both candidates declared their intention to formally cancel all EU accession talks with Ankara.
Finally, the new government will have to continue a diplomatic balancing act to maintain the vital transatlantic relationship with Trump, who is deeply disliked by German voters and has repeatedly criticised Germany on trade, defence and Berlin’s immigration policy.
Meanwhile, Merkel has become a staunch opponent of Putin, whom she sees as a bully intent on undermining European security. But at the same time the government has to balance this with Germany’s reliance on Russian energy supplies and the left’s reluctance to take an overtly critical line towards Moscow.
The German election appears to be all but decided. But will Germany hold a pivotal ‘strong and stable’ influence in Europe?
Banner image: Once and future German Chancellor Angela Merkel is looking to continue to be 'strong and stable'. Courtesy of Olaf Kosinsky/Wikipedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.