Germany’s Election Is a Postwar Watershed in More Ways Than One
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- At the edge of the Black Forest in southwest Germany, one of Europe’s great rivers performs a conjuring trick. For roughly half the year, the Danube, here in its infancy and a mere 20 feet or so across, disappears into the porous rock below, traveling through fissures in the limestone to reemerge, some 60 hours later, several miles farther to the south. From there it flows into Lake Constance and enters one of Europe’s other major waterways, the Rhine River. So from this one spot, depending on seasonal conditions, the water will either travel east as the Danube to empty into the Black Sea or flow as the Rhine all the way to the North Sea.
It’s a tempting analogy for Germany’s federal election next month, since its course is similarly not yet set but the outcome is sure to ripple throughout Europe and to shores beyond. With Angela Merkel, the longtime chancellor, leaving office, the contest is surprisingly open, and the same corner of the country where the Danube runs underground potentially points the way ahead.
If the previous election in 2017 was all about the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the story of the campaign for the Sept. 26 vote is the further decline of the governing parties and the surge in support for the Greens. The intervening four years have seen a major shift in attitudes toward climate change and the adoption of green technologies, and polls suggest the party’s moment may have come. The question is whether a traditionally cautious electorate is ready to follow the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, run by the Greens, in making the leap.
Germany certainly feels like it’s at a turning point. The world is changing, and Germans aren’t sure they recognize it any more. The U.S., after enabling the nation’s post-World War II rehabilitation and providing security guarantees throughout the Cold War, is no longer seen as a dependable ally, largely but not exclusively because of Donald Trump. A Pew Research Center poll from June found that although sentiment has improved markedly since Joe Biden became president, Germans have the least favorable views of the U.S. of any Group of Seven nation.
At the same time, China has grown to become Germany’s No. 1 trading partner outside Europe, overtaking the U.S. in 2016. But China has since been labeled a systemic rival and strategic competitor by the European Commission, and to add to the discomfort, Washington is pushing Berlin to more clearly align with the U.S. in its standoff with Beijing.
At home, the auto industry is undergoing massive upheaval as the combustion engine enters its dying days, and Germany’s dominance in the luxury sector won’t shield it from the job losses that are coming with the transition to electric motors. More fundamentally, the pandemic and the global tensions it exposed have laid bare the limits of an export-led economic model, however sought-after the country’s manufacturing skills.
Perhaps most unsettling of all, Merkel is standing down, depriving Germans of their rock of restrained stability. Even if there is a desire for change—and there is—she remains Germany’s most popular politician, a singular achievement after some 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy and dominant country. Germany will have to face the coming challenges without her.
“It’s really a watershed election,” says Chantal Kopf, the lead candidate for the Greens in Freiburg, a city in Baden-Wuerttemberg known for its 13th century cathedral, a university that’s more than 500 years old, and its progressive, climate-friendly politics. The Greens, she says, are “fighting for a new beginning.”
For a while this spring, with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc adrift, it seemed like the Greens were the natural successors. Fielding a chancellor candidate—40-year-old Annalena Baerbock—for the first time in their history, they briefly led in the polls with a platform of aggressive climate action, a “values-based” foreign policy, and an economic agenda that would overturn what French President Emmanuel Macron has called Berlin’s “fetish” for balanced budgets. They have since fallen back but still look likely to enter a coalition government with their strongest showing ever.
At 26, Kopf is vying to be part of the new wave in one of the party’s most winnable seats. And for her, a new beginning means Germany stepping up in the world and engaging more forcefully. That translates to forging a clear European position on China, calling out human rights violations in Russia, and more energetically defending LGBTQ rights in Poland and Hungary.
“We have a huge responsibility as an economic power, especially within the European Union, and there are so many issues where I think especially the German government has to be more assertive and active,” says Kopf. “A lot of other countries are looking at us and wondering what our path will be.”
It’s a familiar dilemma. “Too big for Europe, too small for the world,” was Henry Kissinger’s assessment of “poor Germany.” Margaret Thatcher opposed Germany’s 1990 reunification on the grounds that it would create a European giant dominating the continent to the detriment of the U.K. and France. In fact, questions over Germany’s outsize influence on the balance of power date to the 19th century, even before Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck forged an empire in 1871. The end of that century saw the beginnings of democracy and liberalism in Germany, but it’s mostly regarded as marking the descent into darkness, war, and ultimately genocide.
So while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Brexit government feel able to blithely embark on a bid to recreate Britain’s “buccaneering” past before the age of European integration, Merkel and the German establishment are guided by the determination to steer a course as far from history as possible. And that creates a predicament when it comes to international burden-sharing and generally matching Germany’s economic might with political action.
As far back as 2011, Poland’s then-Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski implored Germany to lead, saying, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity.” Today, Paris is urging Germany to bolster the EU’s “strategic autonomy” as a genuine third power beside the U.S. and China, while Washington is pressing Berlin to play its part in shoring up the global order, starting with pulling its weight in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“The essential issue is that Germany is a unified nation-state, a huge power both in Europe and the world, and it still hasn’t managed to define its role,” says Katja Hoyer, a historian and the author of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918. “How much longer as one of the largest economies in the world can you sit there and watch people take sides and pretend that this is nothing to do with you?”
Germany has taken steps in recent years to define its place. Gerhard Schroeder, who was born in 1944 and so became the first chancellor not to have known the war, sanctioned Germany’s first combat mission since World War II by joining NATO’s aerial bombing of Serbia in 1999, and he sent troops to Afghanistan after Sept. 11. Under 67-year-old Merkel—Germany’s first woman chancellor, the first from the former communist east, and the first born after the war—military personnel are now deployed in 12 operations on three continents. She’s taken an active role in international relations, admitting 1.3 million refugees, helping to broker the Minsk peace process with Russia after it invaded Ukraine, and acting as the West’s bridge to Vladimir Putin.
But often her actions have been interpreted as flagrantly mercantilist or in Germany’s national interest, as in the cases of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, the EU-China investment accord, or the EU deal she negotiated with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to keep migrants in Turkey.
Surprisingly to some, it’s the Greens who want to shake all that up. In reality, the party has long understood the importance of foreign policy. Joschka Fischer served as Green foreign minister in Social Democratic Chancellor Schroeder’s two terms, when the party almost split under the strain of balancing its pacifist roots with international commitments. Baerbock could face similar pressures but still wants to go further, telling an Atlantic Council forum in May that Germans must “take more responsibility for their own security,” even if that doesn’t stretch to meeting NATO’s defense spending targets, which she says are outdated.
Baerbock was 8 years old when the Berlin Wall fell; she’s grown up in a post-reunification world. For her it’s natural that Germany should present itself as a global player, unencumbered by excessive caution. Projections show her guiding the Greens to win about three times the number of Bundestag seats Fischer ever achieved, and she intends to use that presence to push “an active German foreign policy.”
The Greens want Germany to step up internationally, but they know that requires building confidence at home. Baden-Wuerttemberg offers one version of what that might mean. Home to Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler and Porsche, it has the second-lowest unemployment rate in Germany, behind neighboring Bavaria. If it were a country, Baden-Wuerttemberg would be the ninth-biggest economy in the EU, larger than Austria. It’s been run by the Greens for the past decade. Although it was affluent before the Greens, they’ve nurtured what they inherited, with the result that State Premier Winfried Kretschmann won a third term in March.
Baerbock, who represents a district in Potsdam, outside Berlin, wants to do for Germany what Kretschmann has done in his region: coax it toward a more proactive stance without frightening off voters. And so proposed tax increases are coupled with plans for a €500 billion ($590 billion) green investment program and promises of government aid to help industry with the transition. Baerbock topped a poll of business leaders’ preferred next chancellor in April.
Yet what the party has won in perceptions of policy competence it may have lost through Baerbock’s blunders, after she was accused of embellishing her CV and failing to provide citations for sections of her book that were copied. The heady poll leads of April and May have evaporated, and the Greens now trail the CDU-led bloc of Armin Laschet and are vying with the Social Democratic Party for second place.
Germany faces the unprecedented prospect of a three-way race, as the ruling bloc continues to sink under Laschet—a jovial if gaffe-prone candidate who heads Germany’s most populous region, North Rhine-Westphalia—while the SPD rallies under Olaf Scholz, the finance minister and vice chancellor whom voters see as a safer hand at the helm. Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban injects another layer of unpredictability if criticism of the government resonates and migration returns as a campaign theme.
Baden-Wuerttemberg offers the most alluring chance for the Greens to fight back and take districts from the CDU. The party’s best hopes of winning direct mandates—as opposed to seats awarded via the proportional system—include Stuttgart, the regional capital; Karlsruhe, the seat of the German Constitutional Court; and the university cities of Heidelberg and especially Freiburg.
The reason for the party’s popularity in the region, says former Freiburg mayor, Dieter Salomon, goes back to the 1970s, when academics and students joined with the local farming community to oppose a planned nuclear power plant at nearby Wyhl on the Rhine. The unlikely alliance of radical and conservative forces triumphed; it was a turning point for the anti-nuclear movement and for Freiburg, which became a green hot spot. The city today displays more laid-back efficiency than radical tendencies. Its center is off-limits to private cars, with electric trams and bicycles taking their place. Digital information boards in public spaces count the volume of solar or wind energy generated and consumed. Some 85% of wealth creation in Freiburg comes from services, mostly in life sciences and health care, with just 13% from industry.
The Danube sinkhole lies to the west of Freiburg, through the manicured farmland of the Black Forest. In late July, instead of a dry riverbed there, as might be expected in high summer, the water advanced powerfully between its banks, churning brown with sediment, evidence of the flooding that had overwhelmed states to the north the previous week. Shock at the death and destruction wrought by the flooding was similarly still swirling through Germany, along with a sense of the need for possibly painful adjustment ahead.
The term watershed is thought to derive from the German Wasserscheide. Is Germany ready for one? The nature of coalition government is compromise, which tends to rule out dramatic changes in direction. Salomon, 61, who now heads the city’s chamber of industry and commerce, thinks the Greens will most likely enter government and focus on climate and foreign policy, letting Laschet’s conservatives look after the economy and taxes. If that doesn’t sound like radical change, it’s a sign of “unbelievable stability,” he says. The pandemic has sown insecurity worldwide, and “a stable government is worth a lot.”
As for Merkel, critics see her legacy as giving an opening to the far right on the back of the refugee crisis by dragging her CDU to the center, diluting its identity and hastening its demise as the last Volkspartei, or broad-based party. But look around. Just about everywhere else has succumbed to radicalism of a different kind: Poland’s Law & Justice party, Trump’s Republicans, Brexit. By that measure, Merkel has managed to keep extremists at bay—the AfD is polling below its 2017 result—and her party in the mainstream.
Perhaps that is Germany’s quiet revolution. The country may not be ready just yet to step out from the shadow of its own history, but each successive chancellor moves farther. The Greens look set for government, yet even if they are not, aggressive climate action will still be the glue that binds the next coalition, with leaders setting low carbon standards for Europe and beyond. Donald Tusk, who observed Merkel closely for years in his capacity as Poland’s prime minister and then as EU council president, said in an interview earlier this year that he doesn’t expect a revolution from Germany’s election, but rather “continuity.” That may not constitute a watershed for some, but arguably it’s enough for Germany, and the world.
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