Experts from Europe and across the globe weigh in on the range of domestic, European, and foreign policy priorities facing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the new coalition government in Berlin.
Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe
Germany’s Iran policy has been mainly handled by the Federal Foreign Office, with little involvement of the chancellor herself. Unlike the leaders of France or the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel has mostly shied away from a pronounced stance on either the proliferation threat of Tehran’s nuclear program or the economic opportunities of the 2015 deal. Yet this was not out of disinterest. It was because the chancellor was content with how (European) diplomacy operated. Now Merkel will not let her future coalition partners—the junior party traditionally holds the Foreign Office—change this course. The Iran deal is too important to become a political football inside the coalition, or indeed with the EU.
In fact, crunch time between the United States and Iran is looming, and important decisions are due before the new government in Berlin is in place. The liberal Free Democratic Party was out of national politics for the past four years and has little foreign policy competence to go by, with the exception of Alexander Lambsdorff, vice-president of the European Parliament, who has been elected to the Bundestag. The Green Party has been out of government for twelve years and is, if anything, more supportive of diplomacy and more critical of Trump’s bellicose policies than Merkel herself. It will be the incumbent foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who will have to deal with the coming crisis over Iran.
After that, it is unclear who the foreign ministry’s baton passes to. But one thing is certain: Germany will continue to defend the Iran deal alongside its European partners.
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The German election results are broadly positive for the transatlantic relationship. A committed transatlanticist at heart, Chancellor Angela Merkel will continue to actively engage U.S. President Donald Trump, despite their manifold policy and personality differences. In fact, the absence of the SPD from the future governing coalition might make it easier for Merkel to engage Washington going forward, although Trump’s immense unpopularity in Germany is bound to be exploited by her political opposition at home.
A “Jamaica” coalition consisting of CDU/CSU, the Green Party, and the liberal FDP would not significantly change much of Merkel’s current approach toward the transatlantic relationship. Both the Green Party (which contains a large faction of so-called “realos”) and the FDP are committed to the transatlantic partnership. Some notable policy differences are the Greens’ opposition to the 2 percent defense spending goal, and for NATO to take on counterterrorism tasks—both issues advocated by Trump. The Greens also oppose the TTIP trade deal (which is dead in the water, anyway), and want to engage U.S. states and civil society on climate issues. The FDP, on the other hand, wants a stronger German defense budget and a stronger EU defense role to complement NATO.
Once the new coalition is formed, we should expect continued German engagement in Washington, and efforts to manage the many contentious issues on the U.S.-German agenda such as Iran, energy sanctions, climate, and trade.
Peter KellnerJournalist, political commentator, and former president of YouGov
No British minister will admit as much, but in their hearts they know that Germany’s election result dents their hopes of securing an orderly, negotiated Brexit. The reason flows from the fact that Michel Barnier has little freedom of maneuver. He cannot stray from the guidelines set by the 27 EU member states on whose behalf he leads the negotiations with Britain. It will need a political decision by the EU Council of Ministers to agree any compromise at variance with those guidelines.
That is why Theresa May had pinned her hopes on her discussions with her fellow heads of government. And the key to unlocking the door to compromise was, and remains, Angela Merkel. Had Mrs. Merkel won a decisive victory in the German election, she would have the authority to lead the EU to such a deal. That, anyway, was Mrs. May’s hope. Instead, Mrs. Merkel is weakened. The German chancellor will be hemmed in by the coalition deal she is likely to make with both the Free Democrats and the Greens, as well as by the wishes of the EU’s other 26 member states.
As a result, Mrs. Merkel may be too weak to advance the kind of creative compromise she might wish to offer the UK. And without such a compromise, the risks of deadlock, already high, rise further.
Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
French President Emmanuel Macron counts among the losers of the German election. He had hoped that a renewed “grand coalition” would allow quick progress toward a French-German “roadmap” for EU reform. But now, any serious moves will have to wait for several months until a new German government is put together. Negotiations about a “Jamaica coalition” will be tough, and before a deal is struck, Merkel cannot enter into any commitments on EU reform.
For two of her partners, Europe is a sensitive issue. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union—decimated in the federal election—will move to the right ahead of the 2018 Bavarian state election, and the Free Democrats leader Christian Lindner has positioned his party within the German ordo-liberal tradition. Both parties will resist plans for fiscal transfers or risk sharing, including the special eurozone budget proposed by Macron.
This doesn’t mean that the idea of reenergizing the Franco-German axis is dead. All “Jamaicans” are fundamentally pro-European. On some elements of the agenda, such as internal security and defense, it should not be too difficult to reach agreement between Paris and Berlin. Angela Merkel will be keen to leave a positive European legacy, but the process of getting there has just become longer and much more complicated.
Christian OdendahlChief economist at the Centre for European Reform
It was always optimistic to assume that any German government would agree to further integration of the eurozone, along the lines of Emmanuel Macron’s earlier ideas of a large eurozone budget with common debt issuing capacity, or stronger commitment from surplus countries like Germany to spend. Despite her conciliatory tone, Angela Merkel would not have agreed to it, and it remains unclear how much the Social Democratic Party would have pushed for it.
This is why the fear of the Free Democrats (FDP) in the likely “Jamaica” coalition is overblown. But it is true that to show voters how they have made a difference, the FDP will aim to protect its reputation as the guardian of German economic orthodoxy. The end result will be, at most, a face-saving deal for Macron that will not make a difference economically.
How Germany spends its budget surplus is more important for Europe’s economy. The divisions in the next coalition will be deep, so papering over them with money will be one way to ensure a stable government. But how the European Central Bank (ECB) reacts is key. If the ECB tightens policy in return, leading to higher long-term interest rates and a stronger euro, the eurozone will gain very little from a German fiscal boost.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Ironically, whatever the shape of Germany’s next government, be it a “Jamaica” or a “grand” coalition, Ankara will likely find two of the parties that it recently declared as “enemies of Turkey” in the new governing group. Wrong calculus, it seems, especially if we consider that the co-chair of the Green Party, Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish origin and an outspoken critic of the current leadership in Ankara, could become Germany’s next foreign minister.
For German politicians and citizens—and for other EU nationals, myself included—the outrage caused by Turkey’s repeated evocations of the Nazi regime and World War II gas chambers has not gone away. These statements have left an indelible stain on the relationship; they have done damage beyond repair; and, more importantly, they are the very negation of the EU endeavor. Turkey shouldn’t count on much leniency from Germany’s next coalition.
The remaining hope is that EU governments and institutions will find a way forward to recalibrate EU-Turkey relations at a lower, yet still meaningful, level. Given the acrimony on both sides, it will take a lot of moderation in Ankara (not banking on another serving of outrage) and a lot of wisdom in Berlin and Brussels (striking the right balance between firmness and conditional openings).
Gwendolyn Sassenonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
The election results are bound to change the tone in German politics vis-à-vis Russia and Eastern Europe more generally, but not the substance of government policy.
The AfD will make its presence in the German parliament felt by calling for a relaxation of sanctions against Russia, which were put in place in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in the Donbas in 2014. On this issue, both the new Far Right and the Far Left (Die Linke) in national-level German politics hold similar positions.
Unlike the CDU (and, for the most part, the SPD), the liberal FDP and the Greens had included foreign policy—in particular, diverging positions on Russia—in their attempts to appeal to the electorate. The FDP’s leader, Christian Lindner, received strong criticism from the Greens for signaling his willingness to decouple the Minsk process and the Crimea issue from policy towards Russia.
However, in a “Jamaica” coalition—made up of the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens—the two smaller parties would effectively cancel each other out, leaving Merkel’s policy of continuity vis-à-vis Moscow in place. The new German government, and the SPD as the official opposition, will want to counter the influence of the AFD by distancing themselves from its rhetoric, thereby making a united critical stance on Russia the most likely scenario.
Dmitri TreninDirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center
The German election is unlikely to change Berlin’s policy toward Moscow. A “Jamaica” coalition (if it is formed) will include the Free Democrats, whose leader, Christian Lindner, favors a friendlier approach to Russia. However, the Russia-skeptic Green Party will also be there, on guard against any tilt toward the direction of the Kremlin. The Social Democrats with their legacy of Ostpolitik will be in the opposition, as will be the Left Party (Die Linke) and the AfD, who call for improved ties with Russia. The Bundestag’s foreign policy debate may become livelier, but Angela Merkel will probably continue her policy of standing up to Vladimir Putin on the issues of principle, while being careful to stay in touch with him.
This promises a generally cool, though not overtly adversarial, relationship between the new German coalition and Russia. Apart from the countervailing trends within her government, Merkel will have to take account of the intensifying hybrid war between the United States and Russia, in which Berlin, a model ally, will have to back Washington. Within the EU, where Germany is a natural leader, Merkel will have to accommodate the Poles and the Balts who are virulently anti-Russian. All this will probably preclude any warming to Moscow in Berlin. Should that happen, it may fall to Macron’s France to take the lead on Europe’s (still important) relations with its Eastern neighbor.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
To put it mildly, Angela Merkel’s bittersweet victory in the German election was not the best result that Emmanuel Macron could have hoped for. The French president is now facing a situation fraught with several impediments to his vision for Europe’s future. Weakened by her disappointing electoral score, Merkel will have to devote more time to countering far-right pressure and watering down some of her own European ambitions, notably on migration. Long delays in setting up an uneasy coalition government will prevent the chancellor from swiftly driving ahead whatever agenda on Europe she may agree with her coalition partners.
In addition, the inescapable inclusion in any coalition of the liberal Free Democratic Party, renowned for its reluctance to take up many French ideas about the future of Europe, will act as a brake to any integration effort, particularly on the eurozone. While sticking to its ambitious European plan, France may now have to play its tune with less robust tones—if only to avoid embarrassing the chancellor during her domestic maneuvers. Yet this will only delay the need to push swiftly for more integration, be it monetary, trade, migration, or security related.
At a time when Europe should be actively engaged in planning its future, the aftermath of the German election looks much like leaving the French somewhat alone on the battleground. The rest of Europe seems all too ready to wait for a signal from Berlin, but this may take some time to come.