Thorsten Benner Co-Founder and Director of the Global Public Policy Institute
Germany will be focused inward in the coming year, dealing with the fallout from a rapidly changing party system. It’s unclear whether the country with Europe’s largest economy will have a stable government when Berlin assumes the rotating presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers in July 2020.
The one positive side effect is that this will hopefully put out of business the cottage industry of commentaries on how a quick fix of German leadership could and should sort out Europe’s future and—in passing—save the liberal world order. None of that leadership will be forthcoming in the short term, even with a fresh federal election. A possible new government involving the Greens will likely look less tired and battle worn. But it will have to deal with the same fault lines on key issues such as military spending, eurozone reform, migration, and the climate crisis.
The good news is that however hypocritical and selfish it may be at times, German foreign policy won’t be dominated by a nativist Germany First approach in the short term. The real danger is that Germany’s failure to ensure future prosperity, and the resulting structural economic crisis, will lay the foundations for a true radicalization of German politics.
Sophia Besch Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform
Europe needs Germany to help the continent respond to external challenges such as the changes in the relationships with China and the United States, and to lead internal EU reform.
But Andrea Nahles stepping down as leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is just the latest episode of German politics in crisis mode. Berlin had to pause for six months to form a government after the last federal election in 2017 and never really pressed play again after that. With both parties in the governing coalition under pressure not to lose more voters, they are bound to take fewer risks on issues that require hard choices, such as climate change.
The issue runs deeper than party politics, however. After fifteen years of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s slow-and-steady leadership style, Berlin is struggling to respond to new challenges with new ideas. And on many EU reform proposals, it wasn’t political crises that held Germany back but a solid and long-standing consensus against issues like debt mutualization or a sizable common budget.
Europe cannot afford to give up waiting for German leadership; it has no alternative. So the new wild card to look out for is the Green party. While it is still unclear whether an early election will be called to propel the Greens into government, the party has a policy agenda that goes beyond climate issues. The Greens are already questioning Germany’s commitment to “black zero” budgets with no net borrowing, and calling for more investment. As Germany is trying to prepare for a post-Merkel future, the Greens might bring new momentum.
Krzysztof Bledowski Council Director and Senior Economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
No, it is not. That said, German politics always ripple over to the EU eventually.
The crisis in the SPD foreshadows a realignment of political preferences away from big-tent coalitions. Voters increasingly opt for special-interest parties on the basis of geography (The Left), culture (Alternative for Germany, AfD), the environment (Greens), or business (Free Democratic Party, FDP). German and European political stability depends on skillful reconciliation of these multifaceted preferences. There is no point in mourning the death of an idea whose time has passed.
Germany is ripe for disruption in domestic politics for good reasons. Over time, a cozy duopoly has muffled differences between the two bourgeois parties of center right and center left, dulling the sharp political edge that is required to fire up healthy competition for ideas. The challenge now is to channel special interests into workable policies. The good news is that 77 percent of the current members of the German parliament, or Bundestag, belong to parties that strongly support EU integration. The Germans will remain comfortably pro-European even in the face of the creative destruction of the country’s party landscape.
Nothing concentrates minds more than a dose of invigorating political competition for solutions to pressing problems—including those facing the EU. Europe should embrace this process and not fear the implosion of a political party or two in Germany.
Heather A. ConleySenior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Since 1945, Germans have always prioritized political (and price) stability above all else. Although stability is a positive attribute—business leaders crave certainty—desperately clinging to it for its own stake and at all costs leads to damaging political stagnation. For the last several years, Germany’s stagnation has allowed more dynamic or extreme political voices—such as the Greens and the AfD, respectively—to grow stronger as the two main German parties have grown weaker.
This stagnation has reached such a point that even German business leaders are demanding new, dynamic policies and leadership to better prepare Germany for future global competition. If Germany cannot progress politically or economically, neither can Europe—which is why Germany’s political stagnation is particularly dangerous for Europe. The situation in Berlin has also laid bare long-standing differences with Paris on economic and European integration policy. These differences are exacerbated by Brexit and frequent Italian clashes with the EU over economic and migration policy.
Globally, great-power competition heightens Germany’s sense of crisis and anxiety about the future, reinforcing its need for political stability. Tragically, this vicious cycle cannot produce the positive and confident vision for Germany and Europe that is urgently needed for future generations.
John R. Deni Research Professor of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute
I’m not yet convinced Germany is in political crisis at the moment. Certainly it’s in a period of transition as the leader of the dominant party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), makes way for another. But the SPD was bound to decline the longer it stayed in a governing coalition and lost the ability to function as the opposition. The AfD plateaued some time ago as migration lost salience, while the Greens have been on the rise for many months due to the problems facing the SPD. And political fragmentation has been a dominant theme across much of Europe for several years.
So, it’s not a crisis that Germany’s in, but rather a period of political flux. If this were 2010 (when the sovereign-debt crisis erupted), 2014 (when Russia invaded parts of Ukraine), or 2015 (when 1 million migrants entered Europe), then this period of change in Germany—the continent’s economic and political hegemon—would indeed be dangerous for Europe. Thankfully, though, Europe faces no crisis of the magnitude of those in 2010, 2014, or 2015, at least at the moment, so the continent can afford to have its most important power enter a period of transition. I’m not worried . . . yet.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of the U.S. Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
François Heisbourg Special Adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research
Stability and consistency cease to be virtues when they morph into paralysis and complacency. Six years of deadlock and lack of imagination in Germany’s governing grand coalition have left Berlin in a state of self-satisfied inertia at a time when the state of Europe and the world cries out for initiative at all levels: strategic, economic, and societal. In turn, Germany’s stasis has dire effects on the EU’s ability to cope with disruption, with the all-important French-German relationship too often reduced to Tibetan prayer-wheel make-believe.
Therefore, this so-called political crisis is to be welcomed as an opportunity for change. The travails of clapped-out popular parties should not inspire fear, because there is new blood ready to energize the system. There is no institutional crisis: the Greens and the FDP, in coalition with the CDU, can be accommodated by Germany’s flexible constitution.
A more dynamic Germany with a Green component will not always be a comfortable partner, notably for France, nor will the Greens’ divisions make life easy. But at least there will be a real and open debate from which compromises can be forged, rather than the chloroform of the grand coalition. It is under such conditions that French-German relations have sprung to life in the past.
Jana Puglierin Head of Program at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations
Yes, because since Germany’s last federal election in 2017, German foreign and European policy has been largely paralyzed. The “new dawn for Europe” that then SPD leader Martin Schulz negotiated into the coalition agreement between Germany’s two governing partners was cancelled at short notice—and French President Emmanuel Macron was left out in the rain.
Instead, the grand coalition is concerned with itself. The SPD is trying to stop its freefall by advocating peace more than any other German party. As a result, it preaches more Europe in its security policy but prevents a truly European security and defense policy by going it alone at the national level. This begins with a strict approach to its arms-export policy, which endangers stronger integration of the European arms industry. The SPD also rejects the NATO goal of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of GDP on defense—even though Germany has committed to regularly increasing its defense budget.
While the SPD is making further Europeanization in this area more difficult, the CDU is more or less blocking everything related to the euro. The coalition is therefore standing in its own way. Upcoming regional elections in three former East German states mean that the CDU and SPD will continue to campaign against each other in the coming months instead of governing together constructively. Europe is at a disadvantage.
Constanze Stelzenmüller Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings
Germany’s political crisis is dangerous on several levels. With the UK consumed by Brexit and France’s President Emmanuel Macron on the defensive against the extreme left and right in his country, Germany is needed to provide direction and momentum in the coming months, as the EU forms a new government. An inward-looking, distracted Germany will be able to provide neither—at a time when the EU is buffeted by the forces of political and economic fragmentation.
But the current moment is also dangerous for another reason: this isn’t just the crisis of specific leadership figures, a grand coalition, or centrist parties—it’s a crisis generated by more than a decade of missed opportunities to invest in political, economic, and social innovation. Because Germany is so deeply integrated with neighbors near and far, a German failure to modernize has repercussions far beyond the country’s borders.
Maximilian Terhalle Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at Winchester University and Senior Research Fellow at the Grand Strategy Program of King’s College London
Yes. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a lame duck ever since she dispensed with her duties as head of the CDU. Citizens and policymakers sense that her halfway withdrawal from power has created a huge psychological vacuum. Many thought new CDU Leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer would fill it and add a new dynamic to domestic and international politics. In truth, Merkel’s concept of power transition is failing as she has shielded Kramp-Karrenbauer from public criticism when the latter should have demonstrated her leadership skills—although Kramp-Karrenbauer’s own mistakes have further contributed to this malaise.
This doesn’t augur well for the four strategic choices ahead. The first is to depart from Merkel’s emotional despise for U.S. President Donald Trump and toward a realistic understanding of America’s strategic outlook, including its coming realignment with Moscow. Second is to consider China a ruthless great power that doesn’t accept international law, regardless of Berlin’s legalistic approach. Third is to discern the significant linkages between the East Asian and Eastern European theaters: if the United States and China fight, Russian President Vladimir Putin will attack NATO’s Eastern flank. Finally, Kramp-Karrenbauer should review Berlin’s inward-looking self-perception.
Defending the West requires Germany to grasp the bigger picture of great-power rivalries and relearn the art of strategy.