Understanding the German Elections: Waiting for Godot

Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni
Staff Blogger at SAIS Europe

Germany’s national election this past Sunday was the event European leaders, policy-makers and technocrats had been waiting for all summer. Given the sheer size of the German economy within the European Union and the fact that Germany has been by far the largest net contributor in recent Eurozone rescue packages, it is impossible for the European Union to make any serious decisions about the management of the Euro crisis without Germany’s willing participation in such discussions. EU diplomats had attributed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hesitation to accelerate reform negotiations in the Eurozone to the Chancellor’s unwillingness to make any more controversial commitments to Europe ahead of the election. Yet those who had hoped that negotiations about the creation of a banking union in the Eurozone would pick up quickly after September 22 must have found the election results somewhat anticlimactic.

Despite the resounding victory of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU) party, which secured 41.5% of the vote, Merkel will still need to negotiate a coalition agreement with one of the other German political parties if she hopes to move forward with these negotiations. The German electoral system makes it difficult for a single party to achieve absolute majority, reflecting the importance of checks and balances in Germany’s political system. The electoral ruin of the CDU’s previous coalition partner, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), means that Merkel will have to either seek to form a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), or to negotiate a coalition deal with the Greens, who won 8.4% of the vote. Many CDU members are reluctant to govern with the Greens, who are seen as too leftward leaning. Yet the SPD is understandably concerned that another grand coalition of the type that they signed up to between 2005 and 2009 would lead to an electoral debacle akin to 2009’s fiasco. And while the coalition negotiations continue in Germany, the atmosphere in Brussels is one of anticipation. As French liberal MEP Sylvie Goulard remarks, “We are waiting for the Council [of finance ministers] like those others once waited for Godot.”

Unfortunately, it looks like EU diplomats will have to continue waiting for decisive German leadership in the management the Euro crisis, and this is so for reasons that go far beyond the difficulty of forming a governing coalition under the German electoral system.

In saying this, I do not wish to underplay the success that Chancellor Merkel’s has had in managing the Eurozone crisis during the past three years. Contrary to popular belief in many EU countries, Merkel has in fact been quite effective in holding the Eurozone together at moments when the odds were against her, even though she has committed herself to the smallest number of reforms required to bring about that result. Furthermore, the two largest center-right and center-left parties gained the lion’s share of support during the election on Sunday, together securing 67.2% of the vote, while the anti-European “Alternative für Deutschland” gained 4.7%, which is significant but not large enough to allow the party to enter the parliament. Compare this to the electoral annihilation of other mainstream moderate parties in Europe, such as Greece’s social democratic PASOK and Italy’s populist “Five Star Movement”—it is evident that moderate pro-European parties still have the upper hand in German politics.

But the fact that there is little cause for immediate alarm about catastrophe in the Eurozone emanating from German politics does not make the German election a good day for democracy and effective leadership in the European Union. The Euro crisis was the issue most conspicuously absent from both Merkel’s and her challenger’s, SPD’s Peer Steinbruck, campigns.. The reason for such avoidance is obvious: German voters are overwhelmingly hostile to debt forgiveness, and 70% object to any suggestion of direct fiscal transfers to Eurozone countries (FT 4-9-2013). The specter of a “debt union”, where, according to the leading German newspaper, Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung, “the sweet life on credit [continues] at the expense of the last solid borrowers of Europe” (FAZ 23-6-2012), looms large in German political discourse. It is clear that the German political leaders were unwilling to pay the electoral price of standing up for their vision of the European Union. Yet both Merkel’s actions and Steinbrück’s rhetoric imply that both politicians do indeed see Germany’s future as being inextricably tied to the European Union.

The decision to avoid talking about the Eurozone crisis was bad for popular support of the European Union, since it gave BILD-type Eurosceptic rhetoric a free ride during this important public debate. It was bad for the prospects of finding a solution to the crisis, since Merkel now has no effective mandate to take decisive actions to alleviate the debt crisis in Southern Europe. Even worse, the decision was bad because it is by no means certain that Merkel’s recipe for solving the Eurozone crisis through internal devaluation in countries facing unprecedented GDP contraction and unemployment rates has any chance of success—it is only through democratic discussion that alternative economic policies can be identified and encouraged. Finally, the decision to avoid talking about Europe demonstrates that the German political elite seriously underestimates the intelligence of the German people, a people who have never been exposed to substantial debate about European issues. As Jürgen Habermas writes:

“What exactly does ‘unpopular’ mean? If a political solution is sensible, it should be reasonable to ask a democratic electorate to accept it…Anything else is patronizing deception.”

In Germany, strands of political opinion exist that assert that Germany has profited enormously from Eurozone membership, and that the country should firmly commit itself to overcoming the crisis and to improving the human tragedy that is taking place in Southern Europe. It is high time the German political elite gave voice to those opinions, at the same time giving an end to the long wait for effective leadership in the Eurozone crisis.