By Nathan Hine
The 2021 German Federal Elections were always going to be a poignant moment as it marked the end of 16 years of Angela Merkel as Chancellor. But the historical significance of the election went further, as for the first time since 2002, the Social Democrats beat Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats and so find themselves in pole position to spearhead the next government. But is this really a vote for change or will Olaf Scholtz provide more of the same for Germany?
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Merkel found herself in the Chancellorship during the financial crisis, EU debt crisis, migrant crisis, Brexit, Trump and now COVID-19, and she managed to successfully guide Germany through it all.
So regardless of who is the next Chancellor, the huge foreign policy and diplomatic levers that Merkel was able to pull during her 16-year tenure will leave big shoes to fill.
On paper, a win for the SDP over the CDU/CSU looks like a vote for change over continuity following Merkel’s extended period in the Chancellorship.
But in reality, the four main parties (SPD, CDU/CSU, Green and FDP) campaigned on acting like Merkel and adopting the calm and stable leadership characteristics that the Chancellor displayed for the past decade and a half.
It was a campaign that was won on character over policy as despite the more left-wing menu offered by the SPD, the appearance of Olaf Scholz as Merkel’s natural successor was key to a SPD win.
By contrast, the fate of Armin Laschet and the CDU/CSU was not decided by their policy agenda, but by Mr. Laschet’s appearance at a German flood where he was seen laughing.
The summer floods meant that climate change was one of the biggest issues throughout the 2021 election, and one where the Green Party could have hammered their early lead to secure victory.
But after an early poll lead, Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock fell short of expectations as the young leader was mired in personal scandals which had a catastrophic effect on their prospects.
However, the Greens will still be the kingmakers in a future coalition with the FDP and either the SPD or the CDU/CSU which will put climate change at the forefront of the political agenda.
Tough action on climate change was at the forefront of the Greens manifesto with a series of pledges to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees by 2030 with a determination to make Europe the first carbon neutral region in the world.
But the makeup of the future government will be determined by Christian Lindner and the FDP who with 11% of the vote will hope to call the shots in coalition talks.
Aligned with the centre-right Christian Democrats, the FDP advocates lower taxes, more civil liberties and cutting back the welfare state.
In partnership with the SPD, the Greens would more than likely get huge spending to tackle climate change, the demands of the pro-business, low taxes FDP are likely to hinder their efforts.
So is the safe, secure and stable option right for Germany?
The world faces extreme challenges which demand extreme solutions and with Olaf Scholz, Germany is getting another stable, secure and diplomatic leader, but without the creativity and ambition that is needed.
Climate change was one of the key issues in Germany’s election yet the Greens came a distant third.
This outcome will sting for many young people in Germany as well as in Europe and around the world as for Germany to be led by a female Green politician could have provided the impetus for the west to get serious about climate change.
With that said, the world did not need another right-wing radical at the helm so it is encouraging that the AFD did worse than four years ago as it picked up just 10% of the vote. This demonstrates that Germany has firmly rejected extremist politics as a solution to its mounting problems at home and abroad. Germany will just hope that Scholz is the man for the job.
What does this mean for the rest of the world?
As the problems of Brexit begin to mount, the prospect of a traffic light coalition led by the SPD will not go down well in London as since Sunday’s result, Olaf Scholz waded in on the HGV driver shortage when he said: “The free movement of labour is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union.”
This is a clear slap in the face for Conservative ministers in London as they know the HGV crisis will continue to haunt them and Scholz has made it clear that he will not go out of his way to help them.
While Scholz will want to work collaboratively with the UK, he understands the most important foreign policy question will be in the European bloc as France seeks to exert its power and authority while Germany remains distracted with its internal affairs.
After the geopolitical tensions caused by AUKUS, Afghanistan and the procurement of COVID vaccines earlier this year, Emmanuel Macron is on the warpath and will be desperate to establish greater European strategic autonomy when France assumes the Presidency of the European Council in the first half of 2022.
France’s desire for European strategic autonomy is evidenced by the recent €3 billion defence deal Greek has signed with France to buy eight warships which the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has described as “a first step towards European defence autonomy.”
President Macron agreed and said, “Europe needs to stop being naïve and show that we have the power and capacity to defend ourselves.”
This will be the first major foreign policy dilemma for Scholz as greater European strategic autonomy will put his ambition of denuclearisation at risk with the demand to scale up Europe’s nuclear arsenal.
The US will also be putting the heat on Scholz as the demand to spend 2% of GDP on defence and next government will have to decide whether to replace the tornado aircraft with one that is certified to carry nuclear bombs.
The mood in Germany has never been more anti-war which makes these foreign policy questions over defence somewhat thorny, and ones which a younger, more courageous and possibly less diplomatic leader might take head on with little regard of the consequences.
The question for Europe and the US is will Scholz do the same..?
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