Germany seeks a new direction after the Merkel era

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These were the elections of the “first time”. For the first time in Federal German history, the ballot box gave the Country a fragmented vote, which made it necessary to form a government made up of not two, but three political forces. For the first time, a party that won the elections failed to obtain 31% of the vote. For the first time, the two parties that have governed the country for thirty years – the Cdu and the Spd – have failed to reach 50% of the Country’s consensus. Two weeks after the 26 September vote, it is not easy to draw a balance. The elections that close the era of Angela Merkel crown Olaf Scholz, Minister of Finance, candidate of the Spd, as the real winner. The numbers – the SPD obtained 25.8% against the Cdu’s 24.1% – seem to indicate a small victory, and such was the case. But the success of Scholz, a candidate not without opposition from the party leadership and the protagonist of a textbook electoral comeback, makes him the natural heir to Merkel’s political legacy.

The first loser: the status quo

Armin Laschet, the secretary of the Cdu, who is ready to resign after an electoral meltdown and a campaign marked by gaffes and embarrassments, is part of the opposite group. For the Cdu-Csu bloc, this is the worst result ever at the polls. Here, too, the numbers can be deceptive: the two slim points separating the Christian Democrats from the Social Democrats encapsulate a political debacle. Two examples are enough to give an idea: the overtaking of the SPD in Berlin and in the constituency of Rügen. Here, in the Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Merkel had won eight consecutive times since 1990. The extreme left-wing Linke party was also defeated. Only victory in three single-member constituencies allowed the party to enter the Bundestag despite its meagre result below the minimum threshold (4.9%). Suspended in limbo, somewhere between success and disappointment, remain the other three parties in double figures. The Greens, despite their record result (14.4%), have been downgraded on the German political scene. An electoral campaign marked by more than a few missteps forced the leader and candidate, Annalena Baerbock, to reconsider her dream for the chancellery. The result, however, makes the Grünen, together with the Fdp Liberals led by Christian Lindner (11.5%), the real point of the balance in the consultations for the government opened in Berlin. The ultra-right Afd is not making a dent, with 11.6% of the vote, one point below the 12.6% that made it the third national party four years ago. However, we cannot speak of defeat: internal disagreements and judicial investigations have not prevented the Afd from withstanding the impact and maintaining a hard core in the country, especially in the eastern Länder. The real loser of the German vote, however, is the status quo. With Merkel’s exit from the scene, the season of the “Gross-Koalition” is over and a period of consultations is beginning, which promises to be long and with an uncertain outcome. In the meantime, the Chancellor’s deputy will have to continue – by now close to surpassing the record of Konrad Adenauer and Helmuth Kohl in government – with the far from remote risk of opening a power vacuum and a phase of instability not only in Berlin, but also in Brussels.

Scholz’s (not so) secret recipe

Two years ago, in June 2019, Olaf Scholz suffered a humiliating defeat in the Spd secretariat race, beaten by two anonymous left-wing leaders of the party, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken. Today Merkel’s finance minister is smiling. Except for unforeseen events, he knows he will be the next chancellor and welcomes with seraphic calm the procession of politicians ready to enter his government. How to explain such an unexpected political parabola? How did a party that until the summer was pinned at 15% in the polls manage to rise to the top? An eloquent answer can be found on the August cover of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Scholz stands out in the centre: his face relaxed into a smile, his hands joined to form a rhombus. It is not just any old rumble: it is the “Merkel rumble”, the gesture that has accompanied the Chancellor on her public outings for thirty years, a sign of “normality” for the Germans who are now longing for normality, after a year and a half of pandemic. Here lies the heart of Scholz’s political intuition. There is only one way to take the place of the ‘Kanzlerin’: imitate her. In an interview with the Financial Times in June, the Social Democratic candidate had revealed the cards: the September elections would not be played out so much on the policy proposals put forward, but ‘on the person we want to see governing the Country’. This personalisation of the electoral challenge characterised Scholz’s entire campaign. On the one hand, there was the systematic use of the leader’s image, projected in the foreground on leaflets, posters and screens. On the other, there was the methodical and almost brazen reference to the Chancellor’s legacy and the use of a sober, pragmatic communication style. Reliability and popularity were the two winning factors in the Merkel equation. Scholz has been able to adopt them, to the point of adopting an election slogan used by the leader of the Cdu in the 2013 campaign: “You know me”. The days of “Scholzomat”, the nickname given to Scholz when, then general secretary of the SPD, he defended even Gerhard Schröder‘s most unpopular policies with a “robotic” voice and a straight face, are long gone. What might once have seemed like apathy can now become confidence. A winning weapon.

Defeated, but crucial: the cards of the Greens and Liberals

From the moment the votes were counted, it was clear that of the two paths to government suggested on the eve of the election – an alliance of the Greens and Liberals with the Cdu (“Jamaica Coalition”) or with the SPD (“Traffic Light Coalition”) – only one is viable. Politics is of course an unpredictable art, but today all the signs point to the possibility of creating a progressive alliance that confines the conservative Cdu-Csu bloc to the opposition. The road to the ‘Traffic Light’ is nevertheless paved with obstacles. Much will depend on the ability to compromise of the two kingmakers, the Greens and the Liberals, and on the success of Scholz’s mediation. The talks in Berlin began in absolute secrecy. Not a single communiqué has made its way through the ongoing consultations, demonstrating the fine line on which they are treading. There is no lack of harmony between Baerbock’s and Lindner’s parties. On some fronts, such as civil liberties and civil rights, the overlap is almost complete. Such is the case with the promotion of gender equality and the legalisation of cannabis, or the vote for 16-year-olds. On foreign and security policy, too, their respective agendas sometimes overlap. Nevertheless, there are still gaps that are difficult to overcome. In the words of Robert Habeck, co-leader and founder of the Greens, ‘two worlds are colliding’. It is on the economy that the most difficult part of the negotiations will be built.

In the background there are two very different visions of the State: the Greens want more of it to cover the green policies at the heart of the programme, the Liberals want less. Preliminary contacts (Vorsondierungen) have shown the extent of the gulf between the parties. It will be difficult to reach an agreement on taxes – the Greens want to increase taxes on high incomes and wealth, the FDP has promised to cut them – it will be even more difficult to unravel the most tangled knot, the one surrounding budget policies. Here, on the possible return of austerity, the success of Operation Traffic Light will be decided. Unlike the Greens, who in the election campaign thundered against the rigorist front in Europe, Lindner’s Liberals are advocating a return to the pre-pandemic status quo and a rigid application of the “Schwarze null”, the “zero rule” embedded in the Constitution: under “normal conditions” the deficit must not exceed 0.35% of GDP. A possible and at the same time highly contested solution – proposed by a Bruegel institute study prepared for the Ecofin Council meeting of 10-11 September – foresees the separation of green investments from the deficit account, a sort of “golden rule” reserved for ecological spending.

But the game is first and foremost political. Lindner, for his part, makes no secret that he is aiming for the most coveted ministry, that of Finance. It is a key post that would guarantee the party a specific weight in the coalition, avoiding repeating the mistake made at the time of the government with the SPD and the Cdu between 2009 and 2013, when the Fdp was “crushed” in the Gross-Koalition, recording a record drop in consensus in the subsequent general elections. The Liberals now “have to” govern, former SVD vice-chancellor Sigmal Gabriel recently commented. At the same time, the outcome of the negotiations in Berlin will necessarily have repercussions on the new course of economic policy in Brussels. The overcoming of the Stability Pact during the pandemic – achieved thanks to Merkel’s decisive approval – cannot last forever, the Liberals are now thundering.

What does this mean for Italy?

The political confusion in Berlin makes it difficult to understand what impact the vacuum left by Merkel in Berlin will have on Italy. Drawing a political “lesson” from the election result is a laborious and perhaps even pointless exercise. If anything, we can talk about a trend at European level. The September vote sets the Country, which has always been a bastion of stability in Europe, on a path that has long been trodden by other central and southern European countries, including Italy. A fragmented political system, a government built on the fragile balance between (very) different parties and interests. The crisis of the Cdu-Csu is certainly reflected in the broader crisis of European popularism, crushed between a current that looks sympathetically at the sovereignist experience – this is the case of the resigning Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz – and another that pushes the popular family towards more liberal and progressive positions. The result of the German Greens – defeated yet decisive – signals the opening up of a political space for environmentalist policies that is no longer confined to single figures and which, however, is still struggling to become a majority. Finally, Afd’s stability testifies to the existence of a “hard core” of the European sovereignist right that remains on the fringes of political life (in Berlin as in Brussels) and yet has strong roots.

Draghi and Merkel’s legacy in Europe

Internationally, it has been said that the German transition of power opens a window of opportunity for Mario Draghi‘s Italy. Rhetoric aside, it is undeniable that the Italian Prime Minister enjoys a bipartisan recognition in Europe forged during his years as President of the European Central Bank. Merkel herself, during her last visit to Rome, acknowledged Draghi’s title of ” euro guarantor” in a farewell ceremony that seemed to many observers to be a handover. The government’s new leading role on the European scene was first tested by the extraordinary G20 summit on Afghanistan, convened in Rome under the Italian Presidency. In the months to come, there will be no lack of opportunities to reaffirm Italy’s decisive contribution to the many European multilateral forums, from the Technology and Trade Council with the United States to the renewal of the free trade agreement between the EU and Australia and the discussions on the initial basis of a common European defence system. At the same time, an excessively prolonged transition in Berlin could also prove counterproductive for Italy, on the eve of the implementation phase of the Next Generation EU. On this front, the prospect of a German government led by Scholz might not be bad news for Rome. Not only does the Spd candidate boast excellent personal relations with Draghi, but as German Finance Minister he was also one of the most convinced promoters of the funds for European recovery, of which Italy will receive the largest slice (209 billion euro).

by FRANCESCO BECHIS

This content is also available in: Italian

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