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Get ready Europe – expect a weak German Chancellor

With the Angela Merkel era soon ending after 16 years, change is in the air. While it is still unclear who will be the next German Chancellor, one thing is certain: the next head of government will inherit the title, but he (or less likely she) will not have anything close to the same power or influence when they first move into the Chancellery.  

The numbers tell the story. To start with, previous German Chancellors represented political parties with a popular vote of around 40 percent, allowing leaders like Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder to push policies through the many checks and balances of the German and EU machinery. By contrast, the next German Chancellor’s party will most likely represent just a quarter of the vote. The race is now down to Olaf Scholz (SPD) or Armin Laschet (CDU), whose parties are predicted to score merely 25 and 22 percent, respectively. A coalition is a certainty, but with the vote so widely spread across at least seven political parties, a bewildering array of combinations are possible.

 

Green power in almost all variations

If current polling is to be believed, it will be almost impossible to form a new government without the Green Party. Indeed, the Greens could be the kingmaker in several coalition options, weakening the respective Chancellor even further. And they will be keen to take that leverage into government, knowing that at any time in the upcoming term they have the ability to topple the Chancellor and force a new coalition.

The most desired coalition partner for the Green Party is the SPD – and vice versa, as Olaf Scholz would prefer governing with them. The trouble is, those two most likely will not have enough mandates to form a government majority. Will they include die Linke, a left ex-GDR party that combines communist ideas with the demand to leave NATO and a very friendly approach to the Kremlin? Or will they include the liberal FDP, a party that has often sided with corporate interests and the wealthy? Scholz will certainly do anything in his power to avoid another grand coalition with the CDU, although this could in the end be his only chance to become Chancellor. The country is wary of CDU and SPD working together and both would lose popular support if they did. In turn, CDU and the Green Party would need to team up with the liberal FDP to gain a majority – certainly not the top Green choice. Finding a compromise agreement for a lasting government coalition will be a tough circle to square.

For this reason, we expect lengthy coalition negotiations after the elections. Given the myriad of options, each party will take a multi-track approach to negotiations.  Parties – especially smaller parties – will likely court multiple partners, while placing conditional demands for the traditional coalition contract that outlines the German government’s policies and initiatives. Given this – Merkel could even be forced to deliver another Christmas address.

European power void

What does this mean for Europe? A weaker German government forced into more internal compromises will likely no longer take the lead in Europe – including pushing strong policy positions. And in some cases, Germany may simply just not participate in the debate.

This is bad news for the EU’s mechanisms that so often relied on Germany (and France) to take the lead, before finding compromises with the rest of the bloc. It is difficult to see that leadership vacuum being filled by Italy or Spain. Germany has already slowed down its efforts to push new European legislation during the final phase of Merkel’s term, and nobody – as of yet – has filled the void. 

Instead, expect Emmanuel Macron to try to position himself as Europe’s undisputed leader as he seeks re-election next year.  With Ursula von der Leyen’s champion, Merkel, leaving the stage, and a German Chancellor from a different political party likely, the Commission President is keen to stick close to Macron and his agenda which was clear from her State of the European Union address and reaction to AUKUS. But, after the German elections, she would be well-advised to try to find a number of other European leaders to partner with moving forward. 

Interested in learning more?  Please contact Michael Kambeck.

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