Germany: Washington’s Partner of Choice Enters Election Mode

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is the undisputed leader of Europe, and in recent years her position on a given issue—the migration crisis and the EU-Turkey deal, the eurozone crisis, Russia sanctions, and now Brexit—is the closest thing there is to a last word within the European Union, which is why the United States has systematically strengthened its relations with Berlin over the past decade. But Merkel’s power inside Europe is not limitless. Beyond the immediacy of Brexit, the chancellor faces new challenges at home as her Social Democratic coalition partner has begun attacking Germany’s Russia and NATO policy, a cornerstone of U.S. cooperation with Germany and the European Union in recent years. The chancellor also faces the rise of a new far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which in some polls is now tied for third nationwide. These developments mark the opening of Germany’s election season, which will culminate in the autumn of 2017 and suggest that Merkel’s room for foreign policy maneuver is narrowing at a time when the challenges facing Europe have never been greater.

Chancellor Merkel was among the most sympathetic counterparts to Prime Minister David Cameron as the British leader sought institutional and economic reforms to the European Union that would bolster his referendum gambit. Britain’s advocacy within the Union of economic policies that emphasized global competitiveness complemented the chancellor’s approach, and a strong British voice helped Germany sublimate its EU leadership role, a role it has always assumed reluctantly. So, working with Cameron in hopes it would keep Britain in the Union was worth the effort. Merkel’s political and balancing instincts shone through again within hours after the Leave decision prevailed, as she simultaneously stressed the goal of preserving the closest possible relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom and the need to avoid drawing “fast and simple” conclusions. Merkel’s position stood in contrast to that of the leaders of the European institutions, particularly President Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and President Francois Hollande of France, and it was implicitly contradicted by her foreign minister from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who called for a “speedy” start to exit negotiations in a joint statement with the foreign ministers of the other five founding members of the European Union.

EU decisions are by nature compromises—both Merkel and her counterparts gave ground to reach agreement when the remaining 27 EU leaders met without Cameron following the Brexit referendum: that the United Kingdom should notify the European Union formally of its intention to leave “as quickly as possible” (a step that remains entirely at the United Kingdom’s discretion) and that Britain could not expect access to the EU single market if it did not also accept the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital.

But less than two weeks after the UK referendum, this is only one of the political complications facing the German chancellor. If you thought that only the United States had an election cycle that never ends, Berlin is showing similar characteristics. Merkel—the longest serving European leader—has governed since 2005 in coalitions that stood out for their relative comity and effectiveness. Recent German state elections have demonstrated the challenge, as mainstream parties have lost support to the far-right AfD.

The German Social Democrats (SPD) have reached a new nadir, with national support in the 21 percent to 23 percent range. This is an astonishingly low level of public support for the SPD, which is about half its 43 percent support in August 2000. While mainstream parties have been losing public support gradually for decades, the SPD’s popularity decline is particularly stark. In eastern Germany, the SPD is in fourth place in polls, trailing both the AfD and the post-communist Left party, a disastrous situation. Junior coalition partners typically suffer electorally, and the SPD has been in decline since 2005. Thus, it is not surprising that 15 months before the next Bundestag election, Merkel’s vice chancellor, Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel, is signaling that he wants the autumn 2017 election to oust Merkel in favor of a left-wing government that—for the very first time—could include the successor to the East German communist-era Socialist Unity Party (SED), which calls for the dissolution of NATO, a withdrawal of Germany from NATO military structures, and ending the U.S. military presence and activity on German soil.

The Social Democrats are desperate to differentiate themselves from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and they are doing so on a critical issue to the transatlantic relationship: Russia. Russia policy fits the SPD’s search for issues that resonate with the public and signal openness to the left. Days after SPD chief Gabriel’s call for left-wing solidarity, SPD foreign minister Steinmeier took aim at NATO’s military exercises in Poland and the Baltic states, criticizing “symbolic tank parades on the eastern border of the alliance” and warning that “we must not further inflame the situation through loud saber-rattling and war cries.” Steinmeier’s words shocked Merkel’s Christian Democrats (who pointed out that the saber-rattling was coming from Russia, not the other way around) but were welcomed by the Greens and the Left. At the same time, press reports indicated SPD chairman Gabriel would travel to Moscow for talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a trip that was postponed when Gabriel met with the heads of EU social-democratic parties in Brussels following the Brexit decision. Gabriel, who serves as economics minister in Merkel’s cabinet, has also supported loosening the European Union’s Russia sanctions despite the fact that violence in Ukraine by Russia-backed separatists using Russia-provided weapons remains at high levels.

In focusing on differences related to Russia policy, the SPD is attempting to appeal to pacifist sentiment in Germany and evoke the SPD’s main historical foreign policy achievement: the period of détente under Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and the glory days of “Ostpolitik.” This achievement is part of modern German mythology and especially of the SPD’s self-image, similar to the importance of Ronald Reagan to the modern Republican Party. In German foreign affairs circles it is taken as the quintessential example of the superiority of political dialogue and compromise over deterrence and defense. Ignored is the role that NATO’s military strength and deterrence played in creating a basis for dialogue and the fact that it was SPD chancellor Schmidt who pushed for nuclear rearmament in the late 1970s through deployments of U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles. But it is a melody that the German left can hum together in peaceful harmony. And there are figures in Merkel’s own conservative and business-oriented camp who like the tune as well, expressing similar views and paying calls on President Putin.

The unusually early sharpening of political disagreement within Merkel’s Grand Coalition is attributable to two recent developments in addition to the decline of the SPD.

President Joachim Gauck handed Merkel an unanticipated problem in June, when he announced that he would not seek a second five-year term at the next presidential election in February 2017. The German president is elected by an electoral college of sorts called the Federal Assembly, whose makeup is calculated on the basis of parties’ combined strengths in the federal and state legislatures. While the president plays a mostly ceremonial role, the election often serves as a leading indicator of coalition changes at the national level. At present, the SPD, the Green Party, and the Left Party would be two votes shy of a majority in the 1,260-member Federal Assembly, and September 2016 elections in the city of Berlin and the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern could shift the balance in their favor. If the SPD, Greens, and Left can agree on a presidential candidate, they stand a chance of winning and of demonstrating a left-wing alternative to Merkel’s rule for another four-year term.

Another factor is the rise of the AfD, which has vaulted to prominence on an antimigrant message since 2015 saw over 1 million refugees and migrants arrive in Germany. The party combines an antimigrant and anti-Islam stance with a call to withdraw Germany from the euro currency and criticism of the European Union (although it waffles on whether Germany should leave the Union as a whole). The AfD is generating an unending stream of scandals, with defections following revelations of anti-Semitic writings by a state legislator, controversial statements by party leadership about shooting migrants attempting to cross Germany’s border, and calls by some leading figures to withdraw from NATO (the party was unable to reach a position on NATO and left it out of its recently approved platform). Regardless, the party’s polling numbers have continued to rise in 2016, reaching 10 percent to 14 percent across Germany, in some cases tied with the Green Party. None of the established parties in Germany is prepared to work with the AfD, but its rising support narrows the options for political coalitions and raises the possibility that a coalition of three parties will be needed (rather than the two-party coalitions that have characterized postwar German politics).

Merkel’s coalition can be expected to serve out its term, but it will be marked by growing friction with the Social Democrats, especially on Russia and NATO. This should not endanger recent steps to bolster NATO’s force posture in the east, including the deployment of a battalion of German troops to Lithuania. But it suggests that further enhanced deterrence measures, as well as the continuation of EU sanctions, will be challenges and will be opposed by the SPD, accompanied by demands for more dialogue with Russia rather than more defense. Because managing the EU approach to Brexit negotiations will consume all European leaders’ attention for the foreseeable future, internal frictions will be more difficult to manage and will likely reach a new peak just as the next U.S. president is taking office, affecting the United States’ most important partner in Europe at a crucial time when a new U.S. administration will be seeking to craft its approach to the transatlantic relationship.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Jochen Zick - Pool / Getty Images