In these uncertain times, Germany needs a steady hand for itself as well as Europe, where the country is the bedrock and economic engine.
As the reassuring figure of Angela Merkel steps down and Germany prepares for a new chancellor for the first time in 16 years, polls say there might be a fundamental shift in Germany as the leftist Social Democratic Party (SDP) could garner the most votes on September 26.
In these uncertain times, Germany needs a steady hand for itself as well as Europe, where the country is the bedrock and economic engine. With societal conflict continuing in the US and the wider world facing extreme challenges such as a global pandemic and climate change, a confident and proactive Germany is needed.
Many now look to Germany as the leader of Western democracies, but the nation’s “golden age” could be over, at least according to a recent poll in 12 European countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a London-headquartered think-tank. The poll found that many Europeans view Germany as a declining power, most of all those in Germany, where 52 per cent of respondents agreed their country is past its “golden age”. Across wider Europe, 34 per cent of those surveyed said Germany is in decline, while 21 per cent said it is now in its “golden age”, and 10 per cent believe its best years lie ahead.
Political polls within Germany are also signalling there could be a fundamental shift. Armin Laschet, Merkel’s replacement to lead the Christian Democratic Union political party and become the next chancellor, has limited popular support, according to internal surveys. At one time, his election appeared a virtual certainty and the chancellorship was only his to lose. It appears he is doing just that. A week before Germans vote in their most important election in a generation, polls show Laschet sinking and pulling his party down with him.
“Let’s be honest, it is tight,” said Markus Söder, head of the Christian Social Union, a traditional coalition member in Merkel and previous conservative governments down through the years. “It is no longer a question of how we could govern but possibly of whether.”
Given its history in the 20th century, Germany’s modern voters seem to shun charisma in favour of leaders who do their work quietly, leading without the Sturm und Drang — storm and drama — that can accompany politics. But even with that low threshold for personal appeal, Laschet has disappointed, trailing Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the SDP in the opinion of viewers following three debates, including the final debate last Sunday. And they say Scholz himself is a rather lackluster figure.
Yet pundits said the same thing about Merkel when she was elected chancellor and repeated the charge many times thereafter. A snap poll following Sunday’s debate continued to highlight the uncertainty in Germany over the future of the country and its de facto leadership of the EU once Merkel leaves.
Because Sunday’s debate did little to reassure internationalists, EU parliament member Sven Giegold from Germany’s Green Party expressed his dismay on Twitter, noting that once more, there was no question on European policy during the debate.
“All of Europe is looking at the Bundestag election, but the election campaign is not looking at Europe,” Giegold wrote. “An embarrassment for the largest EU country!” Piotr Buras, the co-author of a report by the ECFR based on its survey, notes “Angela Merkel has come to embody a strong and stable Germany, positioning herself as Europe’s anchor through more than a decade of crises”.
“But ‘Merkelism’ is no longer sustainable,” he wrote. “Merkel may have adroitly managed the status quo across the continent, but the challenges that Europe faces now — the pandemic, climate change, geopolitical competition — require radical solutions, not cosmetic changes. The EU needs a visionary Germany.”
That is reflected in other results from the ECFR’s poll in European counties. Though many times no opinion had a clear majority, as is typical across multi-voiced Europe, Germany is the most trusted to provide leadership. Even countries with very different policies such as Spain (45 per cent) and non-eurozone Hungary (50 per cent), back German economic leadership. Some 35 per cent of Europeans surveyed said they would be happy to see Berlin take the lead for the EU in defending human rights.
Yet underpinning the results is the low opinion Germans have of their own country’s international capacity and influence, a trend present under Merkel as well as she seemed more esteemed internationally than in her home nation. Only 25 per cent of German respondents said Germany should handle the EU’s relationship with the US. Support for Berlin taking the lead in the bloc’s dealings with Russia (20 per cent) and China (17 per cent) was even lower.
If Sunday’s debate is an indication of Germany’s priorities, climate change is the defining issue. Even in a world facing 21 months of a deadly pandemic and a range of geopolitical challenges, the debate centred on global warming and policies to address the increasing impact already felt in extreme weather events.
Scholz, now the apparent leader to become chancellor, said that if he wins Germans will not face a rapid change in policies. “I have always resisted those who have said that everything must now quickly become much more expensive,” he said. “We want to go a moderate way.” Even Germans say they often find their elections boring. Rarely in modern times have they produced fireworks on an international scale, but the coming vote is more closely watched than it has been in decades. Observers outside Germany are also hoping for calm and sensible policies – but most of all they are looking for continued leadership.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan