Prepare for a power shift after Germany’s general election

Wolfgang Münchau

At the moment the executive is strong, the legislature is weak. This is going to reverse

Angela Merkel has poured cold water on Boris Johnson's vision of Britain's relations with the EU

The Brexit vote was the ultimate electoral upset this year. The US elections and the Italian constitutional referendum may be next, followed by the Dutch and French elections next year.

What about Germany, where elections are due in the autumn of 2017? Is an electoral upset there possible as well?

Yes and no. The interesting question is not who will win. The answer is: very likely Chancellor Angela Merkel if she decides to run. It is quite possible that the same “grand coalition” government will emerge, less grand perhaps, but with mostly the same ministers. What makes this election so interesting and important for the rest of Europe is a likely power shift within the Bundestag.

We caught a whiff of the pending power shift at last week’s elections in Ms Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, north-east Germany. The chancellor’s Christian Democrats suffered one of their worst results in the party’s history, ending up with less than 20 per cent of the vote. It came third behind the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which started life as an anti-euro party and has now morphed into a nationalist anti-immigrant party.
The AfD is not represented in the Bundestag. Nor are the liberal Free Democrats. Right now, the grand coalition parties — the CDU, its Bavarian sister party, CSU, and the Social Democrats — hold 80 per cent of the seats. The Greens and the Left party hold the rest.

All this will change next year. The latest opinion poll by Insa puts the AfD at 15 per cent of the vote nationwide. The FDP has recovered from its defeat in 2013 and is on course to clear the 5 per cent threshold required for entry to the Bundestag. That alone will ensure that the majority of the grand coalition parties will shrink as Germany adjusts to a seven-party parliament. In addition, both the CDU/CSU and the SPD have lost support since the last election. The CDU is down by 10 percentage points. The polls put the two coalition partners at barely over 50 per cent.
One of the reasons any change in the composition of parliament matters is the internal division between the CDU and the CSU on Europe and immigration. Ms Merkel has no problem organising majorities at present. But if the polls are borne out at the ballot box next year, the Bundestag will be able to constrain her on matters ranging from Brexit to the debate on the future of the EU and the eurozone. Today the executive is strong and the legislature is weak. This is going to reverse.

One area where this could be reflected in policy is Germany’s approach towards Greece. I cannot see how a Bundestag composed as foreshadowed in the current polls could agree to a Greek debt restructuring. During negotiations on the Greek programme this year, Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, persuaded Brussels and Washington that there is no political room for manoeuvre in Germany in favour of a Greek debt writedown before the 2017 elections. He failed to mention that there will be even less room afterwards.
Previously, Ms Merkel was able to agree to eurozone rescue operations as well as bailout programmes for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain because there was no effective opposition.

That will change from 2017 because the government’s majority is likely to shrink, and the opposition will be hostile.

What about Brexit? Of all political parties in Europe, the CDU is among the least concerned about the precise form a British departure will take, and would probably accept some trade-off between immigration control and single market access. But after next year, the CDU’s ability to press for a soft Brexit will be diminished. The SPD does not want it. Nor do the Greens. The AfD will be hostile, not least because the British Conservatives expelled them from their grouping in the European Parliament. The Left party can be relied on to be against, and if the FDP is in opposition, they might also reject it.
Then there are the implications of a changed composition of the Bundestag for Germany’s contribution to the debate on the future of Europe. EU leaders are scheduled to meet this Friday for a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, to brainstorm ideas for a post-Brexit Europe.

Nothing much will come of this meeting, but a discussion about the future of Europe will have to start in earnest after next year’s round of elections. With the AfD as the main opposition party, flanked by the FDP, and a divided CDU/CSU, I cannot see any serious progress towards further integration.

Germany’s elections thus matter a great deal. And, to paraphrase Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, the risks are firmly tilted to the downside.

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