The aftermath of the German elections What next for Angela Merkel

Article published on Nov. 6, 2013
Article published on Nov. 6, 2013

When they went to the polls in September, Germans were not just electing a leader for their own country. They were electing someone who will play a significant role in the fate of Europe as a whole.

At least, that's what Ul­rike Guérot, the di­rec­tor of the Berlin of­fice of the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, has con­cluded. Dur­ing the elec­tions, she wrote an analy­sis en­ti­tled 'What Eu­rope ex­pects from Ger­many and what Ger­many will not do', which was viewed a sur­pris­ing num­ber of times (1.2m down­loads - Ed.).   Dur­ing the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions of 22 Sep­tem­ber 2013, the chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and her CDU/CSU party (a con­ser­v­a­tive union - Ed.) emerged vic­to­ri­ous with 41.5% of the votes.   How­ever, she will have to make con­ces­sions to her ri­vals, the SPD (So­cial De­mo­c­ra­tic Party - Ed.), in order to form a 'grand coali­tion' gov­ern­ment. 

Things are not what they seem

In Eu­rope, Ger­many is widely per­ceived to have eco­nomic hege­mony over the whole con­ti­nent, a per­cep­tion whose flames na­tional news­pa­pers are only too will­ing to fan. Every­one thinks that Eu­rope's fu­ture de­pends first and fore­most on Ger­many's po­lit­i­cal choices. But the key cur­rently lies in know­ing whether the SPD will be able to in­flu­ence the for­eign and eco­nomic pol­icy that chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel has thus far pur­sued.  Noth­ing could be less cer­tain.  If you were to be­lieve Ul­rike Guérot, Ger­many is con­sti­tu­tion­ally and so­cio-eco­nom­i­cally stag­nant, and its po­si­tion on Eu­rope will re­main largely un­changed.  Why? First, the image of a Ger­many which im­poses its lead­er­ship on oth­ers isn't a pop­u­lar idea amongst Ger­mans, for ob­vi­ous his­tor­i­cal rea­sons.  That's why it 'doesn't see [or re­fuses to see] that Eu­rope has been served to it on a sil­ver plat­ter.'  Sec­ond, let's not for­get that Ger­many re­mem­bers its in­den­ture to the United States only too well, only re­gain­ing full sov­er­eignty in 1989.  This is why Ger­many's eco­nomic dom­i­na­tion is not matched by a strong strate­gic mil­i­tary pol­icy. 

It's clear that the ex­ter­nal per­cep­tion of Ger­many's eco­nomic clout doesn't cor­re­spond with the re­al­ity on the ground.  Of course, some peo­ple will point at the fig­ures pub­lished by the con­sul­tancy firm McK­in­sey in July 2012.  It shows that be­cause of the asym­me­try be­tween na­tional economies which op­er­ate under very dif­fer­ent lead­er­ships, the prof­its gen­er­ated by the in­tro­duc­tion of the euro are not at all evenly dis­trib­uted.   In all of the eu­ro­zone com­bined, eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity gen­er­ated €300bn in ten years:  50% in Ger­many, 25% in north­ern Italy (a major ex­porter) and 25% in other coun­tries. 

There is not only one Germany

But make no mis­take. Ul­rike Guérot recognises the fact that this disparity may be difficult to comprehend. Germany's economic success, although phenomenal on paper, does not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.

The truth is that there is not just one Ger­many, but three. A poor East Ger­many.  An old West Ger­many, which, like the Rhineland, was once pros­per­ous, but whose in­fra­struc­ture (no­tably trans­port) was weak­ened by the costs of re­uni­fi­ca­tion, even­tu­ally lead­ing to pro­gres­sive struc­tural decay.   Finally, there is South Ger­many, the rich exporter, the only Germany to have ben­e­fited from the prof­its gen­er­ated by the euro.

Re­ly­ing on Ger­many to help its neigh­bours through trou­bled eco­nomic times would be a tall order.  Cur­rently, Ger­many has nei­ther the am­bi­tion nor the means to take on this pa­ter­nal­is­tic role.  Even if the SPD un­der­stands the scale of the grievances of Eu­ro­pean states (as seems to be the case), par­tic­u­larly when talk­ing about stop­ping so­cial dump­ing, they have very lit­tle room for ma­noeu­vre. The way Ger­many's econ­omy and so­ci­ety works can't be changed that eas­ily, and even less so in the case of a coali­tion formed by two op­pos­ing par­ties. The SPD has numerous policy aims which include a min­i­mum wage of €8.50, the de­vel­op­ment of trans­port links, and a 'so­cial Eu­rope'. However, whether these aims can come to fruition in the grand coalition is another matter entirely.