Federal Elections : Germany’s political consensus cannot last forever

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No attack anywhere: federal elections in Germany Bild: Reuters

The world looks upon Germany´s boring election capaign with envy. But that only obscures the many problems of the country. If Germans don´t face them, they will be hit very hard.

          4 Min.

          Germans are getting a lot of credit for the dullness of their federal election campaign. This year’s contest is boring by any measure, but in contrast to the ongoing British omnishambles and the second place showing of France’s far right Marine Le Pen – never mind the endless reality show transpiring on the other side of the Atlantic – the competition between Angela Merkel and Martin Schultz is enough to put any drugged-up Berlin hipster to sleep. The willingness to focus on substantive issues and total absence of ad hominem attack, combined with the fact that the two major parties appear to agree more often than not, signifies an admirably „mature“ and „serious“ country. This comity is generally taken to be a good thing. After all, one wouldn’t want German politics to be exciting, right?

          To some extent, this description of the German scene is accurate. Unlike the Brits, who treat politics as the mere continuation of Oxford Union skullduggery and rhetorical showmanship (no more apparent than in the person of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson), or the grandiloquent French (who, according to the old joke, like to ask, „That works in practice but does it work in theory?“), Germans handle politics with characteristic earnestness.

          Aside from Germans‘ distaste for charismatic politicians, the other major contributor to the country’s current political quietism is consensus, symbolized in the grand coalition government that commands over 500 seats in the Bundestag. Chancellor Merkel, it is often said, has so skillfully occupied the middle ground that she leaves opponents with little material, thus the spectacle of Schultz and SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel outdoing each other in saying nice things about the woman they are supposedly trying to unseat from power. While this is an accurate description of her strategy, the nature and durability of Germany’s present political consensus is deceptive. For it is a consensus earned by the country’s unique position as beneficiary of a globalization process now undergoing a series of unexpected reversals.

          Social Democrats are hypocrits

          Post-Cold War globalization has been very good for Germany. Indeed, there is probably no other country in the Western world that has benefitted more from it than the Berlin republic. When the Cold War ended, Germany reunified and once again became the economic (if not political) powerhouse of Europe. Today, Germany is both a security free rider and the main beneficiary of the continental monetary union, two factors that have insulated its domestic politics from the sort of quarrels afflicting its neighbors. 

          Take security. Thanks to its decades-long habitation under the American military umbrella, Germans have dulled themselves into believing that the world is a much safer place than it actually is. In any other country of such size and global importance, the abysmal state of the German armed forces would be a massive scandal and political hot-topic, yet it is barely spoken of in the campaign, and the vast majority of Germans could not care less. Indeed, the SPD is warning against a new „arms race“ with respect to the commitment Nato members made in 2014 to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Even though the Social Democrats are part of the current coalition government that signed this very pledge just three years ago, its association with Donald Trump, who may be the most unpopular American president in Germany since Franklin D. Roosevelt, obscures the party’s hypocrisy.

          Germany’s second Wirtschaftswunder, meanwhile, owes much to its being part of the Eurozone, which provides a market for German exports that would not be nearly as large were it not for the common currency. Many economists and European political leaders have criticized Germany for maintaining such a large current account surplus and trade surplus, the latter a particular bugbear for the American president. Yet Germany’s position in the international economy, a highly controversial matter among economists and one that has had profound effects on the domestic politics of other European countries, has escaped attention on the campaign trail. Since the financial crisis, as the issue of German taxpayers subsidizing bailouts and Eurobonds became part of the country’s political discussion, the German left has largely been forced to take a hawkish line by its own voters. CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is likely more popular among SPD voters than party standard-bearer Martin Schultz. Social democratic „solidarity“, it seems, stops at the German border’s edge.

          As for the one issue where Merkel was once vulnerable – refugees – the apparent consensus she achieved has come with a high cost: the rise of the Alternative for Deutschland. At the height of the migrant crisis, when chaos reigned on Germany’s borders and women faced sexual assault on the streets of Cologne, there was serious talk that the Bavarian Christian Social Union would end its once-unbreakable alliance with the Christian Democrats and Merkel would not run for re-election. But now that things have settled down, Merkel’s patience paid off and she has returned to her traditional position of seeming political invincibility. Yet by taking a position on migrants that was indistinguishable from that of the Greens, she left her right flank open, thus betraying the injunction of Franz Josef-Strauss that there be „no legitimate political party“ to the right of the Union. The price of Merkel’s illusory „consensus“ on migrants is that, for the first time in postwar Germany, a nationalist right-wing party will enter the Bundestag.

          Thanks to some exceptional circumstances, Germany has been able to merkeln (a slang verb-ization of the Chancellor’s surname meaning to put off making serious decisions) for the past 12 years. But this national procrastination and behaving like a giant Switzerland can’t last much longer. It’s too soon to pronounce upon the wisdom of Merkel’s migrant policy, and the country has yet begun to feel its long-term effects. Brexit (not mentioned once during the television debate) will fundamentally alter the European Union. The Eurozone will need a serious rejiggering if it is to survive. Trump’s election puts the transatlantic relationship at risk. And a resurgent Russia redraws Europe’s borders. (That the scandalous behavior of Germany’s chief Russlandversteher Gerhard Schröder registers barely any outrage among his old genossen in the SPD is further evidence of German provincialism). If globalization has allowed Germany to avoid confronting the sorts of questions roiling the West, then de-globalization will hit it particularly hard.

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