By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
A qualitative shift has occurred in the heart of Europe as result of the federal elections in Germany which took place September 24th . In the political landscape of the German parties a lot of fermentation and shifts are occurring. Even if the ruling party of the Grand Coalition CDU/ CSU maintained its majority, it did suffer the worst defeat in the post war period, i.e. since 1949. The Christian democratic parties lost altogether 14% while the SPD obtained its lowest result ever. After a longer time of absence from the parliament , the Liberal Free Democratic Party FDP under its young chairman Christian Lindner got with 11% again into parliament, while the Left obtained 9% and the Greenies 8,5%. The real shock for the country was the right wing “Alternative for Germany” AfD result – a party based on a mixture of enraged voters combined with nostalgic backward looking people, as well as some racists (like the Front National in France) which won 13 % out of nothing and is now the third strongest party in the Federal Parliament with 93 deputies. This electoral result illustrates the “discreditation” of the ruling parties and the voters’ message (there was a very high voter participation , namely 77% ) is: you from the political elite have lost touch with reality; you must listen to the people and its concerns, the biggest being the unresolved question of migration (Germany alone received 2 Mio migrants in the last 2 years) as well as the growing economic and social uncertainties; low pensions, high housing rents, catastrophic education conditions and a widening gap between East and West Germany, between rich and poor and between young and older people.
The dominant sentiment which determined these federal elections was rage! Thus one could see that almost 2 Mio voters who traditionally voted SPD and CDU / CSU, this time out of protest voted AfD. The political elite is perceived by a majority of voters as totally detached from its voter base, caught in bureaucratic management, comparable to people sitting in a “space ship”. Fact is that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who now tries to form a new coalition, cannot continue as Chancellor the way she did until now. One possibility is a “Jamaica” coalition (like the colors of the Jamaica flag) with CDU/CSU (“black”), FDP (“yellow”) and Greenies (“green”) which may take time and whose outcome is still unclear. The Chancellor will receive increased pressure and can no longer maneuver in her old habitual way, namely to “sit out problems” or make disappear what she perceives as her adversaries in her close environment. The SPD chose to play its part as major opposition party in parliament. So what one is essentially facing in Germany is a process of fermentation across all parties which will also have an impact on the rest of Europe.
The French flank: President Macron and his visions on Europe
French President Macron was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Merkel and call for the continuation of the good partnership between France and Germany, whereas President Trump needed four days before he congratulated at all. This alone gives a foretaste where the future priorities will lie: Concerning its future foreign policy, Germany will orient much more towards Europe, with the transatlantic relations coming second. It also will have to redefine its relations with Russia and China in a new way.
An indication where things may be heading towards, was President Macron’s fairly long speech in front of students at the Paris Sorbonne University (September 25th). At the EU Heads of State summit in Tallinn (Estonia) this weekend, he reiterated some of the most important aspects of his speech and managed to put the discussion about this on the EU agenda. His speech, in essence, was a passionate call to re-found over the next years a “sovereign, united and democratic Europe.” Referring to the conflicts and wars of the previous centuries which brought Europe to the abyss and decimated its population, the French President evoked the idea that “together we overcame these crisis” and we saw that “ideas triumph over ruins, and that the wish for fraternal relations among the Europeans was stronger than vengeance and hatred.” In light of the new challenges which Europe is facing- terrorist threat, migration crisis which will last for a long time, strategic crisis in the Mideast and Africa as well as a progressive disengagement of the USA- the French President outlined six concepts on the basis of which a newly strengthened sovereign and united Europe should be rebuilt:
1rst: He called for a Europe that guarantees every aspect of security, a common defence force and a common doctrine for action, encouraging the implementation of a European Defence Fund and a permanent structured cooperation as quickly as possible and supplement that with a European intervention initiative, “enabling us to better integrate our armed forces at every stage. In the fight against terrorism Europe needs to ensure closer ties between our intelligence services, creating a European Intelligence Academy. Europe needs a common civil protection force.”
2nd : A Europe that addresses the migration challenge; Macron called for the creation of a common area for border management, asylum and migration, “in order to effectively control our borders and receive refugees in decent conditions, genuinely integrating them and returning those who are not allowed for asylum. We need to create a European Asylum Office that will speed up and harmonize our procedure.” This should include the establishment of interconnected databases and secure biometric identification documents; gradually the establishment of a “European border police force” that ensures rigorous management of borders and the return of those who cannot stay; and finance a large-scale European program to train and integrate refugees.
3rd : A Europe looking to Africa and the Mediterranean; Europe needs an “external policy” which is focused on a few priorities, he stated ; firstly the Mediterranean and Africa and it needs to develop a “new partnership with Africa”, based on education, health and the energy transition.
4th : A Europe which is exemplary in sustainable development.
5th : A Europe of “innovation” and regulation adapted to the digital world which needs to establish an “Agency for breakthrough innovation, jointly funding new fields of research, such as artificial intelligence, or those that have yet to be explored.”
6th : A Europe standing as an economic and monetary power; “We need to make the Eurozone the heart of Europe’s global economic power”, Macron stated. In addition to national reforms, Europe needs the instruments to transform it into an “area of growth and stability”, including a budget allowing it to fund common investments and ensure stabilization in the event of economic shocks. He also called for concrete solidarity through social and tax convergence (corporation taxes the guarantee of a minimum wage for all, adapted to the realities of each country).
A very impressive argument which the French President developed, was the vision of a Europe which becomes conscious of its roots and of the cement which holds it together: “culture and knowledge.” Thus Macron presented the bold idea of promoting much more actively the exchange of youth and students among the European countries. “We need to step up exchanges, so that all young Europeans spend at least six months in another European country (50% of each age group by 2024) and that all students speak tow European languages by 2024.” He called for the creation of European Universities- networks of universities -(at least 20 till 2024) that enable students to study abroad and attend classes in at least two languages. In high schools, there is the need to establish a process of harmonization or mutual recognition of secondary education diplomas (as in higher education).
In order to reach this goal he suggested that democratic conventions take place in the next six months as well as local debates in all EU countries that formulate common questions. This also includes the idea of reforming the European Commission and present by 2019 during the European elections transnational lists with leading candidates.
Macron suggested that Europe should be open to different speeds and pay attention to the importance of the Franco-German engine: “Faced with these challenges, the Franco –German engine will be decisive.” Why not, for example, set ourselves the goal of totally integrating our markets by 2024, applying the same rules to our businesses, from business law to bankruptcy law?”
He suggested that all states who share this ambition to take part in the launch of a “group for overhauling Europe in the coming weeks”. This group will include representatives of each participating member state and will involve European institutions. Until summer 2018, it will work to clarify and propose measures that will implement this ambition, drawing on the debates held in the democratic conventions. They should suggest the tools required for the overhaul (enhanced cooperation, eventual treaty changes will be examined). He compared himself to Robert Schumann who on May 9th 1950 in Paris proposed to build Europe by stating: “A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.”
As visionary as Macrons speech was – and Merkel obviously reacted positively to some aspects of his speech at the Talinn (Estonia) heads of state Summit, while many other heads of state remain skeptical- he left out in his considerations the future EU foreign policy towards Russia which up to now has been dominated by sanctions and the absence of dialogue.
The day after the elections an interesting debate took place at the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow. Two experts were interviewed by Dimitry Suslov, (Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club), among them the Mirko Hempel, (Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Moscow) and Russian Professor Nikolay Pavlov, expert on Germany (Department of European and American Studies, MGIMO University, Moscow). Both experts qualified the recent federal election results in Germany as the “worst historical defeat” for Merkel, provoking a tectonic shift in the German party system (i.e. for the first time 7 parties are in the parliament since 1949 including as third strongest opposition a right wing party after the Second World War.) The so called victory of Angela Merkel was characterized as a “poisoned victory” namely a loss of 14% for both CDU/CSU; all that being the result of the “Grand Coalition” which paralyzed the country to the benefit of extremist parties. The fact that the right wing AfD won most votes in the eastern federal state of Saxony where they came out stronger than the CDU, is seen as a signal that a fundamental lesson must be learnt: The politicians must take the fears in the population seriously – which is focused on migration and social decline, as well as rejects the anti- Russian stance. Hence the AfD vote was a protest and rage vote.
The key question from a Russian point of view, as Pavlov underlined, will be: who is becoming the next German foreign minister. The FDP tends to prefer the ministry of finances; if a greenie becomes foreign minister, nothing will change, in any case Merkel will determine foreign policy. But on the other hand one must expect that there will be more pressure exerted on Merkel, coming from the CSU and the FDP to “shift” the attitude towards Russia. Rather than seeing priority in transatlantic relations, the two experts predicted that the foreign policy priority of Germany will “shift towards the EU” and it will have to be seen what role Russia will play in this configuration. As Pavlov noted, in looking at the foreign policy priorities, a lot will depend on how Merkel and Macron will get along. “Trump,” he said, “is not welcomed by the German establishment, since they don’t like “unpredictability” and German foreign policy is not done in Washington but in Berlin – also given the many disagreements with the US on issues such as North Korea, environmental policies, NATO expenditures, the handling of the Donbass- Ukraine crisis.”
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation expert essentially stated that “we need to refocus our foreign policy -i.e. have more dialogue. Of course we are a value based democracy, but we also have interests and we will be more pragmatic.” He told the audience that his last post was in Prague and that he utterly disagrees about the way in which these countries (Visegrad) are stigmatized and underlined that in terms of migration policy “you can’t dictate these countries to lose their sovereignty”. Both experts agreed on the need of a strong German- French alliance which will have to be joined by Italy and Spain and that China and its Silk Road concept should not be left out of consideration.
As Pavlov emphasized the German Chancellor Merkel must be realistic and pragmatic – 40% of Russian imports are from Germany- relations between the two countries since centuries have functioned well more or less. He reminded the German Russian strategic Rapallo alliance 1922 and the fact that the two countries complemented each other. He particularly referred to the excellent truly statesman like speech which President Putin gave 2001 in the German Federal Parliament, where he stated that Russia wants to be part of Europe and spoke of a Europe from Vladivostok to Lisbon. “This was a revolution. Everybody was stunned that Putin accepted a free Germany, yet the EU and Germany were not prepared for that at the time.”
Hempel reminded that during the 19th century there were good and bad relations between Russia and Germany and that in the long run we need to “urgently to repair on both side”. I strongly recommend that whoever is for Merkel should “rethink the bilateral relations between Germany and Russia and the EU- Russia relations. We can’t go on like that. Everything is rapidly changing .We must find back a way to have good cooperation; this is what the next government should focus on. He also stressed that a constructive solution must be found to the Donbass crisis (where Germany and France are discussing with Russia while the US is discussing with Ukraine) and that the sanctions cannot go on forever. At the same time it is also clear that the US sanctions are much harsher and will hurt the EU economy.
Both experts however also underlined that a key factor for ensuring a shift in terms of Russia EU relations will be a functioning German- French tandem.