Germany’s new coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Liberals (FDP) has reached an agreement to govern what is now the European Union’s leading economic power. Indeed, on 24 November, the three political formations agreed on a course of action and their priorities, the watchword of which is progress.
TURNING THE PAGE ON THE MERKEL ERA
Thus, after 16 years of governing, Angela Merkel, a figure who has become a key personality in the European political landscape having known four French presidents, is stepping down to make way for a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz who has a new motto: ‘Daring to make more progress. Alliance for freedom, justice and sustainability’.
The former vice-chancellor will be sworn in before the Bundestag at the beginning of December and will have the delicate task of ensuring the post-Merkel era in a complex political context that will require ever more compromises in the light of an unprecedented coalition that covers a broad political spectrum.
Described as austere, Olaf Scholz is a former finance minister known for his rigour and sobriety, cultivating similarities with Angela Merkel. It is clear that imitating Merkel in a government that is not fully committed to his cause will not be enough for the new chancellor. It is a tightrope walk that awaits Olaf Scholz who will have to seduce an entire country at the head of an eclectic government in the midst of the European energy crisis. In this sense, the main challenge for the new chancellor and the new coalition will be to forge a sufficiently solid legitimacy to ensure Germany’s continuity in its role as European leader. If Europe is reassured to see that one of its founding members does not remain without a leader for too long, will Germany still display the same values and positions in order to maintain a form of coherence in member state relations?
Historically Germany has built its leading role in Europe around a matrix of values: a European geography conducive to its influence, Christian values at the centre of its politics, the strength of the law embedded in any state apparatus and, finally, federalism. The affirmation or negation of its values will necessarily have an impact on Germany’s relations within the EU, especially at a time when Eastern Europe is plagued by populism and that the desire of some to leave Europe is becoming increasingly vocal. This transitional phase will be all the more thorny as Olaf Scholz has neither the legitimacy nor the political support that the former chancellor enjoyed.
As far as federalism is concerned, the new coalition has ambitious objectives, declaring itself ready to reopen the treaties in order to relaunch the construction of the European federal state. While the new coalition is in favour of a Community method that would give more weight to the European institutions, it will not be able to get rid of the European intergovernmentalism that characterises the European Union’s stato-centric decision-making. Here again, a subtle balance will have to be found so as not to offend those member states who dream of a strong European Union on the international scene guided by a handful of powers, first and foremost France.
A FEDERALIST AMBITION FOR THE EUROPEAN UNION
The new government thus promises to define German interests in the light of European interests. This wishful thinking, if followed through, could represent a turning point in the post-Merkel era. While the Chancellor can be credited with an unprecedented leap forward in European construction with a European recovery plan based on a common EU debt, this change came late when Merkel’s Germany defended its own interests, sometimes to the detriment of its European partners.
As regards the governance of the European Union, the new coalition has ambitious objectives, calling for a constituent convention to reform the treaties and move towards a European federal state. Numerous proposals for institutional reform have been mooted, all of which have the effect of strengthening the European institutions to the detriment of an intergovernmental process which still characterises many areas of decision-making. Foreign policy, the traditional preserve of the sovereign state, is a case in point, since the coalition proposes to replace unanimous decision-making with qualified majority voting equipping the Union with a foreign affairs minister of its own.
Similarly, the role of the European Parliament would be strengthened through a right of initiative currently exercised by the European Commission alone, as well as European elections based on transnational lists, whose leading figures, the Spitzenkandidaten, would be candidates for the Commission presidency. The underlying motivation of these proposals is to strengthen the European democratic process and, above all, to create a European public sphere whose elections would no longer be the sum of 27 national elections but rather a pan-European election with common themes. The federalist ambition displayed by the coalition contrasts recent stasis of the European institutions in this regard, shown in the failure of the Spitzenkandidat system to deliver a Commission President, and the European Parliament’s rejection of a transnational list to replace the vacant seats of British MEPs. There is a real risk that these wishes will go unheeded.
Another notable marker of the post-Merkel era announced by the coalition can be detected in the firmness displayed on the respect of European values and the rule of law. While the Chancellor has often faced trials of complacency on these issues, the government agreement maintains that member states’ recovery plans will only receive German approval if the independence of the judiciary is assured. This is a thinly veiled threat to neighbours Poland and Hungary, who have long been embroiled in illiberal overreach and whose recovery plans remain on hold.
The rise of the German Greens and their positions could also be felt on the continent and reinforce the political priority of the Von der Leyen Commission, the Green Pact. The creation of a new ministry for the economy and the climate illustrates the paradigm shift that the coalition wants to stage: climate and the environment are now decompartmentalised cross-cutting considerations that will be reflected in most government decisions. The consequences for European negotiations may be significant, as the coalition has already announced that the next European Commissioner’s post will go to the Greens.
While the new coalition favours a Community method of decision-making which would give more weight to the European institutions, it will not be able to completely get rid of the intergovernmentalism that characterises the European Union’s state-centred decision-making. Here again, a subtle balance will have to be found so as not to offend the member States that dream of a strong European Union on the international scene guided by a handful of powers with France in the forefront.
A CATALYST IN FRANCO-GERMAN RELATIONS
As such, it is undeniable that this new coalition raises the question of relations within the Franco-German duo, which has become essential in Europe. Indeed, Angela Merkel ensured a form of continuity in the relations between the two powers and it was up to the various French presidents to adapt, from now on the two powers will have to fall in line with one another again. The stakes are therefore high for both, since they must be careful not to lose influence in inter-state negotiations.
However, this new coalition now wishes to be a force of proposals and to take the initiative within Europe, a radical change in the German posture which governed and arbitrated mainly in reaction in the past, and it is difficult to know how France will react to this change of approach. Conflict can be expected on priorities voiced by the German coalition, such as the simplification of the Stability Pact, rather than an in-depth reform, and the setting up of transnational lists for the 2024 elections, which are not all to France’s taste. Similarly, the coalition is pursuing the German ambition of a geographical enlargement of the European Union by opening up to the Balkan countries, while France continues to observe with concernan enlargement without deepening the Union.
Another possible sticking point between the two member states could be Brexit. While France is bogged down in difficult negotiations with its neighbour across the channel on fisheries and immigration issues, the new German coalition has decided to reaffirm the importance of the relationship between the UK and the EU. With a strong commitment to regional integration and cooperation, Germany calls for the strict application of the agreed treaties in order to make the most of the political opportunities that lie ahead. In this context, Germany can play a key role in starting to de-escalate tensions between the UK and France
Despite these differences, it is clear that the two powers are aligned on the desire to strengthen the EU’s strategic sovereignty in key areas such as energy and health. Olaf Scholz, who has experience dealing with Bruno Le Maire and Emmanuel Macron as finance minister, has explicitly reaffirmed that France is one of their privileged partners and as per tradition will be going to Paris during an anticipated visit that promises to be as courteous as strategic. . All that remains is to see which signals France will send to Germany during its presidency over the Union from January 2022. Indeed, this period should be revealing if political rebalancing is to be expected, it being unlikely that France or Germany will risk committing alone to change.