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Floods in Germany: On the Verge of an Electoral Earthquake

ARTICLES - 22 July 2021

The floods that devastated western Germany in July 2021 will mark a turning point in German politics. Considered the biggest natural disaster in the country in recent decades, the floods killed more than 170 people, according to an estimation on July 20. In an unapologetic show of the consequences of climate change, they put the environmental emergency back at the center of the election campaign. With two months to go before federal elections, these floods could have a decisive impact on the appointment of the next Chancellor.  

As she returned from Washington, where she was received for the first time by President Joe Biden, Angela Merkel expressed her sorrow at the disaster by walking through a desert of ruins that she herself described as "phantom-like" and "surreal". She assured the affected populations of massive and rapid financial support to rebuild the region. On July 21, the federal government approved 200 million euros in emergency aid, in addition to the 200 million released by the Länder affected by the floods. Finally, in order to enable the rapid reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and housing, the government insisted on lifting the administrative constraints that too often hinder new construction projects in Germany. 

The origins of the disaster 

How could such a disaster occur in a country used to crisis management? The dramatic outcome of these floods obviously raises the question of the personal responsibility of the Minister of the Interior, the Bavarian conservative Horst Seehofer (CSU). He is responsible for the Federal Agency for Civil Protection and Disaster Prevention, even though disaster protection is traditionally the responsibility of the Länder. As with the health crisis, this disaster has led to a questioning of federalism. It has called for a better division of powers between the federal state and the Länder, which could lead to strengthening the central state in order to better deal with exceptional situations.  

These floods also raise the question of the failure of the disaster prevention system in Germany.

These floods also raise the question of the failure of the disaster prevention system in Germany. A study by Hanna Cloke, a professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, taken up in The Times and widely commented on in the German press, points to a "monumental failure of the system" in Germany's handling of the crisis - the authorities were warned of the weather risk two days before the disaster by EFAS, the European Flood Awareness System.

While it is still too early to assess who was responsible for what, it seems certain that the alert was indeed transmitted by the federal government to the Länder in question, but it did not reach the inhabitants. That raises the question of the most effective alarm system, between a digital method, such as an app, or traditional sirens.

However, the main weakness revealed by this crisis has less to do with the country's federal structure or its warning system than with the distribution of its population across the country. The impact of natural hazards ultimately comes down to chance and points of weakness: the bad weather mainly affected the southern part of the Rhine-Ruhr, a vast metropolitan area with a particularly high population density. That inevitably makes it more vulnerable and targeted protection more difficult. 

Campaigning in troubled waters

The exceptional nature of these floods echoes the unprecedented heat waves that hit the United States and Canada a few weeks ago - and reminds us that our societies will have to deal with increasingly extreme climatic events in the future. However, it should be pointed out that bad weather has long been present in German political life.

In 1962, Helmut Schmidt (SPD), then Minister of the Interior of the city-state of Hamburg, truly met the image as a statesman when he reacted to the historic flooding of the Elbe River, which, on the night of February 16-17, 1962, caused nearly 340 deaths. When severe floods hit Northern Europe in August 2002, in a particularly intense pre-electoral context, outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder won the PR battle by going on the ground with rubber boots on. 

The exceptional nature of these floods echoes the unprecedented heat waves that hit the United States.

The heat wave that Germany faced in June 2019 caused a real political tremor by allowing the Greens to overtake the conservatives in voting intentions for the first time in history, grounding in their relevance. The evolution of voting intentions in recent years, marked by intense volatility, suggests that Germany could be on the verge of another electoral shake-up. 

An electoral quake on the horizon? 

Until now, Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate who had nearly 30% of the vote before the floods, appeared to be Angela Merkel's most likely successor. However, the situation could quickly change. The management of this crisis by the various candidates for the Chancellery has revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the three main parties. 

  • In the absence of the Chancellor, who was held back in Washington, the candidate of the Social Democrats, Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz, was the first to go on the ground to support the disaster victims and promise them emergency aid, showcasing his statesmanship and empathy. Olaf Scholz, who according to the polls is the most likely to succeed Merkel, derives the main political benefit from this crisis. The media has also paid attention to Malu Dreyer, the recently re-elected SPD Minister President of Rhineland-Palatinate. So far, Dreyer has embodied the stability and vitality of a party that could obtain more than the 15% predicted by the polls next September.
     
  • The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, chose to keep a low profile, considering that the events illustrated the climate emergency better than any speech she could make. These floods put environmental protection even more firmly back on the campaign agenda and should help the electoral performance of the Greens. Baerbock’s strategy of discretion was very much intentional and anything but a sign of weakness. In an interview with Spiegel published two days after the floods, she explains that she went to the scene without a journalist, in order to talk to the victims without trying to exploit their misfortune. This strategy - risky to say the least - could nevertheless help reinforce the image of moderation, sincerity and responsibility that Annalena Baerbock is trying to give to the Green party.
     
  • The big loser in this case is the candidate of the Christian Democrats and Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet. While his lack of commitment on climate issues already contributes to discrediting him, his ill-timed fit of laughter, caught on tape by journalists while the Federal President expressed his compassion for the victims, caused a torrent of indignation under the hashtag #LaschetLacht. This serious political mistake should weaken him in the polls, further revealing the vacuum in which the CDU finds itself after Angela Merkel's departure. It is now up to Laschet's unfortunate competitor, Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder, to try to make up for this blunder. "The climate is changing fast and we need to adapt even more quickly," he said before arguing for an exit from coal by 2030, as opposed to 2038 currently planned.  

While a landmark ruling by the German Constitutional Court in May described the government's lack of climate ambition as an attack on the freedoms of future generations, these devastating floods should lead to a very clear acceleration of German climate policy. The main parties now seem to agree that climate policy is no longer a matter of setting ambitious and distant targets but of transforming production, consumption and travel patterns here and now. This acceleration of pace in Germany will necessarily have consequences at the European level. While the Commission has just presented its proposals for the green transformation of the European economy, the German government is expected to oppose any attempt to water down the climate ambitions contained in this program, making the fight against climate inaction one of the next Chancellor's main battles. 

 

Copyright: CHRISTOF STACHE / POOL / AFP

 

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