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Waiting for Germany, Waiting for the Greens?

BLOG - 17 February 2020

Germany ain’t what it used to be. Long regarded as a beacon of stability, its political landscape is in turmoil. The fight over the post-Merkel era is on.

"Good old times" don’t last forever.

Erfurt has blown the cracks in Germany’s political system wide open. It’s in this small city that a liberal Free Democrat (FDP) was elected state premier of Thuringia with the joint votes of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The CDU and FDP voting alongside the Thuringia AfD, the most extreme branch of the AfD, was a watershed moment; a political earthquake that shook the entire Republic.

It has taken its toll. The CDU’s and FDP’s public image is tarnished. The reputation of Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats, is in free fall. Having been unable to control the situation, Chancellor Merkel’s heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has announced she will step down as leader of the CDU and won’t run for chancellor.

The Christian Democrats are now facing a leadership challenge and are mired in internal conflict. Worse yet, similar to the Social Democrats (SPD), the conservatives have lost their way. They are disoriented on the uncharted seas of the 21st century. They don’t know who they are anymore and who they represent. They don’t know whether to become more right-wing to stem the loss of voters to the AfD, or to be progressive and stick to the Merkel-line.

Politics in Europe is in a state of disruption. The old, established mainstream parties that have long dominated politics are losing support.

The CDU prided itself on being "the last political unicorn in Europe, the last grand Volkspartei". But that was wishful thinking. "Good old times" don’t last forever. Politics in Europe is in a state of disruption. The old, established mainstream parties that have long dominated politics are losing support. The number of parties represented in parliaments across the continent has grown. In France, the Parti Socialist has slid into irrelevance, in Italy the largest party in the Parliament is the Five Star Movement. Now, disruption has arrived in Germany.

German political arena is in flux

Back in the 1970s, the Volksparteien – the CDU and the SPD – would together take 90 per cent of the vote. Only three parties were represented in the Bundestag. Fast forward half a century to 2020 and their share has shrunk to around 40 per cent according to polls, with the number of political parties in the Bundestag having doubled to six.

The binding power that the Volksparteien held over large swathes of the electorate has dwindled. The Volksparteien can no longer represent the Volk because the Volk is no longer the same as it was back in the 1970s and 1980s. The 20th century was the mass age, defined by mass production and consumption, mass parties and politics. But the 21st century is the individual age. Society has become individualised and more diverse.

As German sociologist Armin Nassehi notes, the classical Volksparteien used to stand for one of two camps: "Capital and labour, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. That was a stable distinction. Today you can’t build a Volkspartei on that anymore." As interests, positions, and opinions within society diverge, the Volksparteien struggle to cover a broadening spectrum.

The CDU and the SPD have so far been unable to articulate a narrative that brings together society’s disparate currents, a narrative that speaks to the individual and brings them into a collective. With their declining relevance the German political arena is in flux.

The one political constant in Germany that provided stability over the last 15 years was Angela Merkel.

Who will fill the political leadership gap in Germany?

The one political constant in Germany that provided stability over the last 15 years was Angela Merkel. Her cautious, wait-and-see piecemeal approach might have steadily guided Germany through some challenging times. But in a phase of severe disruption that approach seems to have outlived its usefulness. Periculum in mora: there’s an inherent danger in delay. German society, while stability-focused, is looking for change. And as Angela Merkel is exiting the political stage, a leadership vacuum is emerging.

This will also have an effect on Europe. Germany has been put on hold. This is likely to slow down necessary reforms on the European level. It’s hard to believe that, with no German vision, strategy or leadership on Europe, there will be significant progress. French President Macron, who has been waiting to get an answer from Berlin on his European reform proposals since 2017, is likely to have to keep on waiting for the moment.

The fight over the post-Merkel era is on. So who will be the change agent, filling the political leadership gap in Germany? With the conservatives and social democrats disoriented and mired in internal conflicts, with the liberals caught in a downward spiral, and the former communist Die Linke stuck in the doldrums, the Greens have emerged as the only viable party with a political dynamic. "The CDU has lost its way like the SPD and FDP have. So, the real question is whether Germany is ready for a "Green" republic", writes Torsten Riecke, political journalist with the German business daily Handelsblatt. "I’m not a member of the Green Party and I don’t always sympathise with that they do. But I love them all the same, because I need them to keep Germany stable", noted Princeton University Professor Stephen Kotkin in his Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture.

Great expectations have been placed onto the Greens, who are governing in ten out of Germany’s 16 regional governments and who on the federal level have been polling in the mid-20% range, hot on the heels of the CDU. And their party leader, Robert Habeck, has been consistently portrayed by the media as Germany’s possible future chancellor.

German Greens, a Zukunftspartei ("Future Party") ?

The German Greens have been able to break out of their eco-niche and are evolving into a big tent party, speaking to different voter demographics. While Robert Habeck might be appealing to many left-leaning voters, Winfried Kretschmann, the Green Premier governing the state of Baden-Württemberg, who recently wrote a book arguing for a new kind of conservatism ("Worauf wir uns verlassen wollen: Für eine neue Idee des Konservativen"), speaks to many conservative voters.

In this context, political analyst Daniel Dettling has described the German Greens as a new type of Volkspartei, a Zukunftspartei ("Future Party") that is able to transcend political boundaries and build bridges between different demographics and interest groups – between the young and the old, between urban and rural interests, between immigrants and non-immigrants, between the interests of economy and ecology. Party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck have labelled this new Green approach "radical realism" which projects a message of change (radical) in a stability-oriented manner (realism). With such an approach, the German Greens might have found Gramsci’s "point of progressive equilibrium…[which] holds great promise for the future."

Different Green policy proposals are met with broad support outside of Germany.

Talking to political pundits and government representatives across Europe, one gets a sense that many can’t wait for the next German federal election, in the hope that the Greens will enter the government and thereby end German lethargy and foot-dragging.

Indeed, different Green policy proposals are met with broad support outside of Germany. They are proposing to add a sustainable investment rule to the constitutional balanced budget requirement, which would boost public spending. They have called for an ambitious German tech strategy that would see significant investments in strategic technologies such as AI and quantum computing, and enhance cooperation with France in this field. Tired of waiting for Berlin to move forward on this, Baden-Württemberg has launched its own AI investment package and will host European Commission Vice-President Vestager this month to present its leading AI centre in Tübingen, called "Cyber Valley". State Premier Winfried Kretschmann has even taken it upon himself to travel to Paris and enhance cooperation between France and Baden-Württemberg in this field.

The Greens have also come out in favor of a European banking union, common European bonds, a common budgetary policy for the Eurozone, other fiscal stabilization instruments and strengthening the Euro as an international lead currency.

In this context, the German Greens have regularly criticized the German government for not taking up Macron’s European reform drive. France has been forced in a position of Waiting for Godot. There’s great hope that the next German election, scheduled for fall 2021, will bring an end to the waiting, catapulting the Greens into government responsibility and thereby bringing a serious European partner into play that wants to bring a reform dynamic into Europe.

 

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author.

 

Copyright: Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

 

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