|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
Germany is inevitably heading for a major political transition, triggered by the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel's rule, which has not been interrupted since 2005. Regardless of the outcome of the elections on September 26, 2021, any winning German political force will feel the reality. the rapidly changing pressure at the local, European and global levels, but also the pressure of the “Merkelian” model of government to keep everything under control.
The transition will require the identification of a leader with a profile similar to Merkel's, who composed a successful mix of calm, inhibition and pragmatism. Replacing the latter with an opposite variant (hasty decisions, with outgoing and impractical features) can only be successful if the future chancellor demonstrates efficiency, before showing other qualities. The ability to find effective solutions to national and external problems, which will multiply in the coming years, is one of the basic criteria that concern voters. In fact, the election tests whether the public wants a character other than Merkel strictly for doctrinal reasons or whether she seeks a different style of government more than anything else.
German and European politics depend on the vote of some 60.4 million voters (BBC, 2021), at the eligible voting age (from 18 years), in the elections for the renewal of the Bundestag (German Parliament). Based on the mixed vote, half of the deputies are elected in single-member electoral districts (around 250 thousand votes per representative) and the other in the party list. The size of the legislature can be at least 598 deputies, and its number can be increased to more than 700 deputies to compensate for the imbalances created by double voting, for the political party and the candidates separately. Pre-election polls show uncertainty about the final results and the name of the post-Merkel chancellor, respectively. The only correct estimate is that the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats will remain in power, whoever wins.
The unknowns of the German elections
In the last months before the elections, the popularity of the main competing political forces was nonlinear. In May 2021, the Greens outscored Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in polls, but not for long. The return of Christian Democrats to the forefront of public sympathy remained intact in June-July until the devastating floods in the west of the country. In the absence of Merkel, who dealt with transatlantic relations, in Washington, the leader of the Christian Democrats Armin Laschet mishandled his public appearance in the context of the national tragedy, triggered by the historical climate (Guardian, July 2021). However, the empathy shown by Merkel was later insufficient to reestablish public preferences towards Lashet, which was surpassed by the Social Democrat, current Minister of Finance and Vice-Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The imposition of the latter at the polls, a few weeks before the elections, was quite unexpected, especially considering that the Social Democrats seemed for a long time unable to leave the shadow of the Christian Democrats and the Greens. The main issues driving the election boat are the pandemic crisis and climate change, followed by migration. The latter can become a great incentive to influence the German vote if neighboring countries do not absorb the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the eventual waves of refugees.
In the legislature elected in 2017, Angela Merkel's party (Christian Democrats) and Bavarian sister party (Christian Social Union) won 245 seats. Along with the ruling allies, the Social Democrats, Merkel had 397 votes. According to projections for August 2021, Christian Democrats can get fewer than 180 votes (27% less than in 2017), a result that can be equaled or even surpassed by Social Democrats. The most realistic scenario for the Greens is to double the results of 2017 (from 67 to more than 130 seats), which will place them in third place and make them an attractive force to build a lasting coalition.
According to electoral forecasts, if the position of the Social Democrats does not change, they will determine the future ruling coalition. Two of the three most likely post-election scenarios involve Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (Euroactiv, 2021). The same goes for the Greens and Liberal Democrats (FDP). The current coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats has little chance of repeating itself, but it is not ruled out. The most unlikely combination is that of the Christian Democrats and the Greens. At the same time, polls show that the majority of the population prefers Olaf Scholz as chancellor. In the event of a Social Democratic victory, the ruling coalition could move to the left (red-green-red) by including the Greens and the far left (Die Linke). The difference between Olaf and the Greens' candidate Annalena Baerbock is almost 15%, and Armin Laschet is the third candidate according to preferences (Euroactiv, 2021). Regardless of the election results, the far right (Alternative for Germany) will not be part of the ruling coalition.
Contrasts of the Merkel era
Given the weight of the German factor in intra-European decision-making, German voters will actually elect a chancellor for both Germany and the EU. Thus, the next German leader must combine some essential qualities: 1) the power to establish, apply and export standards in critical sectors (environment, digitization, crisis management); 2) altruism in sharing a common European vision with the EU states; and 3) pragmatic international negotiating abilities with authoritarian regimes (Russia, China, Iran, etc.). It is within these parameters that Merkel has shaped her status as a world leader, focusing on low-risk solutions, despite criticism from supporters of hard diplomacy. The decoupling from the atomic energy (2011), the maintenance of Greece in the Eurozone, albeit at the cost of austerity (2015), the reception and integration of Syrian refugees (2015) or the (Franco-German) openness to confer the EU the right to borrow around 750 billion euros in international financial markets for post-pandemic recovery (2020) are some of the critical situations in which Merkel has demonstrated her strategic thinking and initiative.
The other side of the coin exposes Merkel's reluctance and inflexibility, leading to decisions that have undermined the West's position in favor of authoritarian international actors. Therefore, Germany partly shares the responsibility for blocking the NATO enlargement dialogue to prepare Ukraine and Georgia for possible accession (2008). Also cornered by the coalition with the Social Democrats and the softness of German foreign policy towards Russia ("Ostpolitik"), Merkel ignored the threats that could arise from the operation of the Nord-Stream 2 gas pipeline (2021) for energy. autonomy of the EU, but also for regional security, related to Russian intervention on Ukrainian territory. The non-conditioning of the EU-China Free Trade Agreement with advances in the field of human rights is another worrying circumstance, which has raised doubts about Merkel's devotion to European values. In part, but not entirely, her liberal image was rehabilitated in 2021, when she openly advocated respect for the labor rights of Chinese Uighur workers involved in forced labor in the cotton industry (Politico, June 2021). All these moments exemplify that while Merkel has demonstrated strategic initiative within and on behalf of the EU, the German Chancellor has advocated, in a conservative reflex, for maintaining the balance of power in the international arena. Merkel's Germany did not turn its economic potential into national geopolitical aspirations, nor did she channel it toward the realization of the EU's coveted geopolitical ambitions.
Eastern Partnership: emphasis on European integration and territorial integrity
With the exception of the situation in Ukraine, the Eastern Partnership does not appear to be Germany's biggest foreign policy concern. This was seen during the German rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2020. The main topics on the agenda were the post-pandemic recovery, the EU multi-year budget, the post-Brexit phase in relation to the United Kingdom and the main issues sectoral, such as the environment or digitization. In relation to the Eastern Partnership, Merkel's German presidency envisaged actions in the field of conflict management, with the mention of eastern Ukraine, but without specifying the conflict in the Transnistrian region, the separatist-territorial conflicts in Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively. Only indirectly, the program of the German presidency referred to the strengthening of relations with the Eastern Partnership countries as one of the "5 principles" of relations with Russia.
During the electoral campaign for the legislative elections, when the candidates for chancellor presented their proposals for dialogue with Russia, they touched on the situation of the Eastern European states. Of the entire region, the attention of German politicians was focused practically only on Ukraine. The latter is the living target of the revisionist policy of Moscow, manifested by a conventional war. Furthermore, Germany has a political commitment to Ukraine due to its direct involvement in diplomatic efforts to restore Kyiv's control over the separatist Luhansk and Donbas territories, which have been under Russian military protection for 7 years.
The signals sent by the main German political parties do not offer specific guarantees to Eastern Europeans. Christian Democrat Armin Laschet does not support a hardening of his position on Russia, but rather he wants more communication to avoid further confrontations and improve relations where possible. The Green candidate, Annalena Baerbock, is the only one who condemns Russia's actions in Ukraine, as well as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. She wants to increase pressure on Russia and stabilize Russian-Ukrainian relations, which seems to her more urgent than to join NATO and the EU (DW, April 2021).
In the opinion of the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the foreign policy dedicated to Russia, the so-called "Ostpolitik", must be revitalized, with the aim of incorporating the OSCE principles, related to territorial integrity, in the EU's list of principles. Although Scholz insisted that Moscow must accept the idea that European integration will continue (Politico, August 2021), he did not express his support for the enlargement of the EU in favor of those with European aspirations in the Eastern Partnership. The leader of the Social Democrats proposes a return to respect for international law in Europe instead of the application of military force. One of the elements of the relationship with Russia, mentioned by Scholz, is the joint guarantee of security in Europe by the EU and Russia (DW, August 2021).
Scholz's idea of strengthening the OSCE principles on a bilateral basis between the EU and Russia recalls the external security component of the "four EU-Russia common spaces". Launched in 2003, they were abandoned in 2014 due to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Similarly, Scholz's vision has much in common with the 2010 Merkel-Medvedev Memorandum, which provided for the establishment of an EU-Russia Committee on Foreign and Security Policy. In addition to consultations on international security, joint EU-Russia civil-military operations and the identification of solutions to specific conflicts, the Memorandum focused on joint contribution to the final solution of the Transnistrian conflict.
If the Social Democrats win the elections and the reactivation of the Merkel-Medvedev Memorandum it may very well be possible and Scholz's suggestion makes even more sense, at least in the case of the Transnistrian conflict. The Vladimir Putin administration has already shown interest in improving dialogue with the pro-EU government in Chisinau (IPN, August 2021), following the snap elections in Moldova in July 2021. Advancing the solution to withdraw Russian weapons of the Transnistrian region is one of the issues on the table.
In any case, developing a personalized EU approach to resolving separatist and territorial conflicts in the Black Sea basin should be the central priority of the new German Chancellor (IPN, August 2021). It can be integrated into a modernized version of the EU initiative dedicated to the region, Black Sea Synergy, designed in 2007, to which can be added the objective of promoting safety through conflict management. The territorial reintegration of the Eastern Partnership countries is beneficial not only for security but also for the long-term process of reform and democratic convergence. Therefore, the efforts of the post-Merkel German government are to integrate this goal into the modernized "Ostpolitik".
In lieu of conclusions…
The future German Chancellor will play an important role for his own country, but also for the EU and its eastern neighborhood. There is no doubt that Berlin's foreign policy towards Eastern Europe is strongly influenced by the Russian factor. Therefore, the correct management of the latter will also bear fruit in the relationship with the Eastern Partnership states. They depend on a Germany led by a decisive chancellor and involved in the region, which does not yield to Moscow in terms of territorial integrity and sovereignty but involves it in concession mechanisms.
In addition to normalizing the process of European integration in the region, which will temper animosity with the Russian side in the long term, the future German Chancellor should focus on European solutions to the separatist-territorial conflicts in Eastern Europe. The key condition for this is coordination and cooperation between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries based on an inter-institutional security platform on four fronts, in order to guarantee a differentiated and effective approach to conflicts in the region.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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