“Every election produces surprises,” a Belgian prime minster once famously said. That was certainly the case in Germany last Sunday. Although Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU remains by far the largest party in the Bundestag, they lost quite some votes compared to the previous ballot. Nevertheless, Merkel could rightly claim that no government coalition can be formed without the CDU/CSU and she has the initiative to forge one. The previous coalition partner SPD declared preferring to seek the opposition to lick its wounds. The entry of the extreme right AFD into the German parliament with a substantial number of MPs will certainly produce acerbic and brutal debates. So, for the moment, a three party coalition with the reborn liberal FDP and the Greens seems to be the only option open to form a government with majority support.
From an EU perspective, the biggest open question is whether the nascent Franco-German alignment on the future of Europe will hold. In a three party coalition, every party represented will need some political points to score. In her acceptance speech, Chancellor Merkel mentioned a strong European Union as one of her four priorities, there nothing changes. Preserving the integrity of the internal market and keeping the EU27 together in the approach to the Brexit talks remain Germany’s goal. But the liberal FDP is less keen on further Eurozone integration. They reject French President Macron’s plans for a common Eurozone budget, or a European Monetary Fund to make emergency loans to indebted nations. And the Greens will want energy and climate policy high up the agenda.
EU observers in Brussels who hold high hopes on a Franco-German initiative to push the EU forward, certainly in light of Brexit, are now curious to see whether their expectations will materialize.
For the European Commission, elections in an EU Member State do not change anything, really. With 28 Member States in the EU, there’s always an election somewhere. The plans for the future of Europe as unfolded by Commission president Juncker during his State of the Union speech earlier in September remain intact and on the table for discussion with the governments. These plans may encounter more severe criticism by certain reluctant EU Member States, if they feel that Germany after the elections will not be pushing as hard for them as under the outgoing coalition.
Traditionally, the coalition partner(s) of the Chancellor claim the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of finance or the minister of the economy. All three functions deal mostly with the EU agenda and are very present in the most powerful EU Council meetings. No doubt, both the tone and the substance of the German presence in the Foreign Affairs Council or the Economy and Finance Council meetings will differ greatly from what was heard from the outgoing familiar faces of Sigmar Gabriel, Wolfgang Schäuble or Brigitte Zypries.
When Mr. Juncker got voted in as Commission President in 2014, he was supported by a large majority in the European Parliament composed of the EPP (Christian-democrats) and the S&D (social democrats) political groups, with the liberals from the ALDE group. German MEPs form the largest national delegation both in the EPP and the S&D. This grand coalition remained intact for all essential legislative votes, since they had inspired the working program of Juncker’s Commission in exchange for their endorsement. And they reflected the policies of the German government coalition in place, since the German MEPs in the EPP and the S&D ensured a smooth translation of German positions into European ones. Going forward, and assuming the German social-democrats indeed opt for the opposition in the Bundestag, one can expect a less united broad front in the European Parliament, especially on matters that divide government and opposition in Germany.
The German elections did indeed produce surprises and in Brussels they raise many questions as to the European policy of the future German majority. Will they wholeheartedly stick to the fundamental pro-EU preference of the CDU/CSU, or will the language change to lure away the voters of the AFD? Nobody is really prepared to hear an extreme right voice coming from elected officials in the Bundesrepublik. This election result puts to the test the strength of the European convictions of the leading German politicians. The hope for fair weather to see the EU ship sail smoothly towards prosperous shores is kept alive by the European crew, but meanwhile they also prepare for more choppy seas.