What do the German elections imply for foreign affairs? Six quick takes

What do the German elections imply for foreign affairs? Six quick takes

Germany has gone to the polls, the results are in, but it is not yet clear who will be the next chancellor. What does this imply for foreign affairs? Here are my six takes for the EU, China and others from last night.

1. Calm down, Germany remains stable

We may not know who the next chancellor will be, but no matter whether Biden, Xi, and Macron will shake hands with Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats or Armin Laschet of the Conservatives: Germany remains a stable, with fully democratic and pro-European parties in power. Germany will have a stable government and not face a minority government like Sweden because the four parties of the center are all ready and willing to cooperate.

The political extremes have lost these elections.

On the far right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) used to be the largest opposition party. In the new parliament, it will only be the fifth largest grouping. This comes with losses of core functions that give visibility such as the chair of the powerful finance committee or the right to speak right after the German chancellor in the parliament. This is good news for democracy. Just consider that a German court confirmed the influential AfD politician Björn Höcke can be called a "fascist".

It is certainly unfair to compare the Left Party with AfD. There can be no doubt that the Left is supporting the constitution and democracy. However, in terms of foreign affairs, the Left aims to radically break with Germany's traditional "West orientation" and wants to quit NATO. This is why I consider the Left a political extreme in the context of this piece that deals with foreign affairs. Last night, the Left Party failed to take the 5% threshold and made it into the parliament only becausse of a special arrangement. The party is weakened and has no chance to be part of a coalition government.

Germany’s political democratic and pro-European center is strengthened.

2. Don’t look at Scholz and Laschet – Greens and Liberals are in the driver seat!

Foreign media attention will most likely be closing in on the duel of two politicians and their parties competing for the chancellery: Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet. However, the coalition options for both are simple. The likeliest is that they will need the support of the Greens and the Liberals.

The Conservatives have ruled out any cooperation with the right-wing populists. Neither Social Democrats nor the Conservatives want to continue the current government. This leaves the Conservative Party with just one numerical option: a coalition with Greens and Liberals, the so-called "Jamaica" coalition.

The same goes for the Social Democrats. Since the continuation of the current coalition is unwanted and a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party that has always been unlikely falls short of a majority, they are also only left with the numerical option of a coalition with the Greens and the Liberals. This coalition is widely known as the "traffic light" coalition.

In short, both Social Democrats and Conservatives vie for the support of Liberals and Greens as they need both parties to win a majority of seats for their coalition.

Not only does this leave the Greens and Liberals in a strong bargaining position, but both parties show signs of teaming up. On election night, the leader of the Liberal Party, Christian Lindner, suggested to start with bilateral talks between his party and the Greens. Both co-chairs of the Green Party, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, accepted the invitation right away.

This is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, Liberals and Greens are anything but natural partners. They have a long tradition of seeing each other as opponents with contradicting political agendas. Secondly, talks between these two parties reverse a tradition. In previous years, the party of a potential future chancellor invited smaller parties to negotiations. The dynamic behind such talks was that the larger coalition partner made offers to the smaller parties. This time, the Greens and the Liberals are likely to coordinate their agendas first thereby striving to reach a consensus that could put pressure on the Social Democrats and Conservatives. The message is clear: The one party that is willing to agree to a Green-Liberal consensus more is likely to make it into the chancellery. If you want to follow the dynamics of German goverment formation watch the Greens and the Liberals since they will determine the agenda in the coming weeks.

This is not to say that the continuation of a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives is impossible. However, it is unlikely and my prediction is that this could only be a result of a failure to reach consensus between Liberals and Greens.

3. Bad news for the European south: the Liberals will take the Ministry of Finance

Liberals and Greens are not only in a strong position to include their political agenda into the new coalition agreement but will also be able to occupy central ministerial posts. Such decisions will be more important than ever. With a rapidly changing world, it gets more and more difficult to foresee the political agenda of the coming legislative term. Just think of the pandemic. Four years ago when Germany headed to the polls, nobody thought of a pandemic. Accordingly, the coalition negotiations did not provide a blueprint for its handling. Ultimately, it was the chancellor and the ministers that made the decisions.

Greens and Liberals know this. And while they will rhetorically insist on their political agenda expect them to claim many and highly influential ministerial posts in return of helping Scholz or Laschet into the chancellery.

This has implications for the EU since ministers do not only act in the national context but also influence the EU agenda.

All those in Europe, mostly in southern Europe, who fear Germany will return to the politics of austerity and refuse a Europeanization of financial liability will not like it, but one ministerial post is almost certainly given to the Liberals before the negotiations even start: the Ministry of Finance. For the second time in a row, the Liberals have gained more than 10% of the vote and Christian Lindner has made taxation and fiscal policy the core of his campaign. He has also announced that he wants to make sure the liberal agenda will be enforced by becoming minister of finance. There is virtually no way for Scholz and Laschet to deny him the ministerial post since they need to win the support of the Liberals to become Germany's next chancellor.

4. Bad news for the current Polish government: The Greens will take a powerful ministry in charge of the green transition

Only a few weeks ago, the Greens hoped to take the chancellery. Therefore, they were disappointed last night. However, the day after, the world looks much better for the Greens. They gained the highest share of votes in their history and without their support, hardly any coalition will come into being.

While the Greens have not been as explicit as the Liberals in what ministry they want to take it would be hardly surprising if Robert Habeck, claimed a powerful ministry for the green transformation for himself. This could consist of competences from a wide range of ministries including the ministry of environment and the ministry of economy. Almost certainly, a Green minister of the green transition would push for stricter climate policy in the EU. This goes mostly against the interests of some other member states, most prominently Poland's current energy policy that continues to rely on coal.

While thinking of ministerial posts, let me make two additional predictions - though they are much more uncertain than Linder's and Habeck's new jobs:

The Greens could claim the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and make Annalena Baerbock minister.

The Liberal politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann could become Germany’s new minister of defense.

In concert, Strack-Zimmermann and Baerbock could insist on a more principled German foreign policy. This could come with a clearer alignment with Biden's "democracy vs. autocracy" narrative, but it could also fuel tensions with EU member states that are less principled and whose commitment to the rule of law is questionable. This goes primarily for Hungary and Poland.

5. Germany will get tougher on China

For long, foreign and security policy was virtually absent from the election campaign. In none of the TV debates among Scholz, Laschet and Baerbock were foreign affairs properly addressed. Two debates on EU and security affairs before the summer hardly received a lot of attention in Germany. Only a few days before the elections in a TV debate among all lead candidates was the questions raised how to deal with China.

So, where do the four parties that could form the coalition stand on China?

In the last TV debate, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who had avoided to take a position on China for the entire campaign, mastered to answer the question from the journalists without even mentioning the word “China”. His party is split, the election manifesto vague. Current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas, was about to deliver a pro-transatlantic speech when the Afghanistan disaster made him cancel his appearance. However, it is uncertain whether he will have an influential role on foreign affairs in the coming government given his performance in relation to the evacuations from Afghanistan. Many Social Democrats might not want to get tougher on China, but they also do not break with any promises made on the campaign trail if they react to the pressure from the US or others.

Strikingly, Conservative Armin Laschet responded tougher on China in the TV debate. A few weeks before, however, he had called “foreign policy moralizing” not helpful. The election manifesto of the Conservatives indicates a tougher turn on China and a few foreign policy heavy weights including Norbert Röttgen and Roderich Kiesewetter have been clear on issues such as Huawei. During election night, Röttgen already tried to reach out to the Liberals and the Greens promising his party would align more with their approach to China. The Bavarian sister party has a long tradition of cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party and the party leader Markus Söder rather opted for the continuation of the status quo in the TV debate. However, there are also foreign policy figures in the Bavarian Conservative Party that disagree with this position. In sum, the Conservatives are still to determine their position on China. For now, it seems likelier to me that the Conservatives align with a tougher approach compared to the Social Democrats.

Greens and Liberals took a remarkably similar position in the discussion and on the campaign trail: get tougher on China even if this comes with economic costs. This might not be a surprise if one considers the pro-human rights tradition of the Greens. The traditionally pro-business Liberals made clear that Germany should no longer depend to a large extent on China and diversify for the sake of our political values. This is also reflected in both party manifestoes.

This leaves us with some degree of uncertainty among Social Democrats and Conservatives. However, both are determined to win the support of Greens and Liberals to form a coalition. Both strive for a tougher stance on China. Germany’s international partners, including the US, will push for a tougher line too. Traditionally, German industry lobby has pushed for good relations with China. However, this is no longer as clear as it used to be since not only economic opportunities but also a loss of competitiveness due to an unlevel playing field come into the focus of German industry. This is why the German industry association called China a systemic rival even before the European External Action Service did.

6. Germany's election campaign - not a role model of democratic opinion forming

We are in the middle of a competition of political systems between democracies and autocracies. For long, autocracies feared the strong democratic legitimation based on popular consent. Their counterargument was that their political elites running countries such as China are more knowledgable and would make better decisions to the benefit of all. Brexit or the election of Trump seemed to confirm their case.

At first glance, Germany's election does not help the narrative of the autocrats. However, this is - unfortunately - only half of the story. This election campaign has confirmed a worrying trend: Instead of actively run on political controversy and hard realities, all political parties strived to avoid making mistakes. Nobody wanted to send unpopular messages. Even the Greens that talked most about change were very careful when it came to details about their program that voters might not like.

Scholz mainly won the election because he promised continuity. He was seen as making no mistake and being most similar to Merkel. Merkel, in turn, is famous for depoliticizing and not seeking public controversy before making decisions.

This continuation of a depoliticized campaign is worrisom. We live in times of change whether we like it or not: climate change, digitalization, a power shift in international affairs. Germany missed an opportunity of controversially discussing different approaches to it and thereby demonstrating the value of public democratic opinion-formation. In the long run, such campaigns of "avoidance" could backfire and weaken democratic regimes.

Let's hope the next government will not follow this example. It's time to actively shape change from a strong pro-democratic, pro-European government of the center. Last night's elections have made this possible.