The election in Germany is revealing for Europe
gERMAN ELECTIONS are idiosyncratic matters. Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, was toasted on his choice of bratwurst condiment (ketchup, not mustard). Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, has been trapped by allegations of plagiarism, a sin that only disrupts German policy. All politics are local, but in Germany it is parochial. The country may be the hegemony of Europe, but foreign affairs and the future of the EU were barely mentioned. A sometimes surreal campaign ended with Angela Merkel, the outgoing Chancellor and the most powerful person in Europe, pictured with a parrot on her head.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on ios Where Android.
If the campaign was unmistakably German, the result was European. A slim victory for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) over its center-right rivals the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), will launch months of coalition negotiations. German politicians were grappling with the same problems as their peers across the continent; German voters behaved in the same way as their neighbors. Europe was invisible in the countryside. But it shows in the result.
Politics in Germany has fragmented over the past decade, as in all other Western European countries. Five parties obtained more than 10% of the vote each. When Angela Merkel came to power in 2005, only two did. During this same election, the CDU/CSU and SPD got 70% of the vote. On September 26, they barely succeeded halfway. It’s a familiar story. In the Netherlands, 19 different parties now sit in parliament. In Italy, four parties ranging from center-left to far-right hover around 20%. Traditionally, two-party systems, like Spain, have become complex multi-party affairs. Germany is simply catching up.
After posting the worst result in their history, the CDU/CSU can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. Their political siblings in other countries have also lost ground. In the early 2010s, virtually all major EU country had a center-right government. Now, barring some extremely astute negotiations on the part of the CDU, none will. Conservative politicians ruled a continent; now they control a rump. In Germany, a bad campaign by a candidate inclined to blunder is part of the explanation. But the causes of CDUThe discomfort runs deeper and extends beyond the borders of Germany.
On the other hand, after a decade of loss of ground, the center-left had something to celebrate. Although not too loud. Olaf Scholz, the SPDThe future chancellor of, led a cautious competence-based campaign, with enough radicalism to prevent his party’s left from going for the Greens. This resulted in his party’s third lowest share of votes after the war, but paved the way for power.
From now on, Mr. Scholz will suffer the fate suffered by his fellow left-wing leaders: to remain in power via shaky coalitions. In Spain, the Socialist Workers’ Party, another great center-left, seized power with just over a quarter of the vote. The once powerful Scandinavian Social Democrats are still in government, but weaker than before. In the late 1990s, center-left parties were dominant across Europe. Their pitch was usually a variation of, “Things can only get better.” Now it’s more like, “Things might not get worse. “
Older voters keep the Big Tent parties alive, both in Germany and across the EU. Call it the bulwark of the boomers. While four in ten under 30 supported the Liberal Democrats or Greens, 70% of those over 60 voted for the SPD or the CDU / CSU. In Spain, young voters are swooning for challengers parties, like Podemos or Vox. But their parents and grandparents stick to traditions. In France, the base of Marine Le Pen, it is the young discontented. In Italy, the far-right Lega and the Brothers of Italy are also counting on young voters. The parties now represent the young and the old as much as the left or the right.
Fractured politics means complicated coalition talks. Germany is used to bargaining between two parties. This time, three will be necessary and the negotiations could drag on. In a first for Germany, the Greens and FDP (who came third and fourth) pledged to come to an agreement before negotiating with SPD Where CDU/CSU. Again, Germany joins a new European standard. Negotiations in Belgium are known to take years and produce heavy coalitions. In the Netherlands, stuck in coalition talks since the March elections, the GreenLeft and Labor parties have discussed their own pact. In the Nordic countries, coalitions of four or five parties are common. European politics is an increasingly complex (and increasingly Belgian) beast.
Stick a pin in almost every rich westerner EU countries and we will find a populist party in the polls between 10% and 20%, offering a cocktail of immigrants and Brussels residents. Germany, again, fits the norm. Alternative for Germany (AF D) won around 10% of the vote on such a platform. Only Italy, where these parties collectively gather 40% of the vote, and France, where Marine Le Pen is a possible (although unlikely) president, reverse the trend. On the other hand, the alternative offered to German voters is the standard European tariff.
All European life is here
When asked why Germany does not play a more important role in the management of the EU, Angela Merkel argued that this was impossible, because Germany looked too much like the EU. Germany was already a delicate compromise between 16 Länder (States), with a complicated relationship between its levels of government. German leadership was simply not feasible.
But if Germany looked like EU constitutionally, he now corresponds to the club politically. Germany is fragmented, like its neighbors; its main center-left and center-right parties share the same difficulties as their peers. The nightmare of forming coalitions will attract sympathetic noises from the Dutch, Belgian and Nordic neighbors. Old voters behave the same in Germany as in France or Italy, as do their children; fringe parties are better at provoking rackets than at gaining power. When it comes to elections in the EU, votes can always be national. But the policy is distinctly European. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the paper edition under the title “A very European election”