A Vote That Will Change Europe

The German federal elections on September 22 gave a resounding victory to Angela Merkel who is now German Chancellor for the third time in a row. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), saw results that were significantly better than expected. Merkel herself defined the outcome as historic. The swings in the electorate should not have come as a surprise. The vote was emotionally and politically loaded as it was driven by worries related to the safeguarding of the financial stability of German households in the midst of the European crisis. Merkel emerged as the leading force — forging the future of Europe — and as a defender of national interests.

The most important result of the vote was the failure of the euro-sceptic party Alternative fuer Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) to enter the Bundestag. Alternative would have changed the face of the German centre-right 90 years after the fragmented and extremist political landscape of the Weimar Republic. It would also have broken the taboo of German post-war democracy: no radical party to the right of the CDU. Alternative intended to use its Parliamentary role as a platform for systematically calling on the Constitutional Court to block Merkel’s pro-European policies. This blockage would have killed off all decisions taken by Merkel and her European colleagues in Brussels. However, in falling just a few votes short, the tectonic shift triggered by Alternative has not occurred.

If the vote was influenced by the European events, its outcome will also influence them. Merkel’s centrality not only in Germany but in Europe now looms unchallenged. Such a degree of control of European politics in Merkel’s hands is prompting analysts to suggest that not much will change in the German stance on European integration and the future of the euro-crisis. In fact, one should probably see Mrs. Merkel’s philosophy as “do not change anything, so that everything will have to change.”

The no-change view is based on the fact that in Germany, all decisions on the EU are made by consensus between Merkel’s CDU and the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s most popular party after the CDU. In particular, since the beginning of 2013, the SPD, Green Party and Der Linke (‘The Left,’ a party that is to the left of the SPD) command an absolute majority in the Bundesrat, the Upper House that must agree on all federal legislation relating to administrative costs or taxation issues. No change of majority at the Bundesrat is possible before 2015 even if CDU wins all the upcoming elections. The balance of powers that forms between parties with different ideologies dictates the search for pragmatism and for the kind of gradual procedure that has characterized the last years. In the short term, after her remarkable success, Frau Merkel should feel freer to take a proactive role in negotiations with the European partners. A coalition with the Social Democrats is widely viewed as more predisposed to support a more growth-oriented agenda. A more favorable environment could allow the ECB to take unconventional policy actions that it had been reluctant to embrace out of concern that this could unsettle the German electorate.

However, if this is the short view, in the long term Chancellor Merkel seems aware that a lot of political and economic tensions have been building under the European turf over the last five years. She knows that these troubles must be addressed through a political project. According to the initial signals, Merkel intends to turn European governance upside down. As we shall see at the end of this paper, the kind of project that Merkel has in mind can only be understood by observing the effects of the euro-crisis on German politics and vice-versa.