A Letter from Germany

By Bettina Appel

2017 is a year that could dramatically change the political world: not only in the US, but also in Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker has presented his White Paper on the Future of Europe – five different scenarios how the European Union could look like in 2025 - without the United Kingdom. The EU needs to redefine itself now, in order to achieve a greater acceptance by citizens and governments. The outcome of the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany will be critical for Europe’s future.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel had been a successful center-right (Christian Democratic Union, or CDU) leader for the past 11 years, recognised by many as the most powerful woman in the world. She likes to lead calmly, has a sharp sense of power and a scientist’s passion for data.

Since the autumn of 2013, Germany has been governed by a grand coalition led by the Christian Democrats under Angela Merkel and including as junior partner, the center left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (or SPD) under Sigmar Gabriel. The CDU got the biggest piece of the cake, whereas the Social Democrats were not really part of the success-story and have lost many federal elections since 2013.

Merkel’s politics worked well until Germany opened its doors to refugees and asylum seekers, but this ‘open arms’ policy had many opponents both within Germany and within Europe. This changed the success story of Angela Merkel. She had to face hard criticism - even from the center-right sister party CSU (Christian Social Union, a party with whom the CDU has had very close relations since the beginning of the German Republic) over the decision to temporarily open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015.

With the beginning of the Euro-Crisis (and having this new Merkel policy in mind), the Populist Party “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany, AfD) was established in 2013 and has been extremely successful. Within a short while, this hard-right party won seats in several states and is now represented in 14 Parliaments of the German Lander, or Federal States. They even won seven seats in the 2014 European Elections. But for many, the AfD was a forum of fear, bitterness, and frustration. The political debate has become livelier, but also increasingly bizarre.

And then, out of the blue, Martin Schulz arrived on the scene. The former president of the European Parliament is now no longer Merkel’s big buddy and partner on the EU stage. He is the chosen candidate of the SPD in the upcoming German elections. What distinguishes him most of Merkel are his communication skills and his true passion for Europe. Many voters hope that this desire will be transferred to German politics in the future, something Germany’s popular comedy show “Heute Show” portrayed by featuring Schulz with a halo in a German beer tent. He is the new symbol for change and hope; compared with him Merkel appears a bit worn out and muted in her statements.

In addition, the SPD’s rapidly rising popularity among German voters will add more pressure on Merkel. A ZDF poll found out that 71 percent of Germans think that Angela Merkel is doing a good job. But they still want a change at the top. However, Schulz has yet to prove that he is the best candidate for the job. Apart from being mayor in his small home town, he has not exercised any significant executive functions. And he has yet to convince the electorate that he can master domestic issues.

Merkel’s future may be linked at least partly to the behaviour of Trump and Erdogan. If things get worse, voters might want to support the experienced Merkel. After two extremely boring election campaigns, Germany would benefit from an exciting, involving campaign. Let’s hope that democracy will reawaken.