Westminster Should Care about the German Elections

Westminster doesn’t tend to pay an enormous degree of attention to German elections, perhaps in part because the City of London regards the recent French elections – with their ‘horse-race’ style of run-offs and the threat of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party looming large – as the contest of higher stakes and greater margins. There is also a sense that modern Germany is a place of inherent stability – with the coalition system and Angela Merkel’s longevity pushing the nation’s politics forwards through the centre-ground at a plodding pace. Yet while there are many aspects of mutual admiration and competition between Britain and Germany, the nation’s domestic social and political landscape often remains poorly understood in Westminster. And beyond an interest in the political theatre of our neighbourhood, there are many self-interested reasons why Britain’s political machine should be attentively watching the outcome of Sunday’s national elections.

At the most fundamental level, Germany’s outsized economic and strategic role in the European Union means it will remain an essential partner in shaping the negotiations that will need to take place about the UK’s future foreign policy and security role in Europe. While the UK has signalled via the Integrated Review that it wishes to play a leading role in NATO and that it recognises the supremacy of geography in terms of the prioritisation of its defensive resources, it will not be possible for the ambiguity around the UK-EU foreign policy relationship to persist indefinitely. It is obvious that the United States, while remaining an indispensable and committed partner in many areas, is pursuing an independent pathway that means its interests or motivations may not always align with its closest Western allies. And that one consequence of this is that Britain, the EU and other European nations may find themselves on the same side of an issue, but without any framework around which to move forward in collective action.

It is also evident that the practical realities of geography will necessitate coordination on themes outside of NATO’s existing remit, such as the security of essential supply chains, and the migration flows that will inevitably stem from the effects of climate change and other regional conflicts. It had been hoped that once the initial teething problems of the trading relationship were able to settle, there would be space to begin to have this conversation – but the ongoing tensions around the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, the practical challenges of the new border arrangements, and the disputes with the French Government over irregular migration in the Channel have proven an obstacle to cooperation. The new German Chancellor will undoubtedly play a role in setting the tone of the next period of the UK-EU relationship, and could be crucial in encouraging the EU institutions and its member states to look to the future – or allowing this unhelpful current impasse to persist.

It is also true that, with the former German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen in post as the EU Commission’s President, the relationship between the Commission and the Bundestag has the potential to become frostier than at any other time in recent history. President von der Leyen has a muted or even conflicted relationship with many of her former domestic rivals in the SPD (Social Democrats), including with Olaf Scholz, the current narrow frontrunner to become Chancellor. In her bid to become President, she also succeeded the official candidate of the EPP – the EU voting bloc of her former party, the CDU – which also fostered ill-feeling among certain factions of the German conservatives. The prospect of a Liberal Party finance minister may also signal some bumpy conversations ahead about the future of the EU’s debt and deficit management.

President von der Leyen’s relative social liberalism and her history embedded in the CDU render her both more flexible and more at risk. Ultimately, while it is expected that all candidates for the German Chancellorship will wish to maintain at least the impression of a respectful state of affairs, the departure of von der Leyen’s mentor Chancellor Merkel will undoubtedly unsettle the Commission-Bundestag relationship. The Commission President may take the opportunity to step up fully into her position without the shadow of her former leader, but she may also find herself untethered. One possible beneficiary of this transition could be President Macron, who is likely to seize the vacuum of Merkel’s absence to further raise his influence in shaping the future of the European Union. It is therefore prudent for Britain to simultaneously consider its investments in both bilateral relationships, and the future of the E3 partnership as a vehicle through which a greater degree of productive consistency could be reached.

Under Angela Merkel, Germany has sought to keep a relatively low profile on foreign policy and security, resisting calls to increase its defence spending and shying away from questions about European strategic autonomy. The Chancellor’s preference for a particular interpretation of ‘moderation’ and ‘pragmatism’ has in fact led Germany to take a number of active foreign policy choices with significant consequences for both the EU and the Western alliance – in particular, maintaining that constructive economic partnerships with authoritarian Russia and China are both possible and desirable, that channels of dialogue must remain open, and that investments in security measures must be deemed ‘proportionate’. At various points in her leadership, Merkel has conjured praise and admiration as a beacon of Western principles, yet two of her last acts as Chancellor – seeking to advance the ill-fated EU-China investment partnership (the CAI) and pushing through the controversial gasp pipeline with Russia (Nord Stream 2) – could be judged as failing to align with long-term Western interests.

Chancellor Merkel’s complicated foreign policy legacy means that the subject of Germany’s – and, linked to this, the European Union’s – role in the world looms large within these national elections, despite the majority of the domestic televised debates being largely dominated by domestic matters. As ever, given a coalition-building process will need to take place after the elections, it is important to consider the positions of all the major parties, as the question of which will hold the foreign ministry will need to be thrashed out in the weeks and months to come.

The Greens

The Greens have historically been a ‘pacifist’ party, however their current leader Annalena Baerbock is from the more hawkish wing of the party. Baerbock advocates a more confrontational approach to both Russia and China, and has been forthright in backing NATO as an ‘indispensable actor’. She is a fierce advocate for a ‘values-driven’ foreign policy, and wants Germany to take a stronger role in promoting a narrative of an existential battle between authoritarianism and liberal democracy and holding China to account on human rights. There are practical consequences of this view, as the Greens oppose the CAI, and want to block Huawei from involvement in Europe’s digital infrastructure. They hold a similarly robust perspective on relations with Russia – strongly supporting EU sanctions, opposing Nord Stream 2, defending Ukraine’s independence, and condemning Russia’s role in digital influence operations in Germany.

Nonetheless, the German Greens still oppose the prospect of Germany raising its defence commitment to 2% of GDP – which they describe as “arbitrary” – and it is certainly the case that Baerbock has previously called for Germany to sign the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty and pull out of NATO’s nuclear sharing programmes. Baerbock has spoken favourably of Joe Biden and has signalled areas of cooperation on climate action, but her party’s unwillingness to rise to America’s challenge on defence spending may limit the ultimate scope of the partnership.

The Greens are, understandably, ambitious in their climate action policies and in coalition negotiations they will be keen to ensure that they are able to hold relevant ministries or form new ones through which to advance their agenda – recognising the significance of the finance portfolio in guiding future taxation settlements around the climate transition. Perhaps the most significant attribute of Baerbock’s international approach is her instinctive preference for the EU becoming a ‘self-reliant’ and cohesive foreign policy actor, with Germany’s interests and ambitions primarily advanced collectively through Brussels as an EU-wide agenda.

The CDU (Christian Democrats)

Chancellor Merkel’s successor as the leader of the CDU, Armin Laschet, has troubled some outside observers in allied capitals for his somewhat ambiguous views on Russia and China. To some extent, this reflects a degree of continuity with Merkel herself, with Laschet making clear that German-China relations should remain cordial despite the two nations’ divergence in values, and that economic interests should be protected. He favours behind-the-scenes diplomacy over public statements, and believes there is no contradiction in pursuing economic and other forms of engagement while also condemning China’s choices and behaviour. Laschet also takes a similar approach towards Russia, wanting to maintain a ‘sensible’ relationship that allows space for dialogue and economic exchange, and as such, wholeheartedly supports Merkel’s approach to Nord Stream 2 as a practical commercial solution.

Despite his cautious – or some may say, relaxed – approach to these bilateral relationships, Laschet is more robust in his view about the role that Germany should play within NATO and in the regional security framework. His party supports the formation of an EU army and defensive union, and Laschet has committed to work towards the 2% NATO spending ambition and nuclear deterrence. And despite the red flags that may be perceived around Laschet’s views on Russia and China, Washington will be pleased by his interest in investing in transatlantic trade and in developing a common climate policy. Laschet is also committed to European integration and wants it to play a strong role in global foreign policy, including the formation of new ministries and competencies in a range of areas – including intelligence and security. He has previously called for a system by which EU member states could voluntarily join a common European foreign policy – a potential workaround that in practice could bridge the possible future transition to qualified majority voting on such matters.

The SPD (Social Democrats)

Olaf Scholz is considered a remarkably resilient political figure and appears to have a striking capacity for reinvention, so we can anticipate that his foreign policy views may well evolve to meet the demands and opportunities of the outcome of the elections. He has largely avoided forming a distinct position on China and has been relatively vague on his opinion regarding the CAI, although he has previously called for a more constructive dialogue with China and has had significant exposure to trade with China via his previous role as the Director of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and as Mayor of Hamburg. Scholz’s approach to Russia is also relatively unemotional and bears some resemblance to the stance taken by Chancellor Merkel, in terms of being comfortable with criticism while remaining open to debate and discussion. Scholz has indicated he would seek the creation of a new strategy for dealing with Russia, acknowledging that further European integration – of which he is an ardent supporter – will naturally increase regional tensions.

The SPD take a strong position on NATO, to the extent that he has declared he would not form an alliance with any party that was not clearly committed to the Alliance as a matter of principle. This is seen to be a reference to the prospect of a Red-Red-Green coalition, in which the far-left Die Linke could theoretically form a coalition with the Greens and the SPD. Like Laschet, Scholz also supports the notion of an EU army and defensive union, and has indicated that he would aim to pursue greater cooperation with France on foreign policy as the foundation of a more cohesive EU international strategic capability – which would also see the EU partnering with other nations on large-scale joint initiatives, including on climate action. In the final debates ahead of the elections, Scholz expressed his support for France in the AUKUS dispute, and indicated that Europe must consider its collective security as a matter of sovereignty.

The FDP (Liberal Party)

FDP leader Christian Lindner has described himself as a foreign policy ‘realist’, but his pro-business stance is balanced against his support for Germany taking a tougher stance on China, with his party opposing the ratification of the CAI. Similarly, while asserting a desire to see stronger relations between Russia and Europe in the longer term, the FDP has been a loud voice in calling for continued EU sanctions against their authoritarian neighbour, as well as challenging the Nord Stream 2 project, and calling for greater engagement with opposition groups challenging the government’s authoritarian rule. The party is also a fierce advocate of NATO, and in fact holds a manifesto commitment to spend 3% of GDP on international security, as well as promoting an intensification of relations with the United States. Like most of the other candidates, Lindner favours investment in greater EU competencies in foreign policy.

Die Linke (The Left)

Perhaps the most distinct foreign policy offer of the parties in the mix for a potential coalition is Die Linke, whose leaders Janine Wissler and Martin Schirdewan have historically opposed NATO and have previously proposed replacing it with a collective security system that would involve Russia. They have since sought to soften this position, but it remains difficult to see what their new approach would be in practice. The party wants to end all arms exports, and opposes many existing and proposed EU functions, including the European Defence Agency and the prospect of an EU army. It also opposes any German military deployment abroad, and wants to remove all nuclear weapons from German territory. Its attitude towards Russia is unusual, regarding it as a somewhat disruptive actor but certainly not framing Russia as a rival or threat. Die Linke has supported Nord Stream 2 and wishes to pursue a policy of greater engagement and dialogue with the Russian Government. Its worldview is partly shaped by its generalised antipathy towards the United States, which it regards as self-interested and belligerent, resisting a multipolar world order in favour of its own hegemony. As such, Die Linke is also open towards cooperation with China and is broadly untroubled by its rising power.

Conclusions for the UK

With Chancellor Merkel bowing out after 16 years in power, there is no question that the German elections will be consequential for the nation’s future, and – in part because of the presence of a German EU Commission President – for the future of the European Union. Both of these relationships with be crucial to advancing the UK’s cooperation within its neighbourhood on key security and strategic issues. And, given Britain and Germany’s individual strengths and capabilities, the state of the bilateral relationship will also be influential in shaping the future of the Western alliance, particularly as the United States becomes less predictable in its actions and intentions.

Looking at the possible outcomes of the elections, it is fair to say that the differences between the other candidates and parties pale in comparison to the potential consequences of Die Linke’s role in any future coalition, particularly if it was able to negotiate a position with any influence over foreign policy. It appears, however, that this is an extremely unlikely prospect, with the SPD – the most likely to have opened coalition negotiations with Die Linke – already indicating they will not support a coalition with a party that does not support the NATO alliance.

Turning to the other candidates, the most significant distinctions pertain to their attitudes towards China and Russia, their commitments to German defence spending, and the extent to which they wish to project influence through the European Union. In a way, the Greens’ foreign policy may appear in fact closest to the UK Government position on a range of areas, although perhaps ironically, they are also the party the most likely to advocate for these being advanced through the European Union. Both the SPD and the CDU will in many ways offer a degree of continuity with the Merkel era – a preference for ‘moderation’, ‘hedging’ and ‘caution’ which we may no longer feel sufficient to meet the challenges of the day. Chancellor Merkel also provided a significant degree of stability in her complex personal relationships with many key international leaders, and it is unclear as to how these will transition across with her successor. It will not be in Britain’s interests for Germany to be weak, indecisive or inward-looking, and we should therefore hope that we have yet to see the real foreign policy mettle of these candidates.

What is clear, is that the strength and ambition of the German leadership will determine the nation’s relationship with both Brussels and Paris, and that Britain will need to be prepared for Paris to potentially become an even more vital actor in forging the future of the European Union. And while the EU’s credibility as a centralised foreign policy actor remains theoretical, it would be unwise to underestimate its capacity for targeted influence and the importance of its stability for our own regional interests. The task of reinvigorating and repairing relations with both Germany and France remains urgent and these elections, and the French elections in the Spring next year, present an opportunity for a clean slate and renewed resolve. Westminster should be watching closely.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.