Very little changes for Europe as a result of Sunday’s election in Germany. Most commentators have focused on the personal triumph of Chancellor Merkel. However, hers was in reality a pyrrhic victory. She might be credited with the right result for her party, but she lost her junior coalition member, the liberals, who will no longer be presented in the Bundestag. This means that she must now negotiate with the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), to form a new “grand coalition.”
The German political system will no doubt force Chancellor Merkel and her party to make compromises. But the feeling of having achieved a great victory might make it more difficult for them to recognize this reality. The SPD is stronger than one would guess from its meagre result at the election (it got only about 25% of the vote, compared to 41% for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union) because it dominates many regional governments and thus has a majority in the second chamber, the Bundesrat. The negotiations with the SPD therefore promise to be long and difficult, especially given that an important minority of that party would rather stay in opposition.
That said, these predictable short-term difficulties should not overshadow the more important, longer term implication of this election. This is the message that euro-skepticism does not pay in Germany.
The election results confirm once more that parties that take a constructive stance on Europe remain popular. Chancellor Merkel’s approval ratings are mainly due to her policy towards Europe. Her stance on the euro, in particular, retains support, even though the German government took on considerable fiscal risks. Most of the euro rescue operations that had to pass through parliament were also supported by the opposition, indicating a large, cross-party, consensus. Opinion polls in Germany show that Germans have largely kept their trust in the EU, and fewer and fewer want to go back to the Deutschmark. Though the media may disagree, the boring reality is that Germans have accepted the euro as an essential part of European integration.
However, there exists a fringe in the electorate that does not feel represented by this pro-European majority. The Free Democratic Party tried to attract this vote, but failed. The “Alternative für Deutschland,” a party created just a few months ago, was more successful in providing a voice for discontented voters. They scored 4.7 %, a very strong result, but still missed the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag.
Does this strong initial result imply that, by the next election, the AfD might make it into parliament, and so has the power to influence German policy now? This is unlikely. The experience of anti-EU parties in Germany over the last 20 years suggests that the AfD is unlikely to remain a strong force for long. Such groups have no staying power.
All in all, it appears that single-topic parties, especially those against European integration, do not fare well in the German political system. They tend to attract fringe elements and disintegrate when faced with electoral setbacks, leaving the German political landscape much the same for the foreseeable future.
Read more blogs on Europe.
Author: Daniel Gros is Director at the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Image: German newspapers are seen featuring pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.