After 16 years, Germany’s Social Democrats finally beat Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in September polls. If a left-led government comes in power, will it change much in the EU?
Politics in Europe has been in turmoil for quite some time as far-right groups spurred by growing populist movements have continued to challenge the continent’s mainstream parties from France to Britain and Germany, being against the EU.
Britain’s Boris Johnson, who was elected at the height of Brexit, gaining from the Vote Leave supporters, and France’s Macron, a centrist politician, who was elected to prevent a far-right candidate’s rise to the country’s presidency, have mostly indebted their political success to the rise of populism and extreme conservative groups.
But in Germany, where the far-right has also made gains, the story appears to be different from Europe’s populists like Johnson or centrists like Macron, who has been seen as a barrier to the far-right’s ascendancy. Social Democrats, the country’s old center-left party, claimed a political victory, which follows a 16-year rule of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), defending the idea of the EU.
While it’s not clear that a leftist-led coalition will be the inevitable result of the September polls, experts see that a traffic light coalition will be a likely outcome. The traffic light coalition is a term used to describe the union of three parties, whose flags are red (Social Democrats), yellow (Free Liberals) and green (Greens). Today, the three political groups announced to initiate formal talks to form a coalition government.
If that happens, what does it signify for larger European politics, particularly, the EU, whose political engine has long been Germany?
“Those three are parties, which passionately defend the idea of the European Union,” says Bulent Guven, a Turkish-German political scientist and a close friend of Olaf Scholz, the current candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the country's chancellor.
Populist groups across Europe, from Johnson’s Brexit political platform to others, are sceptical about the EU’s core ideas and its political durability, making a common cause against the continent's unification.
Defending EU integration
Under Merkel, Germany’s mainstream politics has long been a strong supporter of the EU. Scholz has also been the country’s finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel’s last and current caretaker government. But a new left-leaning government under Scholz will be even more supportive of the EU than Merkel, according to Guven.
“Scholz clearly indicated that a government under his leadership will aim to fasten the process of the further integration of the EU, deepening the political project’s reach across the continent,” Guven tells TRT World.
But there are some serious obstacles to the unification project, ranging from disagreements over continental economic stimulus programs and the development of a European defence to some countries’ refusal - most recently Poland’s - to accept the EU’s supreme authority.
Guven thinks that a possible Scholz government will definitely be more generous than Merkel’s in aiding other EU states hit badly by the economic crisis. But Scholz will also probably not make any major changes to Merkel policies, being her partner for some years, Guven adds.
Richard Falk, a prominent expert on international relations, thinks similarly to Guven.
“Because Merkel's 16 years in office brought Germany stability, respect, and worldwide influence, a new government is not likely to depart much from the approach taken by the CDU, except some softening of fiscal conservatism with respect to public debt and foreign economic assistance, especially within the EU context,” Falk tells TRT World.
Countries like Greece, which was forced to implement some severe austerity programs by Merkel when the country went through one of its worst economic crises in 2015, “could be a beneficiary” under a left-leaning government, the American professor says.
Guven agrees with Falk. “At some point, due to Merkel’s pressure over austerity programs, Greece even thought that it might be a good idea to leave the EU. But I believe Social Democrats will financially be more helpful to periphery countries like Greece and others in Eastern Europe,” Guven says.
“The SPD is expected to lead the coalition and would likely push for greater social protection for workers and somewhat more internationalism in its foreign policy,” Falk views. Before Scholz became a politician, he was the deputy president of Socialist International’s youth wing.
Scholz’s emphasis on the importance of strengthening the EU is something France’s Macron also appears to advocate, particularly, on military matters for the installment of continental defence.
While the EU includes 27 member-states, France and Germany have long been the two leading countries of the union. Interestingly, in the past two centuries, the same two countries had fought bloody wars to claim the continent from France’s Napoleon Bonaparte to Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
But apparently, after WWII, which led to a widespread destruction across Europe, particularly, in Germany and France, both countries decided that establishing a common economic union is a better idea than fighting for continental hegemony. Before the EU became a political union, it was called European Economic Community (EEC), a humble title for ambitious plans.
Now under a possible Social Democrats-led Germany and Macron’s France, the two countries might be better positioned to strengthen the EU and their bilateral relations, says Guven.
“Both Macron and Scholz want a stronger union. As a result, I believe the unification process of the EU will accelerate,” he views.
Last year, Macron called for more integration in the EU from economic policies to a common defence understanding. “Merkel should respond to that call. But she did not,” Guven says. But I believe Olaf will respond to Macrons’s more integration call,” he says.
Without French-German cooperation, it would be so difficult to deepen EU integration, according to Guven. “In the past, there had always been the pattern that when French-German cooperation increased, the EU integration got faster,” he says.
While Macron has recently appeared to move to the right and Scholz is a leftist, former political alliances between the two countries have appeared to suggest that ideological differences don’t matter much if leaders agree on EU integration.
“There were cases of a positive working relationship between France and Germany even though leaders of two countries were from different political sides,” says Francois Gemenne, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Liège in Belgium.
In the past, Francois Mitterrand, a socialist and Helmut Kohl, a Christian Democrat, strongly cooperated for EU integration, enacting the critical Maastricht Treaty in 1992. A similar partnership was also evident between France’s Jacques Chirac, a centre-right politician, and Germany’s Gerhard Schroder, a Social Democrat.
Most recently, Francois Hollande, the French socialist leader and Macron’s predecessor, and Merkel were also good partners, Gemenne tells TRT World. While Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel have similar center-right stances, they did not have a good relationship, the academic also reminds, indicating that ideological alignment does not guarantee political cooperation.
“It’s more about character than ideology,” he sees.
Gemenne doubts a Social Democrat-led government is a sure thing in Germany, but if Social Democrats lead a government, “they will be in a different line than Merkel,” turning French-German relations into a better shape. However, he does not expect major changes in Germany’s foreign policy under Social Democrats.
But one issue might lead to some rifts between Berlin and Paris: European defence. “In any case, Germany is not so inclined to follow France on the path of a European Défence,” says Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, a French academic working both at the French Institute of Geopolitics and the Thomas More Institute.
The establishment of a European defence or army by the EU is promoted by Macron, who once commented that NATO is in a state of “brain death” in order to prove his continental military point, angering the US leadership.
“At least, Angela Merkel and the CDU were ready to increase Germany's military spending (on the paper). This new (possible left-led) coalition is not even committed by Angela Merkel's statement. And German socialists as the Greens are reluctant to military power and force projection (almost all Germans are),” Mongrenier tells TRT World.
It means the European Defence will stay more as a very French idea than a EU project, the French academic says. “This project could progress but outside the EU framework, through bilateral military relations and like-minded coalitions as in Africa,” he sees. As an example of that kind, the professor gives Takuba, a French-led European military task force, operating in Mali and the larger Sahel region.
“With Germany, we share the Euro, and it is a lot. Beyond geoéconomics, it is rather difficult,” he concludes, referring to the relationship between the two countries.