The Upcoming German Elections: Continuity or Chaos?

In ten days, German voters head to the polls for parliamentary elections. This particular election is a watershed moment as Germany’s long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel, is not running for re-election. After 16 years in power, the center-right chancellor is stepping down. Currently, the election is too close to call. As a result, the United States is intently watching the German election. Now, the questions become, how will Germany’s new government conduct its foreign policy and how will this impact the United States’ relationship with Germany?

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How Do German Elections Work?

German elections work differently than those in the United States. German parliamentary elections utilize a combination of proportional representation and single-district constituency processes Each German voter submits two votes; the first vote is used to elect a local member of Parliament (MP) using the first-past-the-post system. In this vote, each candidate that wins the most votes (or is the first to move past the post) in the individual districts wins a seat in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.

The second vote is choosing a party and is key as it “determines the overall proportion of seats that each party holds” in the Bundestag. Then, the seats are allocated in accordance with how the parties fared in the election. Typically, no one party wins the majority of votes; the party with the most votes forms a coalition with another party (or parties) in order to govern. The Economist recently announced a poll to predict the winner of the German election. While there are several combinations of potential governing coalitions that may lead the next German government, the poll indicates that the combinations most likely to form a majority include the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Greens, and the centrist Free Democrats (FDP); the Greens, the FDP, and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD); or, the least likely coalition, the CDU/CSU and the Greens.  

Who are the CDU/CSU Parties?

The CDU/CSU, the current conservative governing bloc, is expected to perform well in the upcoming election on September 26. Led by Armin Laschet, the party’s foreign policy platform calls for continuity, aligned with Chancellor Merkel’s stances. For one, the CDU/CSU governing coalition are staunch supporters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a central part of regional and global security. The transatlantic alliance with the United States also centers prominently in the party’s foreign policy worldview, viewing the United States as a “central partner.” Additionally, the CDU/CSU, while noting that China’s rise must be countered, seeks close cooperation with China while coordinating with the United States and Europe. On Russia, the CDU/CSU promises to take a firm stance, striving to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Who are the Greens?

Overall, the Green party, led by Annalena Baerbock, wants to adopt a firmer position on both Russia and China and support further European unity. The Greens view NATO as a key “collective defense mechanism.” They are also deeply committed to European cooperation, Germany’s membership in NATO, and a strong transatlantic alliance with the United States. Should the Greens come to power, they would offer a shift toward a more aggressive foreign policy on China and Russia as they view the showdown in global politics to be between authoritarian and democratic ideals. Specifically, the Greens strongly oppose the Nordstream 2 pipeline with Russia and the European Union’s investment deal with China.

Who is the SPD?

The SPD foreign policy platform varies little from the other parties. Led by Olaf Scholz, the SPD supports NATO military deployments for peacekeeping mission, crisis prevention, and conflict management under the “framework of international order and its institutions.” The SPD is also a strong proponent of the transatlantic alliance and views the United States as a key ally. Similarly, the SPD advocates for deeper European integration. In short, the SPD maintains a deep commitment to the European and transatlantic alliances, seeing the European Union, the United States, and NATO as integral to Germany’s foreign policy. Moreover, the SPD looks to strike a balance between engaging and containing Russia and, while not considering China to be an adversary, advocates for the development of a Europe-wide strategy towards China.

The German Election and the United States

The United States and Germany have a long history of close relations. Today, as the State Department notes, “Germany is one of the United States’ closest and strongest allies.” While relations between the two countries declined under the Trump administration, U.S.-German relations remain strong. Yet, the U.S.-German relationship is entering unchartered territory as Ms. Merkel has decided not to pursue another term. However, no matter which party wins or who becomes chancellor, the U.S. and German relationship will remain close. As Secretary of Blinken noted in Berlin on his June trip to Germany, “I think it’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany.”

The foreign policy platforms of each of the major parties projected to form a possible governing coalition align well with those of the Biden administration. For one, all parties in contention support Germany’s positions within the European Union and NATO. All parties concede that Germany and Europe need to recalibrate the relationship with China. While there are minor agreements on the fate of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, all parties seek to take a hard line against Russia. Perhaps most importantly, at least to the Biden administration, none of the countries challenge the importance of the transatlantic alliance. While Germany’s upcoming promises to cause a little bit of chaos, continuity looks to be the order of the day.

Mr. Blinken Goes to Europe, Part Deux

In my recent post, What About Us?, I argued that, on his trip to Europe in June, it would behoove President Biden to meet individually with both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in their respective countries as he did with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, England. These in-person meetings in France and Germany would have staved off any unnecessary strains in the relationships over issues spilling over from the Trump administration.

Strengthening the Transatlantic Bond – A Conversation between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Instead, the next week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after attending the summits alongside Mr. Biden, traveled back to Europe to meet bilaterally with the leaders and foreign ministers of Germany and France in Berlin and Paris highlight the importance of both relationships. In addition to meeting the German and French leaders, Secretary Blinken met with Italian leaders in Rome to “underscore the U.S.-Italy partnership’s important role in addressing key global priorities.” The purpose of Mr. Blinken’s post-Biden trip to Europe was to quell any strains in the relationship that Mr. Biden was unable to address during his time in Europe last month.

The question remains, did Secretary Blinken’s trip work?

Germany

Secretary Blinken’s first stop on his European trip was Berlin. During his time in Berlin, he met with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, noting that Germany and the United States were working together to counter antisemitism and Holocaust denial. While in Berlin, Mr. Blinken also attended a conference hosted by Germany and the United Nations focused on supporting Libya’s transition to a stable, permanent government.

Secretary Blinken’s visit to Berlin was not all work. He and Foreign Minister Maas grabbed a beer at a Berlin beer garden where Mr. Maas could hardly contain his excitement about his counterpart, noting how happy he was that the United States and Germany were on the same page again. “It’s more fun,” he added. Chancellor Merkel was equally complimentary and equally relieved, stating that “We are delighted that the American states, in order to quote the American President Joe Biden, are back again on the international, multilateral scene.” It was clear that Secretary Blinken was just as thrilled as the Germans to be in Berlin, observing that the United States has no better friend in the world than Germany. It is safe to say that, despite some lingering policy differences, Mr. Blinken’s top in Berlin was a success.

France

Secretary Blinken received a very friendly welcome in Paris where he met with Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian and President Emmanuel Macron where they discussed the tougher issues facing the U.S. and its European allies, including the Iranian nuclear deal, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and China. “My dear Tony, I’m really very happy to welcome you to Paris,” Foreign Minister Le Drian rejoiced.

Secretary Le Drian was not shy about celebrating the end of the turbulent years of the Trump administration, expressing his elation that the United States is back: “It is  excellent news for all of us that America is back. It is a comeback to the values that we share, it is a comeback to the multilateralism that we built together and it is our responsibility to continue with it intensively. This is what France and the Europeans had to fight for alone for four very long years.” Secretary Blinken returned the sentiment, affirming that the United States had no closer friend in the world than its oldest ally, similar to the statement he made while in Berlin about Germany. Much like his stop in Berlin, French officials were excited and relieved to welcome the American secretary of state, showing that the trip was certainly a success.

Italy

After his stops in Berlin and Paris, Secretary Blinken then traveled to Rome where he met with Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and where he was greeted in a similar manner as in Germany and France. He and Minister Di Maio co-chaired a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, with the aim of discussing the maintenance of pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Then, he attended another meeting focused on Syria, with a focus of bringing an end to the country’s decades-long civil war. Mr. Blinken also visited the Vatican where he met with Pope Francis.

While Secretary Blinken’s stop in Rome was packed full of events, it also went a long way to reaffirming the U.S.-Italian relationship. In fact, Minister Di Miao paid the United States the ultimate compliment, in the eyes of the Biden administration, stating that Italy’s relationship with the United States vastly outweighed the Italian relationship with China. The United States has expressed concern over Italy’s ties to China, specifically after Italy, under the previous government, signed up for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which the U.S. views as problematic. “We are a strong trade partner with China, we have a historic relationship,” he admitted. “But it is absolutely not comparable, and it does not interfere with, the alliance of values we have with the United States.” In short, one could argue that Secretary Blinken’s stop in Italy reaped results that far outweighed what the Biden administration anticipated.

Conclusion

Secretary Blinken traveled to Europe in the wake of President Biden’s largely successful trip to Europe. During his visits to Berlin, Paris, and Rome to further Biden administration efforts to revitalize U.S. relations with its European allies, leaders in France, Germany, and Italy treated Secretary Blinken like a “rock star.” After the frustrating and destructive Trump years, European leaders received Mr. Blinken with relief and even joy, marking his recent trip as a rounding success.

What About Us?

My recent post, Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe, summarized President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe in June where he visited the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland to attend summits with the United States’ G-7, NATO, and EU allies. He also met individually the leaders of the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Russia.

Specifically, before the G-7 summit, President Biden met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Carbis Bay, England in an effort to reaffirm the special relationship. During this meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson signed an updated Atlantic Charter and Mr. Biden was not shy in raising his concerns about Brexit negotiations and the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. 

What became evident, though, is that President Biden did not give two key Europeans the same attention he gave Mr. Johnson and the United Kingdom.  Germany and France are perhaps the most important U.S. allies in Europe, outside of the United Kingdom, and relations between the United States and these two countries were damaged during the Trump administration. In an effort to advance one of his central foreign policy objectives – repairing the United States’ relationships with its allies, particularly in Europe – Mr. Biden should have taken the time to meet with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron in their respective capitals during his European trip to symbolize the importance of these relationships.

Germany

An individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during the European trip would have gone far in simmering one particularly tense issue. At the center of the U.S. – German relationship is the disagreement surrounding Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will run from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany. President Biden and his team have denounced the project. U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle fear the pipeline will give “Russia too much power over European gas supplies.” Fundamental to this concern is the worry that Russia will exploit Europe’s energy needs as a means of getting its way in other foreign policy matters. Similarly, the United States is concerned that Russia will shut off gas entirely to Ukraine and Poland, starving the two countries of their own energy needs.

Ultimately, after Chancellor Merkel visited the White House in mid-July, the United States is no longer threatening to block the pipeline, deciding it was not worth risking its key alliance with Germany over a pipeline that is mostly finished. In short, Mr. Biden decided the United States’ relationship with Germany was more important. However, much of the unnecessary tension between the United States and Germany over the Nordstream 2 pipeline could have been headed off in an individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during his trip to Europe.

France

Similarly, an individual, in-person meeting with President Macron in Paris would have helped relieve any strain in the U.S. – French relationship. America’s European allies, particularly France and Germany, are relieved that President Biden is now in office, even if they are still a bit wary, and repairing damage to the transatlantic alliance caused by the Trump administration. But the damage was done. Europe began to doubt the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and the continent is now looking to become less dependent on the United States in what it calls strategic autonomy.

The most vocal proponent of this autonomy has been Mr. Macron. This is an uncomfortable component in the relationship between France and the United States and represents a broader trepidation among European leaders about the continent’s, relationship with the United States. Mr. Biden has a lot to prove to the United States’ European allies, including France, and is on his way to mending some relationships that took a beating during the last administration. France is one of the key countries that President Biden has focused on in his efforts to repair alliances, and an individual, in person meeting in Paris during his European trip could have staved off some of the strain on such an important relationship.

Conclusion

While U.S. relations with its key European allies remain close and positive, France and Germany were both shocked by the poor treatment they received from the Trump administration. Mr. Biden came into office with a promise to revitalize America’s relationships with its closest allies, particularly in Europe. Still, certain issues have spilled over from the Trump administration and are still causing tension even now that Mr. Biden is in office. In light of the frustrations and anxieties among two of America’s closest allies in Europe, a meeting between President Biden and the leaders of France and Germany could have smoothed over any doubts about the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance that may still exist.