By Robby Dube, Staff Member

Over the past decade, the European Continent has seen a surge in populist parties; the far left Syriza in Greece, the isolationist United Kingdom Independence Party (“UKIP”), and the nationalist National Front in France have all seen substantial success in recent years.[i] In the Federal Republic of Germany (“Germany”), however, the political center appeared to be safe under the leadership of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (“CDU”) and her center-right coalition with the Social Democrats (“SPD”)[ii]. Merkel’s coalition pushed for greater European Union Integration[iii] and championed the cause of refugees during the Refugee Crisis of 2015[iv]. Given that Germany is often considered to be the dominant power in the European Union (“EU”)[v], this meant that the EU pushed for these policies as well.[vi]The most recent elections in Germany exposed the fragility of Merkel’s power, and bodes poorly for centrist policies in both Germany and the EU.

To understand why the German election represents a seismic shift for Europe, it is necessary to detail Germany’s political system, and the main political parties at play. As a federal republic, Germany’s 16 states have administrative control over their jurisdictions.[vii] However, policy is set on a substantial level by the Bundestag (lower house of Parliament), where membership is made up of any party that receives 5% of the vote[viii]. Governing is done by coalition; the parties agree to form a government whereby one collection of parties has over 50% of the vote. While Germany has a President, the position is largely ceremonial[ix]; the Federal Chancellor (read: Prime Minister) holds most of the power.[x] The CDU is the largest party, having been in control of Germany since 2005; it is a center-right party that supported greater EU-centralization, a relatively lax refugee policy, and fiscal responsibility.[xi] The next largest party is the SPD, a center-left party that has been in a coalition with the CDU since 2013.[xii] As a coalition member, it has been required to mostly support the CDU’s policies, although in this year’s election it tried to distinguish itself by promoting a European Defence Union, modernizing vocational schools, and implementing a point system for immigration. [xiii] Relegated to an opposition party for the last eight years, Bündis 90 Die Grünen’s (“Green Party”) main policy goals are sustainable development, social justice, and opposition to right wing extremism. [xiv] Currently in the opposition, Die Liberalen (“FDP”) are most akin to the Libertarian Party in America; they support strengthening individual liberty, a free market economy, and a tolerant and open-minded society.[xv] None of these parties are particularly populist; that distinction falls to Alternative für Deutschland (“AfD”). Long relegated to the fringe of German society, AfD rose to prominence by promising to reduce the flow of refugees and immigrants, combat Islam, and exit the European Union. [xvi]

The German election results proved disappointing to the CDU; they only secured 33.0% of the vote. The SPD received 20.5%, the FDU received 10.7%, the Greens received 8.9%, and for the first time, the AfD will enter the Bundestag after securing 12.6% of the vote.[xvii] Prior to the election, the SPD ruled out forming a coalition with the CDU[xviii], which was projected to have the largest voting bloc in the Bundestag.[xix] All parties refused to coalition with the AfD, forcing the CDU to look to the Greens and FDU for a coalition.[xx] This colorfully named “Jamaica Coalition”, reflecting the colors of the parties, is likely the next government of Germany.[xxi] However, given the opposing positions of the FDU and Greens, along with the rise of the AfD, it is likely that Germany’s position as leader of Europe will face serious degradation.[xxii]

As the Center-right party, CDU lost substantial support to the far-right AfD, largely as a result of the CDU’s pro-EU integration and pro-refugee policies.[xxiii] If the CDU wants to regain support amongst right-leaning Germans, it will need to take a harder stance on refugees and immigration; Angela Merkel has already indicated her willingness to take a harder stance on immigration.[xxiv] However, the Greens and FDU will never accept this position as they are ardently pro-immigration. [xxv] If Merkel cannot become more hard-line on immigration, she risks continuing to bleed support to the AfD; if Merkel becomes more hard-line on immigration, she risks losing her coalition.

Prior to the election, Merkel and French President Emmanual Macron, openly discussed greater EU integration.[xxvi] This presents an even greater issue than immigration does for Merkel. The Greens would readily support greater integration[xxvii], but the FDU has specifically stated that they would exit any coalition that supported creating a joint euro zone budget.[xxviii] Furthermore, any moves towards greater EU integration risks feeding into the AfD’s support.[xxix] This inability to act without alienating coalition members, or future voters, leaves Merkel, and therefore Germany, paralyzed.

The CDU, despite being the “winner” of the German election, fell victim to the rise of populism that has been sweeping Europe. Paralyzed and unable to act, Merkel’s Germany will be listless for the next four years. This will result in a weakened Europe, less capable of facing challenges or presenting a viable alternative to the populist pulses running through the continent.

[i] Syriza wins, again, THE ECONOMIST: DAILY CHART (Sept. 21, 2015), https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2015/09/daily-chart-greece-s-election, EU Referendum: Final Results, BLOOMBERG, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2016-brexit-referendum/, French presidential election: Le Pen, Macron win first round to advance to run, FOX NEWS WORLD (Apr. 23, 2017), http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/04/23/french-presidential-election-le-pen-macron-projected-as-winners-in-first-round.html.

[ii] Phillip Oltermann, Angela Merkel agrees to form German coalition with Social Democrats, THE GUARDIAN (Nov. 27, 2013), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/27/angela-merkel-german-coalition-social-democrats.

[iii] See generally Robert Rohrschneider & Stephen Whitefield, Party Positions about European Integration in Germany: An Electoral Quandary?, 26 J. IASGP 83-103 (2017) (arguing that the CDU is generally pro-integration, and the SPD is substantially pro-integration).

[iv] Heather Horn, The Staggering Scale of Germany’s Refugee Project, THE ATLANTIC (Sept. 12, 2015), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/germany-merkel-refugee-asylum/405058/ (“In the first seven months of 2015, Germany reportedly received well over 200,000 applications for asylum . . .”).

[v] See Josef Janning & Almut Möller, Leading from the Centre: Germany’s New Role in Europe, EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: POLICY BRIEF, 1-12 (July 2016) (“over the last decade, Germany has taken on its natural leadership role in the EU’s economic and monetary affairs.”).

[vi] Id.

[vii] Sunil Rao, Germany Legal Research Guide: Government and Political Structure, LAW LIBRARY UNIV. OF WISCONSIN-MADISON, http://law.wisc.libguides.com/c.php?g=125271&p=819917.

[viii] Rebecca Staudenmaier, How does the German general election work?¸ DW (Sept. 24, 2017), http://www.dw.com/en/how-does-the-german-general-election-work/a-37805756.

[ix] Germany President: Steinmeier chosen by lawmakers, BBC (Feb. 12, 2017), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38949530 (“The post is largely ceremonial, but the president represents Germany abroad and is seen as carrying moral weight.”).

[x] See generally Ludger Helms, The Changing Chancellorship: Resources and Constraints Revisited, 10 J. IASGP 155-168 (2001).

[xi] See generally Janning & Möller.

[xii] See Oltermann.

[xiii] These are the various parties’ positions, DEUTSCHLAND (Sept. 9, 2017), https://www.deutschland.de/en/topic/politics/these-are-the-various-parties-positions.

[xiv] Here Are Our Positions to The Topics, BüNDIS 90 DIE GRüNEN, https://www.gruene-bundestag.de/service-navigation/english.html.

[xv] See DEUTSCHLAND.

[xvi] Die AfD im Bundestag, AfD PARTY PLATFORM, https://www.afd.de/.

[xvii] 2017 German Elections Results, BLOOMBERG, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-german-election-results/.

[xviii] Timothy Jones, Social Democrats rule out coalition with Merkel’s CDU in key German state, DW (May 16, 2017), http://www.dw.com/en/social-democrats-rule-out-coalition-with-merkels-cdu-in-key-german-state/a-38855642.

[xix]  Thomas Gschwend, Simon Munzert, Marcel Neunhoeffer, Sebastian Sternberg, & Lukas F. Stoetzer, New German election forecast: Merkel’s party will win but lose seats, WASH. POST. (Sept. 23, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/09/23/new-german-election-forecast-merkels-party-will-win-but-lose-seats/?utm_term=.87f9cdd3d9b8.

[xx] Ishaan Tharoor, The rise of Germany’s far right leaves Merkel stuck with the ‘Jamaican’ option, WASH. POST. (Sept. 25, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/09/25/the-rise-of-germanys-far-right-leaves-merkel-stuck-with-the-jamaican-option/?utm_term=.91d4e90c3fad (declaring any coalition talks with the AfD a non-starter, forcing Merkel to work with the Greens and the FDR).

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] See supra text accompanying notes 14-15.

[xxiii] Erik Kirschbaum & Andrea Shalal, German anti-immigrant party bears Merkel in her home district, REUTERS (Sept. 3, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-election/german-anti-immigrant-party-beats-merkel-in-her-home-district-idUSKCN1190XG.

[xxiv]  See J.G. Collins, Angela Merkel’s hard line on immigration puts Eurozone at risk, THE HILL (Jan. 31, 2017), http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/international/317116-angela-merkel-puts-her-foot-down-on-brexit-at-germanys-risk.

[xxv] See supra text surrounding notes 14-15.

[xxvi] Jon Stone, Merkel and Macron back creation of eurozone finance minister and budget, INDEPENDENT (August, 29, 2017), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/merkel-macron-eurozone-eu-budget-finance-minister-economy-a7918521.html.

[xxvii] See supra text accompanying note 14.

[xxviii] German FDP reject Macron’s call to create joint euro zone budget, REUTERS (Sept, 26, 2017), https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-france-eu-macron-germany-fdp/german-fdp-reject-macrons-call-to-create-joint-euro-zone-budget-idUKKCN1C12DI.

[xxix] See supra text accompanying notes 16, 23.