German elections from the perspective of a European student

Angela Merkel’s landslide victory in the recent German elections puts her, despite the glaring success, in an ambiguous situation. You might ask: what do I care? Well, Germany matters, not only because it has to provide us students with a steady supply of Faber-Castell pencils and Stabilo markers. “Europe’s reluctant hegemon”, as The Economist once called Germany, has the power to shape the future of the continent for the better and the worse.

Cartoon Merkel's Europe

Illustration by Alfredo Martirena Hernandez

Germany reports growth rates and unemployment levels the rest of Europe can only dream of. Whatever the reasons for this extraordinary economic performance may be, and how sustainable this relative prosperity actually is, at least for the moment makes the continent’s biggest economy also its strongest.

Economic strength, combined with population size, has been one of the more obvious reasons behind Germany’s major role in shaping policies of the EU in times of the continuing global slow-down. Some of these policies include deciding to bail out Greece, finally addressing the issue of youth unemployment across Europe, and taking tough austerity measures against underperforming countries.

But the economic crisis is not the only crisis we experience. Another highly influential German politician, Marin Schulz, who is also the current President of the European Parliament, is never tired of underlining the importance of tackling not only the financial crisis but the European crisis as well. The crisis of pan-European democracy might explain why the political attempts to address the crumbling economy seemed as despotic as they were unpromising.

The necessary democratization of the European Union, which Schulz tries to advance via broadening European Parliament’s areas of competence, was also the main topic of the lecture by Jürgen Habermas at KU Leuven this April. Habermas was of the view that “Germany holds the key to the fate of the European Union.”

Angie or ‘Mutti’, as she is being called affectionately among friends and ironically behind her back, has been the face of the strong Germany and is considered the world’s most powerful woman today. Drawing on her enormous popularity, the Christian-Democrats (CDU) missed an absolute majority in the Bundestag (part of the legislative body) just narrowly.
It is an awkward victory all the same. Merkel’s hitherto coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), were voted out of the Bundestag. As a result, Merkel will now have to rely on the support of one of the opposition parties from the left to form a government. Possible candidates to join are the Greens and the Social-Democrats (SPD).

However, in their election campaign, the Greens presented a very progressive agenda, one which called for the Christian-Democrats to ask them to retake a political stance: one that would correspond to the location of their parliamentary seats. The Greens are indeed seated closer to CDU than SPD – strangely, a much more probable coalition partner. It is also worth mentioning that there is no party further to the right of the socalled centre-right Christian-Democrats.

It can get even stranger in contemporary German politics. Although, theoretically, the so-called red-red-green coalition would have a majority, SPD’s chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück openly and unequivocally ruled out his party’s coalition with its parliamentary neighbour, the leftist party Die Linke.

The Greens, who had to accommodate a nasty paedophilia scandal shortly before the elections, reduced their parliamentary weight. They thus vacated their position as the third biggest parliamentary block in favour of Die Linke. They, surely not without resentment, joined SPD in discrediting Die Linke as being ‘unseriös’. In doing so, both SPD and the Greens seem to prefer the ideological splits of ruling with the conservatives.

It is easy to read in Germany’s political situation a reflection of trends in the West at large. While the progressive political forces, being at odds with each other, are unable to provide a unified and solution-oriented roadmap, their electorate is seeking to escape the dangers of a crisis by neurotically leaning to the conservative ‘motherly’ bosom.

The fact that the decisions made in Brussels influence our lives directly has long become an undeniable one. But only if the EU moves beyond the current fiscal and monetary unions, and towards being a political union as well, could we refer to these decisions as our own. Until that happens, several nation states will continue to have a disproportionate influence. Thus, in order to understand what goes on in Europe as a whole, we must grasp political developments on the national level.

First published in The Voice – International Student Magazine, Leuven