On Sunday, Germans will cast their votes in their country’s parliamentary elections. It will be the last time they do with Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm, as her 16-year tenure comes to an end and she prepares to step down.
The veteran politician first announced she would not be standing for reelection in 2018, saying it was time to hand over the reins. But who will pick them up, and what their stance will be on the range of issues swirling around Europe, is less clear.
In previous elections, foreign policy has not been a topic of much interest or concern to the German electorate. But the times have changed, and the country now finds itself in an era of waning American supremacy. Berlin is also grappling with the immediate wake of NATO’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the German Bundeswehr fought alongside the United States and coalition partners for 20 years.
Overall, the foreign policy positions of Germany’s parties are fast-moving and politically opportunistic. However, Russia clearly has its own special place in the German election spotlight as the EU and NATO continue to butt heads with Moscow over Ukraine, and with contention over the already-finished Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Merkel has expertly balanced the competing domestic and international demands, positioning herself as the great champion of the EU’s values, while also forging stronger economic and political ties with Russia, as well as China. However, not all of her potential successors seem interested in repeating that high-wire act.
The Center: SPD and CDU in lockstep
The Social Democrats (SPD) are leading the polls in the immediate run-up to the election, followed closely by Merkel’s kingmakers, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor (currently Germany’s vice-chancellor and finance minister), is one of the few who has backed maintaining Merkel’s status quo with Russia.
In his party’s programme, the position is a twofold approach of cooperation in areas of mutual interest, namely counter-terrorism, climate change, and disarmament, whilst maintaining pressure on Russia through sanctions over Ukraine, purported involvement in cyberattacks, and championing the case of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny. Still, what is needed according to Scholz is a “new politics towards the East”, which means getting Russia to accept “a rules-based order” and not one of “might-makes-right”.
The CDU’s programme generally holds the same position as the SPD, adding that Russia “challenges [Germany’s] values”, and that what is needed at the EU and NATO level is a greater capacity for “deterrence and resilience” to counter Moscow. Armin Laschet, the minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia and Merkel’s uncharismatic successor within the CDU, has said that cooperation and dialogue with Russia are necessary, despite disagreements. For Laschet, sanctions remain on the table when it comes to pressuring Russia.
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On the subject of Nord Stream 2, Scholz and Laschet recently agreed during a televised debate in June that the pipeline could cease operations if Russia were to fall out of compliance with EU regulations. Scholz invoked Ukraine’s security as another potential reason for discontinuing usage of the pipeline after completion. However, he has also slammed US sanctions on the project as “a severe intervention in German and European internal affairs.”
Neither of the two centrist parties mentions Nord Stream 2 in their manifestos, which may be an indication of lacking consensus and/or an attempt to remain ambiguous towards the US, and other EU countries opposed to the project.
Coalition Partners: Greens, FDP, LEFT, and AfD
To form a majority government in parliament, German parties are likely to have to negotiate coalitions that put them beyond the 50% threshold. One possible outcome is the centrist ‘grand coalition’ of SPD and CDU, which has been the status quo since 2013. Any other permutation, however, will involve one or more of the remaining ‘major parties’: the Greens, Free Democrats, the LEFT, and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The Greens, currently in third place in the polls, seem likely to participate in a coalition with one of the centrist parties. Leading the Green ticket is Annalena Baerbock, whose climate-driven policy has picked Nord Stream 2 as its target. The Greens demand an immediate suspension of the pipeline project due to its non-conformity with the party’s clean energy vision and because it “threatens Europe’s geostrategic and energy interests, as well as Ukraine’s stability.” Baerbock has also championed a more hardline stance on Russia and China in past interviews.
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