Angela Merkel’s Germany: still liberals’ best hope for 2017?

To secure a fourth term a less liberal version of Angela Merkel may emerge as she reacts to the domestic and global tumult of the last year

Simon Bulmer2016 was a tumultuous year in global politics, symbolized by Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump securing the American presidency. Trump has challenged the fundamentals of US external relations, challenging trade deals, climate change agreements and suggesting the need for reinforcing American nuclear arms.

Yet there were other major developments in 2016 to disturb liberals. The re-taking in December of Aleppo by the Syrian regime supported by Putin’s Russia acted as a major setback to the proponents of liberal interventionism.  In Turkey President Erdogan’s crushing of opposition after July’s attempted coup seemed to reinforce the growth of political ‘strong men’ in the new era.

To be sure, there were also more heartening development for liberals. The right-wing Freedom Party candidate for the Austrian presidency was defeated in December by Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent left-wing candidate supported by the Greens.  The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, called a referendum to garner support against mandatory EU refugee quotas but his effort failed due to turnout falling below the 50 per cent threshold, although he claimed victory with nearly 98 per cent opposing the EU proposals.

Less clear is the longer-term significance of the Italian constitutional referendum. Matteo Renzi, regarded as Italy’s new hope for social democracy, resigned immediately after having staked his political future on a constitutional reform that was decisively rejected by the Italian electorate.

Across the EU the prospects for the liberal order look difficult for the year ahead. The stakes are arguably highest in France.  President Hollande recognised the inevitable from his dismal approval ratings and announced he will not re-stand for election.  The presidential run-off is expected to be between the Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the centre-right’s François Fillon, who plans to cut the public sector, reinvigorate entrepreneurialism, Republican values and perhaps closer relations with Russia as well.  Before the French vote, parliamentary elections must be held in the Netherlands.  Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom will seek to capitalise on populist trends, although the likelihood of being part of a governing coalition is not thought to be great.

Against this backdrop liberals have seen German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a beacon of hope in European politics, expressed most clearly in President Obama’s valedictory visit in November. Merkel’s remarks at a joint press conference highlighted progress on climate change, the need for trade deals like that between the EU and Canada and the importance of development policy in Africa, while recognising Germany needs to contribute more to the transatlantic alliance.  The contrast with President-elect Trump’s agenda could scarcely be greater.

The terror attack on a Christmas market in Berlin on December 19th raised questions about the vulnerability of Chancellor Merkel ahead of federal elections in September.  Might her standing be jeopardised?  The immediate aftermath did not look good, as police initially arrested the wrong man.  Then concerns were raised as to why the perpetrator, the Tunisian Anis Amri, had still been in Germany even though his asylum application had been rejected.  Merkel was doubtless relieved when he was killed in Milan by Italian police.  Nevertheless, there remains a risk that the attack could be attributed indirectly to her welcoming approach to refugees (from Syria) in August 2015.  At that point, and rather uncharacteristically for Germany and the usually reactive Merkel, Berlin played a distinct leadership role, apparently acting as the EU’s ‘liberal hegemon’.

The refugee crisis has been a major challenge for the German authorities. With 1.1 million refugees having registered in Germany during 2015, their absorption and distribution across the German states according to a long-standing distribution formula has represented a formidable challenge of integration.  It will continue for some time yet for both social and labour market integration.

The German people’s initial welcoming approach cooled noticeably as the flow of refugees grew. A major catalyst in the changing public mood was the harassment of revellers in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015.  The populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, originally founded by an economics professor as a party critical of the Euro, has sought to capitalise on this changed mood and become a vehicle for a change of refugee policy.  In March 2016 state elections the AfD secured results ranging from 12.6 per cent in Rhineland Palatinate to 24.6 per cent in Saxony-Anhalt.  In September state elections in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern the AfD secured 14.2 and 20.8 per cent respectively.

While some of these percentages represent strong results for AfD, including the symbolic shunting of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) into third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, it is important to note that the strongest results have been achieved in the less populous eastern states of Germany. These states have a rather different political culture in part attributable to having no real exposure to multiculturalism in the former East Germany.  The extremes of the party-political spectrum are more willingly embraced in the east.

Nationally, support for the AfD stood at 15 per cent in the German public broadcaster ARD’s January ‘Deutschlandtrend’.  The predominant German political culture—originating from the western states—is one that has hitherto rejected extremes and focused on the political middle ground.

The challenge for Merkel is not confined to the AfD. Within her coalition her Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party has been a vocal critic of the refugee policy.  Politics in Bavaria has always tended to be more conservative, at least outside the big cities.  In 2015 Bavaria found itself at the front line of the refugee flow from the Balkan route, namely the Austrian-German border.  The CSU Bavarian Prime Minister, Horst Seehofer, has demanded an annual cap on refugees of 200,000, has threatened legal action at the powerful Federal Constitutional Court and in the background could even threaten to stand against Merkel’s CDU by expanding the CSU beyond Bavaria.  Following the Berlin terror attack the CSU has become an advocate of much better data exchange between European security authorities.  Some of the CSU’s moves and threats are posturing, of course, acting as a ginger group within the federal coalition

Chancellor Merkel’s government, with the CSU and Social Democrats as coalition partners, has already rowed back from its earlier liberal position. The numbers of refugees who have been deported has increased while financial support is offered to those who leave voluntarily, with record numbers choosing this option.  Financial packages are targeted at Morocco, Tunisia and the Balkan countries, which are regarded as ‘safe states’, although the largest numbers of refugees have come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.  The federal government has therefore adjusted its policy to become less open.  It has also now embarked on upgrading its internal security policy after the Berlin attack.

In another notable step, taken at the December CDU party conference in Essen, Merkel endorsed her party’s proposal to ban the full veil in certain areas of public life.  She took this step when announcing her candidacy as chancellor-candidate for September’s elections.  Her commitment to accelerate deportations of rejected asylum applicants was further reinforced in the aftermath of the Berlin attack.

Despite such challenges and even in the context of the notable recent political upsets of 2016 the prospects look good for Merkel’s re-election. Her approval rating stood at 56 per cent in January (down one point on December).  The CDU/CSU stood at 37 per cent (up two points), with the Social Democrats (SPD) trailing at 20 per cent.  The SPD has not yet decided on its chancellor-candidate but the former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, appears to be the favourite.

Merkel has tacked away from her initial liberal position on refugees and for her the terror attack’s consequences are unlikely to jeopardise her leading the party securing the strongest support in the federal elections. In 2017 we can expect to see Merkel more focused on domestic politics and campaigning than on international issues, notably the Brexit negotiations.  Moreover, after the elections she may have a tricky period building a coalition.  The AfD’s emergence adds a further splintering of the German party system.  The SPD may not be keen to renew the Grand Coalition, from which the CDU/CSU seem to emerge better placed than they do.  In this case a CDU/CSU coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats comes into play, assuming that the latter manage to cross the 5 per cent threshold and regain their place in the new Bundestag.

In the last decade Chancellor Merkel has been one of Germany’s and Europe’s political survivors. A less liberal version could be the survivor of 2017.