Germany enters last week of election campaign

EU playing little-to-no role in leading candidates election debates
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a Brussels-based journalist and copy editor

20 Sep 2021

Europe is getting a bit nervous about the German elections. Of course, there is no actual threat of any outright Eurosceptic forces coming anywhere near power once a coalition is formed and Angela Merkel’s long reign finally comes to an end.

But the possibilities around the next governing coalition are manifold and have never been quite so complex. The two historically dominating “Volksparteien”, the Christian Democrats of the CDU and CSU, and the Social Democrats of the SPD are polling very close to each other in the lower-to mid-20s, with the SPD currently enjoying a four-point lead.

The Greens have lost, for them, unprecedented ground over recent weeks but are still the third most-popular party polling in the mid to high teens. The leading candidates of these three parties have held three televised debates, dubbed ‘Triells’, the last one on Sunday evening.

But there are two more parties in the mix for a possible coalition, the liberal FDP and the left-wing Die Linke. Nuances on many important issues affecting Europe could be quite distinct depending on the coalition make-up, from energy and climate change, to trade, security and foreign relations.

For example, a coalition between the SPD and the Greens - expressly favoured by both Green candidate Annalena Baerbock and SPD candidate Olaf Scholz in Sunday’s debate - to which Die Linke is positioning itself as a possible third partner if the numbers don’t add up, is already raising alarm bells in France over energy and foreign policy concerns.

A red-green-red coalition would be expected to take an even more hostile stance on nuclear energy, and a potentially less principled one towards Russia, for example.

However, The European Union and the wider world did not feature in the last ‘Triell’ debate, just like they hadn’t in the two preceding ones, and despite numerous calls to include them.

The European Union and the wider world did not feature in the last ‘Triell’ debate, just like they hadn’t in the two preceding ones, and despite numerous calls to include them. Leading German Green MEPs Sven Giegold and Daniel Freund published a passionate plea just before the debate on Sunday, entitled, “The silence on Europe is unsettling our partners”

Leading German Green MEPs Sven Giegold and Daniel Freund published a passionate plea just before the debate on Sunday, entitled, “The silence on Europe is unsettling our partners”.  

They claimed that, “observers in Brussels and across European capitals are growing impatient. They know that Europe will not be able to advance on climate and energy, nor on migration or values, without Berlin pushing for change with all its might.”

Giegold and Freund added: “In Germany meanwhile, very few citizens are aware about the consequences of where they will put their cross on election day, for EU policy.”

The lack of interest in European matters in Germany was bitingly summarised by Martin Sonneborn, the former editor of the country’s leading satirical magazine “Titanic”, and now an MEP for the anarchic “Die Partei” (European Parliament election slogan in 2014: “For Europe - Against Europe”) said during the EU’s flagship State of the Union debate last week, “In Germany, nobody is talking about Europe. In Europe, everybody is talking about Germany. That tells you all you need to know.”

And the reason the leading candidates did not talk about Europe - apart from the moderators simply not asking them – wasn’t down to ignorance of Brussels matters.

CDU hopeful Armin Laschet was an MEP between 1999 and 2005 and, hailing from the border region around Aachen, is an avowed pro-European. Scholz, as German finance minister, was instrumental in creating the ground-breaking EU Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF), and Baerbock was an MEP’s advisor between 2005 and 2008. 

Observers from outside the country showed dismay at the omission of any international concerns in Sunday’s debate.

The Berlin correspondent of France’s Le Monde, Thomas Wieder, commented: “Once again, no word on Europe, no word on foreign policy, no word on Germany’s place in the world. The mind boggles if one thinks of what the Chancellor’s role is”

The Berlin correspondent of France’s Le Monde, Thomas Wieder, commented: “Once again, no word on Europe, no word on foreign policy, no word on Germany’s place in the world. The mind boggles if one thinks of what the Chancellor’s role is.”

Anthony Glees, Emeritus Professor at the University of Buckinghamshire in the UK and an expert on European affairs, security and intelligence, tweeted: “nothing on migration, nothing on security issues. Not very encouraging for Laschet, nor for us.”

Jana Puglierin, Head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations apologised for her country on Twitter: ”Sorry, dear European friends and partners out there, we are unfortunately too busy navel-gazing… maybe after 26 September…. or not.”

The past president of Estonia and former MEP Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweeted just before the debate:

“Will the third of the Triell debates finally get to foreign and security policy? NS2? Russia? Ukraine? EU members to Germany's East? The rise of authoritarianism in Europe? The failure of ‘Wandel durch Handel’ [change through trade]?”

“Or is there some kind of media/party agreement not to bring it up?” To which German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer replied: “Oh, this parochial mediocracy!”

German EPP MEP Andreas Schwab, linking to an editorial leader critical of this trend in the big German daily ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ tweeted on Monday: “Bundetagswahl: an election campaign as if Germany were an island.”

In the leader, the paper concluded that, “at least one message would be important for 26 September: that it is not only the parliament and with that a new government that is being elected, but also a government in the service of Europe.”

The EU does feature in all of the parties’ election manifestos but, as Sophie Pornschlegel and Alexandra Salomonsová concluded in a study for the Brussels-based European Policy Centre: "All in all, the party manifestos for this historical federal election after 16 years of Merkel are rather unconvincing in their takes on EU policy… they do not reflect the importance of the EU for Germany. This is also visible in the election campaigns, where the EU plays little-to-no role"

The EU does feature in all of the parties’ election manifestos but, as Sophie Pornschlegel and Alexandra Salomonsová concluded in a study for the Brussels-based European Policy Centre: “All in all, the party manifestos for this historical federal election after 16 years of Merkel are rather unconvincing in their takes on EU policy… they do not reflect the importance of the EU for Germany. This is also visible in the election campaigns, where the EU plays little-to-no role.”

Meanwhile, German MEPs from all parties have been and still are deeply involved in the election campaign, of course, mainly helping their local Bundestag candidates on the ground.

But one cannot help but wonder if talking too strongly about Berlin’s lack of European discourse might risk being seen as counterproductive in mobilising the current German electorate.

Germans go to the polls on Sunday 26 September.

Read the most recent articles written by Andreas Rogal - European Parliament signs off on EU’s flagship Farm to Fork plans

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