Angela Merkel announced years ago that her current term as German chancellor would be her last. And federal elections, set for September, are still months away. But if current opinion polls bear out, the country—and by extension the continent—could be headed toward political chaos.
Merkel has ruled Germany with a steady hand since 2005. As the leader of the most powerful country in the EU, many people on both sides of the Atlantic looked toward her for leadership on the world stage during the Trump era. Her departure will shake up Germany’s political coalition, and right now, it’s the German Green Party that appears poised to benefit the most.
Merkel has for most of her time in government been forced into “grand coalitions” between her own Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), as she has been unable to secure a majority for her own party in parliamentary elections. The latest grand coalition was formed in 2013. Now, both parties are crumbling in the polls.
Why did the ‘grand coalition’ fail?
In parliamentary politics, parties that win a plurality of seats but not a majority seek out coalitions with minor parties to create a government. In recent decades, it has become more common for parties to join together not because they share ideological similarities, but rather because they want to exclude one or more other parties from power. This is what happened in Germany.
In 2005 and 2013, the Social Democrats could have formed a left-wing government, but they would have needed the support of the far-left Die Linke party to do so. Rather than give power and legitimacy to extremists, SPD chose to join up with their historical arch-enemies in the CDU. In 2017, Merkel’s party could have formed a government with the classic liberal Free Democratic Party, as it had in 2009, but the two parties combined did not quite reach a majority. Instead, they would have had to rely on support from Alternative für Deutschland, (Alternative for Germany, AfD), a radical nationalist party. Rather than granting political concessions to AfD, the CDU chose once more to form a coalition with the SPD.
Such coalitions may have noble intentions, but they nonetheless pose a different problem: With the entire mainstream united in one government, people disaffected with the government are forced to turn to extremist parties to make their voices heard. With both the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in government, voters who want change need to look elsewhere.
We have seen elsewhere in Europe that this strategy tends to benefit parties on the fringes of politics, in particular the nationalist, immigration-skeptical parties that such strategies are designed to keep out. The extremist parties paint themselves as the victims of an establishment conspiracy to keep them down.
It is also hard to get anything done in grand coalition governments composed of parties with diametrically opposing ideologies. In the end, one usually ends up with an inconsistent mess of compromises that leaves voters in all parties involved feeling dissatisfied.
Both grand coalition parties have dropped drastically in the polls compared to the last election, with the CDU and SPD now polling at about 25 percent and 15 percent respectively, a drop of 6 percentage points each. If this is even close to the election result this fall, the once unbeatable coalition will no longer have majority support.
Environmentalists instead of nationalists?
What is surprising in this instance is that the main beneficiary of the collapse of Merkel’s coalition has been the Green Party, with polls now showing the party in a statistical tie with the CDU for the country’s biggest. Just four years ago, the Greens received 9 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the nationalist AfD party, which received 12.5 percent of the vote in the same election, looks set to receive the same vote share this year—possibly even a little bit less.
European voters angry with the status quo have never turned to environmentalists instead of nationalists. So why is it happening now?
One seemingly obvious explanation is that the environmental movement has gained substantial support all over the world since the last election. But if that were the case, environmental parties all across the world should be making gains. Yet in Sweden, home to prominent teenage activist Greta Thunberg, the Green Party is actually struggling just to keep its few remaining seats in parliament. In Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance’s polling numbers have long flatlined. While most countries have a Green Party represented in their national parliaments, Germany is the only country where one could soon be leading a government.
One must also keep in mind that Germany has a unique history, and with it a rather unique political culture. It is far more difficult for anti-immigration parties like the AfD to grow in a country that still carries the shame of its grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
But that prompts the question as to why the AfD was able to grow so fast in the first place, more than doubling its share of the vote from 2013 when the party was founded to 2017 when the last election was held. Germany has continuing and arguably increasing problems with integrating the millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan who have arrived over the past decade. Why did the AfD’s growth stop so abruptly?
The main reason for this may be the AfD itself. After being founded as a euroskeptic party in 2013, the AfD gradually adopted a greater focus on immigration. There is little doubt that Donald Trump’s success was one reason for this. Depending on whom you ask, the party was either overtaken by far-right extremists, or it simply revealed its true colors. Whatever the case, the AfD has now become one of the most extreme nationalist parties in Europe. A faction of the party was even placed under intelligence surveillance by the BvF, the German equivalent of the FBI.
While other countries, such as the U.K, Denmark, and Norway, have been able to slow the advance of immigration-skeptical parties, this has usually required serious policy concessions from the establishment parties to the upstarts to bring voters back into the fold. As things currently stand, the AfD risks going down in history as the one populist party in Europe that melted away before it was able to extract a single significant concession out of the establishment.
A more favorable interpretation toward the German government parties is that their grand coalition strategy worked, in the sense that it caused the AfD to realize that it would never be in power, causing the party to turn inward and cater to its shrinking base rather than trying to reach new voters by adopting more moderate policies and language.
It should also be noted that the Green Party, while radically environmentalist, is for the most part a center-left party, unlike its U.S. equivalent which is much further to the left. With the AfD making itself unacceptable to all but the most extreme anti-establishment voters, the Green Party has become the main outlet for those dissatisfied with the current government.
Unfortunately, a Green Germany is all but certain to be an unstable Germany. The first reason is practical: The Green party has very little governing experience, having only once been a minor member of a government coalition, over 15 years ago.
Furthermore, the Greens would need coalition partners. While the Green Party is officially open to cooperating with anyone, its voters would likely disapprove of the party being a part of an even grander coalition with the CDU and SPD. To reach a left-wing majority, the party would most likely need both the far-left Linke and the center-left SPD. Linke has never been in government, and relations between it and the SPD have never been particularly friendly. It is also an open question whether members of the SPD, who for years have been skeptical of the grand coalition, would want the party to join another shaky coalition where they would once again be the junior member. Spending a term in opposition may be more beneficial in the long term.
One reason why the Green party has been so successful is that it has been able to frame itself as an alternative, but not an extreme alternative, to the current government. However, the party’s environmental policies remain radical, a key point being a 70 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. At the same time, the party wants to expand government spending and interventions at a time when sensible voices instead argue for tightening the belt after the pandemic necessitated a splurge of government spending that has left the country with a projected 9 percent deficit this year. These policies, in combination with the political instability that would follow the forming of whatever shaky coalition the Greens can manage to cobble together, could very well mean a slow recovery for Germany.
What would a Green victory mean for Europe?
What happens in Germany never stays in Germany. Being the most powerful country in Europe, a change of government would have consequences for the rest of the continent. The European Union recently approved the European Green Deal, a comprehensive policy package meant to make the union carbon-neutral. The deal is radical as it is, but the Greens are likely to push even harder than the current government to speed up the transition. Whatever the environmental gains of this, it is certain to come with an economic price tag. Tensions are already running high between Western and Eastern Europe (where coal is still king), and are all but certain to increase further.
Furthermore, the Green Party promises to liberalize immigration laws. This is not merely a domestic issue. Since the 2015 refugee crisis, European border security has been shored up. The Greens would prefer policies such as no forced deportations to “unsafe” countries, more legal routes to seek asylum, and making family reunification easier. The party opposes any upper limit on the number of refugees Germany should welcome in any given year.
The shift in rhetoric alone (never mind policy), back to the pre-2015 era of humanitarianism at all costs, would in and of itself attract migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea. This would pose a problem to every country that acts as an entry point for these migrants. Furthermore, the Greens strongly support the forced redistribution of refugees, forcing countries with restrictive immigration policies to accept asylum seekers who may originally have come to settle in Germany. If the Greens were to seriously push this in government, it would put Germany on a collision course not just with all of Eastern Europe, but with countries like Denmark and Finland as well.
Last but not least, there is the view of the EU itself. While Merkel and her party are proud supporters of European integration, they pale in comparison to the Green Party. Turning the EU into a United States of Europe is in fact the openly stated goal of the German Greens. Rather than rest and reflect on what drove the United Kingdom to leave, the Greens would prefer if the EU went full steam ahead toward the nationless utopia that they are sure awaits just over the horizon.
Since the messy Brexit process began, support for leaving the European Union has dropped in most countries. Nothing would reignite euroskepticism faster than a German government opening its borders and trying to force its asylum seekers on other member states, while explicitly arguing those other member states should no longer exist but ought to be swallowed up in one giant European superstate. All of this, coupled with the fact that the United Kingdom was already set to grow faster than Germany even before the imposition of the any radical Green policies, ought to set off warning bells in Brussels. A fast-growing U.K next to a stagnating Germany may make leaving the EU look a lot more attractive.
In the end, should current polls bear out, the most likely outcome is that Germany will once again prove the validity of that age-old Muppet wisdom: It’s not easy bein’ green.
John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and has a Ph.D. in economics.