The only thing the potential kingmakers – the FDP and the Greens – have in common is a deep mistrust of Presidents Xi and Putin
After the voting comes the horse-trading. The inconclusive results of Germany’s general election look set to confirm the truth of Otto von Bismarck’s advice: Never ask how sausages or politics are made.
The laborious process of political deal-making in Berlin revolving around squaring the domestic circles of interest groups and, of course, who get’s what job in the cabinet shouldn’t distract us from the implications for the rest of the world.
Germany faces tough geo-political choices as it grapples with energy supply and ecological concerns and the question of whether its economic weight gives it the duty as well as the power to play a bigger role in foreign policy.
Although many commentators saw Angela Merkel as the “most powerful woman in the world”, they overlooked that her foreign policy style was to twist arms to get what her French partners prioritised through EU councils.
If there is to be continuity in German foreign policy after Merkel that means letting France take the lead and the Paris-Berlin axis putting business dealing with Russia or China ahead of principles. At the start of this year, Macron and Merkel were pushing an investment deal with China with patently empty phrases about human rights and were anxious to re-open EU dialogue with Russia.
In Germany, the sharpest criticism of this “appeasement” of authoritarian trading partners came from the free market FDP and the Greens. The CDU’s new leader, Armin Laschet, was firmly for continuity with the Merkel approach, while his nemesis, the SPD’s Ola Scholz, had silently supported it as finance minister.
With the Anglosphere cohering around a human rights agenda in setting the tone vis-à-vis the two great Eastern powers, it is striking how far the tone of German Greens and the FDP on these issues chimes in with America and Britain.
The electoral arithmetic has made these two parties the two kingmakers in German politics. Their shared foreign policy orientation could ease the way for them to split differences on domestic policy in a new coalition government.
The German Greens have shifted a long way from their first generation of anti-NATO pacifist members of the Bundestag in 1983. Nowadays, their foreign policy-spokespersons are the most forthright in Germany in criticising Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and decrying the treatment of Uyghurs and Hong Kong dissidents by the neo-Maoist Chinese regime.
Those of us old enough to remember the Greens’ elders waving the Little Red Book may smile wryly at the transformation of yesterday’s student radicals. But there is a fundamental shift in Green politics across much of Europe (though less so here) from a 1968 knee-jerk anti-Americanism to a contemporary set of liberal, apparently “woke,” values which actually put them at odds with authoritarians to the East and less out of kilter with the West than their founders.
If the cultural mood in Germany is more in synch with the English-speaking world, the political consequences put it at odds with its traditional EU partner, France.
France could be the big European loser out of either possible three party coalition. President Macron shared Angela Merkel’s preference for doing deals with both Russia and China ignoring the human rights concerns voiced by both the FDP and German Greens.
Back in the spring, the Macron-Merkel axis already buckled under pressure from both the East European EU states but also the Dutch and Swedes, for instance, when they tried to swing both a big investment pact with China without serious human rights clauses and also a re-opening of dialogue with the Kremlin.
Without Angela Merkel at the helm in Berlin, Macron’s vision of European “strategic autonomy” from the United States and an American-led NATO give looks like a mirage.
Given Britain’s sour relations with Russia and growing estrangement from China, an EU re-orientated away from a Paris-Berlin axis to give more weight to its Central and East European members would be welcome in Whitehall.
That shake-up in the geo-politics of the EU could of course revive the tensions inside it. A more “isolated” France could reject Macron’s re-election bid in favour of an even more openly nationalist, euro-sceptic candidate of the right.
German voters might not have been thinking of destabilising the EU’s settled ways but their votes look set to do just that.