German Federal Elections: Chancellor Merkel is a beacon of consistency in turbulent times

On 24 September, the German people will head to the polls for federal elections. Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term, with her Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) defending its position against the Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by former European Parliament President, Martin Schulz. In the 2013 elections, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), received a combined 42% of the vote, their best result since 1990, and subsequently formed a ‘Grand Coalition’ with the SPD. With a recent ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll putting Chancellor Merkel’s approval rating at 64% and her CDU party consistently polling between 35-40% (compared to the Social Democrats’ 20-25%), it would appear she is poised to cruise to victory again this time around.  This is following a strong performance in the much-anticipated TV debate with Martin Schulz on 3 September.

Importance of the  German elections for Ireland

The importance of these German elections for Ireland cannot be overstated. As it stands, arguably Ireland’s largest trading and investment partner is the United Kingdom, although Ireland’s reliance on the UK has diminished since we entered the European Economic Community in 1973. Ireland’s membership of the EEC, and later of the EU, allowed us to diversify and look to a wider European market. In the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it is crucial that Ireland continues to further diversify its commercial ties with remaining EU member states with whom it can trade freely through the European Single Market. Germany is the world’s fourth largest economy and Europe’s largest, with its GDP representing almost a third of the economy of the Eurozone. It is the world’s leading industrial nation in a number of sectors, including automotive, life sciences, agri-tech, software and engineering services.

The good news is that Ireland already has an extensive trading relationship with Germany. Bilateral trade between the two countries is estimated at around €25 billion per year and almost 10% of Irish exports go to Germany. Ireland’s trade with Germany is also hugely beneficial in the areas of foreign direct investment (only the United States directs more FDI into Ireland), tourism (it is the third-largest source of visitors to Ireland), and the food and drink industry (it is Ireland’s sixth-largest market for food and drink exports, worth around €600 million annually).  However, as part of its aim to further diversify Irish trade post-Brexit, the Government plans to build on this solid ground and increase these numbers. To this end, in April 2017, the then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, travelled to Germany to promote increased political, economic and commerical ties between Ireland and Germany, launching the Enterprise Ireland Going Global – Exporting to Germany Guide in Frankfurt.

Chancellor Merkel has long been a good friend to Ireland. She and her CDU party maintain a close relationship with Ireland’s governing Fine Gael party through mutual membership of the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political grouping in the European Parliament. This relationship dates back to Merkel’s and Enda Kenny’s early days of leading their respective domestic parties, when both were in opposition in their respective Parliaments. In addition, in relation to Brexit, the German Chancellor has been hugely supportive of Ireland’s unique concerns, recognising that Ireland is likely to be worst affected of all EU member states by the UK’s departure from the EU. Indeed, she was one of the first European leaders to pinpoint Ireland’s situation as a priority for the first phase of negotiations with the UK.  Chancellor Merkel has also visited Ireland numerous times and was among the first Heads of State with whom new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke following his election.


Importance of the German elections for Europe

The German elections are also of paramount importance for the wider European continent. As Europe’s largest economy, Germany must play a leading role in fostering and developing prosperity across the European Union.

Over the course of her 12 years as Chancellor to date, Angela Merkel has developed a reputation for being steady and pragmatic, a leader who favours mutually beneficial and sustainable agreements in both the domestic and international spheres. Domestically, she has overseen a German economy which, despite the recent turbulance in international politics, has performed remarkably well, with unemployment at a record low and business confidence at its highest levels since Germany’s reunification.  This success has largely quashed the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD). At European level, she is  similarly seen as an anchor of stability in an otherwise volatile international environment.  A committd European, Chancellor Merkel has long been a champion of European ideals such as universal civil rights and a protector of the European ‘four freedoms’, especially freedom of movement.  For example, regarding the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Merkel has stressed that full access to the Single Market “is only possible under the condition of adherence to the four basic principles” and there must be no “cherry picking” for the UK in this area.

Chancellor Merkel’s conviction on this point, along with her assertion last year that Europe can no longer rely to the same extent on its traditional allies, the US and the UK, has won her no friends amongst Brexiteers, who accuse her of being deliberately obstructionist in the negotiations.  However, Chancellor Merkel has stressed that the negotiations are very much between the UK and the remaining 27 EU member states as a whole and it will be for the EU’s negotiators in Brussels to forge the deal with the UK.

Potential coalitions

Germany’s unique voting system, which combines the first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems, means that the end result of elections is almost always a coalition.  Given the CDU’s commanding lead in the polls, it is probable that the CDU will form a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties.  Perhaps the most likely outcome is a continuation of the current coalition of the CDU and the SDP, as polls suggest that the German people are content with their incumbent government.  Another possibility, which would likely be favoured by the CDU, would be a coaltion with the smaller Free Democratic Party (FDP), led by Christian Lindner. This was the arrangement from 2009-2013.

The only viable alternative which could threaten Chancellor Merkel’s leadership is a three party coalition of the SDP, the Green Party, and the former Communist party, Die Lienke. This arrangement would likely be led by Martin Schulz.

Senator Neale Richmond is the Government spokesperson on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann.