Derek Scally: Will post-Merkel Germany shift from drift to drive?

Berlin’s wish for continuity set to collide in Bundestag with calls for change

When German federal president Frank Walter Steinmeier arrives in Ireland on Wednesday for a state visit, he represents a country in transition. On Tuesday, as head of state, he formally ended the 16-year Merkel era. For the coming weeks, Angela Merkel is now a caretaker leader until a new government is formed. For the first time since 2005, it is most likely this administration will not include her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Change is coming.

For four terms, in a complex federal system with 16 powerful state leaders and lots of moving parts, Merkel stood alone as a solitaire of sense. Her sober approach to politics – know your brief, remain flexible, cut to the chase, help everyone save face – suited German voters and has influenced an entire generation of European leaders.

Moving beyond that legacy, though, will be a real challenge. If you want to unsettle a German politician or diplomat, ask them: what, exactly, does Germany want in the world? At times it seems the Merkel era has amplified many Germans' inherent political caution to near-neurotic levels.

Last Saturday, in a wary and weary valedictory newspaper interview over three pages, Merkel refused every opportunity offered to reflect on her political achievements and shortcomings – from her party’s recent election disaster to Germany’s modest progress on climate change policy.


Merkel refused every opportunity offered to reflect on her political achievements and shortcomings

As ever she extinguished all lines of inquiry with a rhetorical fire blanket. She reframed as inevitable, in the passive voice, even highly subjective judgment calls.

A prime example of black box Merkel politics is her decision a decade ago to phase out nuclear energy by 2022, in response to the Fukushima disaster. This decision was a political solo run by the chancellor requiring two policy U-turns on nuclear power. Filling Germany’s resulting energy gap with Russian gas, critics say, has increased dependency on Moscow with serious geopolitical consequences for the EU – and Germany’s eastern neighbours in particular.

Another trademark example of Merkel at work came last week in Brussels. She adopted her familiar mediator role in a standoff between Warsaw and other capitals over whether Poland’s controversial judicial reforms undermine the rule of law at home, and the primacy of EU law in the union.

Political solutions

After talks, and in her weekend newspaper interview, Merkel insisted the political standoff required a political solution that acknowledged the unanswered questions about the future of the EU. Should it pursue “ever-closer union” of closer political co-operation, or should the EU revert to a European economic community? Her final word on the matter: “In my view it is a negotiating imperative that everything has to be done to find a way to hold Europe together.”

That, on the one hand, is exactly what a German chancellor should say given its 20th-century history, and its particularly burdened history with Poland. But .

Like a short-order cook in a diner, Merkel excelled at juggling crisis frying pans – and there were many to juggle. Through it all, though, few were party to her thinking in her chancellery crisis kitchen. Instead the outgoing chancellor kept almost everyone – her political allies, diplomats, EU partners, think tank observers, journalists and others – in the dark.

Like a short-order cook in a diner, Merkel excelled at juggling crisis frying pans – and there were many to juggle

A wish for discretion and stability comes at a price. At the weekend, an outgoing Merkel administration official described German foreign policy in the last years as one of drift rather than drive. Prolonging that approach, he feared, creates a real risk of Berlin – unintentionally – sleepwalking into even greater dependencies with Russia and China.

Neo-liberal failure

All this make a change of government in Berlin so interesting – and timely. With Olaf Scholz likely to head a three-way coalition of his Social Democratic Party (SPD), Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Germans voted last month for change – though with a half-engaged handbrake.

Sooner rather than later, though, the wish for continuity will collide in the Bundestag with a demand for change. A new generation of younger SPD and Green MPs see German neo-liberal failures on housing, welfare and health – and are demanding a consequential shift to the left. Similarly, they have called out mainstream German thinking that frames climate change policy like a package holiday: something to be viewed simply on value-for-money grounds.

Such thinking on welfare and climate issues will, in turn, increase pressure for a fiscal pivot. In coalition talks, many in the SPD and Greens argue that spending money wisely for tomorrow is a better investment than clinging to balanced budgets today. Bringing around the pro-business FDP, their potential coalition partner, means interesting debates lie ahead.

And not just in Berlin: the relevance of such debates to Irish ears opens new opportunities for lively Irish-German conversations in the years ahead, building on bilateral relations that have never been as good as today.

Such debates will, in turn, energise the European debate where, after years of Merkel hesitation, Germany has to finally show its hand. Will the new Berlin government back – and help underwrite – greater financial and fiscal competences for Brussels, or was this just a pandemic one-off? An era is ending in Berlin and another is beginning. This matters for Europe more than ever before – more than even most Germans realise.

Derek Scally is Irish Times Berlin correspondent