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  • Anna Morath

German Federal election results: Implications for the EU

  • The inconclusive German election results and the flexible coalition-building framework in Germany mean there can be no meaningful assessment of implications for EU policies and legislation at this stage. That will only follow a coalition agreement, for which there is no time limit.
  • It is not certain that the centre-left SPD will assume the Chancellorship from Angela Merkel. However, all the likely German coalition options involve pro-European and mainstream parties. The coalition will take time to form and in the meantime the existing government will continue in office. The German position on EU-relevant issues is therefore likely to emerge over time rather than all at once.
  • The interplay of a new German government, the forthcoming French Presidency of the Council and next spring’s French Presidential elections mean public affairs teams should ensure they maintain and build both German and French contacts in Brussels this autumn.

Election results

Germany’s Federal elections have produced no clear winner. The centre-left SPD received 25.7% of the vote, and the centre-right CDU/CSU 24.1%, but the SPD has not “won” the election or the Chancellorship as some commentators suggest. Although the SPD share of vote rose by over 5% compared with 2017, the largest party does not gain an exclusive right to form a coalition in the German system. It is therefore far from certain that the SPD’s Olaf Scholz will succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor.

Coalition building

The negotiations to form a governing coalition are wide open and are not pre-cooked; many governing coalitions remain possible to achieve the majority of votes required in the Federal Parliament (Bundestag) which must approve the appointment of the new Chancellor. Options include another SPD-CDU/CSU “Grand” coalition, which is the only possible two-party coalition, or a three-party coalition involving either of the SPD or CDU/CSU together with both the Greens and the liberal-conservative FDP, both of which are now seen as representing the opinions of younger voters. For results graphics and an interactive coalition calculator, we recommend the online tools of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

This election might lead to the first three-party coalition government at Federal level in recent years. Various three-party options have been tested more or less successfully at regional level. The Federal coalition option which is definitively off the table because it would not lead to a parliamentary majority is the so-called “Red-Red-Green” coalition between SPD, Greens and GUE/NGL group party Die Linke, which would have caused concern in Brussels, mainly for its potential impact on Foreign, Security and Defence policy.

EU practicalities

From the Brussels point of view the current concern is managing EU decision-making – particularly in the Council – between now and the new German government’s appointment, and the key issue is timing. In 2009, a coalition was formed within a month, but in 2017 it took over 24 weeks. Current wisdom is that a three-party coalition may take considerable time to negotiate – although this may underestimate the ability of Greens and FDP to co-ordinate with one another.

The existing government will remain as a caretaker until coalition building is complete and Angela Merkel will continue as acting Chancellor. The existing government will therefore continue to represent Germany in European Union negotiations (and potentially at the G20 and COP26). Some observers suggest that it might indeed be Mrs Merkel who gives the traditional Chancellor’s New Year speech at the end of December, rather than a new Chancellor. Others rightly note that lengthy coalition negotiations would allow the existing government to exercise significant influence, rather than the new one.

This is particularly true on the EU stage. The French Presidential election in spring 2022 will fall in the middle of the French Presidency of the Council (January to June 2022). There may indeed be some tension between the French government’s wish to conclude certain EU negotiations early in its Presidency to boost its political standing at home, and the wish of a new German government to unpick some of the positions of its predecessor. The significance of this, and the dossiers it might affect, will depend on the nature of the German coalition, but more importantly its timing: the sooner it is finalised, the more chance it will have to influence the outcome of EU negotiations. But this consideration is not likely to be the deciding factor which will seal a German coalition deal.

EU stability

EU structures and policies generally weather any changes in member state governments without rapid changes to direction or policy, partly because the institutions are designed to withstand this. That said, Germany is one of the largest member states and Mrs Merkel has been influential in key EU decisions during her Chancellorship. The EU was not a major feature of the German election campaign but the EU will be strengthened if it can – as expected – handle the change in the German government and prove that it is stronger than the impact of democratic elections in any one member state.

There has also been some suggestion that Ursula von der Leyen will find it harder to operate as President of the Commission without a CDU/CSU led government in Germany. We find this speculative and unlikely to influence EU policy outcomes on the Green Deal and Digital Agenda. While the Commission President may not have exactly the same relationship with any future Chancellor as she did with Mrs Merkel, close liaison between the President and the new German chancellor is likely to continue because (i) she remains the President of the Commission, so has power; (ii) the German chancellor leads the largest economy in the EU, so has power; and (iii) the President is still the most senior German in the European Commission. Whether there is much love lost between the individuals is not actionable information for public affairs. Note that a new German Chancellor and/or a new federal government cannot recall Ursula von der Leyen in order to replace her, nor is there any expectation that she would be forced to resign and create a vacancy as a result of a change of government in Germany.

Implications for EU policies and legislation

In the current situation, comparing the detail of German party manifestos and positions does not allow a forecast of the future German government’s position on EU-relevant issues because:

  1. The policy position of the future government on any policy issue could now be part of the coalition negotiations;
  2. The compromise outcome of coalition negotiations on any individual issue could be none of the individual party positions;
  3. There will be issues which are not addressed in the formal coalition agreement, for example because it is not possible to reach an agreement in the time available or because the issue is not  significant enough to be included.

Implications for EU public affairs teams

Our key messages for EU public affairs teams at this stage in the coalition negotiations are:

  • All the parties which are likely to form part of the German government coalition are pro-European.
  • While there is an appetite among some German politicians for EU reform, especially around economic and fiscal policy and especially from the FDP, the EU is a given for most people involved in politics in Germany.
  • Speculation about which parties will form part of the coalition and what their policy will be on EU-relevant policies remains just speculation, so should not form a basis for public affairs decisions.
  • The existing German Federal government will continue as a caretaker, possibly for a significant period, and EU public affairs teams should continue to deal with German officials and representatives in Brussels on that basis.
  • The combination of the potential for a long German caretaker government with the forthcoming French Presidency of the Council (H1 2022) and the French Presidential elections in spring 2022 make it more important for EU public affairs teams to invest in building good contacts with French as well as German representatives this autumn.

David Bates
27 September 2021

(All election data based on provisional official results, 27 September 2021)