Opinion: German elections will be crucial for European democracy – but not the only key
Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and Principal Investigator at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
In Brussels last week, I found everyone waiting for Berlin. In Berlin, I found everyone electrified by a surprisingly wide open election. One thing, however, is clear: the new German government will be a coalition, almost certainly of three parties rather than two. This brings us back to the deepest question underlying this crucial European event: Can democracy be effective? More precisely: can the European model of change by democratic consensus, of which Germany is a perfect example, produce the actions that Europe sorely needs to maintain itself in the 21st century?
The European Union is like a giant slot machine. The more pineapples or oranges on the screen, the better the results. This German election will count for about four fruits in a row; The French presidential election next spring will turn three more. Italy and Spain contribute maybe two each, the rest being generated by other European countries and European institutions.
Whatever the constitutional theory of the EU, in practice the alignment of national governments remains the key to any major initiative it takes. Even the large pan-European party groups in the European Parliament are heavily influenced by the national parties of the larger Member States. For the Union to function well, there needs to be a coalition of coalitions made up of coalitions.
Critics constantly speak of a “democratic deficit” in the EU, but in reality almost the opposite is true. The EU is a permanent negotiation. The wonder is not that he moves slowly, but that he moves at all.
A crisis can help. Without the COVID-19 pandemic, we would not have the 750 billion euros (roughly $ 1.12 trillion) in grants and loans, drawn from pooled European debt, in the stimulus fund also known as name of Next Generation EU. An optimist would say that the floods in northwestern Europe and the forest fires in Greece have woken Europe up in the face of the climate crisis. Yet it is a strange regime that relies on successive crises for its survival.
In the capital of Germany, the central power of Europe, there is talk of the different possible coalitions that could emerge from what will likely be months of coalition talks after the federal elections on September 26. The two most likely coalitions are referred to as “Jamaica”. (for the colors of the country’s flag: black for the Christian Democrats, yellow for the Free Democrats, green for the greens) or “traffic light” (substitute the red of the Social Democrats for the black of the Christian Democrats). The two coalitions are said to be resolutely pro-European. And the personal European commitment of Armin Laschet, Christian Democrat candidate for chancellor, is beyond doubt. (His brother complaints the family actually descends from Charlemagne.)
Overall, however, the traffic light coalition appears to be the most likely to give Europe the green light. Sunday’s televised debate between the candidates for chancellor apparently reinforced the view of a plurality of Germans that Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats – the strong, stable and experienced finance minister and vice-chancellor – is best qualified to succeed Angela Merkel. I tend to agree with them.
Where the traffic light coalition is making its mark on Jamaica is in the eurozone. Either of these tripartite coalitions would almost certainly have a hard-line German finance minister in Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats. But Mr Scholz as chancellor is more likely to show the pragmatic flexibility that will be needed not only to prevent the collapse of the eurozone, but to make it work better for the ailing southern European economies. since a long time.
Nonetheless, difficult coalition negotiations between three parties will produce complex compromises. And Germany is still only four pineapples on the European slot machine. Assuming that French President Emmanuel Macron ends up fighting in the second round of the presidential election next spring against nationalist populist Marine Le Pen, hopefully he wins. But the populist witch-brew that combines themes of immigration, Islam, terrorism and crime into one frightening tale is very powerful in France. An unforeseen event could well cause the unthinkable to happen.
Europe also needs the ‘super’ Mario Draghi to remain prime minister in Italy, rather than becoming the country’s president, possibly triggering an election in which Italy’s own nationalist populists may well succeed. And he needs a sane government to stay in power in Spain. Then, and only then, would you have windows for a period of dynamic European reform by the middle of next year.
All of this is possible, but very far from certain. The emerging government in Berlin is the first, but only the first, test of whether the European model of change by democratic consensus can bear fruit. If democracy is not up to par, young Europeans will look for alternative models. In an EU-wide opinion poll led Last year, for my research team at the University of Oxford, 53% of young Europeans said they believed authoritarian states were better equipped than democracies to deal with the climate crisis. Europe’s challenge is to prove otherwise – and not just for the climate crisis.
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