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Transatlantic Take

Berlin Needs Space in Election Season

Germans watched the U.S. elections closely and are uneasy about the results, not least because their own federal election season is beginning. Financial crisis, terrorism, and populism have infected Europe since the great recession.

Germans watched the U.S. elections closely and are uneasy about the results, not least because their own federal election season is beginning. Financial crisis, terrorism, and populism have infected Europe since the great recession. Germany’s relative strength in the storm has lead Washington to call on Berlin as its indispensable partner for holding Europe together and managing global affairs. But Germany’s own election in the fall of 2017 will not follow a conventional playbook. Shifts in the political party system have yielded upstarts on the right and left over the last decade and are hampering traditional coalition building. Although Germany will soon hold the G-20 presidency, kitchen-table issues at home will take priority and popular discord with the United States is certain to emerge. Chancellor Angela Merkel will be a bulwark against knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but she will need Republicans and Democrats in Washington to give her space to navigate a new reality in German political discourse.    

The contagion in Europe has reached its core, and Germany’s catch-all parties, the CDU and SPD, are losing their appeal as dislocation seeps into the custom organized stability. Although unemployment is at an all-time low, some of the country’s big corporate brands synonymous with Germany itself are floundering. The readiness to provide safe haven for refugees has fueled populist backlashes in the polls, with the right-wing, anti-immigrant AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) party on the ascent and protests on the streets in the former east. Close encounters with terrorism and admission from the government that Germany did not screen any of the refugees entering through its borders at beginning of last September have fed the narrative of mismanagement.  According to September’s Politbarometer, a majority of Germans want Angela Merkel to run again, even though she has slipped in the popularity rankings. But unlike the last election cycle, Chancellor Merkel and the CDU party face a fragmented political party landscape and complaints from their conservative CSU coalition partner.

Merkel is likely to remain tempered, whereas members of her party and other political contenders could campaign on a platform that diverges from U.S. interests in order to rouse voters. Relations with Russia, U.S. companies, and the conservative mores of the new U.S. government are likely targets. Chancellor Merkel’s experience with two prior, contrasting U.S. administrations leaves her well-equipped to forge the right tone with President-elect Trump, and can provide his new team with the institutional knowledge on the strategic value of the German–American partnership. In contrast, coalition permutations in Berlin without her can damage mutually-beneficial cooperation. Because Washington will need a Germany that it can partner with, decision-makers in Washington will have to exert patience when Europe’s largest economy gears up for its election, ignore the anti-American voices coming from Berlin, and give Angela Merkel license to campaign for re-election.      

While Washington would like Berlin to contribute more for collective security, Berlin would like more help from Washington in addressing Europe’s challenges and understands that European defense coordination and spending need to be stronger. While the deal with Turkey has greatly reduced the number of incoming refugees, it is far from a solved crisis. Since the United States cannot be expected to take more Syrian refugees with a Trump administration, seeking stability in the region would offer support for the Merkel government. This will allow German policymakers to combat growing anti-Americanism which very often faults the Iraq war for the current inferno in the Middle East. These sentiments are palpable on the digital economy front as well, whether it be containing the market prowess of U.S. tech firms or asserting governing principles for the sharing economy.  Although President-elect Trump is not tight with Silicon Valley, he can appreciate the power and reach of U.S. innovation. 

Washington should refrain from escalating a trade war with German and American blue-chips caught in the cross fire, since those economic ties create jobs. Chancellor Merkel has been unwavering with regard to Russia sanctions, and the United States should work closely with her if changing course in order to provide her political cover and not leave her flat-footed. Finally, many Germans will criticize dismantling the Affordable Care Act and equate policy measures with American values. Chancellor Merkel has outlasted different configurations in the White House and Congress. She knows that power is dispersed and temporary in the United States, and that bitter partisanship often hides that the majority of players on both sides of the aisle uphold the Bill of Rights. She is the vanguard for reminding both sides of the Atlantic of our common values. When Germany’s exercise in democracy is over, a government with Chancellor Merkel in the lead would best play United States’ point guard in Europe.

Photo credit: U.S. Army