German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier officially proposed the Bundestag to appoint Angela Merkel as Federal Chancellor. Will the policy of the “new old” federal government change, or will the grand coalition continue the current line? During her last term, Angela Merkel will have to deal much more with domestic issues and has to manage her succession, writes Stefan Meister, Head of Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, German Council on Foreign Relations.
After a long period of negotiations and controversial discussions inside the Social Democratic Party, Germany will finally have a new-old grand coalition (GroKo). This coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD will stand for continuity in many areas but will also bring some changes. Several ministerial positions will be occupied by new people, including the minister of foreign affairs and minister of finance. The three main parties were weakened in the last Federal election in terms of voter support, and now, with AfD (Alternative for Germany) having won 12.6% of the vote, a right-wing populist party is represented in the Bundestag for the first time in decades and is the strongest opposition party. This will change and polarize the German discourse on many issues, like migrants, Islamism, identity but also on Russia.
AfD supports the lifting of sanctions against Russia, and rapprochement with the Russian leadership; some of their MPs have travelled to Crimea and are travelling to Syria this week to meet representatives of the Assad regime. In doing so, they break the consensus among the German elites with regard to Crimea and the Syrian leadership. That also means that Germany has arrived at the European normal, with decreasing support for the traditional parties and growth of right-wing populism.
During her last term, Angela Merkel will have to deal much more with domestic issues and has to manage her succession. Furthermore, her main foreign policy issues will be the future of the EU and the relations with French President Emmanuel Macron. The new SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is former Minister of Justice, where he stood for a very consequent rule of law and human rights approach. He is not very experienced in foreign policy but was one of the most visible and active SPD minister in the last coalition. Despite shrinking support and the deep identity crisis in SPD, this government will be stable. None of the ruling parties has any interest in new elections, because they can only lose. They have experience in cooperation with one another and they feel responsible for the country.
Normally, German governments are very stable, even in these fast-changing times. The popularity of Angela Merkel is shrinking, people are tired of her, and her decisions on the refugee crisis are highly unpopular among the relevant parts of society. There is an ongoing discussion that Angela Merkel might leave the Chancellor’s office in the middle of her term. A possible candidate could be the new general secretary of CDU Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was until now prime minister in one of the smaller Länder (Federal states). She stands for a more conservative course of CDU but also for a generation change in the party.
In the German-Russian relations, no changes can be expected soon. The different positions on how the European security order should look like, the stalemate with the Minsk process in Eastern Ukraine, and the complete loss of trust on both sides will make any changes unlikely. Merkel will stand for continuity even if she will be more preoccupied with other issues. What we observe at the moment is a generation change in the Bundestag, also with regard to Russia. The number of the main parties’ politicians knowing Russia or Eastern Europe is decreasing. The generation, which had a special relationship with Russia, is dying out.
The positive side of this development is that there are no more expectations of how Russia is and should develop, and the approach will be more sober and pragmatic. On the other hand, these people are lacking understanding and networks within Russia, which means that the tradition of a special relationship will be weakened. As a result of these developments, German-Russian relations will need a new foundation for the future.