After the German elections

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, the Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash writes about what he calls “the new German question”. According to Garton Ash, this new German question, or the challenge Germany is now facing, is this: “Can Europe’s most powerful country lead the way in building both a sustainable, internationally competitive Eurozone and a strong, internationally credible European Union?”


Garton Ash claims that Germany suffers from a particular political affliction: “reluctance to lead”. Obviously this affliction has to do with Germany’s responsibility for the two World Wars, but also with the unification after 1989. Garton Ash suggests that especially the birth of the European Monetary Union from 1990 onward has been traumatic for Germany: “The European monetary union forged during and after German unification was not a German project to dominate Europe but a European project to constrain Germany.”

These reflections on older German questions and on the new German question are useful points of reference for anyone pondering about what lies ahead of Germany after the elections of September 22. The most likely outcome of these elections is a sound victory for the CDU and for its leader and Bundeskanzler since 2005, Angela Merkel. Given the weak showing in the polls of the FDP (her current coalition partner), Merkel after September 22 will have only two options: she will govern with either the SPD (her former coalition partner) or with the Grünen.

From a European or global point of view, two aspects of this new reality of either a CDU–SPD or a CDU–Grünen coalition are particularly relevant: one, Merkel’s role as the preeminent politician within a European Union that is in the middle of a process of reinventing itself; two, Merkel’s responsibility for the Energiewende and her commitment to reinvigorate the European and world economy via green growth.

On the first point, it is important to note that euroscepsis is prevalent much more strongly in the CDU and the FDP than in the SPD or the Grünen. Both the SPD and the Grünen favor the introduction of eurobonds, a fiscal union, and a banking union. Now for the past eight years, Merkel herself has not been typically anti-Europe, on the contrary. But her room to manoeuvre, especially after the outbreak of the eurocrisis in 2010, was distinctly limited by the growing anti-European sentiment in Germany generally, and within the two coalition parties in particular.

A new CDU–SPD or CDU–Grünen government would provide Merkel with a new lease on life, allowing her to play a much more decisive role in the debate about the urgent need for stronger and more effective European governance. These days that debate is concentrating on the four building blocks of the Plan Van Rompuy. It would be a good thing—for Germany, for Europe, for the world—if Merkel after September 22 would throw her full support behind this Plan Van Rompuy.

On the second point, it is important to look at the impact that the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 had on German politics. After this global calamity, Merkel surprised friend and foe alike by her sudden embrace of the Energiewende. Already in June 2011, the German government decided to close the eight oldest nuclear plants right away; the remaining nine nuclear plants will be closed in phases between now and 2022. Merkel’s new mission: green energy has to substitute for nuclear energy.

Garton Ash is extremely critical of this dramatic change of policy. He calls Germany’s decision to abandon its entire nuclear power program “irrational” and “short-sighted”. We think Garton Ash is wrong here. We admit that there is more at stake than only green energy. In the USA shale gas is causing an energy revolution, but at the same time solar has become spectacularly cheap and wind is going off-shore. All in all, climate change remains the overarching challenge. That is why we see Merkel’s commitment to the greening of Germany’s energy sources as of historical importance. After September 22, a new CDU–SPD coalition could further strengthen this commitment, while a new CDU–Grünen coalition clearly would make this a priority.

In the Netherlands earlier this month an Energy Accord was signed by the Dutch government, the so-called social partners (employer organizations, trade unions), and a number of social organizations (ngo’s). There is considerable overlap—in spirit as well as in content—between the Energy Transition in Germany and the Energy Accord in the Netherlands. Both approach the transition to green energy as a strong stimulus for green growth.

Of the recently approved 960 billion euro budget of the European Union for 2014–2020, a substantial part—about 20%—is devoted to green growth. Both the German Energy Transition and the Dutch Energy Accord can and will greatly profit from the new European budget. In the years to come, the joined efforts of member states and the European Union should make green growth into a champion of the European economy. That is where Angela Merkel can show the world that she is indeed the leader Europe needs and is waiting for.

Ruud Lubbers is former Dutch Prime Minister and Paul van Seters is a professor at Tilburg University.