It's time to say farewell to TINA politics in Germany

Agora Contributor: Jens Bastian

The question that concerns most policy makers and media representatives as well as interested European citizens about the outcome of the German elections in two weeks’ time is the duration to form and subsequent configuration of the country’s next coalition government.

After 16 years of Angela Merkel residing in the Berlin Chancellery, the new office holder will have his or her work cut out. Stepping out of the predecessor’s legacy by formulating a new course and mode of policy making is a daunting challenge. Merkel’s all too frequent political credo was TINA politics, i.e. There Is No Alternative. In light of the challenging policy decisions that Germany faces domestically and on the international stage, continued adherence to this principle of Merkelism is not regarded as a vote winner among a majority of the German electorate.

For the first time in many voters’ memory, the election campaign of 2021 has offered stark policy differences, i.e. the option of alternatives between the three leading parties and their respective candidates for chancellor of Germany. For starters, a generational change is taking place in German politics. The post-1990 generation that is associated with and implemented Germany unification is now gradually leaving the political stage in Berlin. Men and more women are now running for Parliament that have backgrounds in migration, are not exclusively defined by their Catholic or Protestant beliefs and many of them are not lawyers or public sector employees, the traditional recruiting grounds of German politics.

This demographic and cultural change is best illustrated by Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old candidate of the Green Party running for Germany’s highest executive office. Her two rivals for the job of governing Europe’s largest economy are both over 60. Baerbock has never held a ministerial position, never led a municipality, nor the administration of a state utility or worked in a publicly-traded company. The mother of two young children has been a member of the Bundestag for eight years. Her chances of leading the environmental party to a first place finish looked promising during the first half of 2021. But they have faded since. Still, the Green Party is expected to play a key role in a three-party coalition configuration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the rather ceremonial position of deputy chancellor are traditionally allocated to the second-largest party in a coalition government.

Shaking up the status quo of German politics by defining sustainable alternatives became an urgent demand this Summer after the devastating flash floods in the two regions of North-Rhein Westphalia and Rhineland Palatinate. Germany’s transformation to a carbon-neutral economy is a key electoral issue. Questions searching for answers abound, e.g. what form of taxation and levels of climate subsidies should the new government adopt? How can this domestic issue be regulated with the export-oriented car manufacturers? What infrastructure investments are necessary to limit catastrophic damages from events such as those in July? No political party in Germany can avoid answers to these vexing questions. But there is a sense among many voters that answers and subsequent policy decisions were circumvented far too long during the various coalition governments lead by Ms. Merkel.

The new government in Berlin will also have to face urgent challenges on the international stage. The geopolitical marginalisation of Germany was recently highlighted by the chaotic withdrawal from an evacuation of citizens in Afghanistan. But Berlin was not the only capital city in the EU whose foreign policy credentials were severely damaged on the runway of Kabul Airport. It was not a coincidence that this week first saw Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats (SPD), and then Armin Laschet from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the respective chancellor candidates of the two leading parties, visiting Paris. They each discussed foreign policy with the French President Emmanuel Macron. Tellingly, Baerbock did not travel to the Élysée Palace. It remains unclear if she received an invitation or requested a meeting at the Seine.

Another central foreign policy issue in which Germany’s next government must define alternatives to Merkel’s legacy concerns China. The economic interdependence of Sino-German relations is massive. China is now the leading export market for German car manufacturers. Beijing’s investment footprint in high-tech companies and start-ups is such that legislative reform had to be introduced at the federal level in order to curtail China’s expeditionary capital in sensitive sectors of German industry.

Put otherwise, economic integration between both countries is well advanced, complex and a reflection of Sino-German bonding in the chancellery. For this reason, Merkel always maintained an opportunistic approach to China. Outside of Europe, she has not visited a country more often than China. She frequently sought to tone down any public criticism when the chancellery was expected to voice an opinion on Hong Kong, address human rights violations against Uygur Muslims in western China, or confront the intimidating ‘Wolf Warrior’ mentality of various Chinese diplomats in Berlin.

This policy approach vis-à-vis China has now run its course. If the Green Party will indeed lead the Foreign Office in Berlin, we can expect a rather different rhetoric and policy substance towards China. An alternative China policy in Berlin need not be confrontational. It should be smart, coordinated with Brussels, shared - where possible - with the resident in the White House while being prepared to say “No” to Beijing when necessary.

Much is at stake in the elections due in a fortnight’s time in Germany. Society has changed, the political economy of the country is in flux. At the regional level these dynamics have started to be reflected in diverse parliaments, unprecedented three-party coalitions and a loud articulation for further change. At the federal level in Berlin and in the corridors of the chancellery these voices are being heard. It’s time TINA politics is shown the exit door and the windows of opportunity are opened. One way or the other, the election results will redraw the contours of Germany’s political landscape.

Jens Bastian is senior policy advisor at ELIAMEP.

*This is the second of four contributions for MacroPolis's The Agora about the general elections in Germany taking place on September 26, 2021. The first instalment was published on September 3, 2021.

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