Nick Palmer: Why Angela Merkel is going to remain as German Chancellor

Nick Palmer: Why Angela Merkel is going to remain as German Chancellor

She’s got staying power

A regular feature of PB in recent weeks has been predictions that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position is becoming increasingly untenable and either she will need to resign or the CDU poll rating will collapse. At one level, this seems borne out by the polls – Merkel’s popularity is down to 49%, still enviable by British standards but far below her historical average. This is not just important for Germany: widely seen as Europe’s most prominent national leader, Merkel will be crucial for the terms of Cameron’s renegotiation – if she stays. Conversely, if she goes, the possibility of radical change to the EU itself becomes more likely. She is a small-c conservative, opposed to radical change to either the EU or its membership.

So I thought it might be helpful to give some background.

First, the German political scene has some unusual characteristics. It is unusually stable by British standards – months go by with barely a shift of a single point in the polls – and for obvious historical reasons Germans tend to be very wary of radicalism and keen to find an apparently nuanced and balanced position. A recent poll for the TV channel ARD was typical: people were evenly divided (50-48) on whether they were worried about the flow of refugees, in favour of setting some maximum limit (71-26), yet opposed to building a fence on the border (17-78) and opposed to preventing migrants from bringing over their families (36-56). Concern is greatest in the eastern former GDR states, where the economy is weaker and there is notably less robust confidence in the future, and this is also where the anti-immigtration Pergida demos are mostly held.

Second, the default German assumption is that they can handle problems. The near-absence of tabloids (the Bild-Zeitung is the only major exception, and a minority taste) and the sober German television coverage makes every issue seem something to ponder and deal with carefully, rather than a threat that might overwhelm the country. 70 years of steady economic growth have left their mark. Problems? They’re there to be fixed.

Third, the political equilibrium is very difficult to shift. There is currently a centre-left majority in Parliament, but you’d never guess it from the way politics is debated, because nearly 10% comes from the former communist Left Party, who are only seen as “salonfaehig” (plausible candidates for government) at state level. On the right, the Eurosceptic AfD are seen as even less ready for government: the CDU view them as a dangerous nuisance, much as the Tories have regarded UKIP.

Finally, Merkel doesn’t really have serious competition. Her biggest serious critic is the head of the Bavarian sister party, the CSU, Horst Seehofer, but he has a long history of similar grumbles which never quite lead anywhere: as head of a regional party, he can only exert national influence through the CDU link.

You can an see overview of the polls here (remember that parties need 5% to get representation, with some rare exceptions):

Essentially, the CDU are 4-5 points down on the 2013 election, all of which has gone to the AfD. None of the other parties has changed significantly throughout the two-year period. If these figures led to a new election, a repeat of the grand CDU-SPD coalition would be almost inevitable: no other plausible partnership comes close to the necessary majority. If anything, the AfD rise makes it more likely, since it puts a return of the old coalition with the liberal FDP further out of reach.

Does this mean that Merkel can relax? Not exactly. Concern over migration is substantial, and the loss of votes to the AfD is large by German standards. But she isn’t under serious threat, and she remains a formidable ally or opponent for British renegotiation demands: there is unlikely to be any deal that she does not support. On the whole, this is good for Cameron, as she is too phlegmatic to share the widespread irritation in the EU with Britain’s semi-detached view. She takes us pretty much as we are.

Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe from 1997-2010. He began posting on PB in 2004


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