The 2021 Federal Election brings substantial political changes for Germany. After 15 years, Angela Merkel will no longer be the chancellor, as her party, the center-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU), has suffered their worst ever result, with just 24.1% of the vote. The Voters favoured the center-left Social Democratic Party for Germany (SPD), which received their best result since 2005, the even further left Green party, and the classical liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). These three winners of the election are forecast to constitute the most likely ruling coalition, aptly dubbed the “traffic light” coalition after their party colours. While negotiations are ongoing and an alternative party arrangement remains possible, if unlikely, Eastern European (EE) states are already able to anticipate their strategies for interaction with Berlin.
Most of the key concerns for EE states fall broadly into the categories of security and, for EU members, EU funding and integration. Regarding security, German foreign policy relations with Russia have been a cause for concern for states in the region pressured by Moscow, especially Ukraine. On EU funding and integration, German decisions are key in setting the stage for the EU, affecting the economic assistance and investments benefiting EE states. It is important to understand how these areas are likely to change with an SPD, FDP and Green government, which will bring in a different ideological outlook compared with the 15-year period of CDU dominance.
The Party positions are broadly aligned regarding security and Russia relations. The SPD seems to follow the current German policy towards Russia and Eastern security, which was partly formed by the SPD itself during the last coalition government. Their candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, noted that his German government would continue communicating with Russia, but only on the basis of respecting human rights, international law and EU’s presence in and integration of EE. In contrast, The Greens advocate for a departure from established German-Russian relations, stating that the German stance towards Russia must be tough and prioritize Ukrainian security. Additionally, they voiced staunch opposition to the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project on climate change and security grounds. These decisions provide hope that the party will oppose complacency and prioritization of business interests in relations with Russia, which EE states have called for. However, while the Greens support NATO and an EU army, their support is conditional and limited. It seems unlikely that they would support extensive defense spending due to their ideology, yet this could bolster the EU’s position in Eastern Europe. Finally, the FDP offers great hope, by opposing the Nord Stream 2 project and supporting Atlanticism and NATO, assuaging EE state fears of direct security. However, it is unclear whether these stances are a priority for the FDP and how much they are willing to sacrifice for these issues. Unlike the Greens’ environmental concerns with NS2, the FDP has fewer ideological objections on this issue. In general, the upcoming coalition promises a harsher stance on Russian expansion, inspiring hope for a more stable Eastern Europe.
EU matters are more complicated, as the leader of the FDP, Christian Lindner, will likely demand the minister of finance position during coalition negotiations. Lindner is known for conservative fiscal policy and supported the debt brake. His position as the most influential minister of finance in the EU may undermine significant European fiscal reform. Initiatives such as Eurobonds could face fierce opposition from FDP and fiscally conservative EU nations, such as the Netherlands or Austria. This is troublesome for EE member states, who so far have been net recipients of EU budgets and hope to continue benefiting from Union-wide spending. Furthermore, the FDP is also cautious about further EU integration, which both the SPD and the Greens support. This could cause harm to plans demanding further integration, such as an EU banking union and EU defence force. All of which would serve to undermine EE member state goals of expanding EU security and financial assistance capacities. On the other hand, it is important not to overstate the FDP’s impact, as it will need to compromise in the coalition. Since both SPD and the Greens support EU-wide ambitions, the net outcome for EE member states may still be positive. Regardless, the new coalition differs from the previous SPD/CDU one, where both parties were at least partly supportive of EU integration. The new government will likely have a harder time finding a balance, which can raise concerns for EE member states.
Regardless of what fears or hopes the EE states may have, their influence on the future German government is limited. The German electorate has voted and EE will have to adapt to whatever new vision Germany enacts. However, leaders of EE states must not resign preemptively to ensure their voices are heard, particularly on matters of security. Projects that threaten EE security, such as Nord Stream 2, may be more vulnerable now than ever before if the Greens and FDP come into power. EE states, especially Ukraine, have an interest in stopping the project or gaining greater security assurances from Germany for it. The FDP and in particular, the Greens, who wish to abandon the project for environmental and geopolitical reasons, would be empowered in negotiations by vocal EE state opposition to NS2. Both sides could form a coalition in resistance to NS2 and change German policy for mutual political benefit.
Overall, the new German government provides both opportunities and challenges for EE states. It is possible that the so-called “traffic light coalition” could switch on a red light to prevent further Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe, as well as reject NS2. However, EU integration and budgeting could become more difficult, hindering the future ambitions of some EE member states. Whether the outcomes benefit Eastern Europe will become apparent when the political negotiations end and Germany formulates its new foreign and EU policy.
By Marius Buga
Marius is a third-year International Relations student at King’s College London and a Working Group Member of the European Affairs Policy Center at King’s Think Tank. He is interested in investigating how European countries pursue their interests in the global arena, EU integration and its interaction with non-member states in Eastern Europe. He hopes to see Europe grow into a more inclusive, tolerant and united continent.
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