On 22nd September, the German electorate will go to the polls at the federal level. Last Sunday, one of the major events of the German Federal Electoral campaign took place, the much anticipated TV duel between incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and her challenger Peer Steinbrück (SPD). The duel represents a highlight in the electoral competition being followed with scrutiny from Brussels to Washington. Despite the fact that many observers have long concluded that regardless whether the centre right CDU or centre left SPD form governments, there will be few dramatic changes to Germany’s EU policy, the debate continues to put the Brussels agenda on hold.
Key pieces of “crisis management” legislation, such as the creation of a Banking Union to underpin the EU’s Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) or agreement on the ability for the European Central Bank (ECB) to finance troubled southern European banks directly (as it stands, Member State governments must apply directly for a loan and subsequently feed it into the national banking sector) are on hold until the elections. Even the creation of a Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM), as launched by Internal Market Commissioner Michele Barnier in July, which creates a single European rulebook for shutting down distressed European banks, is dependent on Berlin’s agreement, following demands from Berlin that a SRM would require treaty change, effectively removing it from the Brussels political agenda. Beyond legislative efforts to combat the Eurozone crisis, EU negotiations to update European data protection legislation, catapulted to the forefront of the legislative agenda vis–à–vis the NSA spying scandal and revelations from contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden, are of considerable national salience to Germany; a county in which the privacy of personal data is sacrosanct following the harrowing experiences of Gestapo and Stasi state-observation (as is the case in many other Member States with a history of fascist or communist regimes).
With this in mind, it is understandable why law-makers in Brussels might have concerns regarding the nature of a new Berlin government. However, Merkel has enjoyed a consistent lead over the gaff-prone challenger (to offer just one example, the millionaire socialist candidate Steinbrück complained after his selection that the position of Chancellor wasn’t paid enough, at the height of the EU’s financial crisis). Germans have also approved of Merkel’s ‘wait and see’ approach to the Eurozone crisis, overcoming initial fears of a Eurozone breakup with a backdrop of economic success in Germany, at a time when many other EU Member States have undergone immense difficulties. However, Merkel’s lead has been eroded following the NSA revelations, showing that Germans, more than any European country, have been spied upon by US security forces. As mentioned above, this is an issue of huge emotional power in Germany and proved a notable electoral setback for Merkel so close to the national poll.
The TV duel therefore offered the underdog Steinbrück a chance to demonstrate that he could be a credible alternative to Merkel and her (less popular) CDU party. Indeed, three different polls showed: Steinbrück in the lead at 49% to 44%, Merkel leading 40% to 33% in a second and a third one giving the Chancellor a knife-edge one percent lead over her challenger (44% to 43%).The issues concerned mainly national themes such as taxation, healthcare and education (common to the nature of the campaign in general). However, a possible (or probable) third Greek bailout and the NSA affair offered an opportunity for Europe-wide issues to make it into the debate and into the living rooms of Germany’s voters, with an estimated 12 million Germans having tuned in. Merkel accused Steinbrück of not being serious about Germany’s policy of Eurozone stability (pointing out after several attacks on Merkel’s Euro-policy that his party had voted with the centre-right government), but contradicting herself regarding data protection, at first confirming trust between Washington and Berlin, but later backtracking.
The TV duel offered Steinbrück the chance to show he has the goods – something Germans can also judge from his tenure as Finance Minister under Merkel from 2005-2009. Although Merkel remains the preferred candidate for many Germans, the NSA affair and a strong performance by Steinbrück have shown that nothing should be taken for granted. Steinbrück has stated that the SPD would abstain from forming a grand coalition with the CDU – an outcome many, both German and non-German, observers saw as the most probable outcome. However, the last time the SPD entered into such a coalition, it was severally punished by voters.