However, an assessment of opposition forces both inside and outside the parliament reveals that there has been a change.
She was seen singing and dancing with ministers and party officials on the stage in front of her supporters. The night of September 22, 2013, was probably Angela Merkel’s greatest. With her party, the Christian-democratic union (CDU), winning just short of an absolute majority in the parliament, she proved wrong all those who have criticised the social-democratisation it has gone through under her lead, and who had predicted a painful loss. Given the weakness and the slightly amateurish campaign of the opposition candidate, Peer Steinbrück of the social-democrat SPD, Merkel’s victory was what most observers had predicted, albeit not by such a margin.
So for Europe, which, in the years since the outbreak of the financial crisis, has been significantly affected by the German-led austerity policy, does Merkel’s re-election mean that nothing will change? Only in part. Though there is no doubt that the CDU will remain the leading force in government, having fallen just short of gaining an absolute majority the party must now seek a coalition partner with which to form this government. Currently, the most likely scenario is a grand coalition of CDU and SPD, and with an ever-decreasing ideological gap between the two catch-all parties, this constellation both promises to bring about stability and represents the preferred outcome of the majority of German citizens. The two parties began coalition talks in mid-October and, according to observers, only two contentious issues seem to divide them. The first is the establishment of a general minimum wage; something that has never existed before in Germany and constituted one of the most important aspects of the SPD’s electoral manifesto. Rather unexpectedly, however, the second hot topic is European policy; an issue which is rarely given the limelight on the national stage. In the past few years, the SPD has maintained a strong stance against Merkel’s austerity programme, calling instead for burden-distributing instruments, such as Euro bonds. It should come as no surprise, then, that the social-democrats not only sent European Parliament President Martin Schulz to the talks, but have also taken care to make sure that he was caught by all cameras present. Considering this divergence of views, it is reasonable to expect that the CDU will be forced to make some concessions in this area: something that could have wider ramifications for Europe.
Even more interesting changes, brought about by the elections, can be observed within the lines of the opposition. The CDU’s former coalition partners, the liberal democrat FDP, failed to gain enough votes to even enter the parliament. This means that the post-socialist Linke will now lead the opposition in the Bundestag. This is also due to a painful loss for the Green party, which, in its 30 years of parliamentary representation, has evolved from an alternative ‘bunch of hippies’ to suit-wearing members of the political establishment. Such a shift means that the attitude of the opposition will surely become more confrontational, as the gulf between opposition and government becomes wider. With its anti-capitalist stance, the Linke represented Merkel’s fiercest intra-parliamentary opponents on European policy and the European Union in general. Realistically, the opposition will have a hard time in parliament, as seldom in Germany’s history has it been this small. Yet we should also not underestimate the Linke, for whom such adversity will only provide it with a greater incentive to assert itself and exploit its new position. The party whip, Gregor Gysi, is notorious for his elaborate and sharp rhetoric, and he will certainly look to employ this talent as opposition leader.
But it is not just from inside the parliament that the Linke might prove a perceptible force. In the past, the party has frequently been a plaintiff in the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht), which has itself proved a strong counterforce against the government in the realm of European policy over the past few years. This has resulted in some ground-breaking decisions, like the judgement on the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and the emergency decision on the European rescue package, which warned the government to ensure sufficient rights for the Bundestag in these matters.
Last but not least, there is the AfD, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany). This is a party which consists predominantly of elderly, highly-decorated academics, and in large part constitutes disappointed CDU and FDP supporters, who came together in response to the emergency policy applied in the wake of the Eurozone crisis. Sceptical about all things EU, the AfD’s main goal is to abolish the Euro. Although it has frequently been accused of sympathising with nationalist and far right thinking, its 4.7 percent of the vote brought it incredibly close to entering the Bundestag from a standing start. Not only will this result give the AfD’s anti-Euro campaign a significant boost, but with a new electoral law in place which has lowered the threshold required to enter the European parliament to just 3 percent, it seems more than likely that the party will find itself with representation at the European level after the May 2014 European Parliament elections. The possibility that German MEPs will soon form part of the European Parliament’s euro-sceptic groups should represent a worrying sign for the Union, especially as it constitutes only one aspect of the changing German political scene which could have an impact on the role that Germany assumes in Europe during Merkel's third legislature. It may be Angie all over again, but this is no guarantee that things will stay the same for Europe.
Johannes is the Intern Life Editor for Internal Voices and a trainee at the European Parliament