When Willy Brandt came to power (as German Chancellor) in October 1969 his first speech to the Bundestag (then in Bonn) contained phrases like ‘we want to dare more democracy’, ‘we want a society which offers more freedom and requires more shared responsibility’, and ‘we want to be and to become a nation of good neighbours’.
Brandt was one of maybe five prominent, respected and enduring Chancellors (starting with Adenhauer, Schmidt, Kohl and of course Merkel – with apologies to Gerhard Schröder who doesn’t make my list) who brought stability to Germany and who managed to fulfill Brandt’s desire of being a good democracy (to the extent that when asked a few years ago what she associated with Germany, Angela Merkel replied: well-sealed windows).
As I write, Olaf Scholz has a chance to join this list because the arithmetic of the recent election dictates that he will most likely head a new coalition government, which some describe as a traffic light government (SDP in red, Greens and FDP in yellow). One might also think of it in terms of an ESG government in the sense of the responsible investing terminology (Environment, Social and Governance). Unlike many other European countries, there seems to be a willingness amongst these three parties to put together a workable government.
Yet, if Scholz does indeed lead the government, he may immediately suffer from two political curses.
The first is what I call the ‘curse of political giants’, which also holds across football and industry and highlights that whenever a dominant leader retires (think Merkel or Sir Alex Ferguson) there is a messy interregnum, usually involving several short lived leaders, until a new leader proper with his or her own ideas comes along. Football fans will get the analogy if I say that the risk for Scholz is that he is the David Moyes of German politics rather than the Juergen Klopp! (Armin Laschet is the Mourinho of German politics?)
The second risk is what I call the ‘curse of NO’. Someone on the European political stage (I think it was Enda Kenny) wittily described European political summits along the lines of ‘everyone agrees….and then Angela Merkel says ‘no’.
Merkel’s long won stature as a leader and the economic power of her country gave her immense power. Scholz will, like most political mortals, lack this magic power, and will also have to contend with some strong personalities in his cabinet (I have already written on Annalena Baerbock).
Some commentators may argue that this adds up to a recipe for introspection and inaction on the part of the next German government, and that the atrophying of Germany’s already modest army is just another sign of its weakness (a popular view in the AUKUS countries). In fact, it may well be that Germany represents the future – a progressive country where the Greens are an increasingly normal (than fringe) party.
Indeed, taking the triumvirate of the three large European countries – France, Germany and Italy one could and should hold that they stand in very good political health compared to the large English-speaking countries.
They are led by able, serious people – in sharp contrast to Boris Johnson’s ‘managed chaos’ (this week he stumbled over basic economic concepts of ‘real wages’ and productivity), and who at least in the cases of Macron and Draghi have visions of what they want to achieve.
In addition, the three countries have in their own ways vanquished political extremists and have relatively healthy democracies. In contrast, with trials of perpetrators of the January 6 attack on Congress still ongoing, 56% of Americans think that their democracy is under attack according to a survey for CNN.
If my rosy view of Europe is correct, one looming question is whether (assuming Scholz becomes Chancellor) the leaders of the three large countries can work together and more specifically what are the issues upon which they might choose to collaborate.
The obvious area is economic growth and the stalled plan for a broad fiscal stimulus to relaunch Europe’s recovery. Each leader has a personal interest in the more efficient workings of the euro-zone financial system, and this may well spur capital market and further fiscal reform. Germany has a substantial deficit in terms of required investment in energy, telecoms and defense investment. At the same time, European foreign policy will still be driven by the French, with a more active contribution from Rome.
Another area, which is again becoming topical given the recent judgment by Poland’s top court that the Polish constitutions supersedes EU law, is to clarify further the idea of European values, and to take tangible actions and exert political force to ensure that the likes of Hungary adhere to them. It is not inconceivable that the great test of the political will of the ‘triumvirate’ will be to prune the EU down to 26 nations and force the ejection of Hungary, and in so doing, in Willy Brandt’s words to ‘dare more democracy’.
Have a great week ahead,