The issue of Germany’s role within Europe has so far played only a minor role in the German federal election campaign. As Mark Dawson and Jacob Krumrey write, this is largely because the SPD view the issue as a strength of Angela Merkel, and are reluctant to articulate overtly Eurosceptic policies. Despite this, a recent proposal to create a road toll for foreign drivers has finally brought the European issue into the debate, albeit as a ‘proxy European war’.

After months of campaigning, Europe has finally hit the headlines in the German election campaign. The subject is not the growing youth unemployment crisis, nor rattled financial markets. What German politicians are really getting upset about is the idea of a motorway toll for foreign vehicles proposed by Bavarian Premier Seehofer but rejected by Angela Merkel in her recent TV debate. The possibility of a toll for other EU-citizens – clearly in breach of EU law – seems to have brought Europe “back to life” on the campaign trail.

Europe in the TV Debate: skewed in Merkel’s favour?

Credit: European People's Party (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Credit: European People’s Party (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

To be fair, Europe has never quite been away. The future of the EU has often been the elephant in the room of this election campaign, with most Germans recognising the future of Europe as one of the foremost challenges facing Germany in the next four years. In spite of this, references to Europe have been scarce in the political debate itself. Recognising that the electorate sees her handling of the Eurozone crisis as a distinct strength, the SPD have been reluctant to raise Europe as an issue.

The recent TV debate between the two candidates for chancellor highlights the SPD’s Europe dilemma. While Steinbrück, the SPD’s top candidate, frequently berated Chancellor Merkel for leading Europe’s southern periphery into a vicious circle of unemployment and debt, the SPD agreed in the Bundestag to each one of Greece’s troubled bail-outs, to the new European Stability Mechanism and even to the EU’s new “Austerity Treaty”, the fiscal compact. The Chancellor’s most effective weapon in the debate was often a condescending smile – to thank the SPD for their unflinching parliamentary support. Not surprisingly, according to post-match polls, on Europe at least, Merkel came out of the debate on top.

The taboo of euro-populism

On EU issues, the SPD finds itself too frequently between a rock and a hard place: forced either to play into the Chancellor’s hands or to be seen as going down a populist route ‘against their better nature’ on Europe. The factors which weakened Steinbrück’s debate performance give a clue as to the overall European debate in Germany: that the country still maintains a significant and cross-party pro-European consensus. For the opposition, exploiting the issue of German liability on Europe could damage the Chancellor. To do so, however, would largely benefit the new Eurosceptic party “Alternative für Deutschland”, who advocate Germany’s departure from the Eurozone altogether. Still hovering close to the 5 per cent threshold needed for entry into the Bundestag, the SPD are wary of detonating the bombshell of an openly anti-euro party entering Germany’s Parliament.

The Chancellor meanwhile has been adept at exploiting this pro-European consensus. At the height of the crisis, Merkel famously declared: if the euro fails, Europe fails. She has frequently declared that there is no alternative to her European policies – a posture also aimed at the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, who have displayed Eurosceptic overtones in the past. In simple terms, Germany’s Europe consensus has forced both the opposition, and dissenters within the Chancellor’s own coalition, to play along with Merkel’s game.

The Autobahn toll: a proxy war?

During the TV debate, Steinbrück did in fact catch the Chancellor out on another point: forcing her to reject a toll for foreigners driving on German motorways. The toll plan is an idea of Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian premier who is not only Merkel’s coalition partner, but standing for re-election in Bavaria exactly a week before the federal vote.

What does that have to do with Europe? Due to the toll’s tension with EU free movement rules, this debate has assumed all the trappings of a proxy war. By bringing an avalanche of European law experts on to German TV to question the idea’s legality, the toll debate gave Seehofer the perfect chance to strike an assertive tone. When asked about his reaction to Merkel’s ‘No’, Seehofer declared: “You know me: I know how to assert myself in Berlin and Brussels.” Against Berlin and Brussels at the same time – in Bavaria, nothing goes down better than that. Suddenly, the European elephant is back in the room, even if it had to squeeze in through the backdoor.

At first sight, this ‘proxy European war’ is perhaps not even bad for Europe. The rhetoric may be strong, but the issue at hand is harmless. Such a toll, even if enacted, does not rattle financial markets, nor is it likely to cast Germany as a heartless villain in Europe. It certainly does not challenge the Chancellor’s flagship policy: her stewardship of the Eurozone crisis. By catapulting a marginal issue into the heart of the campaign, the toll debate may be a way of containing populist rhetoric. It may be safer to have Bavarian Eurosceptics rant about tolls for foreigners – which are unlikely to happen anyway – than to let them speculate about Greece’s future in the Eurozone.

Will the election produce a mandate for Germany in Europe?

The proxy conflict also, however, comes with a considerable downside. As the parties have decided to play it safe and spare the German voter any serious talk of Europe, they have also let go of a chance to make this election about Germany’s greatest contemporary challenge: the future shape of Europe and Germany’s role within it. The last two years have seen repeated calls for a European political union – from Merkel’s own party as well as from her challengers. In the current campaign, however, Europe has been largely reduced to the so-called “Greek” problem – and follies like the toll.

As Germany’s political class plays it safe, the German election campaign has therefore continually fallen short of addressing the leadership role in Europe that Germany, albeit reluctantly, has assumed. This election will give neither Merkel nor Steinbrück a robust mandate to push through the kind of reforms that most experts believe Europe needs. With a robust banking union, a third Greek bail-out and a discussion of more serious institutional reforms just around the corner, it seems unlikely that the German electorate can be shielded from Europe for long. What will happen when Germans feel Europe not just on the Autobahn, but in their wallets? And can the Chancellor maintain the obedient trust of Germans when the difficult choices and unpopular decisions of a new parliamentary term begin to flow? In such circumstances, the elephant of anti-European populism may be much harder to contain.

This article originally appeared at the Hertie School of Governance’s expert blog

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Note:  This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Mark Dawson – Hertie School of Governance
Mark Dawson is Professor of European Law and Governance at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin. His research has focused on the relationship in the EU between law and policy-making.

Jacob Krumrey – European University Institute
Jacob Krumrey is a PhD candidate at the European University Institute, Florence.

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