Germans have cast their vote for a new government and with a new Chancellor. While it is still very early in the process and the new government is weeks, even months, away – an online event on 28 September 2021 discussed what the outcome of the German elections will bring for the future of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), and the challenges that may come along with it. The discussion, co-organized with Hans Seidel Stiftung, featured Agnieszka Łada-Konefał, Deputy Director, German Institute of Polish Affairs, Milan Nič, Senior Fellow, Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies, German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), and Rosen Plevneliev, President of the Republic of Bulgaria (2012-2017), and it was led by Alena Kudzko, Director, GLOBSEC Policy Institute.
German election results are in, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) beat out the incumbent Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) for the top spot. To begin the panellists identified the likely coalition partner outcomes for the future German government as the SPD in cooperation with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and Alliance 90/ The Greens.
The panellists addressed the top takeaways of the outcome of the election for CEE. President Plevneliev noted that the high hurdle for the new German government will be the economy and the future of the EU. While Chancellor Angela Merkel was predictable and strong, she did not use her position to make alliances but instead “made things work” among the different countries in the EU. Mr Plevneliev highlighted that there has been a shift in relations and Germany will have to make tough decisions regarding their relationships with both China and the United States. It will be up to the new government to build up relations within Europe and re-shift the German economy. President Plevneliev stated that if Germany were to close itself, and its economy, off from the rest of Europe, that will be “the end [for the country.]” All three panellists emphasized that Merkel was a reliable and stabilizing voice in the region, and while Olaf Scholz is also a reliable politician, it will take a while for him to get things rolling. Merkel understood the region well, she grew up under communism like most citizens of CEE, so she comprehended what it means to be a member of the EU but having this specific background, stated Agnieszka Łada-Konefał. Both Ms Łada-Konefał and Milan Nič agreed that although Alternative for Germany (AFD) and Die Linke lost seats and have, overall, weakened their hold on the Bundestag, the fact that most of their votes came from the border regions of Germany – close to the CEE countries – is concerning. Finally, Mr. Nič noted that the future of European defence and transatlantic relations also hang in the balance for the new German government.
Moving on to the topic of the energy economy, Ms Łada-Konefał stressed that if the Greens become members of the coalition government, then climate change will be a key policy issue. This is a contentious issue in the CEE region and liberal climate policies will likely create tension amongst the CEE countries as many of them rely on the coal industry as part of their exports. Mr Nič seconded this concern, stating that Germany’s sensitivity to climate issues is divergent from the sensitivity to those issues in the rest of CEE. He further stated that the Greens may be a difficult coalition partner on this topic as they will be less willing to compromise on climate policies and will be striving to achieve some “tough targets”. Ms Łada-Konefał emphasized that there is room for potential conflict from the Polish perspective, and protests have already begun against the German Greens, as Polish citizens and the government do not want to hear about the closing of coal mines. The growing prices of electricity and the reality of the gas situation for this upcoming winter will also be a concern for the German government and likely to make coalition talks difficult.
Concerning defence and security, Ms Łada-Konefał noted that Germany will have to take on more responsibility for global issues. They will also have to bridge the gap that exists between the French perspective on defence and security with the perspective of the CEE countries. Mr Nič stated that it is impossible to have Strategic Autonomy in Europe without Germany, and they will further have to take on the responsibility of keeping Washington engaged with European interests so that the continent is not left alone to deal with issues (like migration) again. When asked whether the new German government is likely to align closer with the values of the United States, President Plevneliev stated that things do not look good. The relationship is currently fragile and unpredictable, especially in reaction to the recent actions of the Biden administration (the AUKUS alliance) which left most of the EU in shock. For Germany and the EU, to succeed President Plevneliev highlighted that the new government will not be able to “lead from the middle” any longer.
Overall, the panellists have forecasted that the new German government will be less understanding of the CEE region. Mr Nič stated that leaders of these countries will have to show more cooperation or else they run the risk of Germany realigning the continent as a north-south split as opposed to the east-west. It was further noted that it is unlikely that there will be sustained V4 relations as there is more diversion of interest between the countries, instead it is likely that Germany will focus more intently on bilateral relations with each state. President Plevneliev concluded the discussion by stating that the new German Chancellor will now have to face the difficult task of adapting to the new global society and issues ahead.