Germany votes: The election that could change Europe's future

More than 60 million Germans are called to vote on Sunday – Can climate anxiety convert to radical political change?

Chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Armin Laschet of the CDU/CSU before a television debate last week.

Chancellor candidates Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens and Armin Laschet of the CDU/CSU before a television debate last week.

 

There’s a chill in the air of Berlin’s government quarter. Hints of red and yellow speckle the trees between the modernist chancellery and the historic Reichstag parliament, reminding me of the wistful urgency of Kurt Weill’s September Song. 

“When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame/I haven’t got time for the waiting game.”

Jakob Heinze is tired of Germany’s waiting game on climate – and he’s tired from the hunger strike he began on August 30th.

With half a dozen friends, he set up camp between parliament and the River Spree, starving in public as representatives of the “Last Generation” who can avoid irreversible climate change.

Heinze, a 27-year-old campaigner with a bushy beard and tired eyes, says none of the main political programmes are ambitious enough to limit the 1.5 degree temperature rise required to avoid climate disaster – an analysis confirmed last week by a leading German economic think tank.

If Europe’s largest country falls short, Heinze fears, the continent and the world will fail too.

“I see hunger strike as the last means of civil disobedience, to make clear the disastrous situation in which we find ourselves, that soon there will be nowhere to hide,” said Heinze from a chair in front of his tent on Tuesday.

The “Last Generation” camp had largely been wound up by the time huge crowds streamed through Berlin on Friday for Germany’s largest climate strike, lead this time by Sweden’s Fridays for Future founder, Greta Thunberg. 

Germany is the sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide but, she said, its politicians were “duping” their voters, refusing to “treat the climate crisis as an emergency, not even after the terrible flood tragedy in the summer”.

'It is hypocritical for Armin Laschet to speak out for climate protection while being responsible for us losing our homes to lignite'

When 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls tomorrow, the election result has the potential to change Europe’s future – for better or worse.

If you believe what Germans tell polling agencies, climate concerns are uppermost in voters’ minds as they head to the ballot box. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the readiness for change evaporates amid cost and comfort concerns. Yes to green politics, no to more expensive petrol – and has anyone seen my SUV keys?

That is cold comfort for locals in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate where, last July, the worst floods in the region for centuries washed away homes, businesses and left at least 183 dead. As the clear-up work continues, many towns here don’t even have lampposts to hang election posters from. Local Green Party candidate Martin Schmitt says the big climate question is secondary next to practical, every-day survival worries: electricity, water, heat for the winter.

“At the moment, people’s shock is still so great that the federal election seems to be something from another planet,” he says.

One hour north, in the pretty village of Keyenberg, locals are also fighting the loss of their homes. Not to flood waters but to local energy giant RWE. In a controversial deal with the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia, RWE has been granted permission to strip-mine the region and extract the Braunkohl – lignite – that lies beneath.

Keyenberg, first mentioned 1,128 years ago, is one of five villages in this western region earmarked for destruction – and this although Germany has vowed to exit fossil fuels by 2038 at the latest.

David Dresen: ‘It makes no sense to me that today, in the 21st century, people should have to leave their homes to dig up lignite, which we know will ruin our future.’ Photograph: Manuel Först
David Dresen: ‘It makes no sense to me that today, in the 21st century, people should have to leave their homes to dig up lignite, which we know will ruin our future.’ Photograph: Manuel Först

David Dresen grew up in Keyenberg, moved back here after studying in Bonn and expected to take over the family farm. While many neighbours have sold out to RWE and moved away, he is fighting to stay.

“It makes no sense to me that today, in the 21st century, people should have to leave their homes to dig up lignite, which we know will ruin our future,” said the 29-year-old.

Like most villagers, Dresen’s fury is directed at Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the man hoping to retain the chancellery on Sunday for Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

“It is hypocritical for Armin Laschet to speak out for climate protection while being responsible for us losing our homes to lignite,” he says. “Germany has a reputation of being a leader on climate but the opposite is the case. People say they want climate protection but they prefer others – like us – to pay the price.”

In an ironic footnote, he says that families left homeless by the July floods have now been housed in buildings awaiting demolition in Keyenberg. Today’s climate change victims in Germany live next door to tomorrow’s. At the end of the Merkel era, Germany’s unresolved climate struggle is inextricably linked with its unresolved energy dilemma.

'Angela Merkel started out as climate chancellor but unfortunately implemented too little of what would have been necessary from a climate protection perspective'

Along with coal, lignite – one of the dirtiest fuels known to man – contributes one quarter of Germany’s energy mix for homes, transport and heavy industry. Energy – and climate – pressures will increase still further next year, when – according to Chancellor Merkel’s post-Fukushima timetable – the last of Germany’s nuclear plants have to go off the grid.

At her final press conference with journalists, days after the July floods, the chancellor insisted that she had “invested a lot of energy” in climate protection but, pressed by journalists, conceded that “not enough had happened” in her four terms.

Last April Germany’s constitutional court agreed: it struck down her government’s climate plan for its lack of ambition, said it endangered the future of younger generations and forced a rushed rewrite. 

Armin Laschet (L), chairman and chancellor candidate of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as Angela Merkel looks on during an election campaign meeting. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
Armin Laschet (L), chairman and chancellor candidate of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as Angela Merkel looks on during an election campaign meeting. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Dr Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at Berlin’s DIW economic institute, says the chancellor never pushed back energetically against Germany’s powerful energy and automative lobby.

“Angela Merkel, as a former environment minister, started out as climate chancellor but unfortunately implemented too little of what would have been necessary from a climate protection perspective,” said Dr Kemfert. “The flood disaster at the very end of her chancellorship is symbolic: a result of unchecked climate change, for which Germany is partly responsible, is hitting Germany with full force.”

* * * * *

No one expected much from Merkel when she scraped into power in 2005 – not even her own party – and certainly no one expected her to last 16 years. As chancellor, like a contestant in a demonic game show, she has faced an exhausting conveyor belt of crises: banking, euro, Ukraine, refugees, Covid-19. Through it all, Merkel remained a constant, consensus-seeking centre of calm. On the global political stage she proved that decency still matters, competence beats machismo, and modesty trumps Trump.

Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock and Armin Laschet. Photograph: Getty
Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock and Armin Laschet. Photograph: Getty

Thanks to her herculean efforts, Europe’s centre has held. The question of Germany’s election, though, is: at what price? A clue lies in a 1991 television interview with a young Merkel that turned up recently online. In it, Helmut Kohl’s new family minister said she had a “longing for the possible” and preferred political compromises – but agreed that too many compromises bring a “risk of losing one’s truthfulness”.

She returned to the theme recently, telling a leading German scientist how, early on as chancellor, she “made a fundamental decision to give all I can – but no more”.

'The EU will need a more visionary and courageous Germany to strengthen its foundations and defend its place in the world'

For good or ill, Merkelism is the perfection of politics as the art of the possible. The chancellor lifted the country out of economic decline, partly due to others’ reforms, largely insulated the country from the last decade’s shocks and made Germany the continent’s indispensable player.

Her skill at compromise and will for European unity – most recently on joint EU deals on vaccine procurement and a joint recovery fund – means most Europeans, in a recent poll by the ECFR think tank, see Berlin as an integrating force and a trustworthy, pro-European power.

But the downside of Merkelism – as France’s mercurial president Emmanuel Macron can attest – has been the Berlin-based drag on how Europe addresses growing challenges on the climate or global security.

“Many of the most pressing challenges Europe faces are impossible to address with the Merkel method,” the ECFR argued. “The EU will need a more visionary and courageous Germany to strengthen its foundations and defend its place in the world, many Europeans seem ready to accept this shift – and may even be waiting for Berlin to initiate it.”

The key question – one that the three main chancellery candidates managed to avoid over three television debates – is whether Germany’s next government is prepared to make that leap.

They are more likely to be preoccupied by Germany’s domestic reform building sites – climate change, energy transformation, dilapidated analogue and digital infrastructure, a pension time-bomb and more. The winner on Sunday may be the politician who promises voters a minimum of change at the least personal effort or cost.

Germans crave stability and rewarded Merkel with four terms in office, where she perfected the art of making political omelettes without breaking any eggs. But her legacy of small-step politics – maximum consensus, minimum progress – remains palpable in German democracy, even if she is no longer on Sunday’s ballot.

“This kind of democracy does not offer what is most necessary in these times of great transformation: an honest policy of demanding policies to take on the battle against crises, and maybe even to win,” argued Die Zeit weekly.

Co-leader of Germany’s Green (Die Gruenen) party and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images
Co-leader of Germany’s Green (Die Gruenen) party and candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

Germany’s Greens took an early lead in polls with an ambitious plan: no more fossil fuels or permits for traditional cars by the end of the decade – rather than 2038 as agreed. Lead candidate Annalena Baerbock insisted Germany could become a world leader in industrial climate transformation technology – then sell its know-how to others.

“The markets of the future are climate neutral,” she argued.

But the Greens lost their poll lead after a series of gaffes, and when the personal cost of climate change became apparent. The CDU rose in polls with its new leader Armin Laschet. His confidence, some would say arrogance, that Merkel’s chancellery keys were his for the taking was dented in July when cameras spotted him laughing in a flood-wrecked town. Those images catalysed many voters’ doubts that this regional leader had the gravitas for the big stage in Berlin.

His election pitch – tax cuts for the rich and dire warnings if Germany elected a leftist, non-CDU coalition – has struggled to catch the public mood.

That honour goes to the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its candidate Olaf Scholz. He has pitched himself as the continuity-but-change candidate with an election narrative and to-do list that his party says mixes realism with respect: tax hikes for top earners and measured climate measures that help, rather than overwhelm, business and lower incomes.

With his party’s poll lead tightening this week, he warned voters in Nuremberg that Germany needs to shake off its Merkel-era “complacency” and do more: on research, investment and climate change.

For young Germans like Jakob Heinze, resorting to hunger strike in Berlin, or David Dresen in his endangered home in Keyenberg, this is the issue at the heart of Sunday’s election. Can Germany shake off late Merkel-era mildew and embrace change as an opportunity – rather than a threat?

“The Merkel government’s framing of the last years has always been, ‘we need change but too much or too fast is bad and expensive and you don’t want that’,” says Dresen. “That’s the big business lobby talking. I hope there are enough voters who realise that it’s only with change – well-managed change – that we will get through.”

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