President Emmanuel Macron brought a touch of Love Island to the Élysée Palace last week when, within 48 hours, he hosted hook-ups with two potential future partners from across the Rhine. Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet are aiming to be Germany's next chancellor as respective lead candidates for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Though you’d not know it so far from Germany’s inward-looking election campaign, the most interesting points of difference between the two candidates are their plans for the EU – and the flagging Franco-German alliance.
Laschet’s CDU want a rapid return to stability and growth rules, set aside to accommodate eurozone members hit by pandemic spending. The CDU is equally firm that the joint debt-issuing instrument agreed to finance the EU’s recover plan was a one-off: “It is not the entry way to a debt union and must not be allowed become one. Every member state is liable for its own debts.”
By comparison a Scholz-led government wouldexpand the stability and growth rulebook into a new “sustainability pact”, with proposals for an EU minimum wage and unemployment insurance. At home, the SPD are pushing for an equally flexible approach to strict debt rules on MPs, anchored in the constitution. With a global minimum tax deal in reach, Scholz, the outgoing finance minister, is pushing for majority voting on EU tax questions, rather than current unanimity.
Squint past the Élysée’s diplomatic curtains and Paris believes a Chancellor Scholz would be more in tune with its pro-active, reformist president. The EU’s Franco-German motor, French officials fear, would not survive another CDU chancellor with a cautious, reactive approach.
CDU candidate Laschet insists he is a dyed-in-the-wool European: born in Aachen, near the Dutch and Belgian borders, whose term as MEP was, he said last week, "the happiest time of my life". His party is another matter. Beginning in the euro crisis – under pressure from right-wing German media outlets and a resurgent far-right – many CDU politicians focus on the cost of Europe rather than its value.
Angela Merkel's existential EU decisions – from euro crisis bailouts to joint pandemic debt – have been pushed through with staggering ill-will from CDU backbenchers and influential conservatives. The late Helmut Kohl was so alarmed by the CDU's foot-dragging on European policy that, a decade ago, he warned it was "unclear where Germany stands and where it wants to go".
His warning hangs over this election. When push came to shove, Merkel did the right thing by her EU partners. At a time of unprecedented challenges, Germany’s neighbours can only hope that whoever inherits her chancellery keys will do more for Europe – without push or shove.