Transatlantic Implications of the 2017 German Federal Election

Steve Szabo

Stephen F. Szabo

Senior Fellow

Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS, where he focuses on German foreign and security policies and the new German role in Europe and beyond. Until June 1, he was the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, a Washington, DC, based forum for research and dialogue between scholars, policy experts, and authors from both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to joining the German Marshall Fund in 2007, Dr. Szabo was Interim Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and taught European Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He served as Professor of National Security Affairs at the National War College, National Defense University (1982-1990). He received his PhD in Political Science from Georgetown University and has been a fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the American Academy in Berlin, as well as serving as Research Director at AICGS. In addition to SAIS, he has taught at the Hertie School of Governance, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Virginia. He has published widely on European and German politics and foreign policies, including. The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans, The Diplomacy of German Unification, Parting Ways: The Crisis in the German-American Relationship, and Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-Economics.

The results of the German election will have important implications for Europe and the transatlantic relationship. Here is a first take on what this means for transatlantic relations.

Chancellor Merkel would win this week’s version of the Washington Post’s Worst Week award. The key take away from Sunday’s election is that Merkel was substantially weakened, with support for her party dropping  by over 8 percent, the most of any party in this election. She will be the chancellor of a much more divided and fractious coalition, most likely a Jamaica coalition with the Liberal and the Green parties. It was already assumed before the election that this would be her last term and now she goes into it as a weakened leader who will gradually get even weaker as she nears the end of the four-year term. Her team, assuming she can put a coalition together, will likely have a Liberal party (FDP) finance minister, replacing the powerful Wolfgang Schäuble, and a Green foreign minister, with the Bavarian CSU having interior and the CDU likely to keep defense.

Merkel will have to shift to the right both to address the concerns of those CDU/CSU voters she lost to the new right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), and due to increasing pressure from her Bavarian affiliate, the CSU, to stabilize the right. This means a tougher position on immigration and asylum and a generally less flexible line in the EU on these issues.

All this means that the German role as leader of the liberal order is now weaker. As many European and American media reactions show, the sense from outside of Germany is that of a “normalized Germany,” which is not that different from the rest of the West. The Washington Post concluded that it was good that Germany had a dose of realism and that it is not so different from other countries—this from a paper that was looking to Germany to save the West from Trump. The New York Times concluded that Germany will have an unstable government, but underestimates how much Merkel has been weakened and how much pressure there will be on her to move to the right.

What are the implications for the U.S.-German relationship…

On Defense Spending?

The SPD ran against the Merkel pledge to increase defense spending by 2 percent, calling it a form of kowtowing to Trump’s demands. As the CDU is likely to keep the defense ministry, the trend toward more defense spending is likely to continue, especially as the FDP will be more open to this than the SPD. The Greens will not be happy but will go along. This should prove to be a plus in relations with Washington, which will go beyond the White House. The efforts to work with France on a stronger European defense effort, including within the NATO framework, will continue and German troops will remain part of the NATO stabilization force in the Baltics. Germany will also enhance its efforts in cyber security.

On Trump?

The level of rhetoric on Trump will probably ease somewhat. While he is deeply unpopular with the German public, it is more difficult for Merkel to take the high road with a right-wing party sitting in the Bundestag and a CSU that wants to be sure there is no party to its right. Also, the expected tougher line on immigration, refugees, and internal security will force the German government to lower its critique of Trump in this field. Merkel has been conscious of avoiding the kind of rhetoric which led to a split during the Bush-Schröder years over Iraq and during the campaign she avoided demonizing Trump as the SPD did and it did not cost her.  She understands the German interest in a relationship which is the ultimate guarantee of German security and in which Germany has a major economic stake. The next Trump tweet could complicate things. Will he congratulate her or make the point that the election showed she was wrong on the refugee issue?

On Trade?

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will have an uncertain future. The probability of a formal agreement seems low but there will be efforts to at least stabilize the trade relationship with Washington and to protect German investments there.

On Russia?

It was noteworthy that Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the German election were not very apparent. There is evidence of some efforts in eastern Germany to help the AfD as well as efforts with the two million Russian speakers in Germany, and they may have had some impact in the east where the AfD came in as the second party with almost a quarter of the votes, but the feared hybrid information war did not materialize. With the exception of the CDU and the Greens, all the other parties are either soft on Russia or are willing enablers of Putin (Die Linke and the AfD).  The CSU has been urging the end of sanctions and the SPD has promoted the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia. The leader of the FDP, Christian Lindner, made a remarkable statement during the campaign calling Crimea a permanent provisional situation. However, the Greens have been very critical of Russia and Putin and will provide Merkel with support for her policies and for sanctions. The possible new foreign minister, the Green co-leader Cem Özdemir, has called for sanctions to be tightened. Do not expect an abrupt shift in German policies regarding Russia, although the question of the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia may be reopened with the departure of the SPD from the coalition.

Overall the implications for European security and transatlantic cooperation are not encouraging.

  • Germany will not take on the leadership role many in the West would like to see and it is likely to be even less decisive than before, given the many splits within the coalition.
  • The public’s rejection of Trump will make any major U.S.-German initiatives difficult at best.
  • Continuity and buying time will come at the subnational level and with an important role for governors, mayors, the private sector, academia, think tanks, and foundations in keeping things going at the working level until the national political level stabilizes.


Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AGI.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.