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Merkel’s successor will shape the EU’s future

by
19 March 2021

Germany’s next Chancellor needs to act on the environment and the rule of law, argues Alexander Faludy

AT PENTECOST (23 May), we will know the outcome of two competitions of great significance to Europeans: the Eurovision Song Contest and the search for Angela Merkel’s likely successor as Chancellor of Germany. In homage to the Christian origins of the governing CDU-CSU alliance, the liturgical feast has been explicitly designated as the deadline for concluding negotiations on a candidate for Chancellor in the national elections in September — elections that this conservative bloc looks on course to win.

The choice could signal very different alternative directions for the European Union’s most influential member, and thus for a polity long swayed by Chancellor Merkel’s quietly determined leadership.

Superficially, the two aspirant Chancellors — Armin Laschet (CDU, North Rhine-Westphalia) and Markus Söder (CSU, Bavaria) — share many similarities. Both are ideologically moderate state premiers who have not held national office before. While Mr Laschet presents an image of solid continuity with the Merkel era, however, Mr Söder hints at new, potentially bolder trajectories.

A Protestant, Mr Söder has overcome significant barriers to become Minister-President of the most southerly and emphatically Roman Catholic German state. Although leader of the smaller party in the conservative alliance, he is more popular than his CDU rival, polling 30 points higher among the German general public.

Mr Söder’s popularity arises both from personal affability and his willingness to challenge vested interests. For example, in 2016, when he was regional finance minister, he made Bavaria the first German state to take legal action against Volkswagen, after revelations of the company’s large-scale falsification of environmental emissions-test data. This broke with the tradition of cosy relations between government authorities and Germany’s powerful car industry. Such an approach could endear him to the Greens, who will be the likely “king-makers” in Bundestag coalition talks this autumn.

A Green-allied Söder chancellorship would put strong impetus behind the EU’s proposed “Green New Deal”: an ambitious drive to make the bloc carbon-neutral by 2050. In particular, it would probably apply significant pressure to integrate the EU’s emissions goals better in the bloc’s external trade agreements, which is a weak point in present climate strategy. This would ensure that member-states could not simply “offshore” the polluting effects of their key domestic industries.

 

THERE is greater uncertainty, however, surrounding any future Söder-led government’s approach to another critical challenge: the rapidly worsening Rule of Law (RoL) crisis in the EU.

On 10 December, more than 5000 European jurists put their names to an urgent public letter to the President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, which complained of “systemic attacks on the rule of law, [and] on independence of the courts . . . in countries, such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria”.

The situation is most acute in Poland, where judges now risk disciplinary sanction simply for referring cases to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. One Warsaw judge, Igor Tuleya, even faces criminal prosecution for issuing a ruling last year which was disadvantageous to the governing Law and Justice party (PiS).

The European judges’ letter urged the Commission, as “guardian of the Union Treaties”, to take stronger action to counter measures “designed as a tool of repression against magistrates who fight to preserve the Rule of Law”. When the signatories’ representatives attempted to deliver the letter in person to the Commission, on 22 December, however, they were not granted a meeting with officials.

Berlin’s response to the RoL crisis has been unduly influenced by German commercial interests in affected countries, and the status (until March 2020) of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, in Hungary, as a formal ally within the EPP, Europe’s alliance of mainstream conservatives.

Dr Daniel Kelemen, Professor of EU Law at Rutgers University, New Jersey, argues that Dr Merkel’s quiet obstruction of initiatives aimed at countering RoL violations makes her “the biggest defender of Orbán in the last decade”.

In December, for example, Chancellor Merkel brokered a deal among EU premiers to forestall a new budget process that had been designed to penalise RoL violations in member states. The deal placated Budapest and Warsaw by overriding legislation enacted by the EU Parliament and the Council of Ministers — rendering the mechanism practicably inoperable. According to Professor Kim Lane Scheppele (Princeton), Dr Merkel’s compromise served to “undermine the rule of law on all fronts”.

 

UNFORTUNATELY, Mr Söder’s Bavarian-CSU party has been a key driver of Germany’s policy of appeasement towards autocratisation in Central Europe. The CSU’s inclinations stem from economic considerations and also the domestic usefulness of an alliance with nativist strongmen such as Mr Orbán. Conservatives in Bavaria have hitherto used periodic photo-ops with the latter to shore up the right flank of the party’s support base and stem voter defections to the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland.

This course, it is hoped, will soon change. Defeating Europe’s authoritarian Right at home by embracing it abroad is, at best, a questionable policy. When dealing with morally dubious governments to the east, any incoming German Chancellor would do better to steer the EU towards emulating Eurovision: the latter’s organisers have just excluded Belarus from 2021’s contest for song lyrics that celebrated Alexander Lukashenko’s brutally repressive regime.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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