By Mark Leonard
Rarely in politics has a landslide election produced so little clarity about the country's future. Rather than provide a mandate for the direction of Germany or Europe, this week's election has muddied the political waters. "Merkel in 42 percent heaven" the Berliner Zeitung said on Sunday (the headline has since changed on the website). But for much of Germany and certainly the rest of the European Union, the results will be more like political and economic purgatory than heaven.
On being elected to her third term as chancellor, Angela Merkel received more support than any conservative leader since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. However, neither the Social Democrat Party (SPD) nor the Green Party is keen to share power with a politician who was nicknamed the "Black Widow" for the way that she chews up and decimates her coalition partners. In the last grand coalition, in which Merkel's Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and the SPD shared power from 2005 to 2009, the SPD lost a third of its traditional voters. The party shrank from 35 percent to 23 percent during this time and it has not yet recovered. The Green Party, which has a lot of left-leaning voters, would probably suffer an even worse fate.
The paradox is that the negotiations to form a coalition portray a government that is shifting to the left. As my colleague Sebastian Dullien points out, although the left-wing parties lost support, their leverage over Merkel is set to grow. The German electoral system was deliberately designed to result in compromises rather than clear choices. In 2013 it has over-delivered on compromise.
The main parties deliberately avoided committing themselves to clear policies during the campaign, so now the coalition negotiations will have to agree on the big issues. This could take some time. It took over 60 days for the grand coalition in 2005 and 25 days for the coalition with the liberals in 2009.
Speaking to government officials and political apparatchiks from the three main parties in Berlin last week, one thing was clear to me — the rest of Europe will not get the Germany it wants — either in economic, institutional or political terms.
Economically, the election promises a slow purgatory for the debtor countries. While the votes in Germany were being counted, the troika was heading to Athens for talks about financing the region's debt. The week before, they were in Italy, where arguments about property taxes risk threatening Enrico Letta's governing coalition. To the rest of the EU, disentangling the finances of fragile states from the liabilities of banks is seen as a key part of the solution to the economic crisis. But Germany has dragged its feet and hidden behind legal and political hurdles — an approach that is unlikely to change unless the markets begin to panic.
Institutionally, the German election is likely to disappoint. Visionary politicians like Emma Bonino — the Italian foreign minister — have called for the creation of a European Federation. But Merkel — the opposite of James Madison or Alexander Hamilton — is deeply suspicious of grand plans to politicize the EU, not least because she worries about the challenge of ratifying treaty change through referendums in skeptical member states.
Merkel's vision is to sign binding contracts with member states on increasing competitiveness and couple it with a new budget to incentivize good performers. According to Stefan Kornelius, Merkel's semi-official biographer, the chancellor would prefer to develop technical cooperation outside the EU. He calls it "a union next to the EU, a new conglomerate of nation states…the countries conclude agreements among themselves and decide how to solve problems." Rather than a political union, we may see back-room deals between governments that sideline the central institutions.
Like the elections in Holland, Austria, Finland, Greece and Italy, the German election will seek to consolidate the two main center-right and center-left parties as defenders of the status quo against anti-incumbent identity parties. The danger of bringing all the establishment parties together into a governing cartel is that it leaves the business of opposition to anti-European populist forces in many countries. The moment of reckoning could come with the 2014 European elections.
A surge in support for parties like the UK Independence Party, Marine Le Pen's National Front and Alternative für Deutschland could create a Eurosceptic plurality in the new European parliament. If this happens, the European parliament may become the "self-hating parliament" — where a majority of members do not even believe in its right to exist.
This election shows how much Merkel's shape-shifting pragmatism has sucked the life out of national politics. The result of her victory could be to suck it out of European politics next. Her politics of "small steps" will rule out decisive moves on banking union or debt.
There will be deep political integration of European governments, but with agreements that are outside the normal institutional channels and without much visibility. In the future the national governments will be technocratic and the European parliament will be a playground for populists, reversing their roles of the past.
German officials are increasingly looking to the unelected members of the European Stability Mechanism to service the integration of the euro zone. The result of these moves could be the creation of an EU political sphere as technocratic and stolid as its German counterpart. Rather than a European Germany we may find a very German Europe.