Merkel must strike a deal. Europe’s future depends on it

We obsess about the far right, but who ends up in Germany’s ruling coalition will have huge repercussions for the rest of Europe.

This German election matters greatly to the whole of Europe, not just to Germany alone. Its results, and what emerges now, will determine much of what can or cannot be accomplished to rejuvenate a 60-year-old European project that has, in recent years, often looked as if it was on crutches. The German far right’s entrance into the Bundestag is worrying, but it risks being the only thing many beyond Germany will pay attention to, and that in turn means we may miss the full impact for Europe of Germany’s vote.

First, however raucous the AfD may be, the centre ground has held in Germany. That Angela Merkel has been re-elected, after more than 1 million refugees arrived in the country, says something about its stability and resilience. Remember that Marine Le Pen gained 21% in the first round of the French presidential elections, in a country that took in only a tiny fraction of the migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015-16.

The key story from the German election has yet to unfold: with Merkel set for another term, the suspense now centres on her search for a new coalition. The outcome of the negotiations will have a much bigger effect on Europe’s prospects than the noise surrounding the AfD. Indeed, the task of anchoring western liberal democracy will to a large extent depend on the dynamics of Germany’s coalition.

If, like me, you take the view that in the era of Donald Trump, Europe has a key role to play in preserving the liberal international order, and if you also recognise that the historic heart of the EU is the so-called Franco-German “engine”, then a simple conclusion arises: it is essential that Merkel and Emmanuel Macron find a common path towards what they have called a rekindling, or “renaissance”, of the European project. At the centre of this effort stands the need to reform eurozone governance.

To be convinced of how important the single currency is, remember that the roots of Europe’s populist moment go back to the eurozone crisis. Anti-establishment and anti-EU parties emerged for the first time in the 2014 European parliament elections – this was before the migration crisis reached its peak.

The reasons for the populist surge vary from one country to another. In Germany, the lingering east-west divide adds a specific ingredient – but even with today’s eurozone economic indicators having notably improved, it is hard to dispute that eurozone mismanagement and faulty construction took a severe toll on the continent’s politics.

So can the single currency’s two heavyweights, France and Germany, see eye to eye on how to proceed? Macron has called for the creation of a eurozone finance minister and budget. German scepticism towards some of the French ideas is well known. There are divergences among Germany’s mainstream political parties, and this is where Merkel’s coalition intentions – and what kind of domestic agreement she can reach – will be crucial.

When it comes to Macron’s plans, the German social democrats (SPD) are supportive, but they have so far discounted the idea of pursuing a “grand coalition” with Merkel. The Greens, whom the chancellor is likely to turn to as part of a potential new governing team, also support Macron’s plans, with some enthusiastic voices even suggesting that Germany needn’t wait for France’s domestic reforms to pass before moving forward together on deepening European monetary union.

The pro-business FDP liberals, however, have strong doubts about eurozone integration. On Sunday, the FDP leader Christian Lindner made that opposition clear: “€60bn directly for France and Italy? Inconceivable!” he said. It doesn’t help that if the FDP enters government, Lindner will reportedly want the position of finance minister. Parts of Merkel’s own CDU/CSU grouping also have doubts about what France wants to achieve, with some having called Macron “an expensive friend” during the campaign.

The German election was by far the most important political event for Macron since his election. In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, he reportedly told friends: “If the [German] liberals enter government, I’m done for.” The French president needs to show French voters he can get Germany to agree to his European ambitions.

Merkel is well aware of the stakes. In her mind, Macron’s success is vital to rescuing the European project and ensuring its future. This is the legacy she will be judged on as she enters her final term as chancellor. She is of course an astute political operator, but her manoeuvring space has shrunk.

The EU was little mentioned during the German election campaign, yet these elections were as much about Europe as about Germany. TodayOn Tuesday Macron is due to give a speech on the future of the EU at the Sorbonne. It’s tricky timing. He needs to strike the right balance on eurozone integration, to avoid making Merkel’s coalition-building even harder. He would much prefer the SPD to come on board, but that now seems to be off the table. German politics have never mattered more to the rest of the continent, but instead of obsessing about the rise of the far right, we need to study the shape of the coalition as it emerges.