POLITICAL OVERVIEW: Government and car producers hold diesel summit, Merkel still leading by a wider margin

Leading government politicians and major German car producers have agreed upon the introduction of new software upgrades which would reduce harmful emissions by up to 30% in more than 5 million affected diesel cars across Europe. The decision was made on the occasion of the so-called diesel summit the federal government has held in order to remind the ailing and pressured industry of its obligations. The decision had become necessary as bans on Diesel cars in many German cities are looming over the violation of tough environmental standards.

Before the agreement was reached, co-host Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt had already sent strong signals that he would be satisfied with a comparatively industry-friendly correction and thus contradicted his colleague Barbara Hendricks, who had called for more far-reaching changes. The Environment Minister made no secret of her intention to use the scandal for promoting a serious emissions cut of up to 30%. „There is still a possible gap, which must be closed“, Hendricks said and promised to carefully monitor future developments in the field. Meanwhile, industry representatives like the German Car Manufacturer’s Association (VdA) signaled a certain remorse and announced that they would learn from their mistakes. However, they preserved their tough stance on free software updates being fully sufficient and only laid out plans to align these updates with new incentives for customers to trade in particularly old and environmentally harmful vehicles.

While the diesel scandal dominates Germany’s political landscape for the moment, there are almost no election-related repercussions or ramifications on the horizon. On the contrary, Chancellor Merkel has successfully stabilised her CDU/CSU’s polling numbers at around 40% with the main rival SPD far behind at 22% and the minor parties FDP, Greens, AfD and the Left all competing in a neck-to-neck race with 8% each. These are devastating numbers for the Social Democrats’ lead candidate and former saviour Martin Schulz who was almost universally predicted to become a major obstacle for another four years of Merkel rule just a few months ago – and who is now on his way to essentially undercut Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s historically low 2009 result of 23.0%. Even worse, Mr Schulz has tried almost every tool modern-day party politics can provide, from agenda setting to strategic surprises (c.f. the SPD’s vote in favor of same-sex marriage) and personal attacks against the Chancellor and her governing style. But nothing of it has worked so far.

Political Overview: German-Turkish relations face new pressure, Berlin enchanted by Royal visit, CSU publishes „Bayern Plan“

The already tense relationship between Germany and Turkey has suffered another major blow this week with Turkish police forces arresting six human right activists, including a German citizen, they accuse of supporting violent terrorist groups in the Kurdish areas. German politicians across the political spectrum have voiced harsh criticism on the Turkish government’s course of action and called it „a politically motivated farce“ as well as a clear violation of the rule of law. Chancellor Merkel, who used to be quite reluctant in the past in an effort to not damage her work relation with Turkish President Erdogan more than necessary, expressed „major concerns“ and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of those arrested. Foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, SPD, even announced that Germany would need to reconsider its entire Turkey policy since „the most absurd things“ seem to be possible now and Turkey is no longer the trustworthy ally of the past.

While a tough stance on Turkey remains a largely undisputed issue in German party politics, the country’s gatekeeper position and its ability to significantly curb refugee flows from the Middle East are still valuable assets. For the conservative CSU, this kind of dependency should be abolished  rather sooner than later and replaced by a tougher national border regime and less immigration. In their recently published „Bayern Plan“ (a composition of ideas either too radical for the common election manifesto or too specific), the CSU puts great emphasis on exactly this kind of domestic security issues, fighting for potential AfD voters who feel disenfranchised by the political mainstream. Again, they embrace their infamous „Obergrenze“ (upper limit) for asylum seekers and the very concept of a German „Leitkultur“ (lead culture) as a guiding principle for integration and community. Since there will be Bavarian state parliament elections in 2018, the CSU needs to satisfy its conservative clientele and the „Bayern Plan’s“ content may provide a helpful tool in this regard.

Political Overview: G20 meeting taking place in Hamburg, CDU presents election program, Merkel heading into summer recess with huge poll lead

Angela Merkel will host the annual G20 meeting in Hamburg this weekend, welcoming state leaders from the world’s most important economies in Germany to discuss a whole plethora of urgent world affairs. Topics on the agenda include for instance the most recent diplomatic incidents concerning Qatar, the ongoing civil war in Syria, potential threats posed by digitisation and large-scaled hacker attacks and future prospects for the African continent. More than 19,000 policemen have been deployed to protect the chancellor’s high-profile guests since at least two major protest marches have been announced, one of them including well-known militants that are particularly  likely to use violence. For world leaders, the summit itself is widely considered an expedient platform to familiarise themselves with each other and to address major challenges as a seemingly unified bloc. However, Ms Merkel may also take the opportunity to distinguish her calm leadership approach from the more impulsive style of U.S. President Trump and his Turkish colleague Erdogan, thus strengthening her own role as a global key player.

Domestically, the chancellor is maintaining a strong position as well. Together with CSU chairman and Bavarian Minister-President Horst Seehofer, Ms Merkel has just presented their parties’ election manifesto, labelling it „a great opportunity to dream a little bit about the future.“ With not even 80 pages, the CDU/CSU’s program is not particularly extensive but still aiming at a great number of different subjects: More housing construction projects, lower unemployment figures and taxes, increased investments in the fields of research and education and a more restrictive asylum policy are all mentioned in the text. However, the refugee crisis has lost its topical dominance with even Mr Seehofer stating that his infamous „Obergrenze“ (upper limit) won’t play any further role for the election campaign. „It’s alright. There is not a single point where we had a serious content-related dispute“, he proclaimed. Since Ms Merkel is still leading in the most recent GMS (06.07., 39% to 23%), Forsa (05.07., 39% to 23%) and Forschungsgruppe Wahlen (07.07., 40% to 24%) polls by double digits, the CDU/CSU’s manifesto will most probably serve as the foundation of a potential coalition treaty with either the FDP or the Greens – maybe even with both.

Political Overview: British negotiation capability questioned, SPD earns mixed reactions for tax plans, FDP rising to new heights

Almost exactly twelve months after the infamous referendum of June 2016, EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Davis have formally begun Brexit negotiation talks in Brussel, thereby opening up the latest chapter of the British withdrawal from the European institutions. Meanwhile, German politicians have voiced strong criticism against the UK’s negotiation stance which appears to be all too vague, erratic and additionally weakened by the recent parliamentarian elections’ political turmoil and the subsequent government reshuffle. „A negotiation partner not knowing his own goals is a difficult partner“, German MEP Elmar Brok noticed – a position that was quickly seconded by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and SPD lead candidate Martin Schulz. Both SPD politicians called for „British realism“ and clear yet reasonable negotiation demands.

Previously, Mr Schulz has unveiled his tax plans which would not only see top income but also corporate tax rates rising. Consequently, reactions varied between staunch opposition and cautious praise: the President of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), Dieter Kempf, didn’t withhold criticism and accused the SPD of knowingly hampering the economy. Contrasting this position, economists from the SPD-leaning German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) praised the plans as a reasonable and feasible balancing act between appeasing the party base and reassuring the corporate world that a Schulz chancellorship might only seek comparatively moderate changes. Yet, there is no hint that embracing the issue might save Mr Schulz from his quickly deteriorating poll numbers and generally poor chances to replace Ms Merkel.

This is even more the case since another party is already rising in the polls and creating the kind of momentum the SPD has lost since the May 2017 state elections: the FDP. Germany’s liberals have been revitalised by an energetic campaign and the increasing popularity of party chairman Christian Lindner who is widely considered to be young, smart and well-spoken enough to successfully reshape the party’s unfavourable image. With recent FDP numbers steadily oscillating between 8.0% (Forsa) and 10.5% (Allensbach), the chances of a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition have also been elevated to the rank of a serious theoretical possibility. For Ms Merkel, it would be another power option to use as a bargaining chip in possible coalition negotiations. For Mr Schulz, It’s another burden to overcome.

Angela Merkel 3 – Martin Schulz 0

There have been three regional elections in Germany this year and the results don’t bode well for Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, and now the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) ahead of September’s federal election. The latest two setbacks came just seven days apart, as Schulz’s party lost consecutive votes in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), despite leading the incumbent government. To make matters worse, the weeks leading up to the elections saw the Social Democrats quickly dropping in opinion polls in both states, with Schulz being almost invisible in both campaigns.

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