POLITICAL OVERVIEW: Merkel comes out atop of TV Duel with Schulz, election seems all but decided

With little more than two weeks to go until the federal election, Chancellor Angela Merkel seems poised to return to her office. Whether it is going to be with the SPD in a grand coalition or with a combination of Greens and the FDP, however, is not clear.

At the only TV duel that the two leading candidates, Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, were going to have, both made it a point to not exclude any option but a coalition with the AfD (and The Left in the case of the CDU). Given the current polls, a grand coalition is the only option for the SPD, while the CDU could potentially coalesce with either SPD or Liberals, or a combination of FDP and Greens.

The TV duel itself was somewhat disappointing. Even though Merkel was facing tough questions for her performance in the refugee crisis in 2015 and even tough Martin Schulz at times was really aggressive, the Chancellor was considered to be to be the consummate winner. The duel overall was critiqued for a lack of variety in topics, as issues such as education and digitalisation were not even breached by the moderators, while immigration and integration were given oversize attention.

A later TV duel between the leading candidates of the other parties (The Left, FDP, Greens, AfD, CSU) wasn’t much better. While digitisation was dealt with for a few minutes, the politicians didn’t state much more than platitudes. Only Christian Lindner of the liberal FDP was a bit more concrete, repeating his often voiced attacks on the market power of Google and Apple, which we reported various times in the past.

Overall, the poll numbers currently are as follows: CDU/CSU 38.5%, SPD 24%, FDP 10%, The Left and AfD 8%, Greens 7.5%. With a majority requiring 323 seats, CDU/CSU and FDP would have a slight majority of 326 seats.

POLITICAL OVERVIEW: European Court of Justice rules on migration crisis, German automobile industry suspected of cartel formation

In a ruling which may have far-reaching consequences on the future handling of refugees, the European Court of Justice upheld a countries’ right to deport asylum-seekers to the first EU county they enter. The court ruled that the EU’s Dublin regulation, under which refugees must seek asylum in the first member state they enter, still applied during the unprecedented inflow in late 2015. Yet, the court also ruled that Germany acted not in violation of the regulation when it did not return refugees to the member states they first entered.

The decision reaches Germany as Martin Schulz’ has begun to attack Chancellor Merkel on her performance on migration. Schulz attacked Merkel on the grounds that a repeat of the situation in 2015 should never happen again. Several public appearances with strong words from the SPD candidate resulted in heavy handed replies and accusations from the conservative CDU, but also some of the oppositional parties that condemned the obvious campaign move.

Overall, the situation of Schulz couldn’t be any worse. None of his big campaign moves have worked out and recognition for his policy positions has been very very limited. With so little success, him resorting to attacking Merkel on the migration issue looks desperate and doomed to fail. Poll numbers reflecting his latest comments aren’t in yet, but initial reactions don’t seem too positive.

After both Daimler and Volkswagen issued voluntary declarations concerning agreements between the five industry giants VW, Porsche, Audi, BMW and Daimler that could violate competition rules, the European commission is investigating. In the declarations Daimler and Volkswagen admitted to coordinating their strategies concerning technology, delivery and markets in several working groups. According to experts the companies will face extensive penalty payments. Green party politicians have called for a special meeting of the Transport committee for transparency on the „manipulations of the automobile cartel.“ According to the FDP party leader Christian Lindner the suspicions are shocking and a confirmation of the suspicions should not remain without consequences.

Automobile industry leaders currently are refraining from any public comment political leaders from the German government are also not acting tough on the issue, yet. Still, Minister for Transport Alexander Dobrindt has been increasingly hawkish on Diesel-gate, the use of so-called defeat devices in diesel engines that allow to cheat in exhaust fumes testing. Just today, Dobrindt banned the current version of Porsche’s flagship SUV model Cayenne from registration in Germany, effectively halting the sale of the car type. Similar bans on models from other producers might follow shortly.

For Angela Merkel, the situation could spell trouble, as it reflects badly on the amount of influence the car industry had politically, particularly on the CDU/CSU part of the government.

Political Overview: Varying reactions to G20 summit, government increases legislative transparency, SPD further falling behind in polls

The Hamburg G20 summit has come to an end and sparked a wide range of different reactions among German political actors on both domestic and international issues. On the one hand, the violent riots caused by far-left extremists have unsettled politicians of all major parties who have collectively condemned them and announced forceful legal reactions. Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s current mayor and a potential contender for the SPD leadership position in the future, even warned perpetrators of „severe consequences that are awaiting them“ while defending the use of force by the city’s police. On the other hand, the summit’s content itself has led to various reactions with the CDU/CSU praising both published communiqués as signs of Merkel’s global leadership skills and the oppositional Greens and Left downplaying most of the results, calling them not courageous and resolute enough to actually bring change.

Meanwhile, the federal government has announced plans to make all draft bills and corresponding lobby statements of the last legislative period available to the public. This idea, that would affect up to 600 laws with approximately 17,000 single documents, is widely recognised as the government’s response to the so-called #GläserneGesetze (transparent law) campaign which has gained quite some steam in recent months. Referring to the contested „Informationsfreiheitsgesetz“ (freedom of information act), the campaign has sent more than 1,600 requests to obtain information, thus significantly hampering the administration’s capability to act. However, it is uncertain if a future government will maintain this transparency-centred approach after the upcoming federal elections.

Concerning said elections, the once hopeful SPD has suffered another blow in a recently published series of polls that saw the Social Democrats and their lead candidate Martin Schulz with further decreasing numbers at 22% (Forsa, -1) and 23% (Infratest dimap, -1). This comes at least partially as a surprise since the party’s bold decision to revolt against their coalition partner and push for full same-sex marriage legislation was widely hailed as an equally clever and courageous piece of policy making. With the CDU/CSU still achieving 39%, the Left having climbed up to 9% and the FDP, Greens and AfD trio running neck-on-neck at 8%, Mr Schulz’s chances to create a viable path to the chancellorship seem to get worse by the day.

Political Overview: Bundestag approves same-sex marriage, Schulz attacks Merkel, CDU Wirtschaftstag showcases U.S.-German dissonances on trade

In a historic vote, a strong majority of Bundestag MPS has approved same-sex marriage (393 MPs voted in favour, 226 against) on Friday, making Germany the twelfth European nation and the twenty-third worldwide to fully allow and recognise the „marriage for all“. Previously, Greens, FDP and SPD have voiced sharpe criticism on the CDU/CSUs stance on the subject, declaring same-sex marriage a non-negotiable precondition for entering a Merkel-led coalition after the upcoming federal elections in September. Things started to gain steam when Ms Merkel subsequently called the question one „of conscience“, thus enabling SPD lead candidate Martin Schulz to call for a  successful last minute vote. Political commentators remain divided over the question if the hasty vote on the issue was based on Ms Merkel’s intention to take a crucial topic with approval ratings of more than 80 percent off of the agenda or if the chancellor was tactically outsmarted by her parliamentarian opponents. In any case, the fact that much more CDU/CSU MPs than expected supported the bill – despite the confusion surrounding its introduction – may serve as a strong indicator of growing intra-party comfort with the issue.

Just shortly before, Mr Schulz has dominated the headlines with his sharp attack on Ms Merkel who he accused of „assaulting democracy“ by dangerously depoliticising Germany’s political discourse. After harsh criticism, Mr Schulz has defended his claims and reiterated his plan to replace the Merkel administration as a hole instead of just entering another grand coalition. However, Mr Schulz is still running low in the polls with the most recent Forsa projection giving his SPD a mere 23.0% – a result that would match the party’s historical 2009 defeat. 

Meanwhile, the Wirtschaftstag, a yearly convention held and organised by the CDU’s Economic Council, has shown new cracks in the already strained relationship between the U.S. and Germany. Ms Merkel and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross presented quite divergent visions of how future trade exchange could look like with Mr Ross heavily lamenting Germany’s and Europe’s trade surplus, a topic more and more shaping up as a recurring pattern of criticism the Trump administration seeks to put emphasis on. On the other hand, Ms Merkel demanded a reform of European competition law to deal with the challenges mostly U.S.-based digital platform are providing for the local European markets. According to Merkel, digitisation will bring together different industry sectors in an unprecedented way but the current legal provision are not yet suited to handle the possible implications of such a developments. 

Political Overview: Merkel addresses digital summit, Gabriel warns of Qatar repercussions, Jamaica coalition in Schleswig-Holstein agreed

Considerable progress has taken place in transforming Germany into a digital society but further digitisation efforts could be jeopardised by rising sentiments of complacency among corporations. This is the core of politicians’ and experts’ joint assessment at the recently held 2017 Digital summit in Ludwigshafen, Germany’s most important platform to exchange high-level views on the subject and its various implications.

This year’s conference had a remarkably broad focus with issues reaching from regulative strategies to the transformative power of workplace digitisation. In her keynote address, Chancellor Merkel put special emphasis on underscoring the important role small and medium-sized enterprises are supposed to play in the future, at least if they don’t want to get marginalised by powerful platform providers already making use of Big Data. Also highlighted were the necessity of a better legal framework to ensure competition and support innovation and the call for better cooperation structures between relevant actors on the national as well as on the European level.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned of perils and insecurities emerging from the severe crisis between Qatar and the fourteen countries that have fully or partially cut diplomatic ties with the emirate. „There’s serious danger of this dispute turning into a full-fledged war“, Gabriel said, a war which would greatly hamper future efforts to stabilise the region and to balance out the effects of its smouldering Sunni-Shia divide. Gabriel also spoke out in favour of a more restrictive arms export policy that would increase transparency and parliamentarian involvement.

Meanwhile, the long-awaited Jamaica coalition between CDU, FDP and Greens has been formed in Schleswig-Holstein, elevating Germany’s northernmost state to a pioneer position since only the Saarland has ever experimented with this combination. CDU lead candidate Daniel Günther is expected to head the coalition as Minister-President while Green key figure Robert Habeck will remain in charge of an enlarged environment department. The coalition is widely seen as a rehearsal to test a more and more popular power option for the upcoming federal elections in September.