EVENT REPORT – What’s happening in Germany? by the International Relations Council

by | Jun 24, 2022

What’s happening in Germany? This was the focus of the conversation with Miss Emily Schultheis, organized by the International Relations Council in partnership with the Goethe Pop Up Kansas City. Miss Schultheis is a freelance journalist and recent fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs. She writes primarily about German and Austrian politics and the rise of populist far-right parties across Europe. Over the course of her political reporting career, Emily’s work has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Guardian, Politico Europe, The Associated Press, Foreign Policy, National Geographic, etc.


Germany today

Miss Schultheis started by addressing the fact that Germany plays a huge political and economic role in Europe and the European Union – and recently the need to adjust what kind of role it plays in the European and international political stage has arisen. Over the past decade, Germany has seen several political shifts with trends similar to those of other Western nations, such as the US, in terms of the rise of populist politics and parties, presenting this itself as a “wing” of some parties traditionally seen in the Western political spectrum. The country is facing questions – what is its role, what kind of society it has, and what will its politics and future look like?

The mandate of Chancellor Angela Merkel

Miss Schultheis described Merkel as one of the reasons for the shifts happening in Germany in recent years. Merkel was the leader of the country for 16 years and has been seen, for quite a substantial time, as a key figure for stability in politics, not only in Germany but in Europe as a whole. Nominated in 2005, Angela Merkel was the first female chancellor in Germany’s history, and without Merkel leading the ticket in the most recent elections in September 2021, Merkel’s center-right conservative democratic party substantially lost support, as Schultheis described.


Bundestag configuration

In its last national elections, Germany has seen the formation of an unprecedented three-party coalition, led by the social democrats (center-left party) with the political support and confidence given by the free democrats (neo-liberal party, more financially conservative) and the Green Party. The government – led by Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor – now runs a stable majority in the Parliament, where these three parties have managed to find common ground in this new and unprecedented three-party government in Germany’s democracy.


There are significant differences among them – regarding, for example, minimum wage and the new policies designed for climate issues and challenges, as Miss Schultheis pointed out. In fact, it is not the first time that the Green Party takes a role in the German government, the only difference now is the fact that the party plays a very interesting role in shaping Germany’s climate and environmental policy for decades to come. It is perceived that they’re bringing a new voice and perspective to foreign policy as well, with a level of influence that was not seen before by the greens.


Foreign policy

Just a few months after the elections for the Bundestag, war broke out in Europe, with the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. This new and decisive event led the recently elected government to put foreign policy at the forefront of its mandate, says Miss Schultheis. The brutal war in Ukraine has forced every government in Europe to respond to this crisis and face the inevitable consequences of such a destructive event happening in Europe, and actively try to figure out what response should be given to this challenge.


Germany, as Miss Schultheis described, occupies a central space in Europe, both geographically, politically, historically, and even symbolically speaking. While the country has been reluctant to take and assume a leading role in European politics and its internal and external dynamics, Germany – for quite some time now – has still been playing the part, whether intentionally or not, in recent years. This applies to both the situation following the economic crisis of the last decade and, the migrant phenomenon, the pandemic, and now more recently, the war in Ukraine.


How does Germany feel about is role after all? Is the country reluctant or eager to take that role? These questions popped up during the session and they seem to represent some of the biggest questions when looking at what will happen to Germany shortly, stated Miss Schultheis.


The war in Ukraine

Germany has followed a more held-back policy regarding the military sphere of its nation, hesitant to give or provide weapons to war situations, reluctant on the spending a significant portion of its budget on defense. Traditionally the country has been participating halfheartedly in such international events in recent years.


The war in Ukraine represents a pivotal moment for Germany on this front. Miss Schultheis pointed out the fact that, in a matter of days after the outbreak of the war, Germany decided to supply actively fatal weapons to Ukraine, representing a change from its traditional absence in war times, seemingly making this the moment of significant changes in its defense and security policy.


The rise of the far-right

The political landscape in the country is shifting, the system in Germany is getting more fractioned. There are now 6 parties in the Parliament, and none of them are quite able to construct a robust majority – so how does this affect Germany and its policy for the present and future?


The shifts in the German political system are related to the voting pattern seen in the country: while nowadays we see a reunified Germany, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “iron curtain”, there are still a lot of discrepancies. Some divisions remain since the fall of the wall and, as a result, the internal politics are also fragmented.


Miss Schultheis has herself experienced living in a zone of eastern Germany traditionally linked to the German far-right parties. As she shared her experience in Germany, Schultheis explained that the politics developed after the fall of the wall in this specific region and explained why this part of the country, closer to Poland, is more deeply linked to the far-right movements: according to Schultheis, the globalization and the liberal systems failed people who live in these areas and they now struggle to have a good or even stable quality of life, especially compared to the one they had before the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Merkel’s “We can do this!” and the integration of migrants

This reality, as she was saying, played a role in the integration of refugees in Germany, particularly after the huge influx of migrants Europe has seen in 2015, promoting the split within the German society between those who support the integration of Syrian and other refugees, and those who do not. According to the speaker, there have been some individual stories of crimes committed in Germany by refugees accepted in the country, and as a result, a subsequent use of these stories by the media and the far-right movements is overshadowing the real fact that – as Miss Schultheis explained – the integration process of Syrian refugees in Germany has become remarkable over time.


Merkel led by great example in the perception of immigration in Europe and accepting refugees fleeing from these countries and war zones: the integration of migrants and their children in Germany has been successful – they are integrated, they’re finding homes and jobs, and they are learning the language, the speaker said. 


Energy crisis and climate change

As Miss Schultheis explained, the new coalition government in Germany vowed to make significant progress in these common challenges humanity is facing. Scholz’s government is invested in making big changes and investments in the relevant areas  – which, in some way, is a tough thing to accomplish since Germany still highly dependent on coal and the automotive industry. Regarding energy transition, Schultheis explained that there is now a huge focus on liquid natural gas and green hydrogen in the country. Germany wants to become the leader in green hydrogen, promoting partnerships with Qatar and other countries to establish this position forward – while continuing to invest in solar and wind power, Schultheis added. Germany also has a plan to leave the use of coal behind by 2038. The removal of nuclear power was a political decision made due to the worries of the disaster of Fukushima eventually happening in Germany, but as a result, the energy situation in Germany happens to present itself as an equation more difficult to resolve.

EU-US partnership on energy

The war in Ukraine has prompted further discussions about how Germany can be energetically independent and able to rely on renewable and green energy going forward. As Germany progressively moves toward taking the environmental measures necessary to tackle climate change, the country and the European Union struggle now to find alternative energy suppliers, as they are aiming at decreasing its dependence on Russia’s energy supply. These challenges present themselves in the United States as well.


How will Germany progress regarding green energy and the environmental measures that are urgently necessary to tackle climate change? How will the US respond to the challenge and take over in the green economy movement? There is a difference in the ways these topics are being discussed in Germany, Schultheis said. The country has internal differences when it comes to the political system: there is now a party in the German government that is actively pushing the green agenda and stronger legislation, promoting the creation of green jobs, and even with Germany still dependent on the automotive industry – especially in the southern part of the country such as the region of Munich – the political dynamics are changing and a consequence of that is indeed the position held by the Green Party.

German support for the war effort

Even though this is still recent and there is uncertainty about the scenarios that will follow, such as how long the war in Ukraine will continue, there are already a few issues emerging. There is strong divide in German population regarding the large number of Ukrainian refugees coming into the country and the system making it very easy for them to get settled in Germany. In the long run, as the country is already tired of the energy crisis and rising prices, this conflict can – and probably will – have a significant impact on German society.


Germans are backing the war effort of its leaders to support Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion, but when people face the consequences of the measures that are being taken, that’s going to be a different issue, Miss Schultheis explained. Winter will come, and with it discussions surrounding energy prices in Germany and in Europe during wartime. Only time will tell what kind of an impact the war could have on prices and costs of energy supply in the country, public support for the joint international effort to support Ukraine, and, consequently, the position of the German government in the medium-term.

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