Germany votes: What Canadians need to know

In advance of Sunday’s election, German Consul General Peter Fahrenholtz sits down with OpenCanada to talk voter priorities, Merkel’s appeal and what the most pressing issues will be for the next German government.

By: /
September 20, 2017
An election campaign poster with a headshot of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is displayed near Berlin, September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Stefanie Loos

Following several recent stunning failures of polling data to correctly predict results — the UK’s surprise Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s US presidential win and Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected performance in a general election Theresa May considered to be in the bag — it’s understandable that one would be reluctant to expect any particular election result with an overwhelming degree of certainty.

But for anyone who has been following the 2017 German election campaign, it would be hard not to see a fourth term for Angela Merkel — chancellor since 2005 — as inevitable. As Andrew Cohen writes in the Ottawa Citizen: “As long as the Rhine flows, the Black Forest stands and Lake Constance shimmers, Angela Merkel will remain chancellor.”

In an uncertain international landscape, Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, entered German politics in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and became leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2000, has been called no less than the ‘leader of the free world’ by countless media outlets in the last year. Throughout her dozen years as chancellor, she has been charged with leading the response to the Eurozone’s debt crisis, countering growing Russian influence, maintaining a united Europe in the face of the UK’s departure and managing an influx of refugees.

Germany, with its strong economy and stable politics, will continue to be looked upon for direction on some of the world’s most pressing global issues. For this reason, many will be watching the incoming results of the September 24 vote closely, despite seemingly no one but Merkel’s main opponent, Martin Schulz, believing that she can be ousted.

Of course, the angst and anger felt in certain segments of the German population, particularly in the east of the country, cannot be discounted. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) looks set to become the first right-wing nationalist party to enter the German parliament since World War II, and could be the main opposition party if Merkel’s CDU and Schulz’s Social Democratic Party decide to once again govern via ‘grand coalition,’ which has been the case for two out of Merkel’s three terms. (For many, the real uncertainty surrounding this election has to do with what form a coalition government — usually always the case in German politics — will take.)

But compared with surges of right-wing and populism sentiment seen ahead of other elections in places like France, Italy and Hungary, Merkel appears to have dodged any serious blowback from her decision to welcome, by some counts, a million refugees — a fact which German Consul General to Toronto Peter Fahrenholtz boils down to two things: the economy and history.

To recap the issues at play in this campaign, and to get a sense of where Canada and Germany can work together going forward, OpenCanada sat down with Fahrenholtz at the German consulate ahead of Sunday’s election.

What have been the major issues for German voters in this election?

I would say a very important subject remains immigration and migration policy. There’s not really a worry about having too much immigration, but the worry is about how can we cope with this migration coming in. 

We had more than 1.5 million people coming in to Germany in the last two, two and a half years. The issue is how can German society cope with this, how can the administration and government structures cope with this, because all these people will need to be registered, they will need to be financed. We are a welfare state in Germany, which means that everybody who comes to us for whatever reason — it could be somebody who is a refugee, somebody who looks for political asylum or whatever — has a right of a minimum standard of living, which has to be provided by the German state. For those who we foresee staying longer we need to give them the German language ability, we need to provide schooling for the children, and so on.

So the worry, if you look at the migration issue, is not that it’s too many foreigners or too many people coming to us, but that we need to do this in an orderly way; we don’t want to have a big mess. I think so far we have coped very well. 

The second area which worries Germans is security and terrorism. There were some terror attacks in Europe throughout the year so people watching the pictures in the media, they’re worried, and of course we know there is a threat of terrorism, this is what our authorities clearly say.

The third is climate change, ecology — we know that the climate is changing, so how can we cope with this, what do we need to do, how will it affect us?

The fourth subject, I don’t know if it’s so much an issue in Canada, but in Germany we’re very much worried about the demography of the population. People are getting older — how can we provide for old people so that they can sustain a decent standard of living? 

It’s looking almost certain that Angela Merkel, in power for a dozen years now, will win a fourth term. What’s behind her appeal?

To generalize — it’s always a bit simplistic of course — but Germans like stability and continuity. This is a result of our recent history. If you look at the last hundred years — the First World War, the 1918-19 revolution, the hyperinflation which wiped out everybody’s income, mass unemployment following the 1929 crash, Hitler, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the destruction of Germany, the Cold War — this explains to a very high degree why Germans like stability and continuity. They don’t like sudden changes, they like gradual changes. I think Mrs Merkel, the chancellor, is somebody who symbolizes exactly that: continuity, gradual change and stability. 

"Mrs Merkel is somebody who symbolizes continuity, gradual change and stability."

Despite support for the AfD, this election doesn’t seem to have been as coloured by angry populist sentiments as others in the past 18 months. Why?

Our economy is growing, our unemployment is 3.8 percent, we are the largest traders in the world — we trade import-exports more than the Chinese, our trade surplus is larger than the Chinese — so we’re doing quite well. This helps; if our economy is doing well, we can handle problems better (if we have a recession, all these problems become so many more times more difficult to handle). If you have middle classes which lose their jobs in manufacturing and whose children have lower living standards than themselves, of course you will have a lot of dissatisfaction. Germany is the only OECD country where the manufacturing sector actually expanded, so we have jobs there for our working class population. 

The second thing is our history. I think every German, from the chancellor to normal citizens, knows that there is a special responsibility for Germany; we feel that we have a moral or ethical obligation to do more. This is reflected concretely in our foreign policy. We don’t believe in military solutions of conflicts. You will always find Germany diplomatically arguing for dialogue, consensus. Look back at Libya, Syria, Iran — look at Russia, where the chancellor herself, together with the French president and the Ukrainian president, sat down and talked to the Russians, and we found a solution, which is still holding. We believe that every problem can be solved if you sit down and talk in fair terms with the other side. We don’t believe in violence, we don’t believe in military solutions at all, [though] we know we need to be strong [in negotiations].

If you look at the migration challenge, two years ago we said, if we keep our borders closed, where will these millions of people go? They will end up somewhere in the Balkans, and then what? Being the largest country with the strongest economy within the European Union, we can afford to take these people in, even though it was a heavy burden for us, so this was a decision made by the chancellor. There was no alternative — what else could we have done? I think most of the German population understood that and they support that. 

What will be the major challenges for the next German government on the world stage?

In a world which is getting more complex and more difficult, with new global actors rising and challenging the established order, I think it is extremely important that we, as the West, stand together to promote and defend our values. Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, good governance, the fight against corruption — these are things which are extremely important. We have new leaders, new global actors coming up outside of the West who are claiming ‘no, we don’t need democracy to provide progress and wealth for our population,’ and who are challenging the principle of safeguarding human rights. [After the election] there will be no dramatic changes in Germany, in any way, but a strong government and strong leadership in Germany will be an important contribution to progress in the European Union and stability in the world.  

[Having said that], we don’t like so much to be requested to be the leader of Europe. Looking at Europe, one important topic is how we can move the European Union ahead. In Germany, we believe very much in Europe, in the European Union; one of our basic principles in Germany is strengthening and deepening the European Union. So how can we do this? We can cooperate very closely with the French, but we will not lead — there will be a group of countries moving ahead, we will be part of that group.

Dealing with Brexit is the next — it’s really difficult, and will keep many, many people very busy. We regret very much that the UK [voted to leave], they were very good partners for us. 

Then we look to the east, we have challenges in Eastern Europe, we look at the Arab-Islamic world, we look at the southern neighbourhood, Africa — we have security issues and civil war, we have millions of people migrating to Europe, so we have to help find solutions to all these challenges. And we welcome very much that Mr. Trudeau and his government in Canada is, as they said, “back,” and they want to commit to peace and security in the world. I think we can team up and support each other and do this together. 

You know, I’ve worked the last 10 years in Africa, and you have activists there, NGO people, citizens, who have nobody there who will defend their interests, except us. Their own government is authoritarian and repressive, so it’s us who support these people to stand up for these values — as I said, human rights, democracy, rule of law, good governance and so on. This is something that we really stand for, something very valuable which we only acquired ourselves after many centuries of difficult history.

"The relationship between Canada and Germany is based on such strong structures and institutions that it does not depend so much on leaders."

What do you foresee for Canada-German relations going forward — especially in light of an unpredictable US president?

The impression I have is that the chancellor has an excellent relationship with Mr. Trudeau, who is really one of the very remarkable leaders in the world. Very admirable, Mr. Trudeau. But I think the relationship between Canada and Germany, and Canada and the European Union, is based on such strong structures and institutions that it does not depend so much on leaders. Leaders can do a lot to move things even faster and move things ahead faster, but I think the relationship is so good and our interests and values are so similar that whatever happens, election-wise, this will always go on. 

Despite challenges coming up, like Brexit, we have CETA, which binds us very closely together, and makes many things possible which were not possible before. We have another agreement which strangely isn’t mentioned so much in the media, but it’s maybe much more important: the Strategic Partnership Agreement between Canada and the European Union. This covers areas like cooperation globally, peacekeeping, security policy, but also research, culture and so on. 

Then of course we have the United States, I mean, we have no doubt about the strengths of democratic institutions in the United States, obviously, but of course I have the impression that in Canada people are thinking it would be good to maybe strengthen the other part of their partnerships — not only the bilateral relations with the United States but also the partnership with Europe. It’s always good if you do not depend too much on one partner, so I can assure you, Europe is so much interested in Canada, and we would really love to do more with Canada.


This interview has been edited and condensed. 

For a live broadcast of and expert commentary on the election results, join the German Consulate General in Toronto and the Canadian German Chamber of Industry and Commerce at an election brunch on Sunday, September 24.