Germany - T minus 21 and counting
It's really about time we started paying more attention to what's going on in Germany. On Thursday Germany's Federal Constitutional Court gave the final go-ahead for the elections on September 18th following a legal challenge to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's call for a snap election back in July. It's all go.
Naturally enough, the main thrust of the German election campaign is going to be domestic. Despite recent rumours of a planned terrorist attack in Hamburg, security fears in the run-up to next year's Germany-based football World Cup, and on-going attempts to gain a seat on the UN's security council, the main concern for Germany remains the five million unemployed and the perennial problem of how to kick-start the east German economy, still largely stagnant more than a decade after reunification.
For most outside observers, there is little to really excite or interest in German economic arguments (I expect a rebuke from Tim Worstall any moment now...) as, although a few of the proposals could tangentially impact on EU-wide policy, most of it is the usual bickering about localised tactics and requires a far greater level of in-depth knowledge of Germany than most outsiders would wish to posess.
Nonetheless, behind the scenes and between the lines, a few hints about foreign policy can be gleaned - and what has come out so far seems to suggest that, should Schröder be booted out, there could be a radical shift in Germany's relations with the world.
Don't think it matters? Well, remember that Iraq war business? France and Germany closely locked together in opposition, creating all kinds of trouble for Bush and Blair? Remember all those little spats in the EU of the last few years with France throwing a hissy fit, but getting away with it because Germany backed her up? In recent years a lot of that has been down to the close alliance of Schröder/Chirac. In terms of most foreign policy they've been pretty much joined at the hip.
If Schröder goes, the whole dynamic of the EU's big three will - instantly - massively have altered, creating the potential for the deliberate isolation of France and a genuine drive for the kind of radical reform for which the European Union has a sore need. If Tony Blair can cozy up to a new German leadership, replacing Chirac as Berlin's bumchum, then the grandly empty rhetoric about EU reform he started spouting when the UK took over the EU presidency might actually end up with some possibility of becoming less a load of meaningless, unrealistic drivel.
A new German leadership and attitude to the outside world could also isolate Jaques Chirac still further both in Europe and at home, making his already near-certain political demise that much more guaranteed. At the same time, this would demonstrate to his successor in the French presidency (likely in 2007) that the EU game has finally begun to shift away from France's favour - half a century after the Treaty of Rome gave Paris a wonderfully privileged position, there might finally be a chance to introduce a bit more equality to the EU.
Think this is all wishful thinking? Quite possibly. But Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance, who have the best chance of unseating Schröder's Social Democrats, have already clearly stated their aims to improve relations with the United States and to expand Germany's intra-EU dialogue to include rather more countries than merely France. It looks promising, at least.
In terms of specific external relations, Merkel has hinted that she favours broad reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, placing her closer to the likes of Britain and the new eastern European EU states - in particular Poland, the accession state by far the most likely to radically alter intra-EU relations in the long run thanks to its size, population and economic potential.
Merkel's lot also have plans to drastically cut the number of immigrants Germany accepts, increase (highly controversially, given the country's past) the role of the German military in counter-terrorism operations, and introduce a wider range of centralised digital resources which could well lead to German support for an EU-wide biometric ID system along the lines of that being proposed by Tony Blair and co.
So, rather than an anti-war, pro-France Chancellor whose main response to the (frankly fairly insignificant) terrorist threat to Germany has been to propose introducing classes on Islam in schools to cut down on demonisation and misunderstanding, we could end up with a more hawkish, internationalist one with aspirations to cozy up to Bush. Bearing in mind that Germany - despite the unemployment issues - still has the 5th largest GDP in the world, this could mark a major change on the world scene, the potential significance of such a shift should not be underestimated.
Still, having said that, Merkel's apparent early lead has been drastically cut, and the elections now seem too close to call. (She's even cynically started jumping on the anti-Turkish EU membership bandwaggon in an apparent attempt to immitate the Tories' recent appeals to latent racism dressed up as economic concern.) We could yet be stuck with Schröder for a while, and see a continuation of the Franco-German stalling of much-needed EU reform. But while another term for Schröder is a nightmare from a pro-EU perspective, having the more authoritarian, right-wing and pro-America Merkel in charge could be equally nightmarish for the anti-war/pro-civil liberties crowds. Not only too close to call, but also too tricky to work out who'd be best for both Britain and the world.
So, worth keeping an eye on. Good places to start include Der Spiegel's election site, Deutsche Welle's election site, Sign and Sight's election special, Wikipedia (as always) and the blogs Bildt Comments and Ostracised from Österreich. If anyone knows of any other good, regularly-updated English language blogs with good coverage of German politics , I'd be grateful for a heads-up - most of the ones I used to check seem to have died...
Update: Over the weekend new polls in Germany seem to suggest that, after Merkel's early lead and Schröder's recent resurgence, Merkel is comfortably back in front by a margin of around 13% - the CDU/CSU on 43%, the SPD on just 30%. Can these figures be trusted? There's still three weeks to go - anything could happen...