As Sunday’s German election approaches, sighs of relief can be heard across Europe. When much of the world seems to be spinning out of control, Germany remains reassuringly dull, plodding soberly along in the usual way. Angela Merkel is all but certain to return for a fourth term as chancellor. Although many votes remain undecided, her Christian Democrats (and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union) have a healthy lead. The only question appears to be whether Mrs. Merkel will renew her coalition with the center-left Social Democrats or turn to smaller parties in its place.
The European Union establishment—shaken by Brexit, staggered by Donald Trump, challenged by Russia, and worried about the rise of populist and nationalist parties around the Continent—wants stability above all, and Germany seems to be the only country that can keep Europe on an even keel.
This is a major historical shift. From the rise of Bismarck in the 1860s through World War II, Germany kept European politics on the boil. As recently as 1990, both British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand tried to stop unification in its tracks. Unable to block it, Mitterrand insisted that Germany bind itself to the rest of Europe by giving up the deutsche mark for the euro. Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed and promised to build a “European Germany” rather than a “German Europe.”
A generation later, Thatcher and Mitterrand might feel their fears were justified. Politically and economically, Germany has become the most powerful and successful EU member state: In today’s Europe, all roads lead to Berlin. Yet as nervous as Germany’s strength makes some of its neighbors, the real question is whether Berlin can meet the expectations they are placing on it. Germany might look relatively strong, prosperous and stable, but the world may be expecting more from Berlin than the Germans are willing or able to give.
The economies of Southern Europe, still struggling with the fallout from the 2008-09 financial crisis, look to Germany for relief. The Baltic states and Poland look to Germany for European leadership against Russia. France wants Germany to accept it as the co-leader of Europe—an ambition that makes countries like Poland and Italy suspicious. German diplomats labor to pacify the Balkans and take the front line in Europe’s growing confrontation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. EU officials in Brussels look to Germany for leadership in dealing with the legal and political challenges populist governments in Poland and Hungary pose to European institutions. The Trump administration wants Germany to increase military spending, to reduce its trade surplus, and to do more to lead the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Britain wants Germany to ease the path of Brexit.
Chancellor Merkel’s fourth term will not be easy. Even if her party, as expected, scores a decisive victory at the polls, she will face serious constraints. The Alternative für Deutschland—a populist, nationalist and anti-euro party—is running third in national polls and seems certain to enter the Bundestag. That would be the first time in postwar German history that a far-right party has been seated in the national legislature. The AfD usually runs strongest in the former East Germany, where many factories closed following unification and wages still lag. But recently the AfD has made inroads in the prosperous west. It now holds seats in the legislatures of 13 of Germany’s 16 states.
The danger for Mrs. Merkel and the German political establishment is that issues like migration and reform of the eurozone trigger the kind of populist backlash that feeds antiestablishment parties like AfD and Die Linke, successor to the East German Communist Party.
The economic outlook is also mixed. Looking ahead, it is not clear how long the old manufacturing economy can continue to underwrite German success. The automobile industry faces disruptive changes with an impending shift toward electric and autonomous vehicles. China continues to move up the value chain, increasingly looking to compete for the high-value-added precision work over which German industry has long reigned supreme. Automation will continue to put pressure on manufacturing employment, even in Germany. And with protectionist winds blowing world-wide, Germany’s export-oriented economic model may struggle to repeat past success.
Mitterrand and Thatcher opposed German reunification because they feared a rich and powerful Germany would dominate Europe. Today, their successors must hope that Germany remains both powerful and rich enough to lead. The alternatives are grim.