Conservative governments of the Visegrád Four group have been watching the pre-election jostling in Germany with an amount of anxiety, as an electoral victory for the Green party would almost certainly mean a further deterioration in bilateral relationships. Although in recent years economic ties have remained strong, the German government’s radical shift to the left under Angela Merkel has brought about a weakening of the political common ground between Germany and countries with conservative governments, most notably with Hungary and Poland.
The election of Armin Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s candidate for chancellor has brought a two-fold dilemma for these countries. On the one hand, Laschet is widely regarded as a Merkel loyalist, and if elected as chancellor, he is expected to continue along the path set out by his predecessor. This would mean more uncontrolled migration, further erosion of political diversity in Germany, the strengthening of radical progressive causes, and an ideologically drafted environmental policy that could harm the economy, as well as political liberties.
The other issue that is perhaps even more alarming for some of Germany’s neighbors is the fact that Laschet is an uncharismatic politician with little appeal with the CDU’s and CSU’s traditional voters. Only months after his successful candidacy, he has seen the CDU slide to as low as 21 percent in the polls, making the Greens the most popular party in Germany. A German government headed by the Greens, however, would inevitably bring more political antagonism into the country’s relationship with its eastern neighbors.
Yet, all this could change due to a recent decision by Laschet to bring his former rival, Friedrich Merz back into his team. Merz, a politician from the conservative wing of the CDU, is one of the very few high-ranking critics of Merkel’s policies within the CDU. As far back as the early 2000s, he has emphasized migrants’ duty to adhere by what is known as the German “Leitkultur”, that is, the mainstream culture and traditions of the country. He has furthermore opposed Merkel’s “Wilkommenskultur” ever since the beginning of the migration crisis in 2015.
Due to his considerable experience as a business leader, Merz is joining Laschet’s team as a finance expert. In practice, this means that Merz could be asked to serve as finance minister should the CDU win in this year’s elections. In fact, his return to the CDU’s upper echelons might well help Laschet’s chances in his quest to lead his party to victory. According to a recent survey among business leaders and entrepreneurs, 46 percent support bringing Merz back iinto the fold while 36 percent were against it. Moreover, 43 percent think that Merz will increase the CDU’s chances to retain the chancellery, while only 28 percent think he is harming Laschet’s cause.
Merz can also be a savvy opponent of the Greens in their own turf of environmental policy. After a recent ruling of the German constitutional court, according to which environmental issues do have an effect on the rights of future generations, Merz has gone on the attack against the SPD, accusing the party’s environment minister of failings and of being shielded against criticism because she is a member of the present government coalition.
Yet, Laschet can also use Merz to balance out his own left-wing profile within his election cabinet, which could play well with voters in the East of the country. Finally, Merz’s strong reputation as a finance expert would undoubtedly be a great selling point for his team against the Green’s hugely costly environmental and social reform plans.
If the pre-election alliance between the careful Laschet and the dominant Merz does not explode and can bring about an electoral success, countries such as Poland and Hungary might find the cooperation with such a German government much easier. However, as a result of the strong showing of Annalena Baerbock’s Greens in recent polls, it is increasingly unlikely that they can be bypassed during the formation of any future German government, even if only as junior coalition partners. Any German government that includes the far-left Greens would most likely lead to a further deterioration in the already strained relationship with the Hungarian, Polish, and likely even with the Austrian governments. Still, the presence of a high-ranking politician from traditional Christian-Democratic circles could offer a platform for continuing the dialogue necessary to preserve vital trade and business interests.