German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks with European Parliament president Martin Schulz before posing for a family picture during a European Union summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on August 30, 2014. European leaders are set to fill two of the top jobs in Brussels, with Polish premier and Kremlin critic Donald Tusk favourite to become EU president amid deepening tensions with Russia. AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)
Chancellor Angela Merkel with Martin Schulz at the EU headquarters in 2014 © AFP

For well over a year, the expression “Merkeldämmerung” has been reverberating around German politics. It comes from “Götterdämmerung”, or Twilight of the Gods, the last part of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. It captures the idea that the curtain is falling on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s illustrious political career.

Just as it is hard to conceive of a short Wagner opera, so until recently it was difficult to imagine that Ms Merkel might really lose next September’s Bundestag elections. No longer. For the first time in more than a decade, an opinion poll published on Monday showed the Social Democrats (SPD) in front of the chancellor’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

The gap was only one percentage point — 31 to 30 per cent — but the poll’s findings have electrified German politics. By common consent, the SPD surge is due to the Martin Schulz effect. The party appears to have made an inspired decision last month in picking Mr Schulz, the former European Parliament president, as its candidate to challenge Ms Merkel.

Mr Schulz has several advantages over Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD foreign minister and deputy chancellor who made way for him. Having spent the past 23 years of his career in Brussels, Mr Schulz seems like a fresh face in domestic German politics. In contrast to Mr Gabriel, he does not carry the burden of having served as a junior partner to Ms Merkel in the CDU-SPD grand coalition that has ruled Germany since the 2013 election.

Mr Schulz is energising the Social Democratic faithful, and parts of the wider electorate, with visions of a change of leadership at the top for the first time since Ms Merkel became chancellor in 2005.

Under certain circumstances, the repercussions for Europe of a Schulz victory may be far-reaching. The crisis engulfing François Fillon’s presidential bid in France, and the improbability of a victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen, mean that the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, once a long shot, has a chance of becoming the Fifth Republic’s president in May.

At the same time, it is perfectly possible that the centre-left Matteo Renzi, Italy’s former prime minister, will be back in power in Rome before the end of the year. Together, Mr Schulz, Mr Macron and Mr Renzi may make common cause to change the thrust of the eurozone’s economic and fiscal policies.

Germany’s rigid insistence on balanced budgets and debt reduction could give way to an emphasis on large-scale public investment and a looser interpretation of EU fiscal rules. The age of austerity that followed the 2008-12 banking and sovereign debt emergencies would be declared at an end. The EU itself would get a new lease of life.

We should not get carried away. Even if the SPD were to win in September, Mr Schulz would struggle to form a coalition government exclusively of left-leaning parties. One hitch is that SPD bosses tend to shun Die Linke, a radical leftist party with roots in East German communism, as unfit for government at national level.

Another grand coalition is therefore still possible. Even if the SPD were to lead it, it is far from certain that the CDU would go along tamely with plans to shake up eurozone economic policies. When Ms Merkel spoke last month at her party’s congress in Essen, she warned CDU loyalists that this year’s election would be the most difficult for the party since German unification in 1990. As this week’s poll numbers show, she never spoke a truer word.

tony.barber@ft.com

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