The German election has taken more twists and turns than an episode of Line of Duty. Polls have closed but it’s not at all clear how it will play out.
With a large chunk of the electorate voting by post – up to 40pc in some states – it may take several days before the results are known, and months before a coalition is formed.
What is clear is that the loss of Angela Merkel will be felt in Ireland and especially by Fine Gael. Particularly since Brexit, she has been regarded here as an invaluable support to the Government.
How will losing that influence play out?
Fine Gael has established itself well enough in its umbrella political group – the European People’s Party (EPP). As a result, the party has greater clout and access in Europe than its now larger domestic rivals.
“I already saw it with John Bruton,” said Spanish MEP Antonio López-Istúriz, who has been the EPP’s secretary general for almost two decades.
“Enda [Kenny] also reinforced very well the presence and the influence of a small country that has been taken very seriously inside the EPP family. This continues with Leo Varadkar exactly the same way, and I am very happy with that.”
And on Brexit: “Whatever Enda Kenny told us, whatever Leo Varadkar told us has been the Bible for us inside the EPP,” Mr López-Istúriz said. “We have been loyal partners and followers. We thought the best thing for Ireland was the best thing for Europe.”
EPP prime ministers still dominate the EU summit table – they number nine, including Merkel. Fine Gael and Varadkar are due back at that top table in 2023.
But the party will take a knock after Merkel, says German MEP Jan-Christoph Oetjen, a member of the rival liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
“Merkel is appreciated in the EU,” he said. “She was an integrating figure for the EPP, bringing east and west together, and very often this is the role of the German chancellor, to kind of bridge the gaps. The EPP will be less strong because there is nobody to fill in this role.”
Polls show the Social Democratic Party – fronted by current vice-chancellor and finance minister Olaf Scholz – slightly ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, now led by Armin Laschet, with the Greens, FDP and far-right AfD trailing, and The Left even further behind.
The country is in for a three-party coalition for the first time in its history, so the future Chancellor will have to balance the interests of their (unless the Greens manage a major upset) partners.
In Ireland, the Greens and the Labour Party have the most to gain from the election, although Fianna Fáil’s liberal EU grouping – bolstered by having French president Emmanuel Macron in its ranks – will get a significant boost if its German ally gets a minister within the German coalition. The prospect of a Scholz win is “hugely exciting” for former Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, who says it could be “transformative” for Europe.
In his view, Germany, under Merkel, was behind the “almost Calvinist view, in the beginning, that profligate, peripheral countries like ours – and Portugal and Spain – had to have a punitive element to their recovery”.
However, Labour has no MEPs and as long as its out of Government, no seat at the EU summit table leaves the party a little lost in Brussels.
“They are invisible,” said one Brussels source. “They don’t have a presence. It’s really a reflection of the state of the Labour Party.”
Howlin admitted the party is “not strong” at the moment. “But the stronger our group is, the stronger our individual influence is,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s disastrous 2019 local and European elections combined with Brexit mean its European Parliament numbers dropped from four to just one. The party’s sole MEP Chris MacManus sits in the Left block in Brussels along with Clare Daly, Ming Flanagan and Mick Wallace and outside any of the influential mainstream party groupings.
Ireland and Germany were on very different sides of the bitter debates around the 2008 and 2010 financial crisis, but the countries are now regarded as allied on areas like economic and defence policy, regardless of yesterday’s German vote.
Germany is not a fan of boosting the EU’s ‘hard power’ military capacity. As Scholz has been much more circumspect than his French counterpart on a global minimum corporate tax rate. And the country has also shifted away from the austerity of a decade ago.
While France will continue to be Germany’s main partner in Europe, a new broom in Berlin will always seek other allies, according to Rafael Loss, a researcher with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“At least on economic and fiscal terms, [Scholz] is very much in line with Macron’s vision for a more social Europe,” he said.
“But there is a certain self-interest in Germany to balance French ambitions with the priorities of other member states.
“The Nordic countries, as well as Ireland post-Brexit, will remain of huge importance to Germany as it is sort of leveraging its central position in the EU.”