At the edge of the Black Forest in southwest Germany, one of Europe’s great rivers performs a conjuring trick. For roughly half the year, the Danube, here in its infancy and a mere 20 feet or so across, disappears into the porous rock below, traveling through fissures in the limestone to reemerge, some 60 hours later, several miles farther to the south. From there it flows into Lake Constance and enters one of Europe’s other major waterways, the Rhine River. So from this one spot, depending on seasonal conditions, the water will either travel east as the Danube to empty into the Black Sea or flow as the Rhine all the way to the North Sea.
It’s a tempting analogy for Germany’s federal election next month since its course is similarly not yet set but the outcome is sure to ripple throughout Europe and to shores beyond. With Angela Merkel, the longtime chancellor, leaving office, the contest is surprisingly open, and the same corner of the country where the Danube runs underground potentially points the way ahead.
If the previous election in 2017 was all about the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the story of the campaign for the Sept. 26 vote is the further decline of the governing parties and the surge in support for the Greens. The intervening four years have seen a major shift in attitudes toward climate change and the adoption of green technologies, and polls suggest the party’s moment may have come. The question is whether a traditionally cautious electorate is ready to follow the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, run by the Greens, in making the leap.
Germany certainly feels like it’s at a turning point. The world is changing, and Germans aren’t sure they recognize it anymore. The U.S., after enabling the nation’s post-World War II rehabilitation and providing security guarantees throughout the Cold War, is no longer seen as a dependable ally, largely but not exclusively because of Donald Trump. A Pew Research Center poll from June found that although sentiment has improved markedly since Joe Biden became president, Germans have the least favorable views of the U.S. of any Group of Seven nation.
At the same time, China has grown to become Germany’s No. 1 trading partner outside Europe, overtaking the U.S. in 2016. But China has since been labeled a systemic rival and strategic competitor by the European Commission, and to add to the discomfort, Washington is pushing Berlin to more clearly align with the U.S. in its standoff with Beijing.
At home, the auto industry is undergoing massive upheaval as the combustion engine enters its dying days, and Germany’s dominance in the luxury sector won’t shield it from the job losses that are coming with the transition to electric motors. More fundamentally, the pandemic and the global tensions it exposed have laid bare the limits of an export-led economic model, however sought-after the country’s manufacturing skills.
Perhaps most unsettling of all, Merkel is standing down, depriving Germans of their rock of restrained stability. Even if there is a desire for change—and there is—she remains Germany’s most popular politician, a singular achievement after some 16 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy and dominant country. Germany will have to face the coming challenges without her.
“It’s really a watershed election,” says Chantal Kopf, the lead candidate for the Greens in Freiburg, a city in Baden-Württemberg known for its 13th-century cathedral, a university that’s more than 500 years old, and its progressive, climate-friendly politics. The Greens, she says, are “fighting for a new beginning.”
For a while this spring, with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc adrift, it seemed like the Greens were the natural successors. Fielding a chancellor candidate—40-year-old Annalena Baerbock—for the first time in their history, they briefly led in the polls with a platform of aggressive climate action, a “values-based” foreign policy, and an economic agenda that would overturn what French President Emmanuel Macron has called Berlin’s “fetish” for balanced budgets. They have since fallen back but still look likely to enter a coalition government with their strongest showing ever.
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