British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 this week, across the channel, her German counterpart, Angela Merkel, reassured party members in Berlin that with or without the UK, the European Union would continue to be a success.
The two leaders each have a union to preserve. For May, that union is the United Kingdom. She will not be able to duck the calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland forever, and there is also the contentious issue of what happens to Northern Ireland.
For Merkel, the union she must save is the EU itself. And what a beleaguered union that is. Aside from the fact that one of the richest and most influential members of the bloc will be leaving the club that everyone always wanted to join, there are still the issues of the ongoing eurozone and refugee crises, Europe’s security and defense, the particularly boisterous brand of Russian nationalism on its eastern flank and the waning public trust in EU institutions.
All of this is happening as a wave of right-wing, Eurosceptic demagogues rock politics across the Old Continent.
Yet despite the crises that have battered the EU’s recent history, German dedication to the project has not waned.
In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that German insistence on the sacrosanctity of the European project has increased in the political mainstream as a reaction to other global trends.
Ahead of national elections in September, where Merkel will be standing for her fourth term, German politics has been “rocked” by the emergence of her main opponent: Martin Schulz of the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD. Until the straight-talking Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, entered the fray as an alternative to Merkel, the SPD had been languishing in the polls.
But Schulz’s avowedly pro-European stance and vocal claims to represent the “anti-populist, anti-Brexit and anti-Trump” movement have been hugely popular among German voters.
So much that some recent polls now suggest that the SPD is neck and neck with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.
This bounce has its own name — the “Schulz” effect — and it’s couched in terms of being pro-European, pro-liberal democracy and “anti-populism.”
While Merkel’s commitment to the EU cannot be questioned, Schulz is even more of a federalist than her. He has gone so far as to question even German fiscal orthodoxy in the name of European solidarity by backing Eurobonds (a pooling of eurozone debt), which would essentially mean the eurozone would become a permanent fiscal transfer union, and the Germans its principal paymaster.
These are the choices facing German voters in September. Ditching the idea of the EU is simply not an option.
The hysteria over the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, Germany’s right-wing populist party has been overdone — and especially in the international press. Yes, AfD will cross the 5% threshold to win seats in the Bundestag, and yes, given 20th-century history in Germany, that is alarming. But no, it will not drive the agenda.
Remember that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union bloc is the next most conservative party on the spectrum after the AfD. No single other party will do business with it.
When Germany votes in autumn, the populist surge will undoubtedly win headlines. However, the real story will be Germany’s further commitment to the European project. Whoever is next chancellor of Germany — he or she will not be abandoning the EU any time soon.
Nina Schick is a European political analyst based in Berlin. The opinions in this article belong to the author.