If there is one lesson to be learned from the recent European parliamentary elections in Germany, it’s this: The era of the big-tent parties is over. Both governing parties, the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, who are currently in a grand coalition under the lead of Chancellor Angela Merkel, suffered significant losses. The Christian Democrats won just 22.6 percent of the vote, a whopping 7.5 percentage points off their results in the last European elections, in 2014. The Social Democrats fared even worse, dropping to 15.8 percent, an 11.6 point drop. Voters from both parties flocked to the Greens, who came in second for the first time in a national election.
This trend away from the big old parties has been long in the making, but the European elections made it crystal clear to everyone — except the big old parties themselves. In the week since, leaders from both parties signaled they are keeping their current tack, making no changes to their agendas (so far). They are determined to keep on dying.
Instead, both parties have been overtaken by infighting. Andrea Nahles, the head of the Social Democrats, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of the Christian Democrats, are being challenged internally by dissidents unhappy with their stay-the-course strategies. But even the dissidents, who want to see new leaders atop their parties, do not grasp the depth of the challenge: The country and the world have changed, and both parties have failed to keep with the times. They have missed out on engaging the next generation. They have failed to adapt to a changing communications environment. And both parties have contented themselves to “managing” politics, instead of shaping politics. Unable to change, they are frozen in place.
Take climate change. Germans overwhelmingly recognize the near-term threat of rising global temperatures. As in many other Western countries, students are taking to the streets every Friday demanding that their politicians step up. But German policymakers seem to lack any sense of urgency, and the country is lagging desperately behind on its carbon-reduction goals.
The times when Germany at least pretended to lead on this issue internationally are long over. When the European heads of state met in Romania in May, President Emmanuel Macron of France joined others in proposing an initiative to make Europe carbon-free by 2050. Ms. Merkel embraced the goal, but refused to commit until her “climate cabinet” — a panel of German government ministries — had discussed the issue. That’s Germany’s policy tactic of choice right now: Defer world problems to yet another commission.
Such paralysis explains the growing support for the Greens; among voters under 60 years old, they bested both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. Among voters between 18 and 29 years old, just 13 percent supported the Christian Democrats, who had the most support overall. Younger voters are no longer beholden to the big-tent parties, in large part because the big-tent parties have no plan to engage with them — and when they do address the issues that young voters care about, it’s with condescension, even derision.
Paul Ziemiak, the secretary general of the Christian Democrats, said that young climate protesters were “ideologues” unaware of the political realities. Others criticized them for skipping school. And when a young German YouTuber harshly criticizing the grand coalition in a video that went viral a week ahead of the elections, Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer flubbed her party’s response, calling for limits on online speech.
Nothing illustrates the big-tent parties’ detachment from reality than their performance in the run-up to the European elections. Instead of getting serious, even for a moment, about pressing issues like climate, China or corporate taxes, their leaders spent their days whispering, swapping rumors about whether Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer was on the verge of a party coup against Ms. Merkel. Their obsession with the pair of Christian Democrats offers a means of escaping the world’s bitter realities, a strange escapism they have pursued even more vigorously after the European election.
The underlying reason for this is a general fear of drama, and a particular fear of fracturing the ever-more-fragile governing coalition. Germany’s political class emerged from the years of the migration crisis even more politically timid than before. The German voter, many policymakers seem to think, has just been soothed back into happy docility. The poll numbers for the far-right Alternative for Germany party are stagnating on the national level. It’s better to keep a low profile, and hands off potentially divisive topics like the environment.
Germany’s state of nervous inaction has lasted for almost two years now, ever since the last national elections, after which it took nearly six months for the two parties to agree on a coalition deal. The “governing” that ensued was disrupted by heavy internal fighting among the Christian Democrats, which eroded their lead in the polls and ultimately forced Ms. Merkel to leave her position at the head of her party.
And it’s happening at the worst time. Germany carried Europe through the financial crisis, and then the refugee crisis. German leadership had its critics, and its faults, but the Continent would be in a much worse place without it. Now, as it struggles with climate change and an ever-larger threat from the populist right, Europe needs Germany more than ever. But Germany is nowhere to be found.
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing opinion writer since 2015, has been an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2011.