German youth no longer leans left, prefers conservative leader – former German ambassador to Russia

Germany is set to go to the polls again, and it seems probable that Chancellor Merkel will win another mandate. It would be her fourth consecutive term, but there are problems in the country and abroad that demand attention. With Germany being the heart and the hands of the European Union, this vote decides everything. How will the migrant crisis be dealt with? Will the right-wing parties have a voice? Will there be real change – or will the status quo endure? We ask Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz, veteran German diplomat and former ambassador to Russia.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Dr. Ernst-Joerg von Studnitz, welcome to the show, it’s good to have you with us one more time. So, who are the Germans choosing here - the TV debate between the leading candidates showed that there isn’t much difference between Social Democrats’ Martin Schulz and Christian Democrats, incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel?

Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz: As one can presently see, there’s quite a difference between the two parties, because the Christian Democrats of Chancellor Merkel are leading by 36.5%, whereas Social Democrats of Mr. Schulz are trailing with about 22% in the opinion polls presently.

SS: Martin Schulz wants to attack Merkel’s record and policy choices, but since they are actually close on policy, why would the people choose him over her?

ES: They obviously are not going to do that, because as I said, in the opinion polls, the Social Democrats are trailing, and the efforts of mr. Schulz to catch up with Christian Democrats, which, at the beginning of the year, seemed to be promising - promising have failed, and I think they have failed because of.... well, actually, mistake mr. Schulz made at the beginning, when there were state elections in the small state of Sauerland next to the French border in the west, where he was venturing the idea of having a coalition with the leftist party and the Greens, and the people were simply not ready for such a coalition and he lost much more than he expected. I think that carried on in the next elections, in the next state,, in the biggest state of our federate republic, North Rhine-Westphalia, where they lost again and they lost once more in the elections of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.  So, the effort of mr. Schulz to catch up with Christian Democrats have failed and then he was looking for any kind of a new approach where he could catch up and apparently he hasn’t done so.

SS: The Chancellor won the first TV debate but refused to take part in the second - why?

ES: I think the Chancellor thought it was necessary to at least be ready to accept one such debate, but she wasn’t, on the other hand… I mean, she is the leading politician in the country, and in a way, she could dictate the rules, and dictating the rules meant that she would expose herself once to this, but not for a second time.

SS: Merkel’s party isn’t poised to win an outright majority. Her choice of coalition partner will influence her policy - who do you think it will be?

ES: Presently there are only two options for a coalition government, because if you look at the opinion polls, all the parties that are running in this elections will not to be able to muster a two-party coalition except for the continuation of the so-called “Grand Coalition” between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. They would, with some 36% and 22% of both parties together, they would have a commanding majority in the federal Bundestag, some 58% or maybe a little more. But no other combination, presently, as far as opinion polls go, will have such a majority. The Free Democrats which have been voted out of the last Bundestag in the elections of 2013 have come back strong and they want to be a partner of the coalition, but they probably will not score high enough to be able to have a coalition exclusively with Christian Democrats. They, too, together, under present opinion polls, will only muster about 45% which is not the necessary absolute majority. So, that would force the Chancellor when she would build a coalition to look for another partner which are the Greens and together with the Free Democrats  and the Greens, they would become a majority of 52-53%, which will be enough. But there are strong controversies between the Free Democrats  and the Greens, and it is not sure that they would be able to form coalition together with the leading Christian Democrats. So, some people in the political discussions in the media think that at the end of all this discussions we’ll have the continuation of the “Grand Coalition”.

SS: Will the junior partner of the CDU be able to affect key decisions on European integration, specifically -  and how?

ES: I think the European integration is not a very controversial point, because all of them are strong proponents of European unity and it’s only a question of how you do it, but I think, the European issue is not a real issue among either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, nor between the Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and the Greens.

SS: If the choice of coalition partner is so important, can we say that this election has become about the third-placed party, not the actual winner?

ES: The strength of the third party is important if there’s a Grand Coalition, because the third-strongest party will be the leader of the opposition in the future Bundestag. That should be the Alternative for Germany which is the right-wing opponent which is really against any of the existing parties in the Bundestag. If they would be the spokesman for the opposition in the future period of the Bundestag until 2021, then people will be rather upset that the first one to speak after the government has spoken would be this alt-right, rightist party, and that is why the run for place #3 is important.

SS: The small right party Alternative for Germany is being branded racist and demagogue, but a Financial Times poll shows AfD’s support at 10 per cent. In this case, that would mean AfD will become the third party in German Parliament. How would that affect the political scene?

ES: That is rather awkward, because they have a very anti-system approach. They deny many things which are traditionally accepted among the politically acceptable parties in Germany. That is a completely new approach, which is, as you say, it is rightist, it is at times extremist - their program,  it is not all the way through extremist, but on very many issues and points it is also racist, right. That is, if someone would challenge the government with words which have racist undertone, that, of course, would be very uncomfortable.

SS: The AfD party members have many times criticized their opponents for copying their party’s agenda. And indeed, when the Social Democrats presented their new platform in May, it included better protection of the European Union’s external borders and faster deportations. Why is this happening? Is the German political landscape is leaning rightward in general - under pressure from hardliners?

ES: No, this is rather due to the fact that the question of migration which rose in the fall of 2015, two years ago - it’s a very controversial issue, and maybe, in the election campaign that was the most important issue, even though the traditional parties were not willing to really go into details of these discussions, these discussions came up again and again, and the Alternative for Germany was the one who fostered that discussion, mostly because at the beginning, one can say, that this party was started because of the strong contradiction against this policy two years ago. All parties were forced to take up that discussion and therefore, one can say they have taken points of the program of the Alternative for Germany into their own party program, but as I said, it is just this point that this issue had to be discussed by all parties.

SS: Will the anti-Islam rhetoric of the AfD make Germany’s Muslims - a very sizeable community - more likely to get out there and vote, actually backfiring on AfD?

ES: Migrant part of the society, which is about 15%, is not really united in any kind of affiliation to one party. In the past they have mostly voted for Social Democrats, but that need not necessarily be. If they will really go voting - one doesn’t know, because there’s the part of that minority that is well-integrated and they probably will vote. But there’s another, I would say, large part, of these newly arriving immigrants who do not have the right to vote yet and they will not be able to vote, and most of them have lived in their closed communities and I think they are just not participating in the political life of the country, and therefore it is doubtful whether this will have a strong influence on the result of the elections.

SS: Merkel's support among the German youth is on the rise this election - 53% among the general population vs 57% among the young. What’s behind that - I always thought that young people would vote left, that going conservative is not that “cool”.

ES: We had swings in the attitude of the young people over the years, and they were leaning to the left particularly 40 years ago, at the time of Chancellor Brandt - he was very popular with the left, particularly with the youth. But then, the pendulum has swung back and I would say in general presently the young generation is more conservative-thinking than in previous times. So the support of them for chancellor, in a way, is a logical consequence.

SS: The Volkswagen emissions scandal, when the auto giant was implicated in covering up unacceptable pollution levels in its cars, has cast a shadow on the whole German auto industry - and made Chancellor Merkel now attack the industry, saying she’s upset with its dishonesty. Chastising big business may bring votes, but isn’t she afraid to lose the support of big business? 

ES: The discussion of the pollution, particularly motorcar-generated pollution is a big issue, presently, but it has various aspects. One aspect is that there are 45 mln cars registered in Germany and a quite large number of people are using diesel engines, and if the diesel engine was prohibited altogether, maybe 20 million people would be barred from driving a car. That, of course, is a “no-no” and Chancellor Merkel knows quite well that she cannot antagonize this part of the electorate. So,  this is one aspect. The other aspect is that the automobile industry is one of the strongest pillars of German industry and Germany automobile exports have been soaring over many years, and this is one of the backbones of our economy - so we don’t want to lose it. If we lost major part of our exports from the motorcar industry, that would mean that some of the 800,000 workplaces in that part of the industry would be in question. So there are many aspects which should be taken into account, not the least also a question of clean air. So, in this triangulum of varying interests, Chancellor has to steer a course where she won’t antagonize any one of these three elements.

SS: Germany has always been one of America’s staunchest allies in Europe. But neither Angela Merkel nor Martin Schulz are big fans of Donald Trump. The chancellor went as far as saying this about the U.S.: "The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over." - With all the current candidates holding an anti-White House view, does this show that the alliance is faltering?

ES: No, I don’t think that the alliance is faltering. I mean, there are strong controversies within the alliance, but everyone is quite convinced that we need that alliance and that this alliance is a political stronghold for the security of our countries. So, we will stick to what is there and in the past, after  the election of President Trump, the Secretary of Defence was over here in the alliance, as was the foreign minister, and both of them reinforced very strongly the American interest in the alliance, and this is what met, of course, consensus on the side of our government. So, in spite of the fact that there’s quite some disagreement with the President, other elements in the U.S. administration seem to strengthen the attitude or the point of view that the alliance, after all, will continue to exist as the main element of security of Europe.

SS: Germany is becoming a leading European nation, dominating EU decisions and taking the continental union forward, is it ready to carry the burden of being one of the global leaders?

ES: To carry the burden of the global leader, Germany is just too small and just too weak. I mean, very definitely, Germany is one of the strongest countries in the world as far as economy is concerned, but as far as political clout is concerned, we cannot compare ourselves neither with the U.S., nor with Russia, nor with China. So we have to know the place we have. If you say “Germany being the dominant partner in the EU” - this is what you will hear ever so often in the present discussions, but one has to see that the EU, even if England is leaving now, the Great Britain is leaving, there are still 27 partners left who all want to have a say in the decisions of the European Union and in spite of the fact that Germany is politically strong in Europe, is economically strong in Europe - we still have to heed what the others want to say, and what is their contribution in the decision of where Europe wants to go.

SS: Post-Brexit, EU politicians have been talking about reform. Merkel herself said she wouldn’t mind going down that road - will the new term of hers be the time of change for the European Union?

ES: The EU has to change - I think, everybody is convinced of that, and that is, again, not a controversial issue among all the traditional parties in the German Bundestag. On the other hand, again, it needs the agreement with 26 other partners, and where this will come down - the general agreement on the further development of the EU is not visible. The Chancellor Merkel has not said anything so far - where she wants to take or where she would like to lead the EU, in which direction. There will be more to come, but we haven’t seen anything yet.

SS: One of the reasons for Merkel’s numbers’ dropping and only now recovering was her open-door migrant policy, which she later reversed by striking a refugee deal with Turkey. Has this flip-flop on policy brought her points or further damaged her position?

ES: I think, her migrant policy, as I said earlier, already, in 2015 has been strongly criticized all the time through and still is under criticism nowadays. The question of migrants isn’t solved. The Chancellor tried to find similar agreements as with Turkey, with Tunisia, with Algeria and with Morocco, but they haven’t born fruit so far. The trade conditions under which the European Union is trading with these countries has to be changed because the strength of the EU was very detrimental for the development of local and regional economies. And only if these economies are developed and we recreate a livelihood for the people there, we will finally see a stop of this emigration from these countries.

SS: Both Merkel and Schulz’s parties are talking about the importance of better ties with Moscow. Both have called for a partial lifting of sanctions - if Moscow complies with the Minsk agreements. What’s your prediction - Shall we expect Russia-Germany relations to become warmer? Is this a sincere urge to fix relations with Moscow or you think it is about winning over the votes of Russian Germans?  

ES: No, the Russian-German vote is not a decisive part. The decisive part in this question is really where will we go, Germany, and Europe, go with Russia in the years to come. Chancellor Merkel have been very matter-of-fact in that, she was convinced that after the Crimea annexation and the war in the east of Ukraine things couldn’t go on as normal business-as-before, and this was the reason why we are in difficult situation right now. On the other hand, Chancellor Merkel, as we have seen, with her recent conversation with President Putin, is willing to continue working relationship with Russia and I think that will be what we will see in the next 4 years to come.

SS: There have been warnings in the press about the supposed Russian involvement in Germany’s election. One of the less serious parties, though, “Die Partei”, has jokingly blamed Putin for trains not running on time, for car accidents and phone malfunctions - has the Russian guilt card gotten too ridiculous or do people actually still believe it?

ES: In Germany we haven't seen any interference as far as cyber-warfare or cyber-intervention is concerned. Only today, or yesterday the Minister of Interior said he hasn’t seen anything and he doesn’t expect anything, that this would be done to interfere with our federal elections coming Sunday. So, whatever all these speculations whether there was Russian interference in the American elections or not, whether there was anything in France or not - it does not concern Germany. I mean, we thought of a possible intervention of that type, and I think we were prepared and we are prepared not to fall victim to it.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview, Dr. von Studnitz, it’s been great talking to you, we were talking about upcoming German elections and the challenges ahead for the nation’s new leader, with veteran German diplomat, former ambassador to Russia, Dr. Ernst-Joerg von Studnitz. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.