Germany elects a new parliament on September 26. While there is lots of uncertainty about the new government to be formed, one thing is certain – it will be the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign. Her conservative Christian Democratic Union is likely to lose out to parties on the left such as the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party.
What is the significance of these elections for India? At a time of shifting power relations, a change of guard in Europe’s largest country has significant implications for the world, including India. This is particularly the case for the areas of trade, environmental policies and security cooperation.
During her term as chancellor, Angela Merkel has visited India four times. During her first trip, in 2007, discussions were initiated about a Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and India. The European Union is India’s third-largest trading partner, with Germany featuring in the first position of all EU member countries. However, negotiations were soon put on hold, due to Indian resistance to open up agricultural markets by cutting down tariffs to zero for 90% of all goods.
Given the high rates of EU subsidies provided to farmers in Europe, there were realistic fears that such an agreement could threaten the livelihood of millions of Indian farmers, especially in the fisheries and dairy sector. Further, the high rate of genetically modified crops and seeds used in the EU raised concerns over potential property rights issues, should the EU export these products to India.
During her last visit in 2019, Merkel has reiterated the importance of continuing the discussions relating to the agreement. It should come to no surprise that after the introduction of its new farm bills last year, the Indian government has announced that it will restart Free Trade Agreement negotiations very soon.
There might be little change in the German interest in favour of this Free Trade Agreement, but the terms and conditions may vary according to the next party in power. The conservative party Christian Democratic Union does not envision any change in Germany’s foreign trade policies. Economic cooperation is defined in their election programme by “making it easier for [German] companies to invest in modern and digital jobs in developing countries”.
Thereby, importance is given to national companies abroad, such as the roughly 1,700 German companies in India, including Volkswagen, Mercedes and others. Similar positions are also held by the liberal party Free Democratic Party.
On the other hand, the Social Democratic Party as well as the Green Party and the socialist Die Linke propose alterations of the global trade landscape in their party programmes. While the Social Democratic Party wants to strengthen institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations and increase representation from the Global South, the Green Party aims to include such considerations directly into national policies.
One of such policies is the Supply Chain Law that was passed by parliament in June. This law aims at holding German companies responsible and requires them to follow basic labour regulations even if workers are employed through contractors. The Green Party claims in their programme to tighten the Supply Chain Law, which is currently only applicable to countries with more than 3,000 employees.
Die Linke, which had opposed the law in the first two readings in parliament, further demands that violations under the law should be able to be brought under the jurisdiction of German courts. This could be a first step of tackling inequalities between out-contracted workers and directly employed workers in Indian factories in global value chains.
One of the major conflicts in the German election campaign revolved around the importance of environmental issues. In June, the country’s Supreme Court had ruled that the current government’s policies with regards to climate protection were unconstitutional as it would amount to intergenerational injustice if no measures were taken for future preservation. It will be for the new government to come up with a solution, but even the Green Party may find it difficult to meet the demands of the younger generation.
At the beginning of September, a group of Fridays for Future Activists went into a hunger strike demanding each candidate for the chancellorship to take climate action more seriously. Expressing discontent with all of the parties’ election programmes, the pressure to find local as well as international solutions is high.
Given the global impact of climate policies, the outlook of German policies would inevitably have a spillover effect on India. This concerns especially the approach taken with regards to potential future agreements as well as approaches to solutions in order to prevent further climate disasters. Whereas the Green Party urges to recognise Germany’s “historical responsibility” as a polluting country due to its early levels of industrialisation and accordingly commit to higher carbon reduction goals in international agreement, this is not the position of the other parties.
This may already emerge as an issue during the COP26 UN Climate Summit on November 1-12 with regards to the Nationally Determined Contributions and Long Term Strategies.
The Christian Democratic Union aims to solve the problem through the “transfer of technical knowledge” in which again German companies would have the main role to play and get the main share of financial resources. This approach is mirrored, for example, in the Export Initiative for Green Technologies, aimed at selling German technologies abroad. Such measures are also part of the UN target for countries to spend at least 0.7% of their Gross National Income on Official Development Assistance.
Therefore, they become labelled as “development aid” rather than providing an actual acknowledgement of responsibilities arising out of Germany’s high per capita carbon dioxide emissions which are almost four times as much as India’s. At least, the German government has promoted 11 bilateral environmental projects with a value of 38.1 million euros just before the election on September 11 as part of the Indo-German Environmental Forum.
India and Germany have been strategic partners for over 20 years. This cooperation entails a limited number of joint military training programmes as well as regular security exchanges.
In 2019, both countries committed to intensify their joint work in the areas of maritime security and cyber security. Given current rifts between China, the US and the EU, Germany has further declared India a “partner with shared values” in the Indo-Pacific region. It is therefore highly likely that defence issues within Indo-German relations will feature much more prominently in the coming years.
Again, no future government may have a significantly different outlook that the Merkel cabinet. In their programme, the Green Party commits to the strategic partnership with India, urging to continue an “intensive dialogue on freedom and security in the Indo-Pacific region” – which sounds very similar to the “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific” passed by the government this year.
The only exceptions from this perspective may be the far-right populist party AfD or Alternative for Germany, which does not have a significant foreign policy given that their aim is mostly to spread hatred inside the country and the Die Linke party, who wants to see Germany out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and forbid any German military intervention anywhere in the world. It is merely a question how many defence deals German companies may be able to strike with India.
Competing mostly with companies from other EU countries, the conservatives and liberal party may want to push for selling more military equipment to India. Recently, the steel company ThyssenKrupp has received an order worth Rs 410-crore to supply six submarines to the Indian maritime forces.
The latest forecasts predict that the Social Democratic Party may become the strongest party with about 25% votes, followed by 22% for the Christian Democratic Union, 17% for the Green Party, 11% for the liberal party Free Democratic Party, 11% for the right-wing Alternative for Germany and 6% for die Linke.
This implies that any government coalition may be hard to form, given that none of the traditional alliances on the left nor the conservatives and liberals would be able to obtain the necessary 50% majority. After all, whether left or conservative governments, there may be many continuities in Indo-German relationships. But some German parties may realise sooner than others that the new multi-polar world order requires taking the Global South more seriously.
Catharina Hänsel is a PhD student at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies in Göttingen, Germany and the Scuola Normale Superiore in Italy. Her work as a freelance journalist has appeared in Jungle World, Die Welt, Internazionale and Dinamo Press in German and Italian.