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July 21, 2021

Europe

GERMANY: Flood catastrophe – electoral implications

BY Carsten Nickel

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After last weekend’s flood catastrophe in western parts of the country, much of the commentary has focused on comparisons with similar events in 2013 and in 2002, and their effects on the elections in these years. There is a widespread expectation that the climate change-induced disaster could benefit the Greens in the September Bundestag polls.

However, the politics of the flood catastrophe might play out in less straightforward ways. While a renewed focus on the consequences of climate change might help the Greens after some difficult weeks, related issues could also come into the spotlight.

Investment and fiscal

The floods could pose the first test case for the politics of climate-related public investment challenges. So far, German and European politicians have tried to outcompete each other with the formulation of ever more ambitious emissions reduction targets. The floods, in contrast, do not only raise the question of reconstruction, but also of major infrastructure spending over the medium to longer term. Especially along smaller rivers, for instance, there is a need to invest in these areas’ readiness for an age of likely increased extreme weather events.

This, however, raises fiscal questions. Perhaps tellingly, the Greens’ immediate contribution to the political debate around the floods was focused on calls for better coordination of Germany’s emergency warning and support systems – and not on greater spending on climate-related issues. The country is still in shock and the exact number of fatalities is not yet known; but one signpost to watch in the medium term is to which degree the Greens will be willing to reiterate their calls for scrapping the constitutional debt brake to enable investment in the climate transition.

So far, the main advocates of a major fiscal response have been the Social Democrats (SPD) of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. As in the pandemic crisis on the European level, the Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) will support a major reconstruction package given the discrete nature of the crisis event. Given that federal support for the victims of the 2013 floods totaled some EUR 8bn, a double-digit number might be in the cards when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet decides on 21 July.

However, the longer-term question is to which degree some parties might be more willing to repeatedly justify higher federal expenditure with such crisis episodes and events. This will be implicit and therefore difficult to gauge – but there might still be some indications to derive from the politics of the post-floods debate. In the absence of realistic prospects for changing constitutional debt rules, such signals might be more important than manifesto promises.

Leadership and personalities

Finally, state premier and CDU/CSU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet has received criticism for his alleged lack of compassion, failed early warning systems, and a lack of focus on climate issues. Behind such (personal) attacks lie more complicated political realities. However, the ability to handle such scrutiny in a calm and dignified way will present a test for Laschet, as had been the case in recent weeks for the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock.

Meanwhile, Scholz will hope that after the pandemic recovery fund and a recent agreement on global corporate taxation, another swift delivery – this time of a reconstruction package – convinces voters that Merkel’s true heir as a responsible crisis manager is a conservative Social Democrat.

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