Nearly three months after the German elections on 24 September it’s still unclear how exactly the country will be governed for the next four years or what this will mean for the European Union. Dahrendorf Research Associates Marie Wachinger and Rafael Goldzweig examine the structural problems behind German voter behaviour and argue that a more fragmented Bundestag may readjust the French-German power balance on the European level.
What do the German election results mean?
The German election results confirmed a trend already visible in several other European countries: the so-called ‘establishment’ is experiencing a decline—especially those parties on the centre-left. The election result from September 24th did not give Angela Merkel many options in terms of coalition building. With a historical low of merely 20.5 per cent  of the votes, the Social Democrats (SPD) initially refused to renew the Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), deciding instead to act as the opposition for the next four years. Since Merkel’s failure to establish consensus with FDP and the Green party, all options  seem to be on the table again—new elections, re-negotiating a coalition framework with SPD or the CDU/CSU leading a minority government. The lack of consensus to form a coalition right away is a first for post-war Germany.
What are the general trends behind the German election result?
Certain themes tend to dominate discourse about recent electoral results in many countries. The spectre of populism, it seems, lurks behind the corners of formerly stable democracies. In Germany, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), an extreme right-wing party, not only managed to get into the Parliament for the first time in the country’s post-war history, but became the third biggest political force in the country.
But putting the blame on “populists” or the “voters who feel left behind by globalisation”, as one reads frequently , doesn’t capture the entire picture. Structural shifts including the rise of anti-establishment sentiment and societal rifts will play an important role in the future governance of the EU, Germany, and other member countries.
Societal rifts, mistrust of the system
“Lügenpresse”, “Volksverräter”, “Gutmensch”: “lying media”, “traitorous politicians”, “naïve dissidents”. Such terms, commonly heard in AfD circles, show a deep distrust in the “system” that runs the country. The criticism is aimed at a style of politics that can be accused of some degree of technocratic professionalism. At least since the contested “Agenda 2010”, introduced by social democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder, “efficiency” and “competitiveness” appear to dominate German politics. It seems that political measures are based on the calculations of professionalised agencies, while politicians frequently acquire an image of being distant from the people. This impression is partially to blame for the frustration that grew among parts of the population that did not feel like members of such a professionalised elite, particularly those living in rural areas and those with lower educational attainment.
In addition, societal rifts along lines of socio-economic status and level of education pose further problems. In the German case, they are closely related to the former division of the country into west and east. While the AfD received strong results in the former eastern, less affluent part of Germany, a Jamaica coalition would clearly have been a “coalition of the west ”.
The German election results  reflect this increasing division very clearly: AfD, already represented in 13 of the regional parliaments, received 12.6 percent, managing to attract former non-voters and voters of CDU/CSU and SPD . More important, AfD had 21.9 percent of the votes  in the former East German states, reaching only 10.7 percent in the western part of the country .
To govern or not to govern, and how to do it
In a time of uncertainty and turbulence in many European Union countries, a weak government in Germany could affect the challenges the country needs to address in the coming years—from migration to structural reforms on the EU level.
While many analyses see the current situation as a sign of instability, in some ways it represents the return of an absolutely normal outcome for Parliamentary systems: a fragmented party structure with policy disagreements. However, while this does not represent systemic  crisis , it definitely comes at a sensitive time for Germany—and for Europe as a whole. In that sense, it can be seen as an opportunity to end political stagnation  that German politics has been accused of in recent years and finally make German—and European—politics interesting  again.
What will the new EU axis of power consist of?
The German election result naturally influences European power dynamics. This is especially true as France, the Union’s third-largest (soon to be second-largest) economic power, is also experiencing profound changes. The landslide victory of Emmanuel Macron’s liberal reformist movement En Marche! in the French Parliament set a new tone for the European Union after Brexit—even though the populist forces in France are not to be underestimated . With both countries changing course, what will the Franco-German axis look like?
The German situation is transitory. It may cause short term instability, but in general all the major German parties are committed to the European project. While Euroscepticism is a threat with the AfD, they lack the power to set an agenda contrary to EU integration in the coming years.
However, combined with the recent Catalonian crisis, the EU’s image abroad is one of a fragmented and unstable partnership that has more doubts about its future than reasons to be hopeful. This image is likely to affect the Union’s ability to deal with authoritarian regimes, namely Turkey and Russia, posing consequences for the future of migration politics and strengthening autocratic leaders.
Is there an easy way out for the EU?
With populism still not tamed in many EU countries and extreme radical positions representing a viable solution to political crises for a considerable share of the electorate, the new Franco-German axis will shape the future of the EU at a decisive moment. The new power balance might allow France to apply more pressure on a weakened Merkel on reforms that Macron wants to implement, such as a Eurozone budget and a transaction tax.
However, European politicians would do well to remember that the forces underlying the governance crisis in Germany occur in many EU member states. The political outcomes of the new European axis of power are uncertain, even though the mandate is clear: to tackle Euroscepticism and build a strong and positive agenda for Europe. Should they fail, the stage will be left to those offering easy solutions.
Marie Wachinger and Rafael Goldzweig are Dahrendorf Research Associates based at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.