Both front-runners to become the next German chancellor took a diversion from the campaign trail last week to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
Their discussions in the Elysee palace touched on the EU’s pandemic recovery package, climate change and defence policy – all priorities for Angela Merkel’s successor.
Macron is not the only EU leader eagerly awaiting the election outcome.
A shake-up in the bloc’s largest economy, as well as the departure of its longest-serving leader, have profound implications for its future political and economical integration.
Merkel has played a key role in shaping the EU’s response to crises such as the 2008 financial collapse, the arrival of more than one million asylum seekers in 2015, and now the coronavirus pandemic.
But her signature pragmatism has avoided staking out a broad vision for Germany’s place in Europe, analysts told Al Jazeera, and left numerous issues unresolved – such as addressing increasingly illiberal and obstructionist governments in Poland and Hungary, and the need for a coordinated approach towards China and Russia.
“[Merkel’s] main approach was crisis management … The main issue we will now face in the upcoming election is to see whether the next chancellor will have a more visionary policy,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.
Olaf Scholz, whose Social Democratic Party (SDP) has taken a surprise lead in polls, and Armin Laschet, whose Christian Democrats face the prospect of their worst performance in post-war history, have both been eager to demonstrate their European bona fides.
Finance minister Scholz, a key proponent of the pandemic recovery package, has pushed for EU-wide unemployment insurance, and wants a crackdown on tax avoidance by tech giants.
“Further progress for Europe is the most important national concern that we have in Germany,” Scholz told the Bundestag on Tuesday.
“[We must] ensure that there is no division between north and south and west and east in Europe, but rather that the further integration of Europe succeeds.”
Laschet, who hails from Aachen, a western city with strong French influence, is a committed Europhile and believes a more tightly aligned union would tackle continent-wide, issues such as the pandemic and climate change.
Euroscepticism is rare in German politics and all mainstream parties call for closer EU coordination on issues such as digitalisation, foreign policy, pandemic response, climate protection and migration.
Only the Left party, which sees the EU as a fundamentally neoliberal project in need of a major overhaul, and the far-right Alternative for Germany, which advocates for leaving the EU, stand out from the crowd.
“There is a broad consensus of all mainstream parties that European integration is a good thing and that we need a strong and democratic European Union,” said Tanja Börzel, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.
“They’re all on the same page when it comes to Europe with some differences mostly related to fiscal union.”
During Merkel’s leadership, Germany has held the whip hand of eurozone fiscal policy, notably demanding that bailout funds for countries devastated by the financial crash should be conditional on strict budget austerity – which critics have said led to rising inequality and spurred the rise of far-right populism.
The pandemic has once again brought the issue of shared fiscal policy and debt-sharing to the fore, discussions which typically inspire horror among German conservatives, who baulk at the idea of being co-guarantors for the weaker economies of Southern Europe.
Though Merkel once said that so-called “eurobonds” would not happen in her lifetime, the pandemic forced a partial change of course.
Last year, Germany backed the EU’s pandemic recovery package, under which up to 800 billion euros ($940bn) in bonds will be issued until the end of 2026 to back loans to member states to restart their economies.
“With the COVID-19 crisis, Merkel and Scholz together moved Germany out of the ‘frugal five’ group,” said Börzel.
“That was key in order to ensure the financing of the Next Generation Europe recovery programme, through a mutualisation of debt. Without Germany having changed its position completely, this step towards fiscal union would have been impossible.”
The question of whether to use the recovery package as a stepping stone to more permanent fiscal integration remains contentious, and will likely be discussed during coalition negotiations to form the next government.
The CDU and Free Democratic Party (FDP) are categorically opposed, while the SDP and Greens envision shared investment mechanisms and are open to some form of debt-sharing.
CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak recently lashed out at the SDP, warning voters that Scholz’s proposals would “flood the EU” with Germany money.
“German taxpayers, pensioners and savers would be liable for the debts of other countries,” he told the t-online website.
The SDP dismissed the accusation, with chief whip Carsten Schneider saying it was a sign of panic caused by the conservative’s polling collapse.
Germany’s recent failure to successfully evacuate all its citizens and local staff from Afghanistan before US armed forces withdrew has led to much soul-searching about Europe’s reliance on the US for security.
In an op-ed published by business daily Handelsblatt on Wednesday, Laschet called for Germany and Europe to take a more active role in shaping security policy, and strengthen their position within NATO.
He also backed the creation of an EU commissioner for climate foreign policy and for Europol to become a “European FBI” to fight cybercrime.
“This moment is a wake-up call for European foreign and security policy,” he wrote.
The Christian Democrats, SDP, Greens and FDP all support the establishment of an EU army, as well as a defence union.
In the wake of the debacle in Kabul, Macron has advocated for the EU to build “strategic autonomy” in economic and military matters, an offer that will be an urgent priority for the next German chancellor before French elections in early next year.
“The French always say that they’re waiting for dialogue offers on a number of joint defence projects, even up to nuclear sharing. And they’ve been waiting for a few years,” said Sarah Bressan, research fellow at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute.