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Three elections posters show top candidate for chancellor of the Greens Annalena Baerbock, left, Social Democratic top candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, center, and Christian Democratic top candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet, right, in Berlin on Sept. 16, 2021. German federal elections will be on Sept. 26, 2021.Michael Sohn/The Associated Press

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

In Brussels last week, I found everyone waiting for Berlin. In Berlin, I found everyone electrified by an unexpectedly wide-open election. One thing, however, is clear: the new German government will be a coalition, almost certainly of three rather than two parties. That points to the deepest question underlying this pivotal European event: can democracy deliver? More precisely: can the European model of change through democratic consensus, of which Germany is a prime example, produce the actions that Europe badly needs if it is to hold its own in the 21st century?

The European Union is like a giant slot machine. The more pineapples or oranges line up on the screen, the better the results. This German election will account for about four fruits in a row; France’s presidential election next spring will spin another three. Italy and Spain contribute perhaps two each, with the rest being generated by other European countries and the European institutions.

Whatever the EU’s own constitutional theory, in practice the alignment of national governments remains the key to any major initiative it takes. Even the big pan-European party groupings in the European Parliament are significantly influenced by national parties from the largest member states. To make the Union work well requires a coalition of coalitions made up of coalitions.

Critics constantly talk about a “democratic deficit” in the EU, but in reality almost the opposite is true. The EU is a permanent negotiation. The wonder is not that it moves slowly, but that it moves at all.

A crisis can help. Without the COVID-19 pandemic, we would not have the €750-billion (about $1.12-trillion) of grants and loans, drawing on mutualized European debt, in the recovery fund also known as Next Generation EU. An optimist would say that floods in Northwestern Europe and forest fires in Greece have made Europe wake up to the climate crisis. Yet it’s an odd polity that relies on successive crises for its survival.

In the capital of Germany, Europe’s central power, the talk is of the different possible coalitions that might emerge from what will probably be months of coalition talks following the federal election on Sept. 26. The two most likely coalitions are described as “Jamaica” (for the colours of the country’s flag: black for Christian Democrats, yellow for Free Democrats, green for Greens) or “traffic light” (substitute Social Democrats’ red for Christian Democrats’ black). Both coalitions would be firmly pro-European. And there is no doubting the personal European commitment of Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat candidate for chancellor. (His brother claims the family is actually descended from Charlemagne.)

On balance, though, the traffic light coalition seems to be the one most likely to produce the green light for Europe. Sunday’s television debate between the candidates for chancellor apparently reinforced the view of a plurality of Germans that the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz – the solid, steady and experienced finance minister and deputy chancellor – is best qualified to succeed Angela Merkel. I tend to agree with them.

Where the traffic light coalition scores over Jamaica is on the Eurozone. Either of these three-party coalitions would almost certainly have a hard line German finance minister in Christian Lindner of the Free Democrats. But Mr. Scholz as chancellor is more likely to show the pragmatic flexibility that will be needed not merely to prevent the Eurozone from collapsing, but to make it work better for the long-suffering economies of Southern Europe.

Nonetheless, difficult coalition negotiations between three parties will produce complex compromises. And Germany is still only four pineapples on the European slot machine. Assuming that French President Emmanuel Macron ends up fighting the second round of next spring’s presidential election against the nationalist populist Marine Le Pen, the hope must be that he will prevail. But the populist witches’ brew that combines the themes of immigration, Islam, terrorism and crime into a single fear-inducing narrative is very powerful in France. An unforeseen event could just make the unthinkable happen.

Europe also needs “Super” Mario Draghi to remain as Prime Minister in Italy, rather than switching over to being the country’s president, possibly triggering an election in which Italy’s own nationalist populists could do well. And it needs a sensible government to remain in power in Spain. Then, and only then, would you have the slots aligning for a period of dynamic European reform by the middle of next year.

All this is possible, but very far from certain. What government emerges in Berlin is the first, but only the first, test of whether the European model of change through democratic consensus can deliver the goods. If democracy does not deliver, then young Europeans will look for alternative models. In an EU-wide opinion poll conducted last year for my research team at Oxford University, 53 per cent of young Europeans said they think authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis. Europe’s challenge is to prove the opposite – and not just for the climate crisis.

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