Marin meets Merkel as Germany mulls generational political change

The two leaders will hold EU-centric talks in Berlin, with Germans still curious about Finland's new young PM and how she might handle a populist right wing party.

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Danish PM (L), Sanna Marin (C) and Angela Merkel (R) at EU summit in Brussels, December 2019 / Credit: European Council Newsroom

Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) is in Berlin on Wednesday for her first meeting on German soil with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The main topic on the agenda is the looming EU budget negotiations, with Finland trying to chart a middle ground between those countries which give more money than they get back, and those which receive more than they give. They’ll also discuss the ‘Green New Deal’ and other international issues.

However Marin’s visit comes as Germany is mulling the future of its own political leadership, and the optics of a young prime minister at the start of her time in office meeting an older politician in the twilight of her 15 year career as chancellor are not lost on political observers.

“There’s something very symbolic and Sanna Marin arrives at a time when Germans themselves are asking the question if it’s not time for a change in generation in politics, or if the political elite should not maybe also think about options to get in fresh blood” says Niklas Helwig, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs FIIA.

There’s a certain fascination in Germany with Sanna Marin at the moment, with viral memes reflecting on Finland’s female-lead government, and a new four-page interview in the latest edition of der Spiegel magazine.

A generational change for Merkel’s party might come in the shape of health minister Jens Spahn, who is looking to become the new party chairman.

The openly gay politician could appeal to young liberal urban voters on one hand; but his  more conservative views on the economy and immigration could appeal to voters in more rural areas where the Christian Democrats have to also win votes.

File picture from EU competitiveness ministers meeting in Helsinki, 4th July 2019 / Credit: VNK

Germany and Finland learn EU lessons 

Something that Germany and Finland have in common as Sanna Marin arrives in Berlin is the issue of how to navigate the European Union’s seven year budget process.

The work began in earnest during Finland’s EU Presidency in the latter half of 2019, and will need to be resolved during Germany’s Presidency in the second half of this year.

“There are big hopes being attached to the German EU Presidency and there are big items on the agenda. One is the budget and this is something the Finnish Presidency wasn’t able to negotiate, not because Finland was necessarily ill-equipped to solve the puzzle, but the puzzle was extremely complicated” explains FIIA’s Niklas Helwig.

“There are challenges like climate change, and the UK – one of the big contributors, out of the EU. Questions of how to handle the rebates for big net payers. There’s a bit of hope that a country like Germany which has more resources in terms of political apparatus can solve these issues. Germany has more political leverage” he adds.

Berlin also took note of Finland’s commendably carbon neutral and sustainable six month  Presidency, with every likelihood that many of the Finnish green initiatives will make an appearance during the German Presidency as well.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a framed certificate and flowers from Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) on 14th December 2017 / Credit: Juha Roininen / EUP-IMAGES / Finnish Government Flickr

Germany’s role in Europe 

As Angela Merkel comes to the end of her time in office, and with the European Union at a crossroads itself after Britain’s departure, there are questions about where leadership of the 27-nation block now lies.

Niklas Helwig says don’t count Germany out yet.

“Germany is still the biggest economy, and the country with the biggest population so the facts speak for Germany to be in a leadership position. On the other hand, Merke’s term is now slowly coming to an end and domestic politics, especially in her own party, have become much more contested” he explains.

Merkel has been hesitant to answer some of the calls coming from France’s Emanuel Macron for more ambitious EU policies, and Germany is not taking the initiative with EU politics the way it might have even a few years ago.

The Germans are also facing the rise of their own right wing political party the Alternative For Germany AfD and cast a glance north to Finland to see how politicians here have handled the populist Finns Party.

In that latest der Spiegel article, Sanna Marin was asked if she would go into coalition government with the Finns.

While in reality that seems unlikely, she gave a more pragmatic answer for her German audience, about finding the right solutions for voters.

“There’s a bit of curiosity in Germany to see how Finland handles the rise of populists and the True Finns” says Helwig.

“Marin didn’t definitively exclude a coalition with the True Finns in the Spiegel interview. And that’s something any German Social Democrat and most Christian Democrats would say no to.”

File picture of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK