‘More of the same’. That appears to be the outcome of the inconclusive German election on 24 September. Weeks of tortuous negotiations to form an alternative to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-left coalition, in power since 2013, have resulted in stalemate.
Just over a week ago, attempts to form a multifaceted ‘Jamaica’ coalition (named after the colours of the four putative allies, including the Green ecology party) broke down. The liberal Free Democratic Party, one of the few parties to show gains two months ago, walked out of increasingly unproductive talks.
The main parties – Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union grouping and the Social Democrats (SPD) – are afraid that, if new elections were held next spring, they might fare even worse than in September. This shared fear will probably be enough to push the CDU/CSU and the SPD into continuing their coalition, despite its evident unpopularity.
Many observers conclude that whatever government is formed will be weak. This misses the point. Germany at present doesn’t need strong government.
The economy is booming. The refugee-migrant problem is less toxic than a couple of years ago. The populist anti-euro, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany won 12.6% of the votes: enough to be a nuisance, but not to wreck the country.
A weak, stable government suffices. That is what the CDU/CSU and SPD will deliver. Merkel – who has often been almost comically overestimated by many foreigners – has never been known as a strong, forceful leader. Her main assets are stoicism and ability to form a consensus. That’s precisely what Germany needs.
Martin Schulz, the luckless SPD leader, still chafing from his party’s disastrous showing in September, at first ruled out continuing the ‘grand coalition’ but was forced to reverse his position at the weekend. He has, however, presaged many more weeks of bargaining with the conservatives by declaring that there was ‘nothing automatic’ about re-assembling the 2013-17 coalition.
The Bavarian CSU, by tradition more conservative than the SPD, may find some of the SPD’s distributional policies difficult to accept. But, having seen the FDP accused of damaging democracy by abandoning the Jamaica coalition, the CSU may swallow its pride and accept the SPD’s strictures.
With the strongly pro-European SPD again in government, a Franco-German agreement backing some of President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed reforms for Europe, already heralded by Merkel, looks easier to realise. France will be pleased, too, that the SPD will pull Germany away from the orthodox fiscal policies favoured by Wolfgang Schäuble, the former finance minister and now Bundestag president.
Not surprisingly, British commentators and politicians ponder whether Merkel’s weakness will aid the UK’s negotiations on leaving the European Union. But the new circumstances are unlikely to make any difference. Whoever is in government, whoever is chancellor, Germany will follow its interests over Europe. The main German parties disagree on many things, but they are united on European policy, including Brexit.
A thorny issue is Schulz’s role. He does not want to serve under Merkel. She does not want him to serve under her. And the SPD wishes to get rid of him. Only a few months ago he was proclaimed a hero, but has proved a disappointment.
One way out would be for Merkel to prepare for Schulz to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission on 1 November 2019. Judging by his previous performance in the European parliament, he might do well at the Commission. But there are two drawbacks.
Merkel would have to decide how to occupy Schulz in the interim period. And, if Schulz were to go to Brussels, Germany couldn’t expect to take the presidency of the European Central Bank in two years when Mario Draghi steps down on the same day as Juncker.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.