Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, used regularly to chide David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010-16, for allowing the right-wing UK Independence Party to dictate policy terms to his ruling Conservatives, especially on the 2016 European Union referendum.
Germany, she told Cameron, would never allow a party to the right of her conservative Christian Democrat/Christian Social Union grouping to build up such a powerful impact.
Mindful of Germany’s past, the country’s conservative politicians since the 1950s have followed the same aim: defusing competition from radical fringe groups by ensuring the CDU/CSU wins the support of disaffected right-wing voters. That objective has now failed.
The entry into parliament in last September’s elections of the anti-euro, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a big reason why, five months after the vote, Merkel – as caretaker chancellor – is still struggling to form a coalition.
Cameron announced his resignation immediately after the June 2016 vote to leave the EU, bequeathing many difficulties to Theresa May when she took over the following month. Cameron’s calling and then losing the referendum finished his political career but neutralised Ukip as a significant force.
After 12 years at the helm, Merkel’s descent, though slower, may be more painful. If events turn out badly, her outlook may turn out even more parlous than May’s. The British prime minister faces numerous rivals arguing over EU withdrawal, but is expected to struggle on at least until the ending of the complex procedures for departure in March 2019.
Merkel has faced criticism over indecisiveness, but some of her greatest difficulties have stemmed from insufficiently thought-out decisions under the pressure of events, notably Germany’s autumn 2015 opening to large-scale immigration. Merkel on 19 February moved energetically to resolve one outstanding issue – her succession – by naming Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the popular prime minister of the western state of Saarland, as CDU general secretary. Many see her as a possible future chancellor.
The AfD’s parliamentary debut has radically changed Germany’s political arithmetic. With 94 seats, it has the third largest Bundestag presence after the CDU/CSU and the disaffected and divided Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Weeks of coalition wrangling and political paralysis seem to have strengthened the AfD’s appeal by intensifying voters’ perception of a rudderless state out of touch with ordinary people. With eurosceptic opinion widely on display in the Bundestag, Merkel faces a battle to fulfil proposals for deepening euro area integration and paying for European social programmes as advocated by France and other countries.
The biggest loser has been the SPD. The party scored only 20.5% of the votes in September – half the level of 20 years earlier – and has fallen further in poll ratings to around 16% to 18%, only marginally ahead of (or even slightly behind) the AfD. The SPD has been Merkel’s junior coalition partner since 2013 and is bidding to stay on in a further coalition under plans that are subject to a nationwide vote by the SPD’s 460,000 members, with results due on 4 March.
The SPD is suffering in the aftermath of the resignation of Martin Schulz, its former chairman and one-time chancellor-hopeful, who has been forced to give up his putative foreign minister job. Sigmar Gabriel, now foreign minister, earlier SPD chairman, is expected to step down and start a business career.
By making it much harder for the main parties to muster sufficient seats to sustain Bundestag majorities, the AfD’s ascent has increased the threat of German political instability. Under almost any scenario, Merkel faces big problems.
Smarting under its poor record in two ‘grand’ coalitions with Merkel in 2005-09 and 2013-17, SPD leaders have exacted major concessions in coalition discussions that ended on 7 February. These include winning three pivotal ministerial posts in finance, foreign and labour/social affairs. However, these compromises have not helped SPD leaders in public opinion or among many party members.
Merkel, on the other hand, faces a conservative backlash over claims she has made too many sacrifices to avoid new elections and cling on to power. If, as expected, SPD members approve the alliance, Merkel will face an unsavoury combination of pressures from within and outside her coalition. Her policies have moved to the left, whereas parliamentary politics have shifted rightwards. This opens a potentially perilous gap between the electorate’s aspirations and Merkel’s ability to satisfy them.
David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF. This is the second of two articles on the difficulties facing Theresa May and Angela Merkel. The first, by Meghnad Desai, was published on 21 February.