No German post-election crisis – but a set back for Europe

This year's vote was always going to be difficult for Angela Merkel and Germany. The disruption it has has brought is felt across the continent.

Angela Merkel. Credit: Flickr/eppofficial

By Sarah Raine, Consulting Senior Fellow for Geopolitics and Strategy

When talks between members of Germany’s proposed ‘Jamaica’ coalition collapsed on November 20, first reactions were sharp and accusatory. With the coalition of Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, the Greens and the FDP now off the table, many were quick to blame to the FDP and its leader Christian Lindner’s ‘well-planned spontaneity’. Suedeutsche Zeitung accused an un-self aware Lindner of misguidedly aspiring to play a Macron within the German political system, and failing even to manage a Sebastian Kurz (Austria’s controversial new Chancellor). Overseas, Foreign Policy declared Europe’s largest economy in ‘unprecedented political chaos’. Going further still, BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil announced on his Twitter feed, Germany’s ‘biggest political crisis since the late 1940s’.

Situation complex but unsurprising

The political situation is certainly extraordinary, but this is not yet a crisis. The reality of the saga now playing out is both more mundane in its management and more intriguing in its longer-term consequences. First off, let’s remember that this was long set to be Germany’s most complicated election yet. The presence, for the first time, of six political parties in the newly elected Bundestag was always going to complicate coalition building. And the fact that the new party is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was always going to weaken the centre ground (even whilst it gives Germany’s parliament greater prominence in a revived national debate). Indeed, before the elections had even taken place, some were already contemplating the possibility of an unprecedented minority government.

Secondly, in a country that has traditionally enjoyed stable two party coalitions with a clear Bundestag majority, the very attempt to forge a Jamaica coalition –never previously tried on the federal stage – was itself a recognition that something had, and indeed needed to, change. Moreover, as its novelty suggests, Jamaica’s success was never guaranteed.

Or have we become so cynical as to assume that the lure of power will always trump principle, or at least in this case political strategy? Indeed, if there was a surprise, it was perhaps not so much Jamaica’s collapse, as the quarter from which this collapse came. After all the focus on the difficulties Merkel would face in bridging the political distance between the CSU and the Greens, it was the overlooked FDP that walked.

Thirdly, it is too soon to suggest that this is the end for Merkel. If she wishes to be the rare politician who gets to control the manner and time of her departure, the exit ramp has certainly just got a little closer; her declared pre-election aim to serve a full fourth term now looks even more unlikely. Yet for the moment at least, other party leaders, such as the SPD’s Martin Schulz, are in a far more precarious position. 

A weakened centre ground

Yet these developments, while not a national crisis, do suggest fundamental shifts in one of the few traditional, mainstream European political systems still thought to be working well. Even in Germany, a country that for obvious historical reasons puts a high premium on consensus and the centre ground, membership of the mainstream is no longer an attractive electoral selling point. In this election, vote share for both the CDU and the SPD dropped to historic lows.

Meanwhile, the CDU might reasonably suggest they are the only major party that appears to actually want the responsibility of government – the FPD having walked away, and the SPD entering informal discussions on a possible renewed Grand Coalition only reluctantly. And in the meantime, there are signs within the current caretaker government that traditional party discipline is being eroded.

Germany and the EU

These elections were meant to help determine the future of the EU27. Remember that Macron speech on the future of Europe at the Sorbonne? Or Juncker’s 2017 State of the Union address? Don’t worry if you don’t – no-one else outside Brussels does. Or what about Donald Tusk’s typically more modest and pragmatic ‘Leaders Agenda’, on which first discussions will begin at the December European Council? Putting substance on any of these visions would be fiendishly complex at the best of times, but impossible with a Germany pre-occupied by its own domestic affairs.

In recent years, Germany has regularly complained about its lack of partners on the European stage. The same might now be suggested in reverse. Whilst the absence of Brexit from the German pre-election debate was entirely understandable, the failure of Germany’s political classes to engage in any broader conversation on the future of Europe was not.

Indeed, the fact that the main opposition candidate for Chancellor is one of the EU’s most experienced politicians barely registered. Many in Martin Schulz’s own party treated his roots in the Brussels’ political system as more of a liability than an asset. The irony is that what failed to become a pre-election issue is now likely to become a post-election one. If the SPD do facilitate the reformation of the Grand Coalition, we should expect to hear a lot more justification for the party’s compromises, made not just for the sake of the country, but of the continent.  

Detailed coalition talks may not start until the New Year. So even if these talks succeed (which is by no means certain), it will be close to spring before Germany has a new government. New elections – which Merkel claims to prefer over the alternative option of a minority government – will of course mean waiting even longer. In the interim, Germany’s caretaker government will hold things together. For example, before the end of the year seven of the 30 mandates covering German military deployments overseas are due for debate; the vast majority will gain re-approval without issue.

Meanwhile, having succeeded in holding the UK’s toes to the fire on the financial settlement for Brexit (even without a functioning government), Germany is no longer expected to stand in the way of EU27 approval at the December European Council for the opening up of talks on the future of EU27–UK relationsl. Germany might even say some nice words about the need to deepen the EU’s Economic and Monetary Union in response to Tusk’s Leaders Agenda. 

But for Germany’s partners in Europe and beyond, business as usual (at best) is no longer enough. It will not constitute – to coin a Brexit phrase – ‘sufficient progress’. Both German and European concerns require more. For the EU27, the last word might go after all to Christian Lindner and the FDP, whose campaign slogan focused on the problems of the status quo: ‘doing nothing is an abuse of power’. 

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