THE BRITISH MEDIA has trouble understanding Germany. Willful ignorance, ingrained obscurantism, and a long tradition of treating continental Europe as ‘the other’ has made contemporary journalism frequently hysterical and poorly informed when it comes to European politics. Brexit has made things worse: a significant portion of the media now seems to portray European states and leaders as opponents and enemies. All this means that the events unfolding in Germany over the last 24 hours have been met with confusion, bemusement, and increasingly tangential connections to Brexit.
So what is happening in Germany? September’s federal election was a bad one for Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU alliance. The rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, and four years of malaise under a broad Grand Coalition with the centre-left SPD, Germany’s second biggest party, led to fractured Bundestag. The SPD now look to re-enter opposition, leaving a coalition of the CDU/CSU, the free market, populist FDP, and the social-liberal, centre-left Greens as the only viable government. Such a coalition – called ‘Jamaica’ due to their combined party colours matching its national flag – has never been tested at federal level. However, a Jamaica government currently runs Schleswig-Holstein, proving that this curious blend of Christian democracy, free market economics, and environmentalism can work. With the stability and political cachet of Angela Merkel, it would have been an enviable executive.
Late last night, FDP leader Christian Lindner suddenly walked out of coalition negotiations. The talks had already passed several self-imposed deadlines, and, although rumours had emerged that an agreement was on the horizon, there were still significant areas of disagreement to overcome, particularly over tax, migration, and carbon dioxide quotas. It came as a shock, though, when Lindner made his announcement, given Germany’s reputation for pragmatism, compromise, and stability. The domestic reaction has been, to say the least, sour.
Lindner declared that ‘it’s better not to govern at all than to govern wrongly’.
During the election campaign, Christian Lindner was the star of a polished social media campaign, leading to justifiable accusations that he lacked substance. He has proven the doubters correct. His apparently unplanned announcement was accompanied by shiny graphics and a social media blitz, resembling something like a cynical, pre-prepared publicity exercise. Indeed, one of the CDU’s lead negotiators, Julia Klöckner, facetiously praised Lindner’s ‘well-prepared spontaneity’. Thanks to this stunt, the FDP have understandably lost a great deal of goodwill and credibility as a potential party of government, with Lindner declaring that ‘it’s better not to govern at all than to govern wrongly’.
If the FDP were hoping to use this to extract concessions from their prospective coalition partners, then Lindner has overplayed his hand. Already, whispers of fresh elections are growing louder, and the FDP might find an impatient electorate keen to punish their unwillingness to compromise – already, polling suggests that 32% blame the FDP for the failure of negotiations, ahead of just 18% for the CDU. Although the party suggested they could support a CDU/CSU-Green minority government, Angela Merkel and SPD leader Martin Schulz have made it clear that their preferred outcome is another federal election.
What are the other options? A CDU-CSU-Green minority government is unlikely; in an interview, Merkel said new elections would be preferable to a government that lacked a parliamentary majority. A minority executive is unprecedented at federal level, although one ran North Rhine-Westphalia fairly effectively between 2010 and 2012. The suggestion – pushed by sources close to the CDU/CSU keen to portray the FDP as the villains – is that the CDU/CSU found more common ground with the Greens that Lindner’s party. At the very least, theirs would be a government of grownups.
The federal president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has urged the parties – particularly the FDP and the SPD – to put aside their differences in the national interest, warning that they owe it to their voters to help form a stable government. The FDP could, in theory, be coaxed back to the negotiating table, but that would require a less arrogant leader than Lindner. The SDP, as mentioned above, have already ruled out a Grand Coalition, although continued refusal will now look increasingly like an abrogation of their responsibility to the nation. If they are to change their mind, they will look to replace Martin Schulz with a more sympathetic candidate, most likely Olaf Scholz, the popular Mayor of Hamburg. It is unclear why the SPD would prefer fresh elections, given that they are unlikely to improve this year’s poor result.
People will be watching the AfD: political turmoil would benefit them in a new vote.
As the Bundestag cannot dissolve itself, an early election is difficult to call: a hangover from the unstable Weimar era, a government must fail three successive confidence votes for a new vote to be held, although this could be engineered by MPs if need be. Germans are, however, broadly in support of another election, rather than a minority government. By coming out in favour of a new vote, Merkel is calling the bluff of both the FDP and the SPD, looking to take advantage of their early enthusiasm and test their resolve. In the event of a new vote, mainstream politicians will be carefully watching the Alternative für Deutschland: political turmoil would surely benefit them, and make forming a government more of a challenge.
Whatever happens, Merkel is on shaky ground. Her considerable cachet has taken a hit, and she has definitely ceded leadership in Europe to Emmanuel Macron (though he will sorely miss his friend Frau Merkel if she steps down). Regardless of whether she manages to form a government, this is undoubtedly the beginning of the end for Mutti. A leadership challenge from within her party is not impossible, and there are a handful of natural successors to choose from. However, in a time of political chaos, the CDU/CSU will want to rely on her strong and stable leadership to keep them going. Knowing Germany, and knowing Merkel, a compromise will be reached, and she will hobble on for the time being. The gleeful Europhobic press in Britain will have to wait to write their gloating obituaries.
Things, for the first time in a long while, look bleak in Berlin. But the temptation among many in the British media to portray this as an apocalyptic event is premature. Germany has a way of weathering political storms like few other nations, and it’d be dangerous to write off Angela Merkel. The country won’t tolerate this impasse for long, so someone will have to give in eventually, whether it’s Martin Schulz or Christian Lindner. Whoever it is, after 12 years, it’s unlikely to be Angela Merkel.