After the elections in Germany, each political party declared itself as a winner in its own terms. Two months later, as the negotiations about forming the government keep reaching a dead end, the same state of mind dominates the ongoing conversation, where everyone seems like a losing side.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is insisting that Social Democrats (SPD) should rejoin a “grand coalition” with her conservatives – and the sense of urgency about outlining a clear policy on both domestic and European issues is palpable as the bells of upcoming European Union elections in 2019 are already ringing.
Thus it is no wonder that problems that plague German political establishment also stir up the talk about the ensuing instability and the consequences for Europe. Ahead of new round of talks schedules for Thursday, the question arises: is Germany heading towards a long-term period of turmoil similar to the one that Britain is experiencing due to Brexit? The answer is not simple.
The initial talks about forming a government of unlikely allies – Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Greens and pro-business liberal party (FDP) were doomed from the beginning. This pushed CDU back into the arms of begrudging alliance with SDP. Social Democrats had previously been strongly opposed another “grand coalition” with CDU, but recently softened their stance, with leader Martin Schultz saying “he ruled nothing out ahead of the preliminary talks.”
Immigration as an Ideological Test
The CDU is a traditionally conservative party in the sense that in economic affairs it advocates for a free market with relatively little social protection. Its leader, Angela Merkel, believes in pragmatism and incremental changes — not in radical reforms. This is in line with the mentality of the vast majority of Germans, which might explain the appeal of Merkel among the electorate.
However, her risky move — letting one million refugees into Germany, proved to be a major issue for her, both in terms of Merkel’s popularity among the electorate and CDU’s relationship with Social Democrats and its sister party, Christian Social Union in Bavaria. German citizens were confronted with a new reality, which reshapes their political affinities too. A new red line was drawn.
Some parties are more apt to respond to these developments. Such is the case of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany), that has successfully played on the concerns of the electorate about migration and the influx of Muslim refugees, demanding stricter border control and the deportation of newly arrived migrants and refugees whose asylum applications have been rejected.
But migration and refugee issues remain, in effect, the main source of disagreement in the negotiations between the parties for the formation of the new government. In particular, the CSU was asking for the establishment of an annual cap of 200,000 in the number of refugees allowed to enter the country.
This was opposed by the Greens, who wanted no cap at all and were advocating for additional support towards refugees and for enabling them to bring their families to Germany.
Let’s Talk About EU
While everyone made clear their feelings about the immigration, there is now a palpable feeling of urgency about creating a cohesive policy addressing a growing number of challenges within the European Union, where Germany is now seen as a sole leader and defender of European agenda.
“There are European elections in 2019… so there is a big expectation that we take positions,” Merkel told reporters, referring to proposals by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and by French President Emmanuel Macron on the future governance of the EU’s currency and economic union.
The question of EU was what ultimately split the first proposed coalition. The Greens are ardently pro-European, advocating for the establishment of a ministry of finance for the Eurozone and for a common budget, including the issuing of Eurobonds. That is, the Greens want more solidarity among the Eurozone countries, suggesting that the responsibility for any financial troubles is shared, effectively taking out another skeleton out of the closet — the question of Greek crisis.
The Greens’ premises could not be more opposed to the positions of the pro-business liberal party (FDP). The average voter of the FDP could not be more averse to the expression of solidarity towards the indebted countries of the European South. In fact, they view the existing support mechanisms as excessively generous, even if they imply severe austerity measures for countries like Greece.
The Greek crisis has required Germany to accept policies that were previously unimaginable, like lending to indebted countries with better terms than those of the financial markets. The German government has done so mainly out of self-interest, first, in order to protect its financial institutions from suffering the consequences of imprudent lending, and, second, in order to prevent the crisis from spreading to other Eurozone countries. However, it was still a radical shift for the German establishment.
So, what lies ahead for Germany?
Does this short-term instability in the German government affect European affairs? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed the implementation of a number of reforms for the EU, which can make it more functional and have the potential to alleviate the consequences of the crisis. These reforms require the agreement of a strong German government in order to be implemented. The more these initiatives are postponed, the more difficult it will be to bring them to fruition.
“Diligence definitely comes before speed (in forming a coalition) but the government should be formed in time for Germany to be capable of acting if decisions need to be made (in Europe) in 2018,” David McAllister, an executive committee member of CDU.
But the new coalition, no matter who forms it, merely brings back everything to the starting point, and reveals a deeper problem — a crisis of the legitimacy of the traditional political parties. The CDU suffered major losses in the last elections. The Social Democrats had their worst results in decades. Meanwhile, the far-right party entered the German federal parliament for the first time, speaking to the fears of the electorate. The challenge, then, for the German political system is to listen to those citizens who, disenchanted by the political system, turned to AfD, without allowing the AfD agenda to dominate public debates.
On the other hand, how Germany feels about European Union when times get tough may be a somewhat forgotten question, but it would be foolish to push it under the rug for much longer, both among the electorate and the political parties. Any further ambiguity may prove to be deadly by the time the next elections come around.