Germany’s Dangerous Political Marriage
Germany’s new grand coalition – the third in Merkel’s long chancellorship – is a good outcome for Germany’s short-term stability, especially with regard to Europe. But it is a bad outcome for democracy, especially at a time when populist forces are a growing threat.
BERLIN – More than five months after Germany’s federal election last September, a new grand coalition government – comprising Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – has finally been formed. But there is little reason to celebrate.
Germany has endured nearly six of months under a caretaker government (the longest in the Federal Republic’s history), a failed coalition agreement, weeks of arduous negotiations, painful internal party rumblings, and much politicking. Moreover, a recent national poll dealt yet another blow to the center-left SPD, indicating that if elections were held today, the party would be outperformed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Add to that Europe’s ongoing right-wing backlash (exemplified, most recently, by Italy’s election) and the threat of a trade war with the United States, and Germany’s new grand coalition reeks of desperation. Not surprisingly, reactions to its formation were subdued, with the public and political insiders alike mostly just relieved to have the long ordeal behind them.
Germany’s new grand coalition – the third in Merkel’s long chancellorship – is a marriage of convenience: loveless, largely unloved, and devoid of any overarching vision. It is a good outcome for Germany’s short-term stability, especially with regard to Europe. But it is an uncertain outcome in the longer term, given the coalition’s considerable political baggage, and it is a bad outcome for democracy, especially at a time when populist forces are a growing threat.
One might argue that it is good for democracy that Merkel’s coalition has shrunk. Because the government parties control barely more than half of the Bundestag, they no longer overwhelm the opposition, rendering it irrelevant. The problem is that the largest official opposition party is now the populist AfD.
Moreover, the share of the Bundestag held by opposition parties that are only semi-loyal to liberal democracy – the AfD and its left-wing counterpart Die Linke (the Left) – now approaches one-quarter. Not since the Weimar Republic has a far-right party been the largest opposition force, or have anti-liberal forces controlled such a large share of the Bundestag.
This illiberal result is a direct consequence of the SPD’s participation in Merkel’s government. Had the SPD remained in opposition, as it vowed to do after its poor election result, it could have spent the next four years renewing its platform and membership, while acting as a strong challenger to both Merkel and the right- and left-wing populists. A Merkel-led CDU/CSU minority government would have meant open debate on all major policy issues and legislative proposals, enlivening the Bundestag and showing the public that political parties matter, and that a grand coalition isn’t essential to progress.
Instead, Germany got a government that will implement a predetermined set of policies, contained in a 170-page agreement hammered out behind closed doors – one that promises more of the same. Its members will engage in all of the same professionally choreographed and well-rehearsed debates, the ritualistic display of legislative process that devalues parliament because the outcome is pre-determined.
For Europe, this means that no significant shift in Germany’s approach – for better or for worse – should be expected. French President Emmanuel Macron will not see a German hand reaching out to work with him on European Union reform, though he might be able to grasp a finger or two.
To be sure, the new grand coalition’s policy approach will be different in some respects from the last. In her determination to form a government, Merkel yielded to the SPD on important issues, including EU policy and labor-market matters. As a result, the overall legislative program outlined in the coalition agreement is more social democratic than that of any previous grand coalition.
But, ultimately, Germany can expect more of the same for the time being. This will keep the government stable in the near term. But it is a feast for populists – and a missed opportunity for democracy.
In fact, whatever stability the CDU/CSU and the SPD think that they have secured, there are plenty of reasons for concern in the medium term. The CDU is increasingly impatient with Merkel and her policy approach. And, though it is the largest party, it has relatively fewer government posts than the SPD, with no CDU cabinet minister hailing from eastern Germany, an AfD stronghold.
Unlike the CDU, whose members will soon feel short-changed, the SPD has rediscovered the virtues of internal democracy, which revealed a significant disconnect between the party’s leadership and its base. Whatever success the SPD has had playing the coalition game, the party’s participation in yet another Merkel-led government stands to cost it growing numbers of lower- and middle-income voters.
Both the CDU and the SPD face a shrinking electoral base and a falling supply of leadership cadres. As a result, both parties and their coalition will become increasingly unstable over time, a trend that would be accelerated by their poor performance in the 2019 European Parliament election, not to mention in Germany’s upcoming state and local elections.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a crisis that demands political attention, all of the problems and risks that Germany’s previous coalition governments have failed to address will continue to be ignored. At a time when German leadership is so badly needed in Europe, the country is set to continue to play a passive role.
Until recently, the SPD seemed to prefer a loss to a half-victory, much as a person might decide that it is better to be alone than in a mediocre relationship. But now the SPD seems to think that being in power, by joining the ruling coalition, is automatically better than being in opposition, no matter the cost. And the cost could be very high indeed. Loveless marriages can last a long time, but they rarely end well.
Germany’s Populist Temptation
After months of difficult coalition talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally managed to establish a new government in early March, only to find that she has a spoiler in her own camp. To shore up his right flank, Christian Social Union leader Horst Seehofer has launched a cold war against Merkel and the German establishment.
BERLIN – Because populism is not an ideology in itself, it can easily appeal to mainstream political parties seeking to shore up flagging electoral support. There are always politicians willing to mimic populist slogans and methods to win over voters, even if doing so divides their own party. This has been proven by Republicans in the United States, Conservatives and Labourites in the United Kingdom, and Les Républicains under the new leadership of Laurent Wauquiez in France.
But the most ominous manifestation of this tendency can be found in Germany’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union. The CDU/CSU’s weak showing in last year’s parliamentary election, combined with the unprecedented gains by the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has created new schisms within the party grouping.
Other than in the former communist states of East Germany, the AfD’s strongest performance was in the CSU’s stronghold of Bavaria, which will hold local elections in October. Defending its right flank against the AfD has thus become the CSU’s foremost concern.
To that end, the CSU’s longtime leader, Horst Seehofer, has already set a new populist tone for the party. He recently ceded the post of Bavaria’s minister-president to an ambitious, younger populist rival, Markus Söder. And as the recently instated interior minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new grand coalition government, he has sought to burnish his own populist credentials, including by restoring the word Heimat (homeland) to the ministry’s name.
But Seehofer has always come across as something other than a German conservative. In fact, he has served as a sort of political godfather to Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. And now he sees his own opportunity.
Since the day the new German government was sworn in, it has been clear that Merkel’s trademark tactic of neutralizing potential critics by including them in her cabinet would no longer work. Seehofer immediately launched a cold war within the governing coalition.
In a March interview with the tabloid Bild, Seehofer declared, in perfect populist fashion, that, “Islam does not belong to Germany.” The purpose of such statements is to draw lines within the government and place himself on the side of the anti-immigrant voters who turned out for the AfD last year. Merkel, together with almost all of Germany’s political class, has had no choice but to push back. At the same time, the AfD has lost political ground on which to criticize Seehofer and the CSU.
And Seehofer has remained on the offensive. He seems to make public comments on just about everything, and always in a way that leaves the AfD with nothing to add and undermines Merkel without striking at her directly.
But, again, Seehofer’s “Eastern European” behavior does not come as a total surprise. In March 2017, while Merkel was preparing for her first meeting with US President Donald Trump, Seehofer went to Moscow to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since then, he has consistently opposed all sanctions on Russia on any grounds.
Seehofer has also spoken warmly of Poland’s populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, while criticizing the European Union for its supposed affronts to Polish dignity. He congratulated Orbán for his overwhelming electoral victory earlier this month, and his CSU colleague Alexander Dobrindt openly refers to Orbán as “our friend.”
Under Seehofer’s leadership, the CSU is shifting its focus from economic to cultural disputes. This is in keeping with the larger populist trend in Europe, evident not just in Hungary and Poland, but also in the Czech Republic, Austria, the Netherlands, and Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League are vying to lead the next government.
One result of Seehofer’s pitched struggle with Merkel and the German political establishment is that the other government party, the Social Democrats (SPD), has all but disappeared from view. But, whether he realizes it or not, the AfD will be the natural beneficiary of any government blunders, given that it is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
Still, even if Seehofer’s populist gambit fails, he has already succeeded in pulling the government to the right. Germany is clearly acting to ease EU pressure on Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries that are flouting the rule of law and undermining European solidarity with respect to migrants and refugees.
Moreover, Germany will likely block any substantive reform of the eurozone, thus squandering the opportunity offered by French President Emmanuel Macron. At this point, Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau suggests, the best scenario could well be another economic crisis in the eurozone, simply because that might finally knock some sense into Germany.
Seehofer is bad news for Germany, which is in greater need of dynamism, openness, and courage than any other European country. Germany’s limited military capacity, over-regulated service sector, and lack of infrastructure investment all indicate that it is lagging a decade behind Eastern Europe on some key development metrics, even if it is Europe’s foremost economic power.
In Eastern European countries, one can pay by credit card at any street market, whereas in Germany, that is often impossible even in the best restaurants. Likewise, Germany ranks 42nd in the world in terms of Internet speed, and its broadband infrastructure would be embarrassing even to a Ukrainian. For a country that has made a fortune investing in Eastern Europe, Germany’s relative backwardness in these areas is stunning.
The fact that Seehofer is embracing his inner populist does not necessarily augur what Dobrindt has described as a European “conservative revolution.” But it does suggest that Orbán and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s “illiberal counterrevolution” is gaining momentum.
Waiting for Germany
The European Union's political stagnation is becoming untenable in the face of mounting economic and geopolitical risks. French President Emmanuel Macron has signaled his willingness to pursue difficult EU-level reforms, so what is German Chancellor Angela Merkel is waiting for?
BERLIN – More than a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the European Union is still stagnating politically. But the EU must be strengthened if the project of European integration is to succeed. Otherwise, the forces of the new nationalism will continue their assault on democracy, the rule of law, and the bloc’s other defining values.
The main reason that Europe remains at an impasse is Germany. For years after 2008, when the EU was confronting slow growth and mounting economic crises, Germany insisted that it could not move the European project forward alone, and that it would have to wait for France.
Then, in the spring of 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected to the French presidency on the promise that he would push for EU-level reforms and modernize the French economy. But just when France was coming back on board, Germany was approaching its September 2017 general election, which resulted in significant losses for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and led to a months-long effort to form a new government.
In the same month that Germany voted, Macron delivered an impressive speech at the Sorbonne, in which he proposed specific reforms to stabilize the eurozone, create a common border-protection system, and establish a joint European defense initiative. At the time, Macron’s proposals received an icy response in Germany; seven months later, Germany still hasn’t offered any of its own.
Instead, Germany has remained silent on the question of Europe’s future, and has indicated that its primary concern is its own money. The bean counters in the Bundestag’s budget committee, it seems, have hijacked Germany’s European policy.
In the past, that policy was spearheaded by chancellors who understood the historic significance of European integration. Yet today, Merkel seems to have allowed the CDU’s backbenchers – and those of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – to shackle her in the lead-up to any negotiations over EU-level reforms.
Squandering the opportunity offered by Macron – which will not come again – would be the height of political folly and historical blindness. The transatlantic system’s two founding powers are in the process of bidding that system goodbye. The United Kingdom has opted to leave the EU, effective next spring. And the United States under President Donald Trump has questioned its transatlantic security guarantee and now is undermining the global trade system upon which Europe – and particularly Germany – has relied since the 1950s.
The threat of a Western denouement is shaking the economic and security pillars of European stability. China has emerged as a global power capable of pulling the world economy’s center of gravity away from the Atlantic and toward the Asia-Pacific region. Europeans now face the prospect of being left behind by both the US and China, not only geopolitically, but also in the key economic sector of the twenty-first century: artificial intelligence.
Europe also faces more immediate threats closer to home. Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again testing Eastern Europe’s borders by military means. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is taking his country further away from NATO and the West, while abandoning democracy and the rule of law. And the entire Middle East could slide into a prolonged crisis, fueling more migration to Europe.
The war in Syria shows just how weak Europe has become. Other than serving as a destination for refugees, the EU has become irrelevant in Syria. Worse still, those formulating Germany’s foreign policy seem to believe that there is no military solution there, and that only Russia can bring an end to the war.
This argument overlooks the fact that a military solution is now within Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grasp, thanks to the support he has received from Russia and Iran. It also overlooks the fact that Russia is in no position to stop the larger regional conflict, even if it wanted to. After all, Iran is not simply going to give up its land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea, and Israel is not going to accept the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and missiles in Syria. In fact, the risk of a conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria and Lebanon now looms large.
These developments pose new challenges for Europe. On one hand, the EU needs to forestall a nuclear arms race in the region, not least by protecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump is now threatening to kill. On the other hand, the EU has an association agreement with – and historical responsibilities toward – Israel, so it cannot remain neutral or turn a blind eye to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.
With the exception of France and the UK (for now), the EU and its member states are decidedly unprepared for these risks. And that applies particularly to Germany, where the military has languished under years of austerity. The post-war US security guarantee allowed Germany to take a long break from thinking about strategic threats. But now that Trump has called into question America’s commitments to its allies, Germany can no longer count on such a favorable division of labor.
In financial matters, Germany regularly accuses other eurozone countries of not sticking to the rules and adhering to agreed austerity policies. In security matters, however, these accusations are coming back to haunt it. The era of free-riding is ending, and without the US, Germany’s only other source of defense is a stronger Europe, which certainly can’t be had for free.
Nobody expects Germany to adopt Macron’s proposals wholesale. But at a time when the foundations of the global order are shifting at Europe’s expense, marginal reforms will not suffice, and Germany has neither set out its own vision of a stronger Europe, nor shown a willingness to take action and make the necessary investments. Europe and the West need a Franco-German response equal to that once provided by François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, and by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer before them. And they need it now. History will not stand still.
Europe’s Crisis Starts at Home
According to conventional wisdom, the biggest threat to the European project is "illiberal" saboteurs on the periphery of the European Union who have decided not to play by the rules. But what this narrative misses is the even deeper divide within EU member states, including bastions of liberalism such as France and Germany.
LONDON – Deep divisions within Europe are increasingly threatening the values upon which the European project of “ever closer union” is based. In 2015, during the refugee crisis, many commentators saw a divide between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s vision of ethnic purity: a Western Europe of bridges versus an Eastern Europe of walls.
But another threat to European unity comes from within individual countries. In Germany, talks to form a center-left, center-right coalition have broken down. In the Netherlands, it took Prime Minister Mark Rutte 208 days to form a new government after elections in March. In the United Kingdom, the political establishment is in disarray over Brexit. And in Poland, white nationalists and neo-Nazis recently staged a massive march through the streets of Warsaw.
Which gulfs are wider – those between member states or those within them? The answer to that question matters a great deal. If Europe’s biggest problem is that it is divided along national borders, then liberal-leaning countries like France and Germany could try to change the balance of power within increasingly illiberal countries.
Every EU country agreed to a set of liberal-democratic standards (part of the so-called Copenhagen Criteria) when it joined the club. But, over time, the governments of Hungary and Poland have decided that they no longer want to abide by the rules. One solution could be to create a smaller club with better benefits. Countries that wish to join this privileged inner circle would have to agree to a new – or rather, the original – set of rules; and countries that break the rules would be left out. There would finally be a cost to breaching EU standards.
But this solution could work only if the biggest problem is the divide between member states. As for the divisions within member states, consider Germany. After the federal election in September, Merkel embarked on a fascinating experiment, in which she tried to unite her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its more nativist sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), and the left-wing Greens.
Merkel is a talented negotiator, and far better suited to write about “the art of the deal” than others we won’t bother mentioning. But it remains to be seen if she can heal the divisions in her own country.
While the Greens would like to uphold the Willkommenskultur, the CSU’s position on migration is closer to that of the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia). In fact, at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, the CSU hosted Orbán at one of its party conferences.
Moreover, while the Greens are European federalists who support greater economic solidarity with Greece and Italy, the FDP channels the fiscal discipline of the Finns, the Dutch, and German Swabians. They are staunchly opposed to deeper European economic integration.
Many hoped that Merkel would succeed in forging a “Jamaica” coalition (named after the colors of that country’s flag). But, in the end, the experiment failed. The FDP abandoned the talks out of frustration that, as its leader Christian Lindner put it, “The four discussion partners have no common vision for modernization of the country or common basis of trust.”
Even without a Jamaica coalition, Germany still has a stable liberal majority in the Bundestag. The same cannot be said for the rest of the EU, where almost every other member state is now a “50-50 society”: half cosmopolitan, half communitarian. In these countries, the government at any given time represents whichever side won the latest round in an ongoing culture war.
In the UK, for example, 52% of voters opted to leave the EU. The country is now hurtling toward an isolated state of provincialism and xenophobia, but its leaders keep telling the public that Britain will be better off on its own. For those who believe it, the fact that the UK will lose a say in EU decisions affecting its economic environment doesn’t seem to matter.
France, on the other hand, has an energetic new pro-European president, Emmanuel Macron, who is committed to preparing his country for the years ahead. And yet France is not much more cosmopolitan than Britain. In the first round of the presidential election this spring, the nativist campaigns of Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan collectively won 46% of the vote – almost as much as the UK’s “Leave” campaign.
Clearly, the EU is both a society of states and of citizens. That means intra-national divides are as important as the diplomatic spats between countries.
Earlier this year, a Brookings Institution report tried to determine if Europe is an “optimal political area,” a concept borrowed from economist Robert Mundell’s theory of “optimal currency areas.” The report concluded that cultural and institutional differences between EU countries have not changed much over the past three decades of European integration. But it also found that the divisions between countries are far smaller than the differences within countries. Or in other words, on the issue of freedom of movement, there is greater polarization between London and the British Midlands than between the UK and Poland.
Creating a flexible or multi-tiered Europe could solve some short-term problems, by bringing together coalitions of the willing to address specific issues. But it could also introduce new dangers. After all, most European countries, regardless of what tier they are on, will still be 50-50 societies that could opt in or out of deeper integration with a single election or referendum. In the future, one cannot rule out the possibility that Le Pen will be elected president of France, or that the anti-EU Five Star Movement will come to power in Italy. By the same token, the more moderate Civic Platform might return to power in Poland.
Confronting the intra-societal challenge to the European project will not be easy. It is a deep, generational problem that goes to the heart of national identity, history, and geography. No quick institutional fix can solve a problem like that.