Happy Politicians

Domestic Political Squabbling Fades, Along with Political Discourse, as Germans Prosper

Steinmeier, Merkel, Gabriel, 2.7.14 dpa 3
Chancellor Angela Merkel together with cabinet members Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, in early July.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Too much consensus is not good, as it weakens the domestic political debate and prevents any real progress from being made. A functioning democracy needs a functioning opposition and the German consensus model may have run its course.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Chancellor Angela Merkel enjoys higher levels of popularity than any of her coalition partners.
    • There is some squabbling in Berlin over issues like road tolls and family policy, but the key players are getting along.
    • A lack of existential problems has led German politicians to give key policy areas, like immigration and education, short shrift.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Germany is doing well. There are no major disputes, and everything is just fine.

Or is it?

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel left for her summer vacation this year, she sensed that she would hardly remain undisturbed throughout her trip. There is no summer vacation when it comes to foreign policy crises, including Ukraine, the war in Gaza and the sudden chill in German-American relations.

At least she doesn’t have to worry about Germany. Domestic politics have become such an afterthought that it doesn’t even help the typically slow summer news season. Once an arena for decades-long bitter disputes, domestic politics has hit the pause button, and not just for the summer.

Domestic policy is working like clockwork. But it’s also no longer that important.

Germany, which not too long ago was characterized as and considered itself to be the sick man of Europe, has been on the rise for about a decade. Unemployment has been declining, and Germany has become a magnet for European labor migration. The economy is growing exports are booming, tax revenues are setting new records and the federal government has balanced its budget for the first time in almost five decades. The income gap is widening, and yet Germans are more satisfied than ever with their lives. It’s more of a coincidence that this coalition happens to be in power at a time when things are going so well for Germany.

The challenges of the last decade have only strengthened the new German self-confidence. Germany remained unexpectedly robust through the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2010 euro crisis. The crisis affected virtually all European partners, but the country in the middle of Europe prospered. Their exceptional economic position has since earned the Germans a hegemonic role in Europe.

Today the country is so far removed from any crisis that riskier domestic policy programs have disappeared from the agenda. Instead, the chancellor’s position is more uncontested than any of her predecessors.

Without existential problems, the arena in which such problems would normally be addressed, domestic politics, is losing its relevance.

But without existential problems, the arena in which such problems would normally be addressed, domestic politics, is losing its relevance. There is something arbitrary and frivolous about most domestic policy projects that are launched today, such as the retirement package and the road toll. In contrast, demographics, immigration, education, the digital revolution and global competition, long identified as issues of the future, are approached so nonchalantly that they lose all gravitas and urgency.

Still Germany’s approach to politics over the last decade has helped.  Achieving consensus on fundamental issues has long been the secret to German stability, but it has reached  a point where constant convergence now shapes the narrative.  The SPD/Green Party coalition successfully pushed for German participation in two wars, while the CDU/CSU made enormous progress on social, family and integration policy under Mrs. Merkel, and it also executed a nuclear phase-out that its SPD/Green Party predecessors hadn’t dared to do. The basic disposition of German policy has changed.

This has made the political system more pragmatic and less hostile, yet it is difficult to say where the German success story stands today.

Success makes people satisfied and self-sufficient. The pressure to change declines, which bodes poorly for the global competitive situation, as the chancellor has repeatedly pointed out. Our sense of urgency in addressing future problems is diminishing. There is constant talk of demographic, education policy and digital challenges, and yet no effective policies are being pursued.

When there is a crisis, the political world requires no additional motivation to act. A political about face is easier when politicians have their backs to the wall, as Mr. Schröder did in the winter of 2002 and Mrs. Merkel did after Fukushima. But where does politics on the sunny side get its energy, its persuasive power and its willingness to take risks? The political class in Germany cannot answer these questions.

In such phases of satisfied paralysis, the opposition normally functions as a productive threat to those in power, and as both a substantial competition and a potential alternative. But nowadays, as the camps dissolve into a German consensus machine, opposition has become difficult, both against the dominance of a grand coalition and in general.

The dilemma of domestic politics lacking in contradiction and tension is not only because of the hegemony of the big-tent parties in the coalition, but also because a portion of the opposition tends to be part of the consensus camp. More striking than the ideological impulses of the Green opposition today is its urge to be a part of the government, in coalition with either the SPD or the CDU. Precisely the opposite is true of the Left Party. Its ideological eccentricity goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the prospect of being part of the government. In this way the opposition, which ought to be particularly important in times of a grand coalition, offers no alternative.

Little has provoked the public in recent years quite as much as the attempt to declare that political decisions are made as there are “no alternatives.” This is because it negates the possibility of different ways of reacting.

Today the term is taboo, and yet political debates are still based on this principle. The lack of an alternative becomes a characteristic of the political system.

A domestic political environment, devoid of conflict and tension, can neither hold the public’s interest in politics in the long term, nor can it anticipate future problems. The consensus-driven success story is reaching its limits.

The enormous effort needed to manage the recent fiscal crisis  and the current foreign policy dramas conceals the loss of the importance of domestic politics. Mrs. Merkel was visibly irritated when asked a provocative question, during her summer press conference, about what her “contribution to domestic policy”  had been in the last eight months.

“Somehow I managed to be busy,” she said.

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