Germany and all Europe breathed a sigh of relief this week: At last, Europe’s leading economy is on the way to getting a stable government again. Combining the country’s largest centrist forces in parliament, Germany will finally tackle long-delayed reforms and begin the long-promised digital update of its government and economy.
If only. Other Europeans may take a while to figure out how pathetic this week’s coalition agreement is. Germans, however, have already seen enough. They are somewhere between bored, disappointed and horrified. The document that seals the third “grand coalition” (sic) under Angela Merkel as chancellor is as long on waffle as it is short on substance. Its only message is that the negotiators haggled with one objective: to get themselves into plum jobs and their rivals into retirement.
One hardly knows whom to blame most, but Ms. Merkel deserves to go first. In her thirteenth year in power, she looks exhausted, and bewildered that her alleged tactical aplomb has of late fallen flat. Last autumn, she failed to construct the coalition she desired, with two smaller parties. She “succeeded” to get this deal with the Social Democrats (SPD) only because, in effect, she surrendered to them.
The only winner, as it were, of another grand coalition will be the Alternative for Germany.
Thus the SPD, which got only 20 percent of votes on September 24, will get the most powerful cabinet posts, staffing not only the foreign but also the finance ministry, among others. It is the finance minister, by controlling the purse strings for the other departments and representing Germany in Brussels during deliberations about the euro zone, who wields the most power after the chancellor. Thus it is fitting that the SPD’s choice for the post, Olaf Scholz, will also be vice chancellor.
Many Christian Democrats are livid, feeling betrayed by their own chancellor. They will now search in earnest – albeit still discreetly – for a successor from their own ranks to take over from Ms. Merkel as party leader and chancellor. She will be lucky if she survives politically for this full term.
The negotiating victory of the Social Democrats, meanwhile, is also pyrrhic. On election night, they had promised to go into opposition in order to develop new ideas and a new profile. Like Social-Democratic parties elsewhere in Europe, they have been in long-term decline, forever stuck in their old world of industrial-age class struggle and utterly at a loss when contemplating the innovative and flexible economies of today and tomorrow. Now their top cadres will spend a few more years with limousines and chauffeurs, before getting an even worse drubbing in the next election.
The only winner, as it were, of another grand coalition will be the Alternative for Germany, a populist party on the far right. Launched in 2013, it will now become the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, with more speaking time, better committee posts and a bigger bully pulpit. A big part of its appeal is the spreading sense of alienation from the mainstream parties among voters. The AfD could not have asked for an easier target than this “grand coalition.”
There remains one glimmer of hope. The SPD’s leaders have promised to put the coalition agreement to their 460,000 party members for approval in a ballot on March 3. This is only the second time in German history that a party has taken such a step (the previous was the SPD’s member vote in 2013). From a constitutional point of view, the move is suspect. Why should some 230,000 Germans be able to overrule the wishes, however imperfect, of about 62 million eligible voters?
But here they are, and they will vote. And many Social Democrats have not forgotten their despair on election night, and their subsequent resolve to find a new purpose in opposition. The ballot will be close. The coalition agreement could yet be voided.
If so, the failure to form a coalition will hardly throw Germany into political chaos. As I have argued since November, the best option for Germany – and in the long run also for Europe – is to try what most other Western democracies do in this situation: a minority government. Germans think this spells instability. What it produces instead is this: Vibrant debate in the Bundestag, leading to policies that were forged in the heat of oratory and have the seal of democratic legitimacy.