Something big happened yesterday in Berlin just before midnight — big for Germany, for Europe, perhaps even for the world, but above all for the person who has of late been considered the leader of the free world: Chancellor Angela Merkel. For 12 eventful years, mostly overshadowed by crises, Ms. Merkel has honed an impressive talent for political survival and for facilitating compromise among people — whether domestic politicians or foreign leaders — who are natural adversaries. But late on Sunday, November 19, this reputation took a hit from which she may never fully recover. When future historians look back at the Merkel era, they will choose this date as the beginning of its end.
It was Christian Lindner, leader of the classically liberal and pro-business Free Democrats — usually closely aligned with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats — who delivered the blow. Standing in a gloomily autumnal night outside the negotiation venue, Mr. Lindner unilaterally and abruptly pulled his party out of the complex exploratory talks between four parties who were, under Ms. Merkel’s aegis, to form Germany’s next governing coalition. The ultimate reason, he said, was a “lack of trust” across the table.
Week upon frustrating week, the four parties had been haggling, usually late into the night. It didn’t help that several of the negotiators have long histories of loathing one another. The Greens spent much of their 37-year existence vilifying the Christian Democratic Union, and especially the Christian Social Union (CSU), the conservative party that rules in Bavaria. They also disdain the Free Democrats, whom they consider heartless yuppies.
The CSU folks from Bavaria, by turn, have, as is their wont, spent weeks denigrating the Greens as naive hippies bent on putting real-world, close-to-the-soil farmers out of a living; on shutting Germany’s economy down with pie-in-the-sky dreams about ending coal power; and on allowing Germany to be overrun by the families of Muslim refugees. Most of this was Bavarian hyperbole. But their motivation was simple: The CSU is panicking about the rise of a populist party, The Alternative for Germany, on its right. The AfD, the CSU reasonably fears, could sabotage the CSU’s traditional claim to dominance in Bavaria, one year before that state holds its next election.
The Free Democrats and Mr. Lindner, meanwhile, are still suffering the post-traumatic stress disorder from the consequences of their last coalition with Ms. Merkel. In 2013, after four years of undistinguished governing as the chancellor’s junior partner, the Free Democrats were ejected from the Bundestag for the first time in postwar history. Mr. Lindner’s conclusion was that his party must never again sacrifice its principles in the name of compromise.
Unfortunately, that is everybody’s conclusion. And for that, too, Ms. Merkel bears much of the blame, for she has made every one of her coalition partners look bad. This is also why the only viable alternative to the four-way coalition that Mr. Lindner just killed is a no-go. It would be a continuation of the “grand coalition” between the Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats. But the Social Democrats have already twice served their patriotic duty as Ms. Merkel’s understudies — from 2005-2009 and from 2013 till now (their joint caretaker government is still minding the shop). Each time, they were punished at the ballot box. This time, their leader, Martin Schulz, visibly depleted after a joyless campaign to replace Ms Merkel, has decided to go into opposition against her, and to find some new theme that could energize the Social Democrats in the years to come. Probably wisely.
Germany will now remain in limbo for weeks, perhaps months... Mr. Putin must be doing cartwheels.
So nobody wants to play with Ms. Merkel. This will accelerate murmurs inside her Christian Democratic Union about finding an heir or heiress. Handelsblatt Global will soon profile some of the options. But the fact that there is no clear list must count as another minus against Ms. Merkel’s record. For the mission of any leader, in any field of life, explicitly includes thinking ahead to an orderly succession. Ms. Merkel, by contrast, has focused her prodigious skills on eliminating potential rivals. This omission will come back to haunt her.
What happens next in Germany is not yet clear. A last-minute compromise by either the Free Democrats or the Social Democrats remains possible, but is unlikely. Another option is a minority government, in which Ms. Merkel governs with less than a majority of the Bundestag, hoping in each vote of the chamber that the opposition parties “tolerate” her. This is common in other democracies. But Germany has never had such an arrangement at the federal level in its postwar history, and for good reason: After the trauma of the failed Weimar Republic, the Federal Republic learned to prize stability, and a minority government is hardly stable.
Nor are snap elections as easy as they are in some other European countries, and for the same reason. With Weimar in mind, postwar Germany’s founding fathers in 1949 made it deliberately hard for parliament to dissolve itself and to call for new polls. This is the one situation where the constitution gives Germany’s president — currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an avuncular Social Democrat — an actual role to play. But Mr. Steinmeier looks askance at new elections. In any event, polls suggest that a new vote would deliver almost exactly the same stalemate.
The upshot is that Germany, a country that Europe and the world have grown accustomed to considering tediously stable, will now remain in limbo for weeks, perhaps months. This is where the German crisis and Ms. Merkel’s fate enter the agenda in Brussels, Paris, London, Moscow Washington, and Beijing.
Not long ago, only this spring, right-thinking wonks in Berlin were worrying about a weak France and an excessively strong Berlin. Their concern was based on the — correct — premise that Europe tends only to advance when Paris and Berlin work together. And Paris was at risk of falling to an EU-bashing Marine Le Pen. When it didn’t, and a youthful hunk named Emmanuel Macron became president, he was seen as at risk of failing. The German establishment was planning on toning down its power as Europe’s economic engine. The plan was for Ms. Merkel, after a comfortable re-election, to allow Mr. Macron to celebrate some photogenic victories. Together, the thinking was, Germany and France would then fix the euro zone, where economic imbalances remain. Together, they would stave off a meddling Vladimir Putin to the east, contain an impulsive Donald Trump in the west, and manage a Machiavellian Xi Jinping to the Far East.
Instead, the situation is the reverse. If Europe has a leader at all, it is Mr. Macron. It is now his turn to worry about Germany being too weak to assist in the triumphs he needs to reform France and Europe. For his part, Mr. Trump is unlikely to grasp the situation, or to take much interest. But Mr. Putin must be doing cartwheels. Germany’s economy may run well enough to keep humming, perhaps even to thrive, in the absence of a German government. But Europe and the world cannot afford such a hiatus in the center of the continent. If Ms. Merkel no longer has the stature to explain that to Germany’s pusillanimous partisans, Mr. Steinmeier should.
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