In their editorial on Angela Merkel’s failure (for now) to form a new government, NR’s editors drew attention to the decisive role played by the Free Democrats (FDP), a party that once came as close as Germany could manage to classical liberalism and may finally both be returning to those roots and daring to deviate from the Kamikaze consensus over immigration that has come to define Merkel’s dismal and destructive era.
As NR’s editors noted, the proposed ‘Jamaica’ coalition between the FDP, the Greens and Merkel’s increasingly fractious CDU/CSU would have been a ‘coalition of incompatibles’, something that was never likely to work out well for the FDP:
The Greens want greater openness to immigration and more reliance on “renewables” in Germany’s already expensive energy policy; the Free Democrats want lower taxes, especially on business, fewer migrants, and protection of the German taxpayer from further payments to Europe’s South to keep the euro afloat. [FDP leader] Chistian Lindner walked out because he could see that the FDP in a Jamaica coalition would be the party making the concessions.
Free Democrats had done exactly that in Merkel’s earlier CDU-CSU-FDP government and as a result had fallen below the 5 percent “hurdle” a party needs to leap over in order to enter the Bundestag. They felt wounded by this previous experience and suspicious of Merkel whose usual political strategy is to lean left (at their expense). And though one should never say never in politics, still it will be hard to persuade them to change their minds. That’s also true for the [center-left SPD], who were so shocked by their loss in the recent election that they decided to retreat into opposition and renew their ideology in the dim light of a vote share of only 20 percent. If neither a Jamaica nor a grand coalition is on the cards, then what?
A good question.
There are two things that should be said straightaway.
The first is that there is no crisis. Germany’s economy is doing well, the country’s constitutional mechanisms are operating smoothly. Germany can function perfectly satisfactorily under a caretaker government for now.
The second is that it’s too soon to write off Merkel. She may have been the worst postwar German chancellor, but she remains a tough political fighter. Her decision to fling open Germany’s doors in 2015 was one of her many policy disasters, but it was unusual in being a political disaster too.
My best guess is that we will eventually see a resumption of the existing grand coalition—the GroKo— between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats, however much the latter’s leader might object to the idea (the party has, like the FDP, discovered that being in a coalition with the wily Merkel comes at a cost). They might try to demand that Merkel herself stands down in exchange, but that would be a sacrifice too far. As The Economist notes, the CDU won’t give up a leader who remains a huge electoral asset (58% of Germans want her to remain chancellor).
Additionally she has no obvious challenger within her own ranks.
A more promising method would be to guide the [SPD’s] membership [who would have to approve a deal] towards the idea incrementally. That could start with talks on SPD “toleration” of a minority government of the CDU/CSU, possibly including the Greens, offering legislative support on big subjects like the budget, Europe and Bundeswehr deployments, in exchange for limited consultation and amendment rights. Discussions on this theme might then develop into full-blown coalition talks, possibly with a vote of the SPD membership beforehand blessing this shift.
The Economist still believes that a new election is the most likely outcome, but I would be surprised. The fear that the populist right AfD might make further gains means that Germany’s political establishment will do what it can to avoid going back to the voters. And Germany’s political establishment usually gets what it wants.
But this won’t be great news for Germany. In some respects, the Merkel years can be compared with Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’ in the Soviet Union. That might like seem like an extraordinary claim to make given Germany’s impressive economic performance, but, just as the USSR squandered the gift it was given by surging oil prices, so Merkel is slowly squandering the immense advantage Germany was given by the concealed devaluation of the Deutsche Mark after that currency was merged within the euro.
Merkel has not followed through on the impressive economic reforms launched by her SPD predecessor. And, as a result of her attempt to squeeze out the SPD, economic policy has drifted leftwards, a move that (characteristically for Merkel) was shrewd politics, but bad policy. I would never underestimate the resilience of the German economy, but it does not appear to be well placed to deal with challenges heading its way, not least towards its critical auto sector. That German industry is also weighed down by the high energy costs resulting from Merkel’s Energiewende, a lunatic exercise in central planning if ever there was one, doesn’t help.
And there is the question of how the country will manage the consequences of her reckless, panicked and self-indulgent decision to throw open its doors in 2015. That’s a story that has far from run its course, but is unlikely to end well. That Merkel, who retains the authoritarianism (if not, certainly, the communism) of her East German youth, seems so focused on narrowing the ways in which this topic can be discussed bodes ill both for free speech, democracy and any realistic approach to the problem she has created.
There is, I suppose, some justice in the fact that Merkel will have to preside over her own legacy, but, in the meantime, I will be keeping a hopeful eye on the FDP’s Christian Lindner.
‘It’s better not to govern, than to govern falsely,’ tweeted Lindner when he quit the coalition talks. To hear words like that after more than a decade of Merkel is at least a start.