German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz as they attend a meeting of the Bundestag in Berlin, on Monday.
The negotiations for a new coalition government in Germany are none of my business. Obviously. I am not a citizen of Germany and I do not live in Germany. But even though I have no say in the matter, I care deeply about what happens in Germany: It will affect our lives even in the southeastern corner of the European Union, just as much of what happens in Greece plays a role in developments there.
My point is that if there is not a credible government in Berlin soon, one that will be able to show confidence and determination in dealing with Germany’s and the EU’s problems, everything will become more difficult for every EU member and for the Union itself. Despite the drama around the current impasse in the negotiations, Germany itself does not have overwhelming problems. The greatest danger it faces could well be a delay in dealing with problems that can only be dealt with effectively at the EU level. Domestically, the day-to-day running of the country is taken care of by the 16 federal states. The economy is doing well, with exports booming and a healthy surplus. Even the immigration problem is not acute right now.
The far-right AfD party was founded in opposition to the bailout agreement with Greece. Its rise – and the loss of votes by the centrist parties – is attributed mainly to passions aroused by mass immigration. Both issues, naturally, concern Greece and are the focus of bilateral relations. But only coordinated action at the EU level will be able to deal with both effectively.
In their wisdom, the German voters have presented their politicians with a puzzle that is not easily solved. The collapse on Sunday of talks between Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats illustrates this. The many contradictions between the three would make any compromise little more than a continuing effort to balance irreconcilable differences, making effective government impossible. The options now are for the three parties to renew their efforts, for Merkel to lead a minority government that would depend on ad hoc support by other parties, or new elections. The first two options would mean weak government, the third would be a throw of the dice in the hope of winning certainty after several months of uncertainty. (That would be putting hope before experience, as the saying about second marriages goes.)
There is, of course, a fourth alternative, that no one in Germany appeared to want before or after September’s elections: a new “grand coalition” between Merkel’s bloc and the Social Democrats (SPD). As both members of the coalition lost votes, they have legitimate concerns that showing indifference to voters’ dissatisfaction would cost them even more support. SPD leader Martin Schulz has spoken of the need for the party to spend time in opposition to pull itself together. This would also preempt the AfD, which placed third in the voting, from becoming the country’s main opposition party. These are valid arguments but they also betray naive optimism. There is no guarantee that the SPD’s term in the wilderness will lead to renewal and not dismemberment. Even more serious, though, is the danger that if there is no strong government to draw up and implement effective policies, the extremists of the right and left will grow stronger, making it impossible to return to a “default position,” where today’s main parties might still have the strength to reconsider their decision to avoid a new coalition. Today they have that option. Later they may not. Also, both Merkel and Schulz should not overlook the fact that their two parties did win the most votes in September, coming first and second. The loss of a significant percentage should not negate the large numbers of voters who, despite the difficulties posed by immigration, did not see fit to deprive the coalition members of their parliamentary majority.
From this windy perch on the EU’s edge, with its long history of political misadventures and dead ends, there is a strong argument in favor of Merkel and Schulz working together to deal with their own country’s problems and joining French President Emmanuel Macron in leading the EU forward. Only in that way can they shape the political landscape for a second opportunity. Democracy is a wonderful method of government, but it can also be an excuse for not shouldering responsibility when this must be done. Merkel and Schulz may have every reason to walk away from today’s problem. But they will know, deep down, that any personal risks they may take are paltry beside the danger of leaving their country without effective leadership and the EU weaker.