The Berlin republic without a government


More than three months after the general elections Germany still does not have a new government. Public debates about possible government configurations are multiplying. Meanwhile, important decisions at the domestic and European level are stalling because of the political impasse in Berlin.

As 2018 beckons the political vacuum in Berlin invites New Year's resolutions with a sense of urgency. What is going on in Germany, the country associated with administrative stability and political predictability like no other in the European Union? Seeking answers to this formidable challenge has produced a new set of abbreviations in Berlin that are starting to enter the canon of political terminology in media and society.

First it started with Jamaica, the aborted four-party negotiations between the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Green Party. Then the return of the GroKo grand coalition between the conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD). Such a political arrangement has governed Germany during the past four years. It is unpopular among all participants, resembling more a marriage of convenience and was politically defeated at the polls in September 2017.

Because of this quagmire a new model under the term KoKo (cooperation coalition) has been introduced into the discourse, primarily by the SPD. It seeks to identify a number of policy priorities (e.g. the budget, foreign policy, refugees and migration) on which conservatives and Social Democrats could agree to garner majorities in the Bundestag, while avoiding a formal GroKo. Put otherwise, this arrangement implies a minority government that would be required to look for changing majorities for most legislative proposals submitted to parliament.

The sheer fact that the option of KoKo is being considered leads back to the political earthquake that took place in Germany three months ago, the consequences of which have yet to be fully understood by voters, the MPs they elected and the political commentariat in Berlin. Alas, not even the nuclear option of German politics is off limits anymore: namely, new elections during the first half of 2018!

Jamaica, Groko, KoKo, minority government and new elections now form part of the political vocabulary of citizens, politicians, entrepreneurs and journalists who only three months ago claimed that Germany was an island of stability and predictability surrounded by other EU member-states that were – often desperately – looking for the proverbial leadership from Berlin. Now it rather appears that desperation is a characterization that more aptly applies to the negotiators tasked with finding a new government arrangement for the Chancellery in Germany.

There is a prevailing sense of needing to change course in Germany. While the winners and losers of the September elections are still trying to come to terms with the voters’ rebellion, the little they can agree on is the shared sense that “we cannot continue with business as usual.” But the fact that a GroKo, which was politically defeated at the polls, is now back on the agenda is not only a reflection of the failed Jamaica deliberations.

The negotiators from the CDU/CSU and SPD are not united by a joint vision of how to take the country forward. What binds them together to – reluctantly – identify enough common ground is a deep-seated fear of the citizen as a voter.

This fear has a flip side that has not escaped the voters’ attention. If the losers of the September elections again form a GroKo as if nothing happened in the meantime, then a rising number of citizens will use their ballot to exert even greater punishment than in September 2017. Put otherwise, why elections are held and what a voter can do with a ballot has become a very critical element of solving the current political gridlock in Berlin.

But does the ongoing vacuum not reflect a bigger narrative about the state of play in Germany? What if the impasse in politics is part and parcel of a deeper development in the political economy of the country? In addressing this question, a number of examples may illustrate the magnitude of change and challenges that policy-makers face in Germany today.

The outcome of the elections in September was strongly influenced by the twin issue of refugees and migration. As is increasingly becoming apparent, the “welcome culture” of mid-2015 has been overtaken by thorny issues such as limiting the number of arriving refugees, curtailing family reunification and expediting deportations. The judicial system in Germany, municipal administrations and regional authorities are emphasizing that their respective capacities are at breaking point, not capable of handling the sheer number of (rejected) asylum seekers.

But the refugee and migration challenge is not only about numbers. Rather, what legal courts, mayors and regulators articulate are the consequences of the “loss of control” that became evident in the “welcome culture” of 2015. Many citizens – angrily or within reason – now associate those summer months two years ago with a decline in the rule of law, non-functioning state entities and absent border authorities.

For a society like Germany the experience or (retroactive) perception that state institutions are losing control and cannot deliver is political dynamite. Moreover, this experience is not only associated with refugees and migrants during the past two years. In the minds of many Germans (in particular women) the traumatic experience of being sexually assaulted at the central train station during New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2015/16 remains a very raw and painful memory.

Acompletely different encounter with a loss of control was the terrorist attack carried out by the Tunisian Anis Amri at a Christmas market in Berlin a year ago. The relatives of the 12 people killed in the attack have publicly expressed anger at the federal German authorities, how slow they are to respectfully address their loss. The violent events surrounding the G20 summit in Hamburg in June last year left residents in the city and beyond with the impression that the police had temporarily lost control of streets and neighborhoods to self-styled anarchists and widespread looting.

The debacle of building the new Berlin airport is by now legion. Already delayed by more than two years, citizens in the German capital and international observers ask why it is taking so long to open a new international airport. Similarly, in the southern city of Stuttgart, the hugely controversial modernization of the central train station – the “Stuttgart 21” project – will take much longer than planned and already exhibits exorbitant cost overruns.

If major infrastructure projects cannot be completed on time and within budget, should we then be surprised that the project of forming a new government in the Berlin republic is taking so long? Put otherwise, are these failing airport and central train station projects, the inability to apprehend an Islamist terrorist who was on a police watch list, or the increasingly visible burden of managing the refugee and migration challenge the reflection of a much deeper malaise in Germany?

Much is in flux in Germany and the direction these developments are taking is not at all promising. To expect or articulate the need for “German leadership” under these circumstances and uncertainties is illusionary at best and politically naive at worst. We have many reasons to prepare ourselves sooner rather than later for a prolonged political vacuum in Germany. Once we have a new government in Berlin, a sigh of relief may be in order in Paris, Brussels and Athens. But don’t expect any miracles thereafter and hold back on calls for German leadership.

* Jens Bastian is an independent economic consultant and financial sector analyst. Between 2011 and 2013 he served as a member of the Task Force for Greece in Athens, set up by the European Commission.