German politics keeps surprising international observers. Following a rather boring campaign season seven parties entered the German Bundestag, including a new and openly anti-EU and anti-immigration party. Never since the first Bundestag was elected in 1949 have there been more parties; never have the two major centrist parties captured as small a share of the vote; and never before has a three-party coalition (to be precise a four-party coalition) appeared to be the outcome of the public vote.
But ‘appeared’ is the operative word. Jamaica coalition talks between the two conservative parties and the Liberals and Greens have broken down eight weeks after election day, creating yet another first in German politics. The dream combination of; sustainable economics, technology-driven innovation in education and public services, managed migration, social inclusion and more Europe, has now disappeared under a heap of disagreements and frustration. For the first time, the German political system appears incapable of delivering a stable, majority government.
Because of this uncertainty, and because of Angela Merkel’s apparent failure to secure a coalition of her choice, German stability and predictability is in decline, as is its leadership role in Europe. Angela Merkel’s international reputation and standing has also taken a blow. Her role was expected to become more difficult in a broader coalition, but now her credibility as a crisis manager who could deliver seems shattered. To lead in Europe, Merkel would need a solid majority at home; strong enough to support her EU policy decisions in Brussels that were unpopular at home.
Political fragmentation in the European Council will spread – Europe will become weaker through inaction from the centre
With that prospect quashed, she now faces some rather humiliating tasks. She has to make another attempt at bringing the Jamaica colours back to the table, and she has to approach the Social Democrats for talks about another Grand Coalition (even though the SPD has already ruled out entering government again). If these efforts to form a coalition fail, she will have to go through three attempts to be elected Chancellor in the Bundestag. If all three fail the Federal President could either appoint her as Chancellor of a minority government or, more likely, call new elections.
When Helmut Kohl triggered snap elections in 1983 by deliberately losing a vote of confidence, and when Gerhard Schröder did the same in 2005, their actions were criticized as excessive executive power. Merkel is in a much different position now, because she has not been elected Chancellor by the Parliament that would have to be dissolved. As caretaker she cannot ask for a vote of confidence. In this context, new elections would demonstrate her weakness rather than strength.
In European terms, the current standstill in German governance will continue. At best, a caretaker government could manage the status quo. French President Emmanuel Macron will not receive a response from Berlin on his ambitions for Europe any time soon. This is a major blow for his presidency, which campaigned on the promise of delivering immediate results at home and across Europe.
While EU politics lingers, political fragmentation in the European Council will spread. In the absence of an articulate ambition or tough agenda, centrifugal tendencies will prosper. Europe will become weaker through inaction from the centre.
Should Merkel eventually come back as the leader of a new German government, the strain of coalition building will have taken its toll: she can be expected to be even more cautious and pragmatic than before. The time of her uncontested dominance in German politics has ended, and so will her outstanding role in international affairs. In truth, the rules based international order has been leaderless for years now, for lack of strong leadership committed to the norms and processes of that order. To many Germans and Europeans alike, that loss went unnoticed as long as Angela Merkel was there. She may well serve another four years at the helm and equal Helmut Kohl’s 16 years in office. But, like him, she will have continued beyond her time.
Such considerations will keep German politics busy over the next few weeks. In Merkel’s party, the thinking about the next generation of leadership has received a boost by the failure of the Jamaica talks. Among the Bavarian CSU, the sudden loss of the disciplining effect of coalition negotiations in Berlin will lead to open disputes about policy positions and offices in Munich. Horst Seehofer’s grip on the party is crumbling, and he will be forced to resign as party chairman and Prime Minister soon.
Among the Social Democrats, the transition to a new generation of leaders and a new profile for the party will accelerate. Martin Schulz will not be given time to lead this process; it will roll over him and other lead actors of his party. Refusing to form a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats now will also raise questions about their campaign goals in snap elections. As a “Volkspartei” aiming to capture a wide range of political interests, they will have to campaign for a lead role in government despite having just rejected that opportunity.
The Liberals have gambled high — whether they have won or lost will only be answered in new elections. Their principle rival, the Green Party, may fall back into idealizing opposition. Its present leadership did everything to govern and skillfully built a broad party consensus on that strategy. Their quest for Greens in government has failed and may need years to recover.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.