The long and winding road to Jamaica

The indications are this new German government will struggle to take advantage of the foreign policy opportunities presented by this election.

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Six weeks have passed since Election Day in Germany. Yet the prospective coalition partners have still not dared to enter into formal negotiations about the essentials of their policy over the next four years. Not that nothing has happened, of course – there has been much informal discussion, seeking to identify overlaps in policy goals and preferences. Nonetheless, it will likely take at least another six weeks of negotiation to actually form a government – and that’s if all goes relatively smoothly.

Can Europe afford a three month gap in German policymaking? Can Germany spend this long on the sidelines and still claim to lead? And will the outcome be worth the wait?

Evidently, coalition building is becoming more difficult. As traditional centre-left and centre-right parties are losing support in the electorate in most western democracies, the forming of coalitions has become more complex. More fringe parties with their special interests and particular demands sit at the table, and majorities are harder to secure.

In Germany, coalition building has long been a necessity — all but one government since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 have been based on a coalition. However, at no time, the issue has been as complex as it is now, with seven parties represented in the Bundestag since the general elections of September 2017, forming six factions.

Four of these are negotiating the forming of a government — if successful it will be the first ‘Jamaica’ coalition between the two Christian Democratic parties (which traditionally form a common faction in Parliament), the Liberals, and the Greens. As such, much anticipation but also uncertainty accompanies the rather carefully staged negotiations.

In the first phase, the two conservative parties sought to settle their differences – mostly over immigration, asylum, and refugee policies. The second phase, currently under way, is labeled “exploratory talks”. These are meant to determine whether enough agreement can be reached to merit formal negotiations. This makes the exploration phase something of a face-saving operation: if basic agreement cannot be reached, it is far easier to walk away at this stage than during formal negotiations.

Before the end of November, the party leaderships will present the blueprint of a coalition agreement to their delegates or membership, which must be approved in order to move to phase three. Should this occur, Angela Merkel could be elected Chancellor in the Bundestag before Christmas and her cabinet members could be sworn in the next day, with the government running full steam on January 8, after the holiday break.

But should the formal negotiations fail, and should the Social Democrats refuse to enter into another Grand Coalition with the Christian Democrats (a popular position amongst the anti-establishment wide of the SPD), new general elections would take place some time in February. This would be another first in German politics.

As usual, the main stumbling blocks concern domestic issues, though several of those border (pun intended) on foreign policy, with immigration and asylum policy the most controversial. Here, the Bavarian Christian Democrats and the Liberals, who seek a more restrictive system, seem to pose the biggest obstacles to agreement.

Climate and energy policy is another controversy. Here it is the Greens who are rocking the boat, insisting on regulation that would go against the industry and employment interests of the Christian Democrats and Liberals. Digital transformation, meanwhile, appears to be the pet policy of the Liberals, meeting unease among Christian Democrats, who fear another shake up of the labour market, and resistance among the Greens on data privacy grounds.

Genuine foreign policy issues have been discussed only briefly so far. This is not for a lack of disagreement, but rather because of the lower priority allocated to international affairs. While this is normal in most countries, it should still give pause for thought for Europeans seeking German leadership on the global stage.

Europe has been dealt with so far in mostly consensual but vague terms. A Jamaica coalition will be pro-integration and generally in favor of stronger European capacities. Berlin will seek to manage Europe as before, pragmatically tackling one crisis after the other, hopefully aided by better policy coordination domestically. This is quite a contrast with Macron’s substantive and visionary speech at the Sorbonne.

Should the parties ever get down to talking real foreign policy business, some serious choices would have to be made. The Liberals would have to give in on their somewhat isolationist policy on Eurozone reform, where the integrationist camp within the CDU and the Greens find common ground. And the Greens would struggle with the prevailing arms export policy (though they tolerated it when in government with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005), a rising defense budget, and especially the prospect of more military engagements beyond Europe and more automated warfare.

Thus far, the indications are this new German government will struggle to take advantage of the foreign policy opportunities presented by this election.  There is no majority to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, and ambitions for projecting military force are limited. On relations with Russia or Turkey, a Jamaica coalition is unlikely to seek major changes, despite the strong words of Cem Özdemir on Turkey or Christian Lindner’s musings on putting Crimea on the back burner.

On Europe it looks set to continue the Merkel trajectory of visionless muddling through (often mistakenly characterised as a virtue). Berlin will not rally EU capitals with high-flying plans for more Europe. Instead, it will slice Macron’s plan and put pieces together to be tried here or implemented there, agreeing to much of the language but acting selectively on substance.

Finally, it looks as if a Jamaica government will fall short in terms of the crucial task of conflict management and resolution in Europe’s neighborhood. A comprehensive effort would be needed to address Europe’s Achilles heel: the tasks include securing the external borders, developing a common asylum and migration policy, implementing diplomatic and security initiatives to contain and end regional, conflicts, and taking action to counter economic decay and bad governance on Europe’s periphery.

The task is huge, and any plan would need to link internal instruments to external ones with no guarantee for quick wins. It would be a plan to shape Europe’s destiny by its own means — and that may be a step too far for the Germany of today.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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