Germany has a government! Well, not really. But we have a coalition! Well, not quite. We have two (three) parties that have provisionally agreed to form a coalition, pending the approval of the SPD’s membership. Cautious optimism, rather than celebration, appears to be the order of the day.
It has been a few difficult months in Berlin. I moved to Germany in September, and will leave in March. There is a good chance that the country will be government-less for the duration of my stay. This may be nothing compared to Belgium’s record 589 days without elected government, but it is quite extraordinary for the normally stable, politically rather boring Germany.
But at least we now have a coalition treaty. The SPD, led by Martin Schulz, today gave its provisional agreement (having ruled that out in the immediate aftermath of the election) to a treaty for a renewed grand coalition (the so-called GroKo) with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU.
For the CDU this was an expensive deal. Merkel may have gotten the chancellery, but the SPD has claimed the Foreign Office, the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Labour, as well as a few smaller ministries. There is little left for the CDU, which in terms of major ministries has just Defence and Economy to show for its efforts.
Most likely, the SPD got its way by pointing to the sword of Damocles hanging over the negotiations – the vote of its 460,000 members, in whose hands the agreement now lies. “Our members won’t like that…” must have been a common utterance over the course of the negotiations.
Of course, now that the deal has been signed, the Mitgliederentscheid threatens both parties alike. The SPD only barely got the support from its delegates to begin negotiations in the first place. It now faces an uphill battle to convince its base to agree to the resulting deal.
From the outside, the idea of SPD members voting against this agreement appears absurd. In 2013, 76% voted in favour of the last grand coalition agreement, which was tilted much more heavily towards the CDU/CSU. Given how poor the SPD’s electoral showing was this time (it secured its worst result since 1949) such a favourable agreement should seem like a gift from heaven.
Yet its chance of being approved is just 50/50. The Jusos, the SPD’s youth organisation, are vigorously opposed, and have encouraged their followers to join the party so as to vote against the agreement.
Since the new year the SPD has gained 24,000 new members – a truly remarkable figure. It is expected that a large majority of them plans to vote against the treaty.
The reasons for opposition vary from the strategic (the need to build long-term support by doubling down on the party’s core principles), to the personal (to deny Angela Merkel a fourth term), to the petulant (young voters lashing out at the mainstream old guard leadership).
Few SPD members, however, will vote against the agreement because of its European politics, which closely reflect SPD priorities. Indeed, Martin Schulz specifically thanked Angela Merkel and CSU head Horst Seehofer for finding compromises in this area.
‘Global challenges need European answers’
The coalition agreement is distinctly pro-European. Its title is “A new beginning for Europe. A new dynamic for Germany. A new solidarity for our country”. Europe is the first of the document’s 14 sections – whereas in the 2013 version, Europe came later.
Any German government was expected to be pro-European, but the tone of this text agreement nonetheless surprised many. “Germany owes Europe endlessly” is typical of the document.
But rhetoric won’t keep Europe warm at night. Which is why the sentence ‘we are ready to contribute more to the EU budget’, will be the most important one for Brussels. Given Brexit, that readiness is more than needed.
Other important proposals include:
- a framework for a European minimum wage
- efforts to restrict European migration with the aim of abusing social security systems
- the introduction of a ‘substantial financial transaction tax’ at the European level
- a leading role for Europe in climate protection
- specific funds for economic stabilisation and ‘social convergence’, and support for structural reforms in the Eurozone
- the development of the ESM into a European monetary fund.
France is mentioned 12 times, more than any other country. The agreement states that ‘The renewal of the EU will only work if Germany and France work together with all their force. Therefore, we want to further strengthen the German-French cooperation and renew it’, the agreement states.
Several of Macron’s proposals – from greater public participation, to Europe-wide standardisation of business taxes – can be found in the document. Der Spiegel declared Macron a clear winner of the negotiations, while AFD leader Alexander Gauland complained that he may as well have been invited to join the cabinet.
And yet. The devil is in the detail. There is no mention of a Eurozone finance minister. How much ‘more money for Brussels’ there will really be remains unclear. The document is cautious on anything defence-related. I wouldn’t pop the Champagne corks in the Elysee palace just yet – but some prosecco may be allowed.
As for me, I’ll postpone my drink until Germany actually has a government. Here’s hoping I will be able to raise a glass before I leave Berlin…
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.