Reports of the death of German stability are greatly exaggerated

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Does anything reveal Germany’s intransigence to the Anglo-Saxons like the hysterical English coverage of the country’s political ban? By the clear standards of German politics, the Free Democrats’ (FDP) unexpected withdrawal from coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the environmentalist Greens on Sunday night is a major setback. But really –really– not the “biggest political crisis in Germany since 1945”. It is not “even bigger than the ongoing UK crisis”. Britons don’t have to “look at Germany […] to see real political chaos.” The country is not in danger of going back to a “nationalist crouch”. It is not at all in “meltdown”.

The comparison with Britain is useful. London is staking the health of all its trade and geopolitical relations on the dubious claims of a handful of political spies who have been serially disproved and are moving into territory that is not​​​​ anyone seems to have an idea, including hucksters, how to navigate. Germany’s problem, on the other hand, is endless coalition negotiations – a novelty in the federal republic, as the country’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in his measured speech yesterday , but one for which the constitution regulates and resolves clear procedures. Exports are booming, growth is strong and the state is running over €20bn ($23bn). One factor in the breakdown of the talks was a disagreement over how to spend all that money. Britain could use such a problem.

The reality in Germany is as different from a well-fed, deer-in-the-headlines shemozzle in British politics as it is from the biggest crises in the country’s recent history. It is not comparable to political upheaval, for example, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961; that Willy Brandt’s chancellorship fell in 1974 due to a spy scandal; of the “German Autumn” of 1977 when the Bonn government seemed powerless against bombings, kidnappings and assassinations; on the crisis of Helmut Kohl’s chancellorship amid grant scandals in the 1990s; of the weekly mass demonstrations during the unemployment boom of the early 2000s.


Although it is a headache for Mrs Merkel, the deadlock in Berlin is a sign of Germany’s representative democracy working properly. The country’s society has become more pluralistic in recent years, so the system has produced more parties (seven, up from four) by parliamentary mandate to represent that diversity – a valuable tool for change. which is rare in majority electoral systems in the Anglo-Saxon world. , but which forces him to create a government fiddler.

The unique situation of the current crisis belies the idea of ​​democracy in crisis. The Social Democrats (SPD) refuse to form another government with the CDU/CSU. But maybe it’s not a bad thing that the “grand coalition” isn’t rolled over semi-automatically and forever. In Austria, where that has been the norm for decades, the government is sclerotic and politics is under the influence of far-right extremism.

And while the CDU/CSU and the Greens insist (surprisingly) that it was possible to make an agreement with the FDP and pooh-pooh the latter’s claim that they “had ‘To protect Germany from a chaotic government’, the flounce spoke of personality conflicts and a lack of trust between the parties. after four weeks of negotiations. Better to learn this now than in the early months of a new government, which was not expected to move. It’s also worth noting that the clash helpfully counters the populist narrative that Germany’s mainstream parties are just a homogenous blob.

The two paths available now culminate in a workable solution. A minority government, while not Mrs Merkel’s preferred choice, would be relatively secure once in place: the Bundestag cannot easily dismiss a minority chancellor, which itself cannot dissolution without the chancellor’s permission. Both the SPD and the FDP have indicated that they would provide constructive support for such a government in separate votes. This arrangement would be new to German federal politics, albeit a short-lived, but minority government successfully running North-Rhine Westphalia, the country’s largest state, from 2010 to 2012. push through education reforms and improve public finances. Mrs. Merkel, a skilled and single-minded salesperson, would have a good chance of doing one job in Berlin.

The other path leads to new elections, her preferred option. These could break the terror. Snap polls taken yesterday suggest voters could punish the FDP for walking out. They might even allow the parties to tackle scary topics, such as the future of the eurozone, which disappointed in last summer’s sleepy election campaign. The worst case scenario for many in Europe would be if the elections were to go back and Mrs Merkel was kicked out; without a doubt a wonderful time, but in reality just an accelerated performance leaving already on the horizon. German observers were expressing the twilight of her chancellor long before Sunday night.


It may take a few months to resolve the current situation. But let’s avoid talking too much about the German government. The country’s suspended government – the next life of the CDU / CSU-SPD coalition that often seemed to run on autopilot anyway – is working smoothly. Most day-to-day services (schools, infrastructure, policing) are provided by the Lander, or states. Recently the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium have gone 7, 10 and 18 months respectively without a government, in each case enjoying growth over that period. And Mrs Merkel’s legitimacy is undisputed; she remains the second most popular politician in Germany after Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the Bundestag. A snap poll yesterday showed that 58% of voters want her to stay on as chancellor. In her party recent events have, if anything, been strengthened by the fact that ranks have closed.

All this helps explain why the DAX stock market index rose in Frankfurt yesterday (it’s up another 1% today at the time of writing) and why the media is here mostly sanguine. “We can deal with some uncertainty” ran a statement Der Spiegel; “A national crisis? Almost,” she joked Zeit’s death; “Strength lies in chaos”, begins a cautiously optimistic statement in the present day Die Welt (repeating what Mrs Merkel said “Strength lies in tranquility”). In the words of Mr. Schäuble – not a man who knows about promotion – Germany is facing a test, not a crisis.

It would be foolish to deny that Germany is bad news for Europe, which has been distracted by domestic politics for several months. A lengthy process of government formation in Berlin is narrowing the rare window next year between major elections in which the EU and the eurozone can make major decisions about the future. Reforms to the monetary union, common solutions to the migration crisis and Brexit will all be on the agenda at next month’s summit in Brussels, for example, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, calls for agreement on further euro zone integration. by next June.

Nevertheless, by talking about Germany’s ability to act now, it is possible to overstate its willingness to do so in the past. Take those top priorities. Mrs Merkel has long been skeptical of the kind of eurozone integration demanded by France’s Emmanuel Macron, wary of sweeping plans to reshape the EU’s border regime and unmoved on Brexit. (speed of reporters based in London, she was never close to intervene. improve the available conditions). There is a very narrow gap between Germany’s negotiating position at the upcoming summit and what it would have been like if Mrs Merkel had won a landslide victory in September and formed a coalition within days. A deadlock in Berlin does not deny​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Europe​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​front.

This speaks to the wider folly of the “Germany in meltdown” tendency, which imagines the country’s current strength and prosperity as the result of ambitious leadership, even multiple -active. Doing so gives too much credit to Mrs Merkel and her allies at the same time. It overlooks the vision and drive of Germany’s political class but it also overlooks the country’s fundamental stability, how little shock (in the short term, at least) its state and economy need. and the intricate balancing acts that go into her multi-party governments. The current uncertainty may last for some time. But it will also show the effective operation of a sophisticated constitutional democracy, in a successful country that would have had most of its problems trade off immediately.

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