SPD members vote for a grand coalition

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Members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) have backed a new coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), their Bavarian sister party. That ends the long months of the German coalition – the election was held on September 24 – and gives Europe’s largest economy a stable government. It will also confirm Mrs Merkel’s reappointment as chancellor, which is expected to take place in the Bundestag on 14 March.

Insiders had long expected that the SPD delegates’ vote in January on whether the party should even hold formal talks with the CDU/CSU would be the highest hurdle (it was cleared with 56.4% of the votes ). But nerves nevertheless rose a few weeks ago. The Young Socialists, the youth wing of the SPD, had been campaigning energetically for a “no” vote, arguing that another “grand coalition” (or “GroKo”, which has been ruling the Germany for eight of Mrs Merkel’s 12 years as chancellor) would further damage the party, which suffered its worst result in the history of the federal republic last September. They had even recruited over 20,000 new and mostly GroKo-sceptic members before the cut-off.

As it happened, however, the party leadership and the rest of the “yes” camp won comfortably. Of the 363,494 eligible votes (78% voted) 239,604 were in favor of forming a new government, or 66%. That was just ten points lower than the equivalent figure in 2013 – when the party was much happier to align with Mrs Merkel – and a testament in particular to the sharp campaigning of Andrea Nahles, its leader in the Bundestag who has been nominated to take over the presidency after Martin Schulz, the failed chancellor candidate, resigns. The party will elect its new leader at a conference in April.

Most of the spots in the incoming grand coalition cabinet have already been allocated. Olaf Scholz, head of the SPD service and outgoing mayor of Hamburg, will take over the finance ministry – which had been in the hands of the CDU under Wolfgang Schäuble since 2009. In return the CDU will take over the ministry of finance -economy and energy (which goes to Peter Altmaier, the financial financial service). minister) and holds both the defense ministry (still under Ursula von der Leyen, another Merkel loyalist) and the health ministry (which goes to Jens Spahn, a critic of the chancellor known as future CDU chancellor). Horst Seehofer of the CSU takes over an interior ministry that has been expanded to include “domestic” affairs. The only big question is what SPD figure the Foreign Ministry will give. It was earmarked for Mr Schulz but after he withdrew from high-level German politics it may remain in the hands of Sigmar Gabriel; Katarina Barley, minister of families in the last government, is also mentioned.

Issued before SPD members voted, the coalition agreement provides a detailed overview of the new government’s agenda. Much of it has to do with paying out Germany’s massive budget surplus, which hit a record high of €37 billion last year. Child care will be expanded, there will be tax cuts for middle and low earners, more investment in infrastructure and an effort to improve internet connections. The SPD is getting strict new limits on the use of short-term employment contracts. Meanwhile the CDU/CSU agenda highlights the law and order sections: refugees will come in at an annual range of 180,000-220,000 and family reunification will be limited to 1,000 per month plus “cases of hardship”. Of a broader vision for Germany, and especially its place in the world, there is not much.

The only possibility is in Europe, on which the agreement promises an “awakening” of German policy, but is more vague in terms of details. Although it leads the document, that section is only five of its 177 pages. There will be close cooperation with Emmanuel Macron on defense integration and tax harmonisation. The new government will increase Germany’s contribution to the EU budget; he even foresees a euro zone budget one day. It supports the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism, the EU’s crisis firewall, into a European Monetary Fund under the control of the parliament anchored in European law, although it is not specific about what he should do this. Some early progress in this regard will be a priority for the incoming government: the strongest argument of the pro-GroKo-ers was that the coming months, with Mr Macron secure in Paris and in the run-up to next year’s European Parliament elections, offering a rare window for EU reform. A “no” vote would have closed that window before a new stable government could begin in Berlin (the plan is based on an initial Franco-German agreement in June). That, more than domestic political issues, is the biggest influence of today’s news.

The best lines of the anti-GroKo-ers were on the domestic front. A new grand coalition will not be particularly strong. The combined vote share of the regional parties fell from 67% to 53% at the election; with the further decline of the SPD in recent weeks some polls even suggest it would be below 50% today. Mrs Merkel’s fourth term will surely be her last; in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the minister-president of the Saarland appointed last week as the new general secretary of the CDU, many spying the chancellor’s favorite successor (and in Mr. Spahn, her most formidable rival for the top job). At the same time the largest opposition party in the Bundestag is the far-right party for Germany, which has gained support in recent opinion polls. Broader long-term trends, evident in the election, have not gone away: German politics is still fractured, society is still growing more unequal, culture wars are still gaining ground, the once powerful SPD is still in crisis and in the long run. Economic and geopolitical turmoil continues to loom over the comfortable home of Germany.

Despite that, today’s result is also a reminder not to be too gloomy about Germany. It took a long time to reach a new government. But a new government was reached. It will be stable and in some areas – Europe and investment, for example – the latter will be better. Mrs Merkel remains her country’s most popular politician and is once again looking well ahead of her departure date. Another wave of political obituaries for her today have been sent to the filing cabinet, for another day.

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