The cases for and against a new grand coalition in Germany

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On Sunday Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) will gather in Bonn, by the Rhine River, to decide whether to proceed to formal talks with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Social Union allies. Christian (CSU). The choice will be made around mid-afternoon by 600 representatives in which groups represent each of the 16 federal states by population (the largest, North Rhine-Westphalia, sends 144).

It happens that the location of the conference, in the southern suburbs of the old West German capital, is within walking distance of Bad Godesberg. It was here, in 1959, that the SPD abandoned their old Marxist theories and embraced reform capitalism. This revolution paved the way for the election of Willy Brandt (pictured, above, addressing the conference in his capacity as mayor of West Berlin) as the SPD’s first chancellor ‘ federal republic ten years later.

To listen to some in the party, the Sunday meeting could be almost as bold; another turning point in the history of the party whose identity and purpose hang in the balance. It is no exaggeration to say that opponents of further talks with Mrs Merkel, led by the Young Socialists, the party’s youth wing, are considering another round as her com- young participants as a threat to the SPD’s survival as a prospective major government party.

As I describe in this week’s issue of The Economist, the battle between supporters and opponents of a new “grand coalition” has been hard-fought, and at times emotional. SPD insiders privately expect a majority, perhaps around 60%, of delegates to support the leadership and support the talks. But what are the main arguments on each side?

The case against coalition talks

The German election on 24 September clearly rejected “more of the same”. The general vote share of the grand coalition parties fell from 67% in 2013 to 53%. Voters are tired of the soggy consensus at the center of German politics, which explains the rise in support for smaller parties with a clearer identity: the Free Democrats (FDP) and Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the right, on the left and on the left. the Greens on the left.

Grand coalitions are supposed to be the exception in Germany but they have ruled the country for eight of the past twelve years. Another spell like this would fuel political discontent and with the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD, which would be the main opposition party in the Bundestag and thus gain the presidency. The powerful budget committee.

And what would a new grand coalition do? The preliminary plan approved by the parties last week is largely undesired and omits major SPD demands such as higher taxes on the wealthy and a consolidated public health insurance system. Although it was drafted mainly by SPD figures like Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament and now leader of the party, the division on Europe has long been star- knowledge and short on details. Crucial reforms in the euro zone, such as the completion of the banking union, go unmentioned.

SPD’s “no” to talks with Mrs. Merkel, it is true, could lead to a minority government, which is alien to the German system, or new elections that could cost the party more seats. But no expectation should inspire terror.

Minority government is not unusual in Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark, with political systems similar to Germany. Under such a CDU/CSU administration, the SPD could support the things it likes, such as more public investment and the push for Franco-German reform in Europe, from the front. Mrs Merkel says she would prefer new elections if the talks fail, but many in Berlin suspect she would opt for a pure CDU/CSU government, bringing in fresh talent to her cabinet, that she pursue a limited list of policy goals (such as agreement on eurozone reform) before stepping down ahead of new elections, perhaps in 2019 or 2020. That could work well for the SPD, and the renewal of German democracy.

In terms of this year’s new elections, the SPD’s current polling figures are a few points below the party’s result at the election of 20.5%, but may reflect the party’s continued flirtation with a grand coalition new. Saying no to Mrs Merkel would give him a new definition and perhaps a corresponding boost in support – like the one he enjoyed in early 2017, in the first weeks of Mr Schulz’s presidency. In any case, even 18% at an early autumn election would be better than falling to 15% or below at another coalition election after the grand coalition in 2021 – and the AfD to drop into second place.

Opposition is an opportunity for the SPD: a new generation of leaders to renew, promote and reaffirm their left-wing identity ready for the lively clash of ideas with the CDU/CSU after Merkel that the country so desperately needs. This, a real choice between left and right, is the best long-term answer to right-wing populists and the best foundation for an internationally confident and effective Germany. As Brandt himself said, it is time to “take a chance on more democracy”.

The case for coalition talks

A grand coalition would have a majority in the Bundestag. He has every right to rule. Moreover, it has a responsibility to do so. Neither Europe nor the wider world will “stand still” while the SPD reconciles itself (which it notably failed to do in its last opposition period, from 2009 to 2013).

New elections would waste precious months and would probably not change the coalition’s statistics, anyway. And a minority government? Germany is not Denmark. It is the largest economy on the continent. It needs a stable majority government and a chancellor who can walk into international negotiating rooms without simultaneously running negotiations with opposition MPs back in Berlin from her mobile phone. Furthermore, the new Bundestag has a centre-right majority, so every time the SPD withholds its support it forces the CDU/CSU to pass legislation with its support from one or both of the FDP and AfD. In reality it could end up with some of the government’s duties, but it has no effect.

In Europe, especially, timing is everything. It is hardly possible to imagine a French president more sympathetic to German values ​​and interests than Emmanuel Macron. His speech urging a new push for European integration days after the German election was a hand out to Berlin. On its own the CDU/CSU, parts of which are paranoid about anything resembling a “transition union”, cannot be trusted to take that hand – still less with the increasingly eurosceptic FDP at in terms of. Declining would weaken Mr Macron and energize French populists on the right and left. Don’t forget: France came within a few percentage points of a far-right presidential run against a far-left president last year.

It may not feel like success in Germany, but the next crisis of the common currency is only a matter of time. Many of the reasons for the latter – the “death loop” of banks and landlords, for example – remain unresolved. With Mr Macron still enjoying his political honeymoon in Paris, the eurozone economy doing well and more than a year to run until the next European Parliament election, there is a huge window good for a few months to start fixing the euro. – roof in sunny weather. A window like this may not appear before the next storm.

Yes, the provisional coalition paper was mediocre. But some tweaks and additions could be included in formal discussions. And it is not completely anodyne: guaranteeing all-day care for primary school-aged children, for example, would be a very good step in a country with lower than average female earnings. It also links the parties to a more lively discussion culture and anticipates a review two years ago. That might be a better time for early elections. As far as Europe is concerned, the paper is an improvement on the temporary agreements made by Mrs. Merkel on the subject with the FDP and the Greens in the autumn. He proposes a eurozone budget, for example, and expanded emergency firewalls. Especially if he wins the finance ministry in coalition talks, the SPD can commit and build on this agenda, possibly in line with the package of proposals published earlier this week by a group of French and German economists. Brandt, the author of Ostpolitik, would surely see this moment for what it is: a test of his party’s commitment to European realism.

Which side – which Brandt – is right? It depends on your priorities. If your biggest concern is the depoliticization of German civic life and the rising influence of the AfD, you could face a new grand coalition. If you believe that a quick Franco-German agreement on the future of Europe is more important, your inclination will be towards a “yes” vote. Management is his choice. So, too, is a way, not a rule.

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