Out of Four, One? Why Germany’s “Impossible” Coalition Just Might Work
“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”
So wrote Lampedusa in The Leopard about a Sicilian aristocracy coping with revolutions in nineteenth century Italy. But this phrase could apply to twenty-first century Germany as well. Lampedusa’s insight was not that the clock could be stopped to produce some kind of political stasis. Instead, to preserve what is of value in the existing order in the face of upheaval, doing what was previously nearly unimaginable is necessary. After the September 24 elections, what will Angela Merkel do to maintain Germany’s and Europe’s stability and prosperity during her fourth (and almost certainly) final term faced with unprecedented domestic and international challenges to the liberal order?
The shock of a right-wing party now represented in the Bundestag requires extensive self-examination across the spectrum of all mainstream political parties. The fact that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) really did turn out to be an alternative for millions of Germans was not totally unexpected, but the size of its success—over 12 percent of the vote—was sobering. Analysis as to why that happened is the first step. The important follow up is effective response. For the moment, there remains a gap between these two steps.
Chancellor Merkel will now try to form a coalition government with the only option she has for now: four parties who did not expect or want to be faced with that task. Over the next several weeks, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) will face off with Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the CSU in a high stakes game of political poker. The negotiations will be difficult as each party has to come out of the game with sufficient evidence that they got as much as needed to satisfy their members after compromises are made. The German weekly Die Zeit called this potential set-up an “impossible” coalition, and as we know from Billie Holiday, “the impossible will take a little while.” Or after months of talks, it may even fail.
If that were to happen, the political stability of Germany would be endangered. The option of new elections would only result in a higher result for the extreme parties—both left and right. The remaining option might be a replay of the grand coalition of the CDU/CSU with the SPD—highly unlikely with Merkel as chancellor and with no guarantee it would solve any of the problems which have led to the current splintering of the political landscape, the rise of the far right, or emerging lack of faith in the liberal economic order.
So what needs to change?
Most of all, leaders need to avoid falling back on old shibboleths and instead embrace a sense of the underlying values and interests that unite these four parties beyond self-preservation. Assuming the four parties can pull off a coalition, there is a chance that the real challenges of the day will help them bridge differences and also inject a sense of reform and looking to the future rather than the stable present into the political atmosphere. The issues on the agenda are evident.
Forging a consensus around a workable immigration policy will be a priority. It will also be the first litmus test for the viability of the coalition. All four parties are discussing some form of a legal framework to regulate immigration and for dealing with asylum. The road blocks are formidable: the CSU insists on an upper limit to refugee admittances, something the other three parties reject. But achieving a common approach will be vital in efforts to sustain stability and security as well as Germany’s commitment to enabling a European-wide approach to this crisis.
Germany needs to face up to the perception and reality of social disparities and the need to modernize the platform of its economy. It is behind in digital transformation—something the FDP campaigned on successfully with young voters—and struggling with its efforts to bridge an urban-rural gap in infrastructure. AfD voters were motivated by immigration controversies, but not only that. Some were also concerned about their job security and educational chances for their children. There are areas of Germany that are “left behind” and not only in the east. Lessons from the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S. will help to remind what happens when those areas are not addressed.
The role and responsibilities Germany carries within the European Union need to be reframed. The four parties share a commitment to the European Union—with the Greens campaigning most strongly on a pro-EU platform—but differ on prescriptions for its future. Deeper integration in the eurozone to make it more resilient to shocks and more growth friendly would be an important start. And to do that the chancellor will first need to explain to a skeptical German public more forcefully than she has done before that the euro has contributed to Germany’s prosperity. It will also include sustaining an open and rules-based global trading system in which Germany and the EU can play a leading role.
That will require a closer than ever partnership with France, whose President Emmanuel Macron has called for a Europe that protects—that helps its citizens to master globalization—but without resorting to protectionism. Convincing the UK that its own future interests lie in as close as possible an economic relationship with the EU will be another priority.
The need for Germany within the EU to forge a common foreign and security policy remains a work in progress. The reaction to the mixed messages about U.S. foreign policy priorities sent by the Trump administration has rung alarm bells throughout the EU. Chancellor Merkel has called for a European response to strengthen its foreign policy capacities as has France’s President Macron. That includes leadership roles on implementing the Paris Climate Accords, dealing with the threats of terrorism, confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine, and projecting power and resources in flash points where it can. It will also require dealing with potential clashes with the United States over issues such as the nuclear treaty with Iran, the engagement in Afghanistan, an aggressive Russia, and the many fires burning in the Middle East. A realist approach—patiently identifying where U.S. and German interests overlap and acting upon that common ground—would be helpful. Appeals to common values will be less effective.
Whether the four players forming a coalition can find common ground on any of these challenges remains to be seen in the coming weeks. It is certainly not a sure bet.
Yet it is plausible that this mix of interests and agendas can inject a new dynamic into the political bloodstream of German politics. The frustration many Germans have felt with the composition of government is stoked by a perception of static responses to their concerns. That was the fuel behind the rise of the Alternative for Germany. But the fact is that the majority of Germans did not vote for extreme parties. Their message was that they support the mainstream parties—including returning the Free Democrats to the Bundestag and another shared turn at the helm of leadership for the Greens. But they now are waiting to see if changes they believe are lacking can be delivered by a new and untested coalition in Berlin which can do more than the same. Can it project a modern, liberal identity that is based on a digitally-driven and environmentally-friendly economy, one that is open to the world but mindful of its citizens’ need for help to compete in that world?
The 27th anniversary of German unification this week reminds us that Germany has overcome the seemingly impossible before when it united the former communist East with a West that had lived under the prosperity and freedom the EU and NATO helped oversee. A generation later, the task remains the same, this time uniting four disparate political forces for the greater good under a chancellor whose clear political gifts mean that success may indeed be in the cards.