Angela Merkel and the German coalition talks – is it really a crisis?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Germany is not the ‘unstable’ country in the heart of Europe. The previous government remains in office until a new coalition is sworn in. Angela Merkel is likely to remain chancellor – at least in the short term. Even if the SPD grassroots reject the coalition agreement, it will not automatically result in fresh elections.”  

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Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) have now concluded coalition negotiations with the Social Democrats (SPD), publishing a 177-page agreement that SPD members will vote on. Following federal elections in September, attempts to form a coalition were rockier than usual and commentators talk of Germany’s worst post-war political crisis, which could spark a ‘political earthquake’ in Europe. But is it really such a crisis? 

Germany has been governed since 2013 by a grand coalition between the CDU, their sister party, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD), led by Martin Schulz. September’s election was disappointing for both parties, with CDU dropping 8 points to 33%, and the SPD falling to a historic low of 22%. At the same time, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the Bundestag for the first time with 12% of the vote, leaving them the third largest party ahead of the Greens, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Left Party.

Proportional representation means that coalition governments are the norm in Germany. Talk of a crisis emerged after CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens failed to form a coalition. Although Martin Schulz initially ruled out participating in another grand coalition, hoping to allow the party to rejuvenate in opposition, it was the only remaining option. Almost half-a-million SPD party members will now have to approve the deal by early March and approval is not guaranteed.

The situation is unusual for Germany. The collapse of talks was the first time coalition negotiations had failed in the country’s post-war history. Germany’s culture of consensus politics expects parties to exercise ‘political responsibility’ in contributing to stable government. It certainly poses the biggest challenge to Merkel’s chancellorship in her almost 13 years in office. Although her personal popularity ratings remain high, the grand coalition has left Germany without a strong opposition and created room for the AfD to challenge. The entry of a far-right party into the Bundestag for the first time since the 1960s is concerning, especially with their stated goal of disrupting Germany’s consensus-based political culture.  Finally, it has put French President Macron’s plans for EU reform on hold; a strong, reinvigorated Franco-German relationship is seen by many as paramount for meeting the EU’s many challenges. 

However, Germany is not the ‘unstable’ country in the heart of Europe. The previous government remains in office until a new coalition is sworn in. Angela Merkel is likely to remain chancellor – at least in the short term. Even if the SPD grassroots reject the coalition agreement, it will not automatically result in fresh elections. Only the federal president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier can call a fresh vote after a number of votes in the Bundestag – a constitutional system designed to encourage parties to work together. A minority government would be the first option, leaving Germany in a situation not uncommon in Europe. The AfD, moreover, enjoy less electoral support than similar parties have enjoyed in other parts of the EU. That Merkel’s chancellorship may be ending is not surprising – she has been in office longer than the other leaders of the G7 put together; the first German chancellor to lead two grand coalitions, let alone three. 

What does international coverage of current German politics tell us about external perceptions of Merkel and her country. The concern that Germany risks instability in Europe has echoes of the past. Comparison with the Weimar period raises the spectre of a dangerous Germany. Indeed, the British press has long invoked the Nazi era when reporting Germany’s role in Europe. Finally, as Joyce Mushaben notes, Angela Merkel has been dogged by speculation about her future as leader since the beginning of her chancellorship, continually described as weak and likely to fail – descriptions common to many female leaders. Germany is certainly facing some new challenges, but their severity should not be overstated. 

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