A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

What a Mess!

Coalition talks in Berlin have failed, which might mean new elections.

“Jamaika” won’t happen. Angela Merkel’s planned coalition with the Greens and Liberals has failed before formal negotiations could even begin. The German chancellor may now try to form a minority government, or there might be new elections. Either way, it’s bad news for Germany and Europe.

© REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

The blame game started right away. For four weeks, Germany’s politicians had half-heartedly tried to put together a workable governing coalition; now, they are energetically devoting themselves to blaming each other for the failure of these talks. None of this spells anything good, neither for Germany nor indeed for the European Union as a whole. “This night has produced nothing but losers,” Spiegel Online commented.

It was close to midnight on November 19 when the German liberals, led by an exhausted Christian Lindner, announced they were walking out. “It has become obvious that the four partners in the talks cannot develop any common idea of the modernization of our country and in particular cannot develop a basis of trust in one another,” Lindner said. “It is better not to govern than to govern in the wrong way.”

That may be true. Still, it was Lindner who actually broke up the talks, so Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc joined the Greens in pinning the blame on him. As a grey morning dawned in Berlin, all four negotiating partners were desperately afraid of the backlash from voters should new elections turn out to be unavoidable.

“It is a day of – at least – profound reflection on how Germany continues,” Merkel said. “But I wanted to tell you that as chancellor, as caretaker chancellor, I will do everything to make sure that this country is being led well through these difficult weeks.”

What Next?

What are the options now? The Social Democrats once again excluded another grand coalition, and none of the other parties intends to enter talks with the far-right Alternative for Germany. Merkel could attempt to form a minority government. If all fails, there would have to be new elections, but it is not at all clear whether they would be more likely to yield a workable government.

Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on the country’s parties to try again. His office is largely ceremonial, but on issues of calling new elections, the president does have an important role to play. “You can’t just hand this back to the voters,” Steinmeier said. “I expect everybody to be willing to talk.”

Yet Steinmeier has no actual power to force anybody back to the table, nor is Merkel the unassailable leader of even two years ago. Her Christian Democratic Union suffered heavy losses in the elections of September 24, mostly due to her policy on refugees. The failure of the “Jamaica coalition” – the parties’ colors are the same as those of the Caribbean island’s flag – leaves her in an even shakier position. Merkel certainly showed little public leadership during the now-failed coalition talks, adding to the unrest within her own party. In the run-up to the election campaign last year, it took her a long time to decide whether she even wanted to stand again. After twelve years in the chancellery, Angela Merkel increasingly gives the impression of having lost her appetite for power. In these grey November days, a sense of duty may be all that keeps her at the helm.

However, none of the other party leaders seemed very hungry for a chance to shape policy in Germany and Europe either. This is despite the fact that the German economy is doing better than ever, public coffers are well-filled, and EU partners seem more receptive to reforms than they have been in decades. But leading politicians in Berlin seemed far more concerned with the atmosphere within their party base than with their country’s destiny.

Germany, like so many Western democracies, isn’t just seeing its political party system fragmenting into ever smaller bits; it is also seeing each remaining bit, through a profound fear of risk, become increasingly paralysed. “Truly excellent news for our country,“ tweeted Jörg Meuthen, party leader of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). “The Jamaica experiment has failed before it ever started.” This coalition was a high-risk experiment to start with. The four parties involved only ever began the negotiations because the elections of September 24 did not yield any other majority constellation once the Social Democrats had ruled out continuing their coalition with Merkel. None of the partners had enough trust in any other – or even their own party members – to be confident about going into government together.

Lacking Trust

There was Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is in full panic because of miserable polls. After governing Bavaria for 60 years, the party could well be voted out of power in regional elections in 2018. CSU leadership, meanwhile, has become embroiled in a poisonous leadership struggle which made it all but impossible to agree to compromises in the Berlin talks.

Christian Lindner’s liberals, the FDP, have a different story. Their last coalition with Merkel’s conservatives – from 2009 to 2013 – left them looking so bad that they nearly disappeared off the political stage altogether. After their comeback in September, there is nothing that they fear more than being seen to sell out their ideals and policies for the sake of power.

It was the Greens who were the most willing to be constructive. It has been a long time – twelve years – since they were in government at the federal level. In the September elections, they did rather better than expected, so they were bound to be particularly wary of new elections. But in contrast to the time when Joschka Fischer ruled the party, the Greens today have competing leaders, which makes it very difficult for any of them to make concessions.

All of this led to a record-breaking four weeks of initial “sounding out” talks which never even ripened into proper coalition negotiations. Refugee policy remained a particularly thorny issue, as did public finances, but the key factor was a lack of will to actually govern the country together.

If there are new elections, it might take until April to form a new government. This isn’t just bad news for Germany, but for other EU countries as well, particularly France under Emmanuel Macron. For the foreseeable future, reforming the European Union is the last thing that politicians in Berlin will be thinking about.