2. While Germany Slept

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*What many Germans hold in their minds

Many Germans may prefer the modesty and incrementalism that have characterized Angela Merkel’s past chancellorships. But a minority government forced to muster coalitions of the willing to address the critical issues confronting Germany and Europe could escape the constraints of such expectations, enabling much-needed reform. 

Lacking any forward-looking political visions, German politics has degenerated to tactical plays being carried out by established players. The CDU, in a War of the Roses with the CSU, can live neither with or without Merkel, while the SPD is unsure of itself and fears further political decline. None of this bodes well for a country whose parliament has already been diminished, after these three parties, during their eight years forming a coalition government, marginalized the opposition and failed to build up new leadership cadres.

Coalition agreements in Germany have always been elaborate documents of a quasi-contractual nature. But there is a growing tendency to plan out four years of governing, with leaders then using legislative periods not to debate laws, but rather to enact previously agreed policies.

Moreover, no major reform has been successfully implemented in Germany since the 2000s, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pushed through labor-market reforms. No forward-looking reforms of the caliber of Schröder’s Agenda 2010 were even attempted under Merkel in over a decade.

The CDU/CSU and the SPD are now pursuing a grand coalition that would keep Germany roughly on the same path it has taken during the last eight years. The 28-page agreement that will allow formal coalition talks to proceed is overly detailed, technocratic, unambitious, and lacks vision.

It is thus unsurprising that, though CDU/CSU and SPD negotiators have touted the deal as a breakthrough, many, especially in the SPD, are unhappy with the outcome, with some calling for renegotiation. The SPD now faces a choice: at its special party congress this weekend, its leaders must decide whether to join yet another grand coalition government that promises more of the same, or move into opposition, probably triggering new elections.

But there is another option, which many have ignored: a CDU-led minority government, with Merkel as chancellor. Freed of stifling coalition agreements with a reluctant SPD or a coldly calculating FDP, Merkel could choose her cabinet based on competence and vision, rather than party politics. She could even appoint ministers from other parties.

Most important, Merkel could finally tackle the important issues that have fallen by the wayside in recent years, to which the current coalition agreement pays only lip service. This means cooperating with French President Emmanuel Macron to move the European project forward; modernizing Germany’s public administration system; preparing the labor force for digitization; and tackling immigration issues.

Parliament is integral to success on any of these fronts. Mainstream parties must embrace the kind of open and constructive debate that nurtured parliamentary democracy in the Federal Republic’s early years, rather than remaining focused on political tactics.

Michel may prefer the modest policy initiatives and incrementalism that have characterized Merkel’s chancellorships. But a minority government forced to muster coalitions of the willing to address the critical issues confronting Germany and Europe could escape the constraints of Michel’s expectations, freeing German politics from party tacticians and enabling real and much-needed reform. In other words, the modicum of political insecurity Germany faces today may well be just what the country needs to give rise to new ideas and voices, and a better future.

HELMUT K. ANHEIER

*  The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at:   project-syndicate.org

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4 Comments

  1. The failure of coalition talks is unprecedented in Germany’s post-war history, and was likened by newsmagazine Der Spiegel to the shock election of US President Donald Trump or Britain’s referendum vote to leave the EU – moments when countries cast aside reputations for stability built up over decades.

  2. It must stick in their collective EU throats, This dam democracy thing, where the great unwashed actually have a voice in the running of their countries.

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