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Germany’s ‘zombie’ Grand Coalition staggers on

Merkel remains Chancellor, heading a government of ghosts

As expected, the SPD leadership in Germany has now completed its U-turn by reversing the decision it announced after Germany’s September elections – that it would go into opposition and would not agree to another coalition with Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU – by agreeing to a new ‘Grand Coalition’ with Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU.

The explanation for this total reversal is set out in an article in the Guardian which supports the deal

……in last September’s general election, [the SPD] went down to historical defeat. As of writing, they are polling a risible 18% or so, not much more than the far-right newcomer Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Now you can argue that this is precisely because the SPD has been in government for so long – since 1998, with a break of only four years between 2009 and 2013 – and that a spell in opposition would do it good. And this is what the SPD’s youth organisation wants. They gaze with envy at Jeremy Corbyn’s populist appeal and dream of a rejuvenated party with a hard-left approach winning big in 2021 or 2025 and giving them lots of career opportunities, maybe in a coalition with the Greens and the radical Left party.

If I were a budding career politician in the SPD, I might think the same way. But for the present middle-aged leadership, four to eight years in opposition watching the rise of a new generation is hardly an attractive option. 

(bold italics added)

In other words, the primary support for the new ‘Grand Coalition’ deal from within the SPD comes from its veteran establishment, which wishes to perpetuate its leadership and its place in government even if this puts the SPD’s future in jeopardy.

There could not be a more straightforward admission that this is indeed an establishment stitch-up by Germany’s centrist political establishment against the SPD rank and file and Germany’s voters.

The Guardian article does say that one other reason why the SPD leadership prefers a coalition is because since the September election the party’s poll rating has fallen further, to a disastrous low of just 18% (I believe the actual rating is 17%), putting the SPD at risk of being overtaken by the AfD.

However the reason for that is surely that the SPD is not doing what it said it would do, and which is what its membership and electoral base want, which is oppose Merkel and the CDU/CSU, but is instead doing the opposite by going into coalition with her.  Given that that is so, it is hardly surprising that its voters are deserting it in droves.

In return for agreeing to go into coalition with Merkel the SPD has secured the Finance Ministry and its erstwhile leader Martin Schulz will now become Germany’s Foreign Minister.

Whether control of the Finance Ministry really is the great prize it is being presented as being is another matter.

Given that in my opinion the mini-boom the German and EU economies have been experiencing – which in my opinion is largely the result of the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing programme – has now peaked, possession of the Finance Ministry could easily turn out to be for the SPD a bed of nails, with the SPD being blamed for any economic downturn, and exposed to criticism if demands for further bailouts from Greece, Spain and Italy follow.

As for Schulz himself, possession of the Foreign Ministry now gives him the opportunity to advance together with Macron their joint hyper-ambitious agenda for further European integration.

That – far more than the future of the SPD – seems to be Schulz’s overriding priority.

Whether at a time when opposition to further integration within the EU is increasing throughout Europe – including within Germany itself – Schulz and Macron really can ride roughshod over all opposition as they jointly pursue this goal remains to be seen.  With the AfD and the Free Democrats breathing down the CDU/CSU’s neck, I would expect much of its membership to be opposed.

Nonetheless Macron has emerged as the one clear winner from the political machinations which have been underway in Berlin since September, which was not how it appeared would be the case when the results of the elections were first announced.

Schulz’s emergence as Germany’s likely future Foreign Minister also reduces the prospect of Germany agreeing to lift sanctions on Russia – increasingly unpopular within Germany and Europe though they are – and probably also means that Germany will take a harder line against Britain in the Brexit negotiations.

However it is important to say that neither the sanctions nor Brexit are where Schulz’s priorities lie.  EU integration is the subject which truly interests him, to which all other considerations – including it seems the SPD – must be sacrificed.

It is difficult to see how anyone comes out well from this affair, except possibly the AfD, which is now confirmed as Germany’s main opposition party and which will therefore gain further publicity as well as control of several of the German parliament’s committees; and Die Linke, which now looks well positioned to attack the SPD from the left.

Possibly if Merkel’s CDU/CSU poll rating continues to drift downwards – as I expect – then the Free Democrats will in a strong position to capitalise on that, especially amongst centre right voters in the former West Germany.  However I am not sufficiently well informed about political opinion in Germany to say that with any confidence.

What I can say with confidence is that the ‘Grand Coalition’ deal has been agreed without enthusiasm in order to perpetuate an exhausted government bereft of ideas which is obviously past its sell-by date.

The result is that the same gaggle of politicians who in September visibly lost support – Merkel, Seehofer, Schulz, Gabriel and the rest – are still there.

Even Alan Posener, the author of the Guardian article, admits that Merkel looks tired and stale, and is unlikely to remain Chancellor for very long

…..the loser in the poker game of the past weeks and months is Merkel. The only party that honestly wanted to govern with her were the Greens. The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) walked out of negotiations, and the SPD had to be enticed back with a deal that leaves Merkel’s own party without a single key ministry. Horst Seehofer, who is being forced out of his office as prime minister of Bavaria by his own party, the CSU, is being rewarded for his constant sniping at Merkel’s refugee policy with the thankless job of interior minister, where he can take responsibility for future terror attacks.

Everyone expects the chancellor to leave in the middle of her term and hand over to a successor. As the leader of a so-called Jamaica coalition between the Christian Democrats, the FDP and the Greens, she might have gained a new lease of life. As the leader of her third Groko, she looks tired. The concessions she has made to the SPD give superficial credence to the claims of the AfD that it is the only truly conservative force in the country and that it has stepped into the shoes abandoned by the CDU under Merkel.

If Merkel had accepted that the outcome of the September elections meant that she could no longer continue as Chancellor, and had resigned, then the outcome would have been better for her, and for her party and for Germany as well.

She would have left office with her record and reputation intact, whilst the CDU/CSU would have a chance to pull together around a successor.

As for Germany, following another election it would have had a good chance of gaining a strong and renewed government.

Instead Merkel’s decision to cling on, and the decision of the CDU/CSU and SPD leaderships to help her do so, has left Germany politically speaking adrift, with a Chancellor lacking credibility and authority, ensuring that Merkel’s last years as Chancellor will be unsuccessful and unhappy.

How that helps either Germany or the CDU/CSU I cannot see, but the key point is that at a time of growing international tension and instability, and of growing discontent within both Germany and Europe, it has left Germany with an exhausted and unwanted government which – save for Schulz’s integrationist dreams – has no idea what to do.

The result is that as in late Habsburg Austria and Theresa May’s Britain, in Germany administration is about to replace government.

As for the AfD, whether it really is the ultra right wing crypto-fascist anti democratic party which some say, or is simply a conservative party with a more right wing and radical edge, I do not know, though I suspect that it contains elements of both those things.

However if the priority of Germany’s centrist establishment is to prevent its rise, then the proper way to do it is to take it on in an election.

Instead, by pulling out all the stops to avoid an election which polls show most Germans want, Germany’s centrist establishment is giving every impression of running scared of it.

That – taken together with the decision to cede to AfD the opposition role in the Bundestag and the chair of important committees – ensures that the AfD will continue to gain credibility, popularity and support, rather than lose it.

The ‘Grand Coalition’ deal Schulz has just forged with Merkel still has to be approved in a ballot by the SPD’s membership.  There remains an outside chance they may reject it.

For Germany’s and the SPD’s sake it is to be earnestly hoped that they do.

POSTSCRIPT: No sooner had I finished writing the above then news came through that Martin Schulz, the SPD’s erstwhile leader, has been forced by what the Financial Times calls a “furious backlash” in his party to abandon his plan to become Germany’s Foreign Minister.

Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz said he will not serve as foreign minister in Germany’s new coalition government, after coming under intense pressure from his own party to give up the role.

Mr Schulz faced a wave of anger from across the SPD after taking the job, despite vowing never to serve in a cabinet led by Angela Merkel. Senior Social Democrats said the volte-face left the party with a huge credibility problem just as it launches a nationwide poll of its 460,000 members over the coalition agreement clinched this week with Ms Merkel’s conservatives.

In a statement on Friday, Mr Schulz said the discussion of his role was “endangering a successful vote”, and said he hoped that by giving up the foreign ministry, he could bring an end to the personnel discussions inside the SPD”. “We all do politics for the people in this country,” he said, “so it’s appropriate that my person ambitions should take a back seat to the interests of the party”.

His move comes after he was subject to a blistering attack from Germany’s serving foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who accused him of a breach of faith by taking his job.

Mr Gabriel told the Funke media group that he had been a successful and popular foreign minister, but “the new SPD leadership clearly didn’t care a hoot about this public appreciation of my work”.

Berlin has been in uproar since Angela Merkel’s conservatives and Mr Schulz’s SPD unveiled their new coalition agreement on Wednesday, amid widespread fury over the way ministerial posts were divided up between the two parties.

The 177-page agreement is designed to end the political deadlock left by the inconclusive elections in September, in which both parties lost votes to the far-right Alternative for Germany. But the deal has been overshadowed by the row over who got which ministry.

Conservatives are incandescent that the SPD, despite winning only 20.5 per cent in the election — its worst result in postwar German history — was awarded the critical finance ministry, which for the past eight years has been a fiefdom of Ms Merkel’s CDU.

In the SPD, the anger over Mr Schulz’s appointment at foreign minister was, if anything, even greater……

This row and Schulz’s decision to give up the Foreign Ministry underlines the fact that trying to perpetuate the ‘Grand Coalition’ government which lost so much support in September is an extremely bad idea.

The fact that Schulz has been forced to go, and the angry reaction to the ‘Grand Coalition’ deal on the part of many within both the SPD and the CDU/CSU, may be a sign that the deal is starting to unravel.

If the deal does go ahead and a ‘Grand Coalition’ government is patched together nonetheless, then all I will say is that Schulz’s departure robs the government of the one individual who did at least have some genuine goals and ideas – utterly misguided and unrealistic though I think they are.

That will leave the government even more a ‘government of ghosts’ than it was before.

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