Germany retreats into its comfort zone

A revival of the grand coalition, comprising Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD), is now back on the cards in Berlin: negotiations between the CDU/CSU, the Greens and the pro-market Free Democrats (FDP) broke down last week. A return to the status quo – the alliance that has ruled Germany since 2013 – may be the “neatest way to ensure stability and avoid fresh elections”, says Asa Bennett in The Daily Telegraph.

But since this was given a “collective two fingers from millions of disaffected Germans” at the ballot box in September, with nearly six million voting for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), such a move is likely to make voters even “more determined to secure change”.

It’s also a “humiliating” about-turn for Martin Schulz, the leader of the SPD, who ruled out “getting into bed” with Merkel only last Monday, having led his party to its worst-ever election defeat in September, says Bojan Pancevski in The Times. His original reasoning was that going into opposition was the only way to rebuild the party. However, MPs, “looking nervously” at the sinking polls and the party’s “depleted financial and logistical resources”, felt differently, says The Economist. And since members decide on the leadership at the party conference early next month, Schulz is in a weak position.

Schulz’s original decision was the right one, says the Financial Times, not least because a renewal of the coalition will mean that the AfD would become the official opposition and give it far greater prominence. Returning to the “comfort zone” of a grand coalition could also prove damaging for Germany in the longer term. The political system is beginning to look rigid – it may have delivered prosperity, but the formula “deprives the electorate of the alternation essential for any democracy to survive”. Many economists also think that despite its “outward health”, Germany is failing to modernise, adds Zeke Turner in The Wall Street Journal.

A minority government might be the best answer, says Andreas Kluth in Handelsblatt Global. Germans “panic at the mere suggestion”, but they should take a second, “un-hysterical” look. There are plenty of Western democracies, from the Netherlands to New Zealand, where minority governments work well. And what’s so great about Germany’s recent “stability”?

It has allowed Merkel to govern with “huge majorities” (80% of seats) and “without audible opposition”. The biggest decisions – on whether to rescue the eurozone, on refugees – were barely discussed in parliament. Surely a Bundestag that provides a “vibrant forum of democratic debate on the most pressing controversies of our time” is preferable? In effect, minority government simply means that Merkel must assemble a majority for any legislation she wishes to pass.

Her current attempts to preserve a “shaky coalition” don’t bode well for Britain’s chances of getting a “more favourable Brexit deal”, reckons Pancevski. Strengthening the EU will be a key requirement in any coalition talks for the SPD. Merkel could be forced to cede control of the key finance ministry to Schulz, as well as agreeing to “concessions” to the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who takes a hard line on Brexit and wants to attract UK businesses to France.

A grand coalition is “undoubtedly Paris’s best hope” for getting “serious” economic and monetary union (EMU) reform back on the agenda, says Mehreen Khan in the Financial Times. But even with a pro-EU junior partner and possible SPD finance minister, Merkel will face “considerable political constraints” thanks to the ascendant eurosceptic AfD and FDP, which jointly account for just under 25% of the German electorate. A “weakened” Merkel and a “bruised” coalition partner may not be the “ideal pairing” Macron had hoped for.