After more than four months with a caretaker government, Germany finally looks to be edging towards a new administration – the grand coalition between Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the social democratic SPD.
The SPD has had to swallow its pride and perform an awkward volte face on its refusal, after the election, to engage in coalition talks. And there’s been all sorts of last-minute drama, with the SPD’s Martin Schulz forced into personal climbdown after climbdown to appease his own party.
There remains one significant hurdle (as well as some dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s, in the form of party conference votes): SPD members get to vote on accepting the final agreement.
Last time there was such a poll, 76% voted yes; this time, that is likely to be lower, but the signs are that, despite significant scepticism, the coalition will still be signed off.
A few weeks ago, that looked challenging: at the SPD’s conference in Bonn, just 56% of delegates backed a move to full talks. There are, however, four reasons why the leadership can be quietly confident.
First, SPD membership is relatively old (more than half is over 60), and older citizens are more likely to support a grand coalition, hankering after the stability of having a government in place. Moreover, although new members can vote, only 24,000 joined since the decision to start coalition talks (taking overall membership to 464,000) – a far cry from the huge increase in the British Labour Party’s membership when Jeremy Corbyn sought to take over.
Second, members realise a rejection of the proposed coalition would leave the party without an easy ‘exit option’ – new elections would likely see the SPD score even worse than the record low 20.5% it secured last year, polls putting it around the 17% mark. Then, the party could hardly stake a credible claim to field the next chancellor, and would also have ruled out joining a coalition government, leaving electors to puzzle over the point of voting SPD.
Third, the SPD has secured a decent deal on policies for the next three-and-a-half years. There was much internal criticism of the results of the interim talks (for instance, over a suggested upper limit on how many refugees Germany would accept – a proposal so problematic that Merkel refused to put it in her own party programme), in part leading to the near-miss at January’s Bonn conference.
For the UK, the new Foreign Affairs Minister is unlikely to be someone sympathetic to special pleading on the terms of Brexit, and an extremely hard line can be expected
This has partly been turned around – the party secured restrictions on fixed-term employment contracts, a tightening of rent controls, and a commission on achieving greater parity between private and state healthcare patients. No less significantly, the SPD has won control of several key ministries, including Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Labour and Social Affairs. CDU members are quietly fuming that they have traded the Finance and Interior Ministries for the rather less glamorous Agriculture and Economy.
Fourth, initially in return for the role of Foreign Minister, SPD leader Martin Schulz (re-elected just last year) decided to stand aside in favour of the party’s federal parliament floor leader, Andrea Nahles (whose impassioned speech was considered a decisive moment at the Bonn conference, in stark contrast to Schulz’s underwhelming performance).
The feeling amongst SPD members is that Schulz’s leadership has not been a success (his credibility was seriously damaged, having ruled out the SPD as a coalition partner for Merkel and, indeed, himself as a future minister), and with Nahles, the first ever female SPD leader, there is a better chance of having a strong profile.
German newspaper headlines were full of the protests of outgoing Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, at his removal from government – he was furious at Schulz apparently ‘breaking his word’ by taking on this key ministry himself rather than allowing Gabriel to stay in post.
Gabriel consoled himself with the words of his daughter: ‘Daddy, now you’ve got more time for us, and that’s better than the man with the hairs on his face!’ Just two days after announcing that he’d become Foreign Minister, Schulz decided not to take up the post after all, to help preserve party unity.
So where does this leave Germany, and its relationship with the UK? Barring a shock result amongst SPD members, there will be a new government, but the SPD can be expected to try hard not to be too ‘pliant’ a partner, having learned that being too close to Merkel costs it support.
In particular, this means the new government has just two-and-a-half years before ‘election season’ starts again, with agreement between the parties harder to realise.
Merkel, too, appears near the end of her tenure, with no great clarity about her successor’s identity (smart money is on Saarland state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer).
For the UK, the new Foreign Affairs Minister is unlikely to be someone sympathetic to special pleading on the terms of Brexit, and an extremely hard line can be expected.