thinkers

Merkel is back, stronger than ever

With a coalition deal secured, the chancellor can focus on building her legacy in Germany and across Europe

By Mick O’Reilly, Foreign Correspondent
17:03 March 8, 2018
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As a language, German has a near-unique quality to sum up a combination of feelings, conditions and elements in a single word. Add “umbehagen” to a list that would most certainly include zeitgeist, leitmotif and doppelganger.

Umbehagen describes the angst, discomfort and malaise being experienced by Germans at changing social and political scenes — the arrival and settlement of more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere would be one strand of this. And so too would be the rise of the right and Alternative for Germany (AfD), concerns over security and terror, or unsettling and disjointed noises and tweets emanating from the Oval Office over the European Union and Nato.

Both Merkel and Macron too will want to ensure that no other EU member will consider following the UK course and leave. The penalties will be severe and concessions few.-Mick O’Reilly

But at least one element of umbehagen has been erased. On Wednesday, nearly six months after winning German federal elections on September 24, Angela Merkel will be formally installed again as Chancellor. It has taken that long for Merkel to reach a coalition deal with political opponents to her Christian Democrats (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) last week endorsed another grand coalition deal. Of the roughly 465,000 members of the SPD eligible to vote on the coalition deal, almost 240,000 backed the so-called ‘GroKo’ on a turnout of 363,494. The approval rating for the deal was at 66 per cent, a full 10 points lower than those who approved a previous GroKo in 2013. Clearly, SPD members too are suffering from umbehagen.

The Young Socialists wing of the SPD had actively campaigned against the GroKo, arguing that the oldest political party in Germany, one that dated back to 1871 and the days of Otto von Bismarck and has survived the rule of the Nazis, was being subsumed by eight years of coalition deals backing Merkel. Before the cut off for the coalition deal, the Young Socialists had recruited some 20,000 new party members, a number that in the event of the vote being close might very well have scuttled the GroKo and severely curtailed Merkel’s political expiry date.

The SPD backing, however, now means that Merkel is clear to lead Germany for four more years — or indeed longer should she wish to do so. But what the process of coalition building has done is to set out two prominent CDU figures who might one day square off to fill the vacancy when Merkel does eventually decide to step aside.

Jens Spahn has long been a critic of Merkel’s style of leadership of the CDU — and has been mooted as a potential leader one day — but will now feel silenced by his appointment as health minister in the new government. And when it comes to replacing Merkel, he will likely face a very strong opponent in the form of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the chief minister of the state of Saarland. She was nominated by Merkel as the CDU’s new general secretary and is believed to be the chancellor’s preferred choice as her successor.

As it stands now, with the GroKo deal in place and Merkel’s next four years assured, that feeling of umbehagen might very well be shelved too. The new coalition government has a budgetary surplus that stands at €37 billion (Dh168 billion) and much of the agreed programme now means that a large proportion of that will be spent on social programmes and tax relief for all Germans. Middle-income and lower earners are to get tax relief, child care programmes and provisions are to be expanded and improved, Germany’s infrastructure will get a makeover and broadband internet services are to upgraded nationwide.

At SPD insistence, the new government has also agreed that it will crack down on the so-called “gig economy” — a growing trend in western Europe that sees companies treat staff as self-employed contractors rather than as employees — and will introduce prohibitions on the use of short-term contracts.

The sudden appetite for increased spending reflects the political reality that Merkel had to hand over the finance ministry to Olaf Scholz, the leader of the SPD and the outgoing mayor of Hamburg. The CDU/CSU will still, however, control the economics ministry.

While Merkel won praise for opening Germany up to more than a million refugees two summers ago, the influx contributed greatly to that unbehagen. The right of the CDU/CSU party ranks have been placated by the introduction of an annual cap of between 180,000 and 220,000 refugees. Significantly, family re-unification cases are capped at 1,000 a month — a move specifically designed to appeal to German voters who have made AfD now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag — the lower house of the federal parliament — in Berlin.

The deal now provides Merkel with an opportunity to remake the core of the European Union and, in French President Emmanuel Macron, the chancellor has a willing playmate. He is nine months into his term, has a strong majority in the National Assembly in Paris, and wants to change the nature of Brussels. Together, Merkel and Macron have common visions when it comes to defence integration and restructuring the financial footings of both the EU and the euro, the common currency used by 19-member states.

The new German government will increase its share of the EU budget — in part a necessity given the imminent exit of the United Kingdom from the club — and is touting the prospect of a singular budget for the Eurozone down the road. Along with Brexit, there are elections due for the European Parliament next year too, and both Merkel and Macron will push for reforms to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The ESM is effectively a lender to the Eurozone, underwriting loans and there to provide bailout measures if needed. Macron and Merkel want the ESM to be more formalised and fashioned like the International Monetary Fund — but Europe-based — and under the oversight of the European parliament.

Both Merkel and Macron too will want to ensure that no other EU member will consider following the UK course and leave. The penalties will be severe and concessions few. That’s bad news for any new Italian government and certainly too for British Prime Minister Theresa May. Unbehagen will be a German export to Italy and the UK.

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