When I had lunch with a senior CDU politician in Düsseldorf on Saturday, there was no sign that Germany’s coalition talks were about to break down so abruptly, plunging the Bundesrepublik into a political crisis with no solution in sight. Sure, negotiations had dragged on for weeks, said the man from Merkel’s party, but that wasn’t unusual here in Germany. They’d probably drag on until January, but the participants would eventually work something out. The next day his comfortable prediction was confounded, as Christian Lindner’s Free Democratic Party walked out of the coalition talks. ‘It became clear that the parties weren’t able to develop a common idea of how to modernise Germany,’ said Lindner. ‘Above all, there was no mutual trust.’ Strong words. So what went wrong? And where does Germany go from here?
Forming a coalition of Christian Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats was always going to be a tough ask. On many issues, particularly immigration, the Green Party and the FDP are poles apart. The Greens want recent migrants to be able to bring their families into Germany. The FDP want to send illegal immigrants back. However, after September’s election, this unwieldy alliance looked like the only option. Merkel’s CDU came top, but with a reduced share of the vote, and the Social Democrats, who came a poor second, said they wouldn’t serve in another ‘Grand Coalition’. Normally, Merkel would have entered coalition talks with the party who came third, but the party who came third this time were Germany’s new anti-immigration party, Alternative für Deutschland. Since none of the other parties will have anything to do with them, Merkel had no choice but to try and build a partnership with the two parties who came fourth and fifth – the FDP and the Greens.
Merkel’s reaction to yesterday’s events was typically understated. ‘We believe we were on a path where we could have reached an agreement,’ she said last night. Yet the collapse of these talks leaves her severely weakened, and puts her future as Chancellor in doubt. Merkel has never been an inspiring leader. Her main selling point has always been her ability to get things done. The breakdown of these negotiations has undermined her authority. What’s the point in Merkel, if she can’t broker a deal between left and right?
It was left to the Green Party to voice the sense of outrage at Lindner’s dramatic walkout. ‘He’s chosen his own brand of populist agitation over political responsibility,’ tweeted the Green Party’s Reinhard Bütikofer. For anyone to the left of AfD (and in the current Bundestag, that means everyone) forming an alliance that shut outs the AfD is regarded as a patriotic duty. Lindner has upset this cosy consensus, and thrown German politics into chaos. So why has he done it? And what does he hope to achieve?
To understand Lindner’s actions, you need to understand his Free Democrats, a party with no British equivalent. Merkel’s Christian Democrats are Tory Wets, a party where John Major would feel at home. The German Greens are like the British Greens, albeit with much more support. The Free Democrats, however, are an alluring blend of left and right – socially liberal, but with Thatcherite fiscal policies: privatising state monopolies and lowering corporation taxes. It’s a pro-business party without the reactionary baggage. They want to reinvigorate the German economy and shake up the status quo.
But isn’t the German economy booming? Well, yes and no. The relative weakness of the Euro masks a lot of German problems, such as its reliance on old industries like car building. A lot of German profits are being reinvested abroad. In the crucial area of digitalisation, which will revolutionise every aspect of the economy, Germany lags behind smaller countries like Estonia. ‘The current strength of our country is a prosperity hallucination,’ said Lindner, in a recent interview with the Economist. Clearly, he clearly sees no point in serving in a coalition which will merely prop up the same old system. ‘It makes no sense to form a government that isn’t stable,’ he told the Berliner Morgenpost a fortnight ago. ‘I’ll put up with every shit storm.’
A shit storm is precisely what he’s started, and no-one in Germany has a clue where it will carry them. Merkel could try and form a coalition with the Greens alone – but it’d be a minority government, and inherently unstable. She could go back to the SPD, cap in hand – but that’d be deeply unappealing for both sides. Another election might be the only solution, but before that could happen the Bundestag would need to vote on whether Merkel should remain Chancellor, a vote she no longer looks sure of winning.
Spending a few days here in Düsseldorf has been a good window on this growing storm. The capital of North Rhine Westphalia (the most populous state in Germany), Düsseldorf is Lindner’s stomping ground – he comes from the industrial town of Wuppertal, a short drive away. Düsseldorfers may be prosperous but they’re also uneasy, alarmed by Trump and Brexit, and mindful that in September’s election, one in eight Germans voted AfD. There’s scant support for AfD here in the Rhineland, where the FDP are strong, but even the most liberal locals realise something has to change.
On Friday night, I had a beer with a prominent local SPD politician. He spoke frankly about the challenges posed by Merkel’s million migrants. Yes, Germany has been here before, he told me, with the Turks who came here in the 50s and 60s, but the big difference back then was that there were well-paid manual jobs in the old industries for anyone who wanted one. Now those steady jobs are gone, and the new industries generate fewer jobs, most of which require degree level qualifications and fluent German.
Lindner could have had a plum job in any coalition, so why has he rolled the dice, with no idea how they will fall? A cynic might suppose he sees an outside chance of becoming Chancellor – if not this time, then in the years ahead (he’s still only 38). To become Chancellor, he’d need to lead the FDP into first place in an election, something they’ve never come close to achieving, but AfD is a radical threat that demands a radical solution, and the CDU and the SPD both seem tired, and bereft of new ideas. Last time the FDP climbed into bed with the CDU, they were swallowed up by their bigger partners and spat out at the next election. This way Lindner avoids being emasculated by the compromises of coalition, and lives to fight another day. With his pro-business sentiments, he has much in common with Macron. Could he turn the FDP into the Teutonic equivalent of En Marche?
Yet there could be another reason for his bold gamble, apart from selfish careerism. He could actually have walked out on a point of principle. ‘Es ist besser, nicht zu regieren, als falsch zu regieren’ (‘It’s better not to govern, than to govern falsely’) he tweeted yesterday. For Germans, it has a certain ring to it, a bit like Martin Luther’s ‘Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.’ For Christian Lindner, no deal may well be a good deal better than a bad deal.