Here we go again. More than four months after Germans went to the polls and gave both main parties the thumbs down, Germany’s Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have finally agreed the terms of yet another Grand Coalition. True, the CDU and the SPD are still Germany’s two biggest parties. Between them they still command (just) over 50 percent of the national vote. But it’s a bitter irony that these two centrist parties are back in power together, after both recorded their worst election results since the war.
Barring a catastrophe or a miracle (depending on your point of view) Angela Merkel will be Chancellor again, for a fourth term, but her centre-right CDU has made some big concessions. The SPD has retained control of the Foreign Affairs and Labour Ministries. It has also taken charge of the crucial Finance Ministry. Frau Merkel may be a fiscal conservative by instinct, but the people controlling her purse strings are now firmly on the left.
Merkel’s other key concession has been to hand over the Interior Ministry to the Christian Social Union. Superficially, this doesn’t look like much of a surrender. The CSU is the CDU’s Bavarian sister party – since the war, these two parties have always campaigned (and governed, when they’ve won) in tandem. The CDU never fields any candidates in Bavaria, the CSU fields no candidates elsewhere. However the CSU has always been more conservative than the CDU (if you know Bavaria, you’ll know why) and since Merkel took her CDU towards the centre, that gap has become a gulf.
The CSU were particularly unhappy with Merkel’s disastrous decision to let in over a million immigrants – many of them entered Germany via Bavaria, a good many are still there. The CSU were punished at the polls for their close association with Merkel’s open door policy, losing ground to Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s new anti-immigration party. Giving the CSU the Interior Ministry sends a powerful signal to German voters – that the new government will keep immigration under much tighter control.
On the face of it, it looks like SPD leader Martin Schulz has played a weak hand very well. Despite plumbing a postwar low of 20.5 percent in September’s poll (recent opinion polls put his party even lower) his SPD is now in a stronger position than it was before the election, even after losing 40 seats.
In spite of running a lacklustre campaign and receiving a tepid response from the voters, Schulz looks set to be rewarded with a leading role as Foreign Minister – an even more important position in Germany than it is in Britain. The voters took a long look at Schulz in September, and didn’t much like what they saw, but their rejection hasn’t hurt him. As a former President of the European Parliament, he’s a master of the backroom deal.
How did Schulz manage this unlikely coup? Simple. By refusing to blink first. Initially he rejected the very notion of a Grand Coalition, and sat and waited while Merkel tried (and failed) to do a deal with the Free Democrats and the Greens. Only when those negotiations broke down did he re-enter the arena. He knew then that Merkel would have to do a deal. An alliance with the SPD was the only alternative to a fresh election. Another election might have been even worse for the SPD than the CDU, but as Chancellor Merkel had more to lose.
If Schulz becomes Foreign Minister, expect him to take a tough line on Brexit. A Europhile to his fingertips, far more Federalist than Merkel, he’d resist all moves to give Britain any kind of ‘cake and eat it’ deal.
The other big winners in the new ‘Groko’ (as the Germans call these Grand Coalitions) are Alternative für Deutschland. With the CDU and the SPD back in government, as the third largest party in the Bundestag AfD now becomes Germany’s official opposition – not bad going for a party that’s still only five years old.
After one in eight Germans voted AfD in September, the two centrist parties are fearful that in the next election they may do even better. It’s this fear, more than anything, that’s brought the CDU and the SPD back together – to cobble together an alliance which they hope will last the full four years, in the hope that by 2021, the AfD’s populist bubble will have burst.