Let no one be in any doubt: the responsibility for the breakdown of Germany’s coalition talks lies with Angela Merkel, and her failure has brought the end of her political career much closer.
Given Merkel’s success in delivering full employment at home and broadly reconciling Europe to German leadership over the last decade, that’s bad for Germany.
It’s even worse for Europe, given her success in holding the Eurozone together, in stiffening Europe’s spine in the face of Vladimir Putin’s provocations, and in leading a coherent defense of the EU’s integrity against populist surges from the U.K. to Poland and Italy.
Most of the criticism in Germany this morning is being aimed at the pro-business Free Democratic Party, whose leader Christian Lindner triggered the collapse of talks by walking out late on Sunday evening, in a huff over immigration, tax cuts, and environmental policy. But the reality is that a strong leader at the helm of Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc, which polled 32.9% in September compared to the FDP’s 10.7%, would never have allowed the tail to believe it could wag the dog.
The source of that weakness is, ultimately, the 2015 migrant crisis. Merkel’s ‘welcome policy’—a huge shift to the center for what is notionally Europe’s largest conservative party—left a gap on the right wing that has been filled by the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Anxiety over further losses to the AfD, especially at next year’s state elections in Bavaria, has stopped Merkel imposing her more liberal world view on her uppity junior partners.
What happens next is out of Merkel’s control. The Bundestag will have three chances to elect a Chancellor over the coming weeks. The first two rounds of voting would demand an majority of votes, something that Merkel doesn’t have. After the third vote, Germany’s President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, can either appoint the CDU/CSU leader to head a minority government, or dissolve the chamber and call new elections (something that would be a first for the Federal Republic).
Germans may prefer a minority government to new elections, with or without the Greens who were the other party to the coalition talks. The corollary of that is an enfeebled fin de règne in which Merkel defends a centrist legacy against attacks from both sides, accompanied by a gradual loss of party discipline as potential successors jockey for position.
Some such as France’s new President Emmanuel Macron may see that as an opportunity to restore a balance within Europe. In reality, however, the EU has no substitute for German leadership. Without a clear voice from Berlin, the EU will simply find it harder to articulate policies to deal with the suppression of civil rights in central Europe, the splintering of the single market through Brexit and—heaven help us—a possible renewal of the Eurozone crisis amid as global interest rates turn higher.
For all his misplaced self-importance, Lindner’s diagnosis last night went to the heart of German and European political divisions that are only being papered over by an admittedly strong upswing in the economic cycle.
“The four partners in the conversation weren’t able to develop a common vision for the modernization of our country or, above all, a common basis of trust,” Lindner said. “We don’t know what’s store for Germany, in Europe and in the world, in the coming years, but if four partners aren’t able to work out a common plan even for what can be foreseen…that doesn’t suggest that they will be able to react appropriately to what can’t be foreseen.”
But the one thing that virtually no one had foreseen was that Merkel, the master of compromise, would suddenly lose her touch. If this were just the waning of a single politician’s star, the consequences might not be so serious. The worry is that the Federal Republic’s proud 70-year tradition of constructive consensus-building is under threat too, and that the legacy of 2015 is a Germany that has become fundamentally less predictable and harder to govern. And the consequences of that will be felt far beyond Germany’s borders.