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POLITICS

OPINION: Germany is showing the world it can do grown-up politics

Germany's coalition talks may not be a picture-perfect love story, but the younger key players have a grown-up approach to politics, especially compared to countries like the UK or US, writes Brian Melican.

The Greens' Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock with the FDP's Volker Wissing and Christian Lindner put on a united front during initial coalition talks earlier in October.
The Greens' Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock with the FDP's Volker Wissing and Christian Lindner put on a united front during initial coalition talks earlier in October. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

So it’s official: the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) are an item. Negotiations towards forming a new German government with the Ampelkoaltion (named traffic-light coalition after their party colours) can begin. If you think this doesn’t quite sound like a picture-perfect political love-story, you’re right: it’s a not-uncomplicated start to what is by no means a marriage made in heaven.

Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the election just a few weeks ago, few thought it likely that the three parties would even get as far as these pre-nuptials – and certainly not so quickly. Now, the parties look set to be at the altar as soon as Christmas.

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You might also be thinking that “so quickly” is the wrong choice of words here, especially if you’re used to UK or US politics. This is, however, nothing more than the smooth functioning of proportional representation in a post-industrial society: it is easier to form governments when a UK-style first-past-the-post system weights in favour of two major parties; and it used to be easier to form governments in Germany when Germans, by and large, voted socialist in industrial heartlands and conservative everywhere else.

Now that the German electorate has finally discovered the full bandwidth of its ballot-box options, returning the two historical parties of government at around 25 percent and four smaller parties at 5 to 15 percent, coalitions need to have three participants to get a majority – and a menage à trois is never an easy thing to pull off. 

Germany learned from 2017

Anyone who thinks this means Germany is now suffering from severe political instability, however, should take a look west to Belgium, which regularly breaks records for numbers of days without a government (535 in 2010/2011 and, depending on how you count, 652 in 2018-2020), or indeed further west to the UK or the US, both of which are perceived as having ‘less complicated’ government formations. Yet these are viewed from Germany as nothing short of basket cases: currently, the UK government is unable to ensure the supply of basic goods and the US administration, for the umpteenth time in recent years, almost went bankrupt two weeks back. 

UK Prime Minister at the Science Museum during the Global Investment Summit on October 19th.
UK Prime Minister at the Science Museum during the Global Investment Summit on October 19th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/PA Wire | Yui Mok

Of course, even these flattering comparisons don’t give Germany’s parties carte blanche to mess about for months on end without actually getting down to business: they tried that in 2017 – and it didn’t go down well. After the waffling “Jamaica Coalition” talks between CDU/CSU, Greens, and FDP broke down, yet another ‘Grand Coalition’ with the conservatives and SPD was sworn in after 171 days.

This left an electorate which had voted for change frustrated, and the SPD on life-support; the FDP, too – which had come out of things looking like a highly-strung diva – had a near-death experience in the polls. It’s nothing short of a miracle, actually, that both parties are now alive and well and about to be part of the next government – and they know it. Indeed, 2017 goes some way to explaining why the three parties are, less than a month after the election and despite the clear policy differences, already getting down to the nitty-gritty. 

READ ALSO: 10 German words you need to know to keep up with coalition talks

Why are things going so smoothly in Germany?

In the weeks after the election a few things happened which I – and others – did not see coming. Firstly, after coming out all guns blazing on election night, CDU Leader Armin Laschet was eventually forced, both by public pressure and by many in his own party, to back down and admit defeat. Given the Union’s previously shameless attitude to staying in government despite mounting electoral losses – Helmut Kohl campaigned for a fifth(!) term in 1998, Angela Merkel proved immune to criticism in 2017 – the sheer speed with which the centre-right CDU/CSU moved through the phases of grief into depression/acceptance was surprising.

On the face of it, this CDU/CSU implosion left the FDP with what I called “the unenviable task of having to explain to its primarily right-of-centre supporters why helping an SPD Chancellor and lots of lefty Greens into power is what they voted for”. In reality, though – second surprise – it freed FDP leader Christian Lindner up: as they watched their preferred Union bedfellows disintegrate, FDP supporters shifted their support to safe-pair-of-hands SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz.

ANALYSIS: Who were the real winners and losers of Germany’s election?

Lindner, of course, is the real winner – and has the skill to play the fresh hand he has been dealt. His deft pivot can best be observed in his use of the word Fantasie, or “imagination”. Prior to the election, he repeatedly claimed that a traffic-light tie-up was “beyond his imagination”(Mir fehlt die Fantasie). On Friday he declared – with a wink to future historians – that the preliminary talks had indeed broadened his political imagination.

FDP leader Christian Lindner walks with a spring in his step ahead of coalition negotiations in Berlin.
FDP leader Christian Lindner walks with a spring in his step ahead of coalition negotiations in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

The young team take a fresh approach

For all Lindner is the key figure here, however, it would be wrong to neglect the third surprising post-election development: turns out, SPD, Green, and FDP negotiators get along like a house on fire! And when you observe them, you can see why. Anyone who listens, for instance, hears: nothing. Or at least nothing they shouldn’t. That’s because the three parties have built up trust by agreeing confidentiality – and then actually sticking to it. 

When you watch the traffic-light negotiator team, you suddenly realise how young they are (and yes, in German politics, the 30-50 age bracket does count as “young”). The only visible grey hairs are to be found in Lindner’s beard (Olaf Scholz rarely takes part at this stage and is bald anyway), and besides plenty of social media smarts, they are united by a quite different approach to negotiations. Whereas Merkel and the baby-boomers’ preferred modus operandi was to lock everyone in a room from early evening onwards and see who cracked first in the small hours, Robert Habeck et al make a point of starting talks at 10am and trying to avoid essay-crisis-style all-nighters. 

And so, while the romance of a political love-story is nowhere to be seen – no Downing Street rose gardens, no Berlin balconies late at night – this three-way marriage is looking like an unexpectedly stable prospect.

Negotiations are certainly going to be complex – with national debt rocketing, there’s no dowry to speak of, yet two of the parties want to take out a very large mortgage with a penny-pinching third party – but away from economics, the parties have lots of common ground, e.g. vis-à-vis immigration, cannabis liberalisation. And how does that old adage go? “Marry in haste, repent at leisure?” There’s no haste here – and no dawdling either. All in all, it’s a pleasant surprise.

READ ALSO: The five biggest hurdles for Germany’s coalition talks

Member comments

  1. Is Christian Lindner wearing trainers with a suit? I really hope i’m mistaken, but if this is the case this man should not be allowed anywhere near the Bundestag. This would never have happened under Frau Merkel!

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

EU sees trouble but no breakdown with Italy far-right in power

The potential emergence of a far-right government in Italy has put the European Union on alert for disruptions, with fears that unity over the war in Ukraine could be jeopardised.

EU sees trouble but no breakdown with Italy far-right in power

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni and the League’s Matteo Salvini are slated to be the big winners in Sunday’s general election on a firmly “Italians First” agenda, in which officials in Brussels largely play the role
of the bogeyman.

The biggest worries concern the economy.

Italy’s massive debt is seen as a threat to European stability if Rome turns its back on the sound financing championed by outgoing prime minister, Mario Draghi, a darling of the EU political establishment.

A victory by Meloni and Salvini would follow fast on an election in Sweden where the virulently anti-migration and eurosceptic Sweden Democrats entered a ruling coalition, just months before the Scandinavian country is due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency.

READ ALSO: Giorgia Meloni’s party will likely win the elections – but will it last?

But officials in Brussels said they would not jump to conclusions about Italy, cautiously hanging on to reassurances made by key right-wing players ahead of the vote.

Giorgia Meloni delivers speech at party rally

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni (Rear C on stage) delivers a speech on September 23, 2022 in Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

“This is not the first time that we risk confronting governments formed with far-right or far-left parties,” said European Commissioner Didier Reynders, a veteran of EU politics.

“Let voters choose their elected representatives. We will react to the actions of the new government and we have instruments at our disposal,” he added.

That was echoed by Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who warned that Brussels had “tools” to deal with errant member states.

“My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we’re working together,” she said.

Anti-immigration League leader Matteo Salvini condemned the EU chief’s comments on Friday, calling them “squalid threats”.

READ ALSO: How would victory for Italy’s far right impact foreigners’ lives?

‘Benefit of the doubt’

Italy has huge amounts of EU money on the line. It is awaiting nearly 200 billion euros in EU cash and loans as part of the country’s massive share of the bloc’s coronavirus recovery stimulus package.

In order to secure each instalment, the government must deliver on a long list of commitments to reform and cut back spending made by previous administrations.

“To do without the billions from the recovery plan would be suicidal,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors institute.

“We will give them the benefit of the doubt,” said an EU official, who works closely with Italy on economic issues.

and right-wing parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), the League (Lega) and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of the September 25 general election.

(From L) Leader of Italian far-right Lega (League) party Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italian far-right party Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni, and Italian centre-right lawmaker Maurizio Lupi on stage on September 22, 2022 during a joint rally of Italy’s coalition of far-right and right-wing parties. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

“We will judge them on their programme, who will be the finance minister. The names being mentioned are people that we in Brussels are familiar with,” the official added.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

However, when it comes to Russia, many fear that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will find in Italy a quick ally in his quest to water down measures against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A longtime friend of the Kremlin, Salvini has promised that he will not try to undo the EU sanctions. But many believe that his government will make the process more arduous in the coming months.

Whether the war or soaring inflation, “what we are facing in the coming months is going to be very difficult and very much test European unity”, said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive at the European Policy Centre.

The likely election result in Italy is “not going to help in making some of these hard decisions”, he added.

READ ALSO: TIMELINE: What happens on election day and when do we get the results?

France’s European affairs minister, Laurence Boone, pointed to the headache of the far-right’s unpredictability.

“One day they are for the euro, one day they are not for the euro. One day they support Russia, one day they change their minds,” she told French radio.

“We have European institutions that work. We will work together. But it is true that it is worrying,” she added

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