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Reports of Merkel’s demise have been exaggerated. And the same is true of Germany’s interest in Brexit.

Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images

Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images

November 27, 2017   6 mins

Germany is not in ‘crisis’. Its annualised growth is 2.4% and the economy is at maximum capacity. Pity the politicians who cannot agree on how best to spend a budget surplus of anywhere between €23 billion and €60 billion. Weeks of haggling about a new German ruling coalition collapsed when the liberal FDP leader, Christian Lindner, decided the pretence of amity with the Greens was not worth the sacrifice of tax cuts. The FDP are also close to the coal industry. Angela Merkel herself was not enthusiastic about Lindner’s idea that Eurozone members could drop out if it did not fit their economies. His name has become a synonym for changing your mind at the last minute – ‘lindern’ – just as to ‘müller’ something derives from the name of the famous German footballer.

With suspicious alacrity, Lindner came out with the catchy phrase:

“It’s better not to govern than to govern badly.”

In one sense he is right, as the four party ‘Jamaica’ coalition (CDU, CSU, FDP and Greens) would probably have broken apart sooner rather than later.

The two conservative parties are also squabbling, largely because the Bavarian CSU leader Horst Seehofer faces elections next year and fears the insurgent Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), assuming he scrapes along as CSU leader.

Merkel eschews any policies which might persuade the opponent’s supporters to bother to vote, a bit like putting a sleeping pill in a rival football team’s orange juice

Merkel’s way of coalition government stifles her chosen partners. She deflects blame onto her junior allies while ‘asymmetrically demobilising’ the electorate with a slow, steady form of triangulation. Specifically this involves eschewing any policies which might persuade the opponent’s supporters to bother to vote, a bit like putting a sleeping pill in a rival football team’s orange juice1.

The FDP are still traumatised by losing representation in the Bundestag in 2013, after being suffocated by Merkel’s close embrace. They became known as the ‘pushover party’. During the latest coalition talks, Lindner felt that Merkel, who greened her own party when she closed nuclear plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, was taking liberal support for granted, while making too many concessions to the ‘anti-business’ Greens. Liberal and Green voters are drawn from the same middle class urbanites, though one crowd are recycling zealots while the others are yuppies. Some suspect that Lindner is taking a hardline on migrants so as to emulate the young Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Lindner’s principled cynicism is breathtaking, and it is beginning to show in the FDP’s falling poll numbers.

Christian Lindner, federal chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) sitting at his place at the first faction meeting of the FDP parliamentary group at the German Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, 05 October 2017. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa

The SPD, with whom Merkel is still in a caretaker government, are the latest partner to be smothered by ‘Mutti’. That is why their lacklustre leader Martin Schulz, who this September led the Social Democrats to their worst election result (with 20.5% of the vote) since 1949, almost immediately disavowed any continuation of the ‘GroKo’ (grand coalition). Even the obvious solution – of Schulz stepping down along with Merkel – has been ruled out by the SPD. Besides, for 12 years Merkel has ensured she has no plausible CDU successor. However, leading members of the SPD have other ideas, especially those with ministerial chauffeurs. The GroKo may have life in it yet, and it gives Merkel a comfortable majority.

Which brings us to Germany’s president, the avuncular Social Democrat ex-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who because of the democratic turmoil of the Weimar era has to propose a Chancellor who enjoys majority support in the Bundestag, failing which he has to call new elections within sixty days. While he is reluctant to do this, because the AfD might improve on its 13% support, Merkel herself seems to have ruled out a minority coalition, in which she would be 29 votes short of a majority (with the FDP) and 42 short if she hitched herself to the Greens. The latest polls suggest the FDP vote is likely to fall because of Lindner’s egomaniacal antics, while the more responsible-seeming Greens are likely to receive a significant boost, with the SPD remaining static. After the shock in September it is very likely that centrist voters will turn out in droves to check the AfD too2.

Europe’s most dynamic economy and powerful country is merely experiencing the teething problems of a four-party system that now involves six, with a fifth of the electorate opting for extreme parties of the Left and Right.


But enough about teething problems. Once Frau Merkel has re-established her position as Chancellor, what will be Berlin’s main external priorities?

Five stand out:

  1. Managing relations with Erdogan’s Turkey is very high on the list3. Specifically, how to combine censure of his advancing authoritarianism – and meddling in internal German (Dutch and Austrian) politics through a large diaspora – with continuous payment of the ‘Turkgeld’ to constrict the flow of migrants through the Balkans. Thinly veiled threats to German-Turkish parliamentarians (including the Green co-leader Cem Özdemir, who Erdogan demanded undergo ‘blood tests’ to see whether he is a Turk) indicate how lousy relations are.
  2. Merkel has also been billed as the main defender of a liberal, internationalist order against Trump, finding common ground here with Xi’s China, which – by no coincidence – calls Germany Europe’s closest equivalent civilisation to its own. Because Merkel is an Atlanticist, her main concern is to limit the damage done by the ‘orange comet’ before Trump flames out4.
  3. The Chancellor has also been active in maintaining sanctions against Putin, despite Trump’s desire for a grand bargain with the Kremlin and the existence of a powerful Russophile caucus in Germany5. This includes big business (5,500 firms have significant operations in Russia), swathes of the political establishment – notably former chancellor Gerhard ‘Rosneft’ Schröder but also Seehofer – and the AfD, which would like an updated version of the League of Three Emperors in the 1890s with their fellow social conservatives in the Kremlin.
  4. Then there are the ideological rifts within the EU. Germanophobia (and its close relation anti-Semitism) is common to the authoritarians governing Hungary and Poland, who regard the EU as a kind of German racket6. It does not help that Germany has recently combined the autism (insensitivity) of all great powers with an irritatingly pious moralism. In order to consolidate domestic support, the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland has revived calls for up to $1 trillion in war reparations from Germany, despite this subject being settled not only in 1953 (with the DDR) but in the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany7. If the Poles wish to challenge that, they’d better worry about their western border which it also guaranteed, as well as the eastern ones beyond Poland.
  5. Next up, from Berlin’s perspective, is how to respond to President Macron’s plans to revivify the sclerotic EU project. Since the election in September, German policy has been to politely deflect any ideas for a Eurozone finance minister and parliament (not to mention debt mutualisation) by eagerly endorsing Macron’s parallel wish to enhance European defence co-operation. This was straightforward since rather than a ‘European army’ rivalling Nato, co-operation means a very German emphasis on migrant management or conflict prevention and resolution. While some French commentators are pessimistic that political turmoil in Berlin will stymie Macron’s proposals – which depend on a powerful Franco-German engine – French optimists think their man’s hour has struck, and that he is well placed to supplant Merkel as Europe’s de facto leader. Do not be surprised if he suddenly surfaces in Italy and Spain to underline his ‘continentalist’ scope8.
Hardline Brexiteers’ tactic that the UK should take advantage of Germany’s political problems by delaying putting big money on the negotiating table is to fail to appreciate how invested postwar Germany is in the EU

And as a plus one external priority – but definitely last and least – there is Brexit Britain; a relatively low priority in all but the most Anglophile German eyes (ie places like Hamburg).

For sure Theresa May had a friendly session with the CDU European parliament chief Manfred Weber, though he will doubtless recall how the Conservatives left the EPP block in 2009 in one of David Cameron’s many appalling decisions. More recently, Brexit Secretary David Davis amused an audience of leading German businessmen in Berlin with his ignorance of how the EU works. This was only the latest instalment of the UK’s failed attempts to play off German big business against government, and to ‘divide and rule’ their 27 interlocutors. Cunning it is not. Judging by the failure of the German business lobby to influence sanctions on Russia, that was never going to play.

With regard to the EU in general, the Brexit camp seem to have adopted the 1914 Irish republican adage that ‘England’s troubles are Ireland’s opportunity’9, which may explain their pathetic enthusiasm every time authoritarians, fascists, nationalists, anti-Semites and separatists do well in any EU election. Hardline Brexiteers claim that the UK should take advantage of Germany’s political problems, by delaying putting big money on Michel Barnier’s table to push the stalled negotiations over the wire in December. That, though, is to fail to appreciate how invested postwar Germany is in the EU, which has suited German economic interests very well, while sparing it the need to heavily arm itself against any neighbours.

But then the capacity to view oneself, let alone to see the world, through the eyes of others has never been Germany’s strong point.

  1.  http://www.theeuropean.de/christian-ude/12492-merkels-asymmetrische-demobilisierung for a good explanation.
  2.  ‘Kommen jetzt Neuwahlen?’ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 20 November 2017 (hereafter FAZ) and for the latest polls see ‘41,7 Prozent Deutschen wollen Neuwahlen – Grüne würden profitieren’ Die Welt, 21 November 2017.
  3.  http://www.süddeutsche.de/politik/aussenpolitik-deutschland-und-die-tuerkei-chronik-eines-zerwuerfnisses-1.3597933 for a chronological list of recent conflicts.
  4.  http://www.adweek.com/digital/der-spiegel-donald-trump-edel-rodriguez/.
  5.  German-Russian trade has markedly improved this year see: http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2017-05/internationale-sanktionen-handel-deutschland-russland-2017.
  6.  Though it sounds contradictory to post-Holocaust ears, the commonalities were frequent. See for example William Fuller, The Foe Within: Fantasies of Treason and the End of Imperial Russia (Ithaca, 2006) or Susanne Terwey, Stereotypical Bedfellows: The Combination of Anti-Semitism with Germanophobia in Great Britain, 1914–1918 (Leiden, 2004).
  7.  ‘Poland has no right to WWII reparations, German lawyers say’ Deutsche Welle 31 August 2017.
  8.  See the astute account by Pierre Briançon ‘Germany’s uncertain hour, Macron’s moment’ Politico Europe 20 November 2017.
  9.  https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-1916-easter-rising/ The Irish Volunteer Force split into a majority which fought for England and a republican minority which did not – but which evolved into the IRA.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


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