The Coalition Talks Collapse: Who will Lead Europe?

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The brazen act of Christian Lindner to take his Free Democrats out of the German coalition talks threw the country’s politics into turmoil and opened questions about the future of the German government and its „amtierende Bundeskanzlerin.“ Although Chancellor Merkel is “very skeptical” about the prospect of a minority government, suggesting that Germany needs a stable government she has left no doubt about her determination to run again if Germany was to hold snap elections.

When I woke up on Monday morning, I was not as surprised as I was disappointed at the news that the FDP pulled out of the coalition talks.  My initial election evening assessment on September 24 was that the CSU would be a problem.

It turns out that the FDP’s Lindner beat Horst Seehofer to the punch. The migration issue demanding a legal distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers to allow repatriation, climate issues over the use of coal among other domestic issues of taxes and policies were reasons Lindner stated. The FDP ran its campaign on these issues and could not compromise.  Or at least that is what Lindner said publicly. He likely wants to run in a new election purely to stick to his positions and probably thinks he can move right far enough to win AfD and disaffected voters.

The most important outcome of the failure of the chancellor to cobble together a coalition is that she now has no absolute majority for her election in the Bundestag. She could stand for the chancellor election, but must in the first two rounds win an absolute majority. In the third round, a plurality of the votes is sufficient for a minority government (Art 63, para 3 GG).  A minority government would not be stable, and Steinmeier must decide in the third round whether to dissolve the Bundestag and call new elections.

There are also other, more immediate consequences. The CSU leadership contest took center stage in Munich with Markus Söder vs. Ilse Aigner not even waiting for Horst Seehofer to return from Berlin.  Bavaria has state elections next year and is in need of fresh leadership after the 2017 election losses.

Merkel has met her match, and it is Lindner.  She lost the talks.  She will need to fight to keep her position in the CDU.  Pundits have begun calling for a generation change.  Europe with Macron, Kurz, and others has led the way.  Will Merkel be challenged in the CDU?  I see her winning this time, but opposition has risen in the party.

Ah, the Greens. They hoped to be in government and may still achieve that, albeit in a short-lived minority coalition with the CDU/CSU. However, Jürgen Trittin, a leftist in the party, was singled out for his unacceptable positions. The blame game will continue.

Meanwhile, Martin Schulz reiterated the SPD will stay in opposition.

The larger issue is not so much that Germany is returning to the instability of Weimar, but as foreign policy journalist Stefan Kornelius commented in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, for all the Xis and Erdoğans of this world, the collapse of the talks is yet another sign of the weakness of democracy and a triumph for authoritarian systems. The democracy brand, like that of „Made in Germany,“ does not work so well and has lost its luster.

Another comment by Anna Sauerbrey in the NY Times pointed out that “Germany’s parliamentary democracy is a system with compromise in its DNA — so when Germans awoke to the news Monday morning, they were shocked. Such a failure is a challenge to Germany’s new role in the world. And it is yet another example of the dangerous political absolutism sweeping the world’s democracies.”

This whole episode of failed negotiations and uncertain German leadership blows a hole in my argument that the Germans could help sustain the transatlantic relationship, lead Europe and support the liberal international order. So much could have been said for our ‘Trotz alledem, Amerika’ manifesto that was written by a great group of clear-headed foreign policy analysts. Who will stand as the beacon to sustain European-American relations now – Macron?

J.D. Bindenagel
Henry Kissinger Professor, Bonn