TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -AS COALITION talks in Berlin dragged on through Sunday evening there were rumours of progress, of a nearing accord. After four weeks Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats CDU, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens had sailed past two self-imposed deadlines.
Now, perhaps, a deal was close. But not long before midnight everything changed. With the rest of the FDP leadership at his side, Christian Lindner appeared without warning outside the negotiation venue and announced that he was breaking off talks.
He blamed the lack of a “common vision for the modernisation of the country” and of a “common basis of trust” for a prospective Jamaica government (the parties’ colours are those of that country’s flag). It had been impossible, he complained, to secure the “trend shifts” that FDP voters wanted in areas like the economy, tax and migration: “It’s better not to govern at all than to govern wrongly”.
Nicola Beer, the FDP’s general secretary, characterised the talks as: “No agreement on the Soli [“solidarity” tax funding the former communist east] or education federalism, no proportionate immigration rules. Instead an ideological energy policy that would have deindustrialised Germany”.
She stressed that her party would act responsibly in the national interest; a dig at Mr Lindner echoed by the CSU and Green leaders and articulated with rather more gusto by the likes of Marco Wanderwitz, a CDU MP who pronounced the FDP “a circus troupe devoid of substance” and “a bunch of irresponsible narcissists” who had “deliberately damaged German democracy”. Julia Klöckner, one of the party’s negotiators, archly admired Mr Lindner’s “well-prepared spontaneity”.
What now? Mrs Merkel will meet with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s federal president, this morning to discuss next steps. Four possible outcomes present themselves. The FDP might be coaxed back to the negotiating table by plausible concessions from the CDU, CSU and Greens.
But do not count on it. Mr Lindner’s language was ominously final. And the Greens (seemingly the main target of FDP recrimination) declared that they had reached their “pain threshold” and could not budge another centimetre.
The second possibility is a new “grand coalition” marrying the CDU/CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SDP), who together have a workable majority in the Bundestag. But the SPD has strenuously ruled out the option.
Having lost distinctiveness and votes in partnership with Mrs Merkel, its leaders and activists fear another spin with the chancellor could do their party terminal damage. Perhaps, just perhaps, Mrs Merkel, the media and Germany’s European partners can persuade them to take the risk.
But months after its worst election result in post-war German history, the SPD will most probably reject the overtures.
In the absence of a viable majority government, Mrs Merkel could form a minority one, concocting vote-by-vote majorities in the Bundestag. This might combine the CDU/CSU with the FDP, its traditional governing partner (together they would be 29 seats short of a majority).
But a more natural fit would now be a black-green coalition with the Greens (42 seats short of a majority). Last night each side found generous words for the other, and they were as one in their contempt for the FDP.
At federal level post-war Germany has witnessed no minority administrations, though one ran North-Rhine Westphalia, the country’s largest state, from 2010 to 2012. Such governments are alien both to the stable, long-termist ways of the German state and to Mrs Merkel’s plodding leadership style. How long one would even last in the current circumstances is unclear.
That leaves the fourth, most drastic option: new elections. The route is not as simple as it sounds. Unlike some other European parliaments, the Bundestag cannot just dissolve itself (a legacy of Weimar-era instability) and as Mrs Merkel has not yet been reinstalled as chancellor she cannot call a straight confidence vote. Instead Mr Steinmeier must nominate a candidate for the job.
If Mrs Merkel (for it would be she) failed to win an absolute majority in two successive Bundestag votes, which can be separated by two weeks, she would go to a third vote at which a simple majority would suffice. Only then could Mr Steinmeier dissolve the Bundestag, triggering a new election within 60 days.
If possible, Germany’s establishment—including Mrs Merkel and Mr Steinmeier—will seek to avoid new elections. These could most benefit the far-right Alternative for Germany and would not necessarily rupture the deadlock, current polls putting the main parties very close to the results they obtained at the September election.
In her comments last night Mrs Merkel emphasised that her party would “take responsibility for this country, even in difficult times”. She is determined, in other words, to make the best of the hand the German people dealt her in September. Precisely how she plans to proceed should become clearer today.
In recent years Germany has been a pillar of stable government in Europe and Mrs Merkel a seemingly permanent feature of the landscape (consider that her international counterparts when she first took office were Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and George W. Bush).
Both of those truths are now, if not dead, then slipping away. The next German government will take months more to emerge and will be distinctly fragile in comparison with its predecessors. The end of the Merkel era has surely begun, though whether it has weeks, months or a short number of years to run is anyone’s guess.
Last night’s events confirmed Emmanuel Macron as Europe’s top leader while making the French president’s grand plans for euro-zone reform—for which he needs a confident and outward-looking Germany—yet harder to achieve. The ripples of Mr Lindner’s doubtful decision will travel far beyond his country’s borders.