European countries are complaining, quite rightly, that the Brexit talks are getting nowhere because they don’t know what the UK wants. This is hardly surprising, as it took the British cabinet over a year to even discuss what sort of Brexit they wanted, such were the divisions between its members.
But it seems that nowhere in Europe is there a latter-day David Lloyd George, who can create successful institutions without having any signposts from previous events as to how to do it. The UK has a case for making the same complaint: that it doesn’t know what the EU wants. Although the EU negotiators have been much clearer, and have the backing of EU institutions and their national governments, their positions could now change very quickly. The EU can state its position today, but it may not have the same position next week, not because it is inconsistent, or doesn’t believe in what it is saying, but because it has to respond to political realities which are presently very unclear.
It has taken Germany more than four months since its latest parliamentary election to patch a government together. The previous government ended because both Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU and the social democrat SPD, who had formed a Grand Coalition, lost ground. Having put up its worst showing since 1946, the SPD insisted it would go into opposition this time to recapture the support of traditional working class, leftist voters alienated by its support for the right.
A Jamaican coalition (named after the colours of the parties which would form it, CDU black, liberal FPD yellow and Green) was thus the most likely possibility. But those talks collapsed when the FPD pulled the plug, citing lack of progress on immigration. Eventually, the SPD members gave the party a mandate to try and enter another Grand Coalition, but that decision was challenged in court by a disgruntled SPD element. Even though a 177-page coalition deal has been agreed at parliamentary level, those same members can still reject the deal, and if that happens there will be no Grand Coalition, or at least not in the proposed form.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier understands the problem, as you would expect. The present deal only came about after he urged the negotiating parties to conclude something quickly, but not merely for the sake of Germany. But we only got to this point because he stated publicly that it was the future of Europe, rather than Germany, which was at stake.
Germany will still be there, and governable, even if it has to hold six more elections before it can form a government, as Merkel seems to prefer. But whatever it does has a profound effect on the EU and all its member countries. If the EU fails, it bigger members, such as Germany, will fail more spectacularly than the rest, and Germany is unlikely to be trusted with the leadership of any replacement, or be capable of taking it on if it were.
Merkel does not want this to be her legacy. The SPD said it would go into opposition anyway, so if it doesn’t ratify the deal now it will lose nothing. But even if she does remain in power, the nature of the coalition itself could prove her Achilles Heel. However necessary a Grand Coalition may be, it threatens everything the EU stands for: and this would leave the British government, buffeted on all sides and scared of taking any step at all for fear of alienating yet more people, in a position of strength it should be impossible to even contemplate, let alone achieve.
Jerry-built after all
Germany has always been so powerful within the EU that it has set the agenda. As West Germany took the lead in founding the EU, along with traditional enemy France, it could have expected to do this for the first few years. But it has retained its influence for two reasons: firstly, its economic success, bolstered not a little by the favourable financial terms the EU has given it, and secondly its tradition of stable democratic government, which has not been threatened since the allies imposed democracy in 1945, whether or not one party can rule on its own.
Both the CDU and SPD have enjoyed periods of government, either alone or in coalitions with the FPD or the Greens. The nearest thing to a government crisis came in 1982, when the FPD left the SPD-led coalition and formed a new one with the CDU, putting the latter in power.
Though that transfer of power was peaceful and orderly the FPD became bogeymen overnight to many for switching sides without an election, and the legitimacy of the German parliamentary system was briefly questioned. But eventually the public came to terms with what had happened and continued to be governed as most people are in democratic countries, with only emphasis changing when governments changed, not the system as a whole.
However this consistency is one of the reasons people get tired of party politics. Why do they have to listen to all these squabbling politicians when they all do pretty much the same when they are in power? In every democratic country electors ask why the politicians can’t all work together for the national interest, even if they then turn on the parties which actually do this.
The 2005 German Grand coalition made sense as a means of keeping out the hard left, Communist-successor party the PSD, which would have had to enter an SPD-led coalition to make it viable. Safeguarding traditional democracy was considered more important by both the politicians and the electors. The next, following the 2013 election, made sense for the same reason, with the FPD having lost its parliamentary representation and the SPD being the least worst alternative partner from a CDU point of view.
If we are to have another, it would keep out the neo-fascist AfD, which did so well at the election. All the other parties and most of the electorate agree is the right thing to do. However much both parties have been harmed by being in coalition with each other until last year, both the CDU and SPD believe they have have much to gain in the longer term by keeping their eye on this ball, and presenting everyone else as a potential threat to a system most Germans are broadly content with.
So once again Germany is taking a lead within the EU. Why shouldn’t other countries give their electors what they say they want, and develop a tradition of Governments of National Unity with members drawn from right across the reasonable bulk of the political spectrum? The answer is that Germans themselves know why. The 2005 Grand Coalition wasn’t the first in modern German history, and the previous one had the opposite effect to the one intended.
Germany’s first Grand Coalition, from 1966-69, was so much a government of national unity that it accounted for over 90% of the seats in parliament. This lack of meaningful opposition encouraged the rise of the radical, terrorist left, as terrorism, rather than the parliamentary system, was the only way that section of opinion could find effective representation.
Germans found out the hard way that democracy only works if the complexion of the government can change every so often, so everyone’s side might one day win and another might lose. The EU itself, which despite the Brexit campaigners’ protestations reflects the democratic nature of its member states, can also only function if it has an internal opposition which can take power at some point, and thus ensure that every opinion might prevail in either the short or longer term.
If Germany keeps having grand coalitions, neither it nor the EU can claim to be democratic. A government which represents all shades of opinion removes the need for a democratic system. Furthermore, such one party states breed clientism and corruption, as Italy found during 40 years of unbroken Christian Democrat rule when that party attracted a wider range of opinion than the others put together. So how can the EU set membership criteria which include democratic governance, as it did for new ex-Soviet bloc members?
Another Grand Coalition will set all the worst precedents for Europe, however needful it is in Germany. But pulling out of one now would be even worse, as Merkel herself realises, however much she might suggest calling another election.
No holes in the ground
These post-election negotiations are the longest in German history. Even during the alleged chronic instability of the Weimar Republic there was nothing like this. Regardless of their outcome, the length of the negotiations will itself damage Germany’s position in the EU’s corridors of power, as the EU also needs to know where it is going, and won’t as long as Germany doesn’t.
One of the sticking points in the negotiations just concluded was that the SPD pressed for a United States of Europe, as members of the UK government have long accused the EU of wanting to become. Merkel however prefers a looser arrangement. Which party gets the foreign affairs portfolio, and whether they make a success of it, will have a significant impact on what sort of animal the UK will be negotiating with in the months to come. But if there is no Grand Coalition the process of creating a German government will last even longer, and pose even more problems for the EU.
It has been reported that whenever Angela Merkel meets Theresa May, Angela asks her “what do you want from leaving the EU?” and Theresa replies “make me an offer”, and the conversation keeps going round in the same circle. But Angela can’t make any offers until Germany has a new government, and neither can the EU itself, as what it says will have to be agreed by the German government, in hard political terms. Theresa doesn’t know what she is doing, but neither does Angela, and Theresa would be wise to play this card for as long as she can to resolve her many and increasingly hideous domestic difficulties.
Of course the EU is about much more than Brexit. But Germany is hardly in a position to lead it when it can’t run itself. Other EU members have long sought more say in the organisation at the expense of the Federal Republic. If the present power vacuum results in someone else usurping Germany’s leadership of the EU, how long will this take, and what sort of agenda will this country pursue with its new toy?
Brexit supporters in the UK are now warning that Theresa May’s government is trying to duck out of Brexit. It is assumed that this is because it now knows that the UK is bound to lose from leaving, and can no longer sell this to the public. But whether or not Germany constructs a new Grand Coalition, the EU has also been weakened by its instability. It doesn’t hold all the cards, as increasing numbers of the British think, even though it logically should. It needs to find another way to go, with or without German leadership, and needs this sooner than it can get it, even if there is another election in Germany which produces a clearer outcome.
Absurd but prescient
Few German politicians, or anyone else, would care about the politics of tiny Liechtenstein. But strange as it may seem, if you want to know what happens to both Grand Coalitions and countries which abandon them, Liechtenstein is the example. We can assume Merkel knows more than most about the arcane workings of the German-speaking principality, so she would be wise to take this example into account before others in Europe do.
Liechtenstein had a Grand Coalition between its two main parties, the national-conservative Progressive Citizens Party and the liberal-conservative Patriotic Union, for almost sixty years, from 1938 to 1997. Initially this was cobbled together to prevent the local equivalent of the Nazis getting any parliamentary seats. But the two parties grew very fond of the arrangement, and although Liechtenstein had adopted proportional representation it set very high thresholds at first to ensure that only the two main parties were represented, so the government could continue on its merry way with only internal disputes, not opposition, threatening its existence.
During this time Liechtenstein became notorious as a haven for tax avoidance and registering dodgy businesses, as the late Robert Maxwell, even more notorious, famously exploited. Until 1984 it wouldn’t allow women to vote, on the basis that this would mean foreigners would influence their elections. Not until 1993 did any other party than the two coalition members gain a seat in parliament. These are the things which happen when a private club can do what it likes because no one can challenge its power, not because it is a dictatorship but because it is supposed to be representative.
Eventually the grand coalition broke up because the third party seemed a better future partner to Prime Minister Mario Frick, who was enjoying an unprecedented majority. But the public which had cast enough votes for the third party, and subsequently a fourth, had had enough. In 2003 they approved constitutional amendments which gave significantly more power to Liechtenstein’s Head of State, Prince Hans-Adam, against all international trends.
Frick campaigned against this, but by now Liechtensteiners had sworn a plague on all politicians’ houses, which a new Grand Coalition in 2013 did not cure. Liechtenstein is still a tax haven, and despite its fabled high level of direct democracy it has handed more power to its hereditary ruler because the people no longer trust their representatives, or themselves for voting for them.
Germany was in a similar situation in 1933, which is why the Nazis and Communists, the outsiders, gained so many votes. As in that period, if Germany doesn’t sort itself out the rest of Europe will also suffer the consequences. The fewer positives an organisation has the more negative actions it takes. Sanctions against Russia, a negative EU action, may become its defining feature if it has nothing else to offer.
The consequences of Germany not resolving its government crisis may not be as dramatic as they were in the 1930s but they are equally real. Germany still leads Europe for now, but cannot know where to, and the rest of Europe cannot help getting lost in the process.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.