Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist and consultant in Munich. He was a Paris correspondent (1998-2000) and Australian embassy press attaché in France (2000-2014).
Angela Merkel the master coalition-builder? Or perhaps the conservative German Chancellor is just the luckiest politician in Europe at the moment.
Her political future and possibly Europe’s lay with Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) last weekend as it voted on whether to join Ms. Merkel’s next government. Despite the fact that a “Yes” vote would open the way to a fourth term for the Chancellor, and not because of it, the centre-left SPD voted in favour – in the end with a comfortable two-thirds majority.
A vote against renewing the Grand Coalition that ran Germany until inconclusive elections last September would have been construed as Ms. Merkel’s fault. Conversely, endorsement is not being reported here as due to her but as a choice by default. At any rate, Ms. Merkel’s political life, not quite in death throes but smelling of mortality before the ballot, has been resuscitated. A unity government should be operational in Germany by March 14.
The SPD vote has also given liberal Europe a much-needed push, albeit across thin ice, against the phenomenon of populism in Europe’s long-time democratic masters and lesson-givers, Britain and the United States.
Five months with no German national government has left its mark. The SPD’s opinion-poll numbers are down on its record-low election results while Ms. Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc’s heavy losses amounted anyway to its lowest election score since 1949.
Yet the situation now is what many observers expected after national elections in both Germany and France in 2017. For the first time in more than a decade, avowedly pro-European leaders are simultaneously in power in both countries. There are differences, not to say shared tensions, between the two, about how Europe should reform – on defence and security; immigration and border control and, above all, regarding joint budgetary matters – but the old Franco-German motor will now relaunch. Progress, however bumpy, will be made.
The main reason is that the incentives for finding commonality have grown, with protectionist, deglobalizing U.S. President Donald Trump preaching the value and ease of winning a trade war; the new ambitions of strongman regimes in Russia, Turkey and Egypt; the announcement this week of a further 8-per-cent hike in Chinese military spending; the planetary threat of cybercrime and the destabilizing spectacle of Brexit.
The ice is thin underfoot in both Germany and France. The redux Grand Coalition is a case of losers joining hands because Germans voted for electoral change last Sept. 24 and they’re not, a priori, getting it. The SPD vote confirms the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) as the single-largest opposition party in the national parliament.
In France, centrist Emmanuel Macron won the presidency but in so doing torpedoed France’s traditional parties, still in ruin almost a year later. Half the French electorate voted for one populist or another in first-round voting (Mr. Macron won just 24 per cent of the vote). If he doesn’t manage to reform France, boosting growth while making it inclusive and getting unemployment down, who will the French vote for next time?
The obviously more pressing issue is that the AfD’s rise is because, in part at least, Germans are fed up with paying for the budgetary shortfalls of other European Union member states. After Mr. Macron’s recent speech mapping out big French ideas for the future of Europe, including a new government structure and joint euro-zone budget to help member states in financial emergencies, Germany’s heavyweight newsweekly Der Spiegel published a front-page photo of the French President, headlined Teurer Freund (”Expensive Friend”). The surrounding large-type caption read: “Macron is to save Europe … and Germany is supposed to pay.”
If France doesn’t meaningfully reform, there’s little chance of Germans choosing to support a shared EU budgetary arrangement – whatever Ms. Merkel’s mettle. Or her talents as a negotiation artist.