The cards for the German Bundestag have been reshuffled, and the parties are preparing to launch the old mating ritual known as ‘coalition talks’. Yet, with the new parliament facing an unprecedented degree of fragmentation, these talks are likely to be long and exhausting.
Welcome to a Dutch-style German parliament.
While the Social Democrats are the clear winner of Sunday’s election, this is no guarantee that they will get to lead the new government. With no party managing to get more than 26%, multiple coalition options are on the table, each facing enormous hurdles.
So let’s see how this circle could be squared.
While a continuation of the Grand Coalition between the SPD and the CDU/CSU is technically possible, both parties have ruled it out with SPD party sources telling EURACTIV that this option is off the table “no matter what”.
That only leaves a three-way coalition with the liberals and the Greens. But this would demand a high degree of compromise, and the parties would need to give up some of their core values in exchange for government stability.
But the kingmakers are not exactly prone to compromise if it entails crossing one of their red lines. This was demonstrated after the last election in 2017 when FDP leader Christian Lindner left the negotiation table with the words “It’s better not to govern at all than to govern wrongly”.
There are numerous such red lines in a potential ‘traffic light’ coalition between the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the FDP, especially regarding tax, social and fiscal policy.
While the FDP has made it clear on many occasions that fiscal discipline is one of their preconditions for entering any coalition, the SPD has stressed that there will be no return to austerity on their watch. As the FDP is eying the finance ministry, possibly for Lindner himself, this might be a breaking point for coalition talks.
However, a Conservative-led coalition is even less likely, as the CDU suffered a crushing defeat and recorded its poorest showing in history. Not exactly a mandate from voters to lead a new coalition.
Furthermore, their lead candidate, Armin Laschet, currently risks being dethroned inside his own party. Other high-ranking CDU/CSU party officials say they lack the mandate to lead a new government.
In short, coalition negotiations are likely to drag out for months.
We have already had a glimpse of what Germany’s new political reality might become from its neighbouring country, the Netherlands. After more than six months of fruitless coalition talks, the Dutch are still without a governing coalition with no end in sight.
While Europe can take government uncertainty in Holland in its stride, it cannot afford to wait for months until its biggest economy sorts things out — this could paralyse the whole bloc.
With the French presidential election due in April, there is only a short time frame to reach a coalition agreement in Germany and get some work in Europe done. There’s a couple of months at most before the Franco-German engine runs out of steam again.
This is a pressure that everyone at the negotiation table will feel, and it might just be enough to increase the parties’ willingness to compromise on things that they once considered sacrosanct.
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