Collapse Germany Seeks to Pick Up the Pieces

With coalition talks having collapsed, the country and the continent are now wondering what happens next. Blame is being heaped on the FDP, but the party could end up suffering mightily. Germany and Europe, meanwhile, are the biggest losers. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Henning Schacht/ DDP Images

Christian Lindner isn't one to follow his gut on an important decision. First, he has to have the right slogan to go with it.

Last Sunday, the leader of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), flanked by a group of party loyalists, read out a lengthy statement in Berlin. He spoke of the "countless contradictions and open questions," that still remained between the FDP and the other three parties that had been involved in Germany's coalition negotiations. He complained that the weeks of talks between his party and the Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Greens, had neither created a "common basis of trust" nor achieved "any further movement."

And then, just before he disappeared into the Berlin night, he uttered a phrase that he had allegedly only formulated a few hours earlier with his negotiating team: "It is better not to govern than to govern badly." The party then posted those words online as a graphic image. Oddly, though, the graphic had already been produced three days earlier, on the Thursday that had been the original deadline for the end of the coalition talks.

Marketing first is Lindner's mantra, even when - like last Sunday - it leads to a government crisis of a kind never seen in Germany's postwar history. Eight weeks after the national election, voters still don't know what the next government will look like. Germany, which is so often regarded as an "anchor of stability" in Europe, will for months be a country marked by instability and chaos. And Lindner has ensured that the FDP, for decades a constant presence in German governments, won't be in power for quite some time to come.

With his slickly-staged withdrawal from the talks, under the spotlights in late-night Berlin, Lindner wants to achieve more than the "trend reversal" he mentions in his tweets. No, the FDP boss hopes to turn his party into a middle-class protest movement of the kind led by Emmanuel Macron in France and Sebastian Kurz in Austria. He has long-since sought to establish a similar cult of personality and he copies their rhetorical attacks against the elites, the media and the so-called ruling establishment. And like Kurz and Macron, he wants to reinvent the political order, which means shaking up the FDP's own political position, placing them to the right of Chancellor Merkel's CDU on some issues. One of those is refugee policy, on which the FDP has sounded more like the CSU, a party that has at times bordered on the reactionary. When it comes to Europe, the party has become extremely skeptical of the common currency.

Lindner wants to turn the FDP into a political movement, one centered on himself and with the ambition of achieving reliable double-digit support in future elections. Ulf Poschart, editor-in-chief of the conservative daily Die Welt, even gushed recently that the FDP could finally grow out of its role as junior coalition partner and ultimately lay claim to the Chancellery. Under Lindner's leadership, of course.

At What Price?

In the meantime, the political establishment has been left to clean up the mess that Lindner left behind. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier now faces the task of facilitating the formation of a government, preferably without having to resort to new elections. The Christian Democrats will have to decide whether Merkel will continue to lead them while the SPD has to reflect on whether they are willing to enter another alliance with the CDU and CSU and, if so, at what price. Would Merkel or Martin Schulz have to give way to make another such alliance happen?

Another few years of a grand coalition, devoid of passion or ideas, would then, according to Lindner's calculations, allow him to reap the benefits in opposition.

Still, even if Lindner hopes to profit from widespread voter frustration in Germany, it's not clear that he can pull it off. The way he walked out of the talks was so transparently staged and so poorly justified that his grand masterplan might just be a roadmap to nowhere. That at least is how many voters see it. In one survey, 55 percent blamed the FDP for the collapse of the coalition talks while only 8 percent thought the party would benefit most from fresh elections. The FDP may be less "en marche" than "en retour."

Lindner knows the risks and he is prepared to take them. He is a political gambler who plays for the highest stakes, just like the former SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. The difference is that Schröder risked his party to help reform the country. With Lindner, however, the wellbeing of the party comes first, and then the country.

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So, it's little wonder that Lindner's main priority in the coalition talks was to make sure that the FDP would no longer be taken for granted by the CDU merely as an appendage, a willing junior partner to the Merkel power machine. From the very beginning, Lindner was one of the most critical of the "Jamaica" coalition, so named because the colors associated with the parties involved are the same as those on the Jamaican flag. He insisted that the chances of reaching a deal were only 50:50.

And that remained the case even toward the end of last week, when it became clear that the FDP would achieve many of its most important demands, while the Greens and the CSU were even coming closer to an agreement on refugees. But even on Saturday, Lindner was still saying he doubted Jamaica would work.

By then, if not before, the Greens had begun to fear that the FDP was preparing to let the talks collapse. It was the elephant in the room, even as the subgroups continued their work. They kept discussing climate and transportation policy, as if nothing had happened, as if they could still find a solution. But all the delegations involved were now looking for signs that their counterparts were losing their nerve. And such was the level of distrust when Sunday began, the day of reckoning.

Open to Compromise

The day started with Lindner asking to speak separately with the conservatives. He held a rolled-up copy of the Bild am Sonntag newspaper in his hand, featuring quotes from senior Green party negotiator Jürgen Trittin, who accused the FDP of wanting to send weapons to Yemen.

Graphic: What happens next?
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: What happens next?

Nevertheless, compromises were achieved as the day progressed. The solidarity tax, which goes to aid the reconstruction of eastern Germany, was largely scrapped in accordance with the wishes of the FDP. And an agreement was also found on data protection once Merkel made it clear Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, of the CDU, that he had little choice but to relent to the demands being made by the FDP and Greens.

The Greens proved more open to compromise than the FDP or the conservatives had expected. They accepted that some North African states should be considered safe countries of origin, which would allow Germany to send failed asylum seekers back. The Greens were also prepared to accept restrictions to the family reunification of refugees already in Germany and they even were willing to give up their opposition to transit zones. Indeed, some conservatives began wondering whether the Greens would support the deal once it was submitted to the party for approval.

Nevertheless, everything seemed to be going in the right direction as the parties returned to the smaller negotiating groups. There are differing accounts of how those later talks went. According to Lindner, Merkel reneged on some important compromises. Yet the Merkel camp insists nothing essential had changed.

Whatever the case, the FDP had run out of patience. Lindner and his team worked on their statement, key elements of which had been prepared long in advance. At 11 p.m. the parties met again, with each party asked if they wished to continue. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, was the first to outline his view on the state of the negotiations. He said that while there were outstanding points, there was scope for agreement. "For the CSU, I can say that we can envisage a Jamaica coalition," he said.

Lindner then replied that he didn't see any prospect of an agreement. Politicians from the other parties tried to change his mind, with Alexander Dobrindt of the CSU having a go, followed by Cem Özdemir, co-leader of the Greens. Then Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, the other Green party leader, said that she shared Lindner's view that there was no basis for trust. She argued, however, that trust could develop by governing together.

Merkel was clearly annoyed and addressed Lindner harshly. One "cannot simply say, it's not working," she said. One "has to say why it is not working." So, she insisted: "What is the reason then?" The FDP boss countered: "I don't see where we can implement the basic concepts of innovation, competitiveness and modernization in a Jamaica coalition."

A Difficult Situation

There was back and forth for a few minutes and then Merkel suddenly looked at her mobile phone. She saw that the FDP had already issued a press release announcing the collapse of the talks. At that point the CSU also had no interest in continuing the talks, and Seehofer said: "It's 11:26 p.m. I'm noting the time because this is now a development that will have meaning far beyond Germany and Europe and whose result we cannot foresee."

And that was the end of the Jamaican dream. Everyone shook hands and the FDP team left the room. The Greens and conservatives stayed behind and watched Lindner read out his statement on television. There was much shaking of heads. Then they discussed what this would mean for Germany. Someone mentioned Lebanon and the crisis concerning its prime minister, who had apparently been detained during a state visit to Saudi Arabia. "Who is going to deal with that now?" one of those present asked.

Everyone was aware that the end of the coalition talks places Germany in a difficult situation. The old coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats is staying in office as a caretaker government, but it no longer has the backing of parliament. All important decisions are on hold, not just in Berlin, but also in Brussels. And there are important decisions to be made, from the Brexit negotiations to the planned reform of the euro zone. The EU will find it difficult to act as long as there is no new government in Berlin. As a result, the pressure is growing on the SPD both at home and abroad to rethink its flat refusal to re-enter a coalition with the conservatives.

President Steinmeier - who now, according to the German constitution, has the responsibility of guiding the process toward choosing the next chancellor - is one of those putting the most pressure on the Social Democrats. He himself is a former SPD minister, though his membership in the party is now on hold for the duration of his term as president. He would like to avoid new elections, saying the responsibility for forming a new government "cannot simply be handed back to the voters." Steinmeier plans a process that involves a series of one-on-one meetings with party leaders.

The Social Democrats were as surprised as anyone by the collapse of the coalition talks. No one expected it - or prepared for it. And it has focused the spotlight on the party's ongoing leadership debate.

SPD leader Martin Schulz is determined to stick to his rejection of a repeat of his party's outgoing coalition with the conservatives, a constellation known as a grand coalition. He prefers new elections and pushed through his decision with the party leadership at a meeting on Monday. The SPD executive then rushed to put that position in writing to avoid any impression of doubt within the party. "We believe it is important that the citizens are given the opportunity to reappraise the situation," the executive announced in a statement that had begun circulating publicly even before the meeting had come to an end.

Schulz is backed by leading party figures like floor leader Andrea Nahles and deputy leader Olaf Scholz. All three see another grand coalition as dangerous for the party. They know how unpopular it is with the party grassroots, a position that was reiterated in recent weeks at a number of regional conferences. Everywhere, the message was the same: No new partnership with the conservatives!

At the same time, all three are aware that the SPD could end up the biggest loser if an impression develops that the party is avoiding responsibility. That is why it is no longer taboo at party headquarters to discuss a change in strategy. Nahles has adopted a new formulation when enunciating her party's position: The SPD, she says, will of course enter discussions with Merkel, but it refuses to act merely as a tool for the chancellor to stay in power.

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