Germany's acting finance minister, Peter Altmaier, is fond of playing the cosmopolitan European diplomat on visits to Brussels. Articulate and multilingual, Altmaier doesn't shy away from speaking a bit of Dutch into the microphone and is perfectly at home chatting with outgoing Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem or delivering a withering critique of U.S. President Donald Trump's tax plan.
But once the doors close and his counterparts begin asking him the question that is foremost on their minds -- when is Europe's most important country going to finally assemble a new government? -- Altmaier has no choice but to tell them the sobering truth. The constitutional situation in Germany, he notes, is complicated. Furthermore, if a renewed coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) -- a pairing known as a "grand coalition" -- does, in fact, take shape, the SPD has said it plans to have the grassroots vote on it. That will take time, Altmaier says, looking into the shocked faces surrounding him.
With its current provisional government, Germany is in the process of gambling away its excellent political reputation in Europe. The country used to be considered a paragon of democracy with a parliamentary system that worked just as reliably as its cars and industrial machinery.
Yet with the German general election, held on Sept. 24, rapidly fading into the rearview mirror and parties like the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the SPD -- both of which with plenty of experience as members of governing coalitions in Germany -- shying away from joining Merkel's conservatives in a political alliance, many abroad have begun seeing the country in a new light. The growing skepticism started, of course, with Berlin's misadventures in its attempt to build a simple airport and the doubts have gained credence with a series of other mishaps, most recently German rail's inability to get its much-ballyhooed new high-speed line between Munich and Berlin working properly. And now the country can't even seem to assemble a governing coalition. Can't the Germans do anything anymore?
For the time being, the damage done isn't overwhelming. The acting cabinet, in office since October, has been leading the republic with the listless efficiency one might expect. And there are plenty of people out there who approve of a government that focuses exclusively on the day-to-day and is limited in the amount of money it can spend.
But the longer the vacuum continues, the more obvious the disadvantages will become. Important decisions are being delayed, Germany's heft in Europe and the world is eroding and -- perhaps most importantly -- the standstill in Berlin is bolstering populist critiques of the parliamentary system and their claims that the political elite only care about their own parties and not the good of the country as a whole.
With the first round of coalition negotiations -- which sought to assemble a government comprised of the conservatives, the FDP and the Greens -- having failed, a clear majority of Germans believe the country to be "in a difficult situation" according to surveys. A poll taken by the Allensbach Institute resulted in replies like: "It is embarrassing to put such disunity on display to the world."
It could get even more embarrassing shortly. With the conservatives and the SPD soon to begin preliminary coalition discussions, doubts about a successful conclusion to those talks are greater than ever. The idea of joining Merkel in another governing coalition is anathema to many in the SPD while some conservatives have been vocal about their preference for a minority government, a position they share with a number of SPD members.
That means that Merkel is faced with fighting a battle on two fronts: One pitting her against the critics in her own camp; and one aimed at convincing the Social Democrats to join her.
Merkel herself hasn't been shy about her affinity for governing together with the SPD. In mid-October, at a time when the first round of coalition talks with the FDP and Greens seemed to be going well, the cabinet of the chancellor's outgoing coalition with the SPD met on the seventh floor of the Chancellery.
Nobody there seriously thought there was a chance that their alliance might continue for another four years. And wine-fueled amicability was in generous supply that evening, with senior politicians from both parties dropping the formality that had characterized their working relationships. Merkel held a brief farewell address in which she sang the praises of the grand coalition. She said that cooperation with the SPD had been outstanding and expressed her doubts that a different coalition could ever work together so harmoniously and smoothly.
Preferences for a Minority Government
The problem, though, is that among her conservatives, enthusiasm for the alliance with the SPD isn't nearly as profound. Indeed, the intransigence has become so unabashed that Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), saw fit to complain.
Last Sunday, he joined Merkel in the Chancellery to bemoan the numerous statements of grand-coalition skepticism coming out of the CDU. He said that he had counted 14 such statements coming from the CDU in recent days. "You have to put a stop to it," Seehofer told Merkel.
Both Seehofer and Merkel would like the talks with the SPD to go as quickly as possible. "The world is waiting for us to be able to engage again," the chancellor said on Monday. Others, though, don't see it that way. The party's economically liberal wing prefers a minority government while Jens Spahn, perhaps Merkel's most dangerous adversary within the CDU, has demanded that the conservatives not abandon a single core position in their talks with the SPD. If they do, he said, he would also be in favor of a minority government.
Some suspect that Spahn may not be primarily concerned with the party's positions on the issues. Indeed, conservative floor leader Volker Kauder sharply upbraided Spahn and his allies during a recent meeting of CDU leaders: "You are only interested in getting a cabinet seat," he said. And indeed, were the CDU to opt for a minority government, Spahn's chances of receiving a cabinet portfolio would be much greater.
Spahn, of course, has made no secret of his ambitions. Thus far, though, he doesn't have the necessary governing experience to perhaps succeed Merkel one day. He does, however, have plenty of backers within the CDU, which helps explain why many in the party aren't rallying behind Merkel's calls for quick coalition talks with the SPD.
Concerns about a repeat of the grand coalition, though, are much greater within the Social Democrats. After the party's catastrophic results in the Sept. 24 election, the SPD had seemed relieved that it could flee into the opposition. Indeed, even after Merkel proved unable to assemble a coalition with the FDP and the Greens, the SPD continued to play hard-to-get -- until German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has suspended his SPD membership while he is the country's head of state, made it clear he wasn't in favor of holding new elections. But the party clearly isn't eager to join another government. The word coming out of the SPD is that a government before Easter will only be possible if talks go completely smoothly.
What is a KoKo?
Following the preliminary talks, the SPD plans to hold a party congress to decide on whether to enter formal coalition talks. Should those talks then produce an agreement, the final deal would then be voted on by the SPD grassroots.
But there is a fair amount of confusion within the Social Democrats at the moment and it remains completely unclear what exactly party leaders want. Whereas party head Martin Schulz and floor leader Andrea Nahles recently indicated that they are leaning in favor of a grand coalition, senior party member Malu Dreyer, the SPD governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, is more in favor of a minority government.
How exactly a minority government might be beneficial to the SPD isn't entirely clear. Furthermore, Dreyer herself decided against a minority government in her own state in 2016, preferring to cobble together a three-party coalition. Still, her voice is a weighty one in the party.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 51/2017 (December 15th, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.
Then there is a third group, including the party's left wing, that has thrown its support behind an experimental form of government participation. One idea circulating is that of a "Cooperation Coalition," quaintly abbreviated to "KoKo" in German. The idea is that the coalition agreement would only formalize the alliance on a handful of core political projects while the parties would be allowed to work against each other on other issues. KoKo fans within the SPD believe the arrangement would give the party a bit more distance from Merkel and her conservatives. But the concept seems to ignore the fact that the SPD would find it virtually impossible to push proposals through parliament in opposition to the CDU and CSU. Even if the SPD were to have the support of the Greens and the Left Party, they still wouldn't have a majority.
Everybody in SPD leadership is clear that the party must present a more united front at its January congress than it did during its congress from last week. In order to avoid a rupture, leaders must arrive at a clear position supported by all of the top brass: Either in favor of forming a government or opposed. And it seems clear that Schulz will only be given a green light to proceed if he can credibly claim that a renewed alliance with Merkel will lead to far-reaching health care reform, billions of investments in education and progress on other key Social Democrat demands.
Much will depend on the state SPD chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, which has traditionally been extremely skeptical of an alliance with the Christian Democrats. With the state being Germany's most populous, the SPD chapter there will send 150 delegates to the party congress, roughly a quarter of the total. And it won't be easy to control them. Everybody at SPD headquarters in Berlin knows that if the North Rhine-Westphalia SPD doesn't support a grand coalition, it won't happen.
Signs of Torpor in Berlin
And state SPD leader Michael Groschek is extremely skeptical. "There is much currently being said about the SPD's shared sovereign responsibility," he says. But the SPD's primary responsibility is to "once again become large and strong enough that the people of our country see it as a real alternative when it comes to choosing our country's chancellor," he continues. "If we get used to being the junior partner, we'll end up as lackeys."
Groschek warns the SPD and conservatives against making any quick assumptions about the potential success of renewed grand coalition talks. "Nobody should fall prey to illusions that the grand coalition will become an inevitability just because of a few nice headlines coming out of the preliminary talks," he says. "We're not drawing any red lines, but without concrete improvements in the areas of labor market policy, pensions and health care, it is unthinkable that the party congress will give a green light to further talks."
The consequences aren't difficult to predict. If SPD negotiators want to be able to present concrete agreements to party congress delegates and, later, to grassroots Social Democrats, they will have to wrestle with conservatives over every single detail. And that will make coalition negotiations even more drawn-out.
Meanwhile, the world is not standing still. German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks was confronted with that fact at COP23, the recent global climate change conference in Bonn. Under the leadership of Canada and Britain, an international alliance was formed for the phase-out of coal -- and Hendricks had to stand by and watch. Until a new government is formed, after all, she is only leading the portfolio in a caretaker capacity.
But it is in Brussels where Germany's absence has been particularly noticeable. Diplomats there emphasize with barely concealed delight that work is continuing on virtually all issues despite the lack of a government in Berlin.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, for example, recently presented an ambitious plan for electromobility. "France plans to end the sale of automobiles with internal combustion engines in the year 2040," Philippe wrote, adding that he hopes other EU countries will emulate the pledge. The letter hasn't yet been published, but it is nothing short of an open challenge to Berlin. And Germany's caretaker government isn't in a position to defend itself. Indeed, the outgoing grand coalition had failed in recent months to agree on a clear policy on electromobility.
Protracted Even Further
Berlin also remains on the sidelines in terms of reforming the EU, likely to be the most important political issue facing Europe in the coming months. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented his vision for the EU's future a few days ago, an answer to the laundry list of proposals French President Emmanuel Macron delivered two days after the German general election. But it remains unclear what Germany wants. The last meaningful proposal coming from Berlin originated with then-Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who has been president of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, since late October.
When Merkel flew to Brussels on Thursday for a meeting of the European Council, she brought along a dossier regarding Juncker's proposals. But the paper ended with the conclusion that little could be done until Germany formed a new government.
Given Germany's traditional role as the most powerful voice when it comes to the direction taken by the EU, the delay is becoming a problem. European Council President Donald Tusk had hoped to come up with an agreement on the way forward by the middle of next year. But thanks to the slow process of assembling a government in Berlin, that timeline is beginning to look unrealistic. And with European elections looming in 2019, the delay could be protracted even further.
Even those who aren't generally known for showing nerves are becoming nervous, people like Gunther Krichbaum, a CDU parliamentarian who is the long-serving chair of the European Affairs Committee in the German parliament. He generally doesn't demand the floor during meetings of the conservative caucus, but when Merkel on Monday evening only briefly mentioned the upcoming European Council meeting ("... and then there's the summit"), he'd had enough. Germany, he called out, has to be careful that it doesn't completely lose its influence in Europe. German interests, he said, are in danger of disappearing under the radar. Günther Oettinger, Germany's representative on the European Commission, likewise complained recently in an interview with DER SPIEGEL that Germany's influence on important issues in Brussels had gone missing.
Like the issue of money, for example. Oettinger, the commissioner for budget and human resources, is currently compiling a draft budget for EU spending from 2021 to 2027. For Germany, billions in agricultural subsidies and regional assistance programs are at stake while Merkel would like to shift large chunks of EU spending to education, refugee policy and technology.
Another controversial issue is how to compensate for the 10 billion euros per year that will be lost once Britain leaves the EU. Many EU member states have a clear idea of who should jump into that gap: namely, Germany.
Berlin's ongoing inability to assemble a stable government is far from being a crisis of state. At first glance, political administration is continuing as it should while in the Bundestag, committees have been formed and debates are being held. But at second glance, things are in fact stalled throughout the political machinery.
It begins with minor formalities: The personnel department in the Justice Ministry, for example, isn't sure what to do because some employee contracts there contain a provision saying that the contractual relationship comes to an end two months after the minister's departure. Now, lawyers are trying to figure out whether a caretaker minister has actually "departed" in a legal sense.
Every office head at the moment must decide for him- or herself how to proceed on important issues and personnel questions: Either delay vital decisions or just charge ahead. Delay is possible, if difficult, in some cases -- such as two senior vacancies in the Justice Ministry caused by retirements. Because acting minister Heiko Maas doesn't know who might be taking over the ministry, or whether he might actually remain in his current position, he doesn't feel able to hire replacements.
But there are certain issues on which decisions must be made immediately. One of those is the diesel problem. In late February, the Federal Administrative Court will render a judgment on whether diesel-fueled vehicles can be banned from the centers of some cities. In an effort to satisfy the court's concerns, Merkel had pledged 1 billion euros in immediate aid for programs aimed at, for example, modifying aging diesel buses. But funding cannot be made available without a budget and a budget cannot be passed without a government.
A Boon for the Populists
Because the clock is ticking ahead of the verdict, the government is trying to divert money to the programs from other existing projects within the Environment Ministry and Transport Ministry that are somehow related to clean air. But it's far from sufficient, leading officials to nab a half-billion euros from the country's climate fund, which is supposed to provide resources to projects combatting climate change.
The winner of the ongoing governmental stalemate in Berlin is likely to be the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party. Should negotiations for a renewed grand coalition succeed, the AfD would become the largest opposition party. If they don't succeed, the AfD could continue to decry the failures of Germany's big-tent parties. And continue to pose as the true representatives of "the people."
During the first round of coalition negotiations between the conservatives, the FDP and the Greens, the AfD had a "dispatch" delivered to Angela Merkel at the site of the talks. "We are following the exploratory talks with great concern," the missive read. "We have gained the impression that these negotiations are not adequately addressing the problems facing our country."
It seems likely that once preliminary talks begin for a re-run of the grand coalition, leaders from the SPD and CDU can expect to receive a similar message.
By Melanie Amann, Veit Medick, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Michael Sauga, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter