In the end, the atmosphere became downright festive in the Berlin Hall of the Parliamentary Society, a building next to the Reichstag. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had met there three times in the last three weeks to sound out whether they could form a coalition government. The decision was still up in the air.
Merkel gave SDP Chairman Sigmar Gabriel a questioning look, and said: "Would you like to say something?" But Gabriel beckoned to her to speak. "I have my delegation's support for what we discussed," she said. "So do I," Gabriel replied.
The grand coalition took shape shortly before 3 p.m. last Thursday. For the third time in postwar German history, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the SPD are preparing to form a coalition government. The talks are expected to begin this Wednesday. The chancellor is in a hurry because she wants to have a new government by Christmas at the latest. "Christmas will be here sooner than you think," she told fellow members of the CDU executive board on Friday afternoon.
At the beginning of her third term, Merkel has more power in Germany and Europe than any chancellor before her. There hasn't been such a strong majority behind a government in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, since the first grand coalition half a century ago. In the midst of the European crisis, Germany has become the undisputed dominant power in Europe.
The grand coalition will hand Merkel a majority she could use to shape Germany and Europe and address major issues, including constitutional reforms in Germany and the reform of European Union institutions.
Merkel, unlike SPD Chairman Gabriel, has been unchallenged in her own party since her election victory. Little is left of the accusations that critics had leveled at Merkel, except one: That she is a chancellor without an agenda, plan or vision; that her style of government is reactive rather than proactive; and that she doesn't know where she wants to take her government and Germany.
Big Plans for Europe
In the past, Merkel has treated governing primarily as repair work. The major issues of her first two terms in office, the financial crisis and the fight to save the euro, were suitable for that approach. Will that change, now that she has the necessary power and means? Hardly at all, when it comes to Germany. There are no major reforms in the works at government ministries, and the grand coalition will focus on increasing spending to fulfil some of the parties' campaign promises.
In contrast, officials at the Chancellery are forging plans for Europe that are practically visionary for someone like Merkel. If she prevails, they will fundamentally change the European Union. The goal is to achieve extensive, communal control of national budgets, of public borrowing in the 28 EU capitals and of national plans to boost competitiveness and implement social reforms. The hope is that these measures will ensure the long-term stability of the euro and steer member states onto a common economic and fiscal path. This would be the oft-invoked and ambitious political completion of Europe's monetary union -- a huge achievement.
It isn't a new goal, but what is new is the thumbscrews Brussels will be allowed to apply if Merkel has her way, including sooner and sharper controls and veto rights, as well as contractually binding agreements and requirements. In short, this would amount to a true reconstruction of the euro zone and a major step in the direction of an "economic government" of the sort the SPD too would like to see put in place.
Germany's current economic strength helps to explain these visions for Europe, since stricter budget controls wouldn't pose a threat to Berlin at the moment. Jobless levels are so low that the country has almost reached full employment, and the budget is in good shape, at least at the national government level. In fact, public coffers are so full that the government can afford to boost domestic spending.
More Money to Spend
And that's precisely what the members of that coalition intend to do. The first item on their agenda is to hand out benefits and spend money. Thanks to the strong economy, this won't even require raising taxes. In his financial planning for the medium term, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble anticipates growing national budget surpluses from the year after next: €200 million ($274 million) in 2015, €5.2 billion in 2016 and €9.6 billion in 2017.
In other words, the government will have an additional €15 billion at its disposal in the coming years. This gives Merkel and Schäuble the necessary leeway to fulfill the desires of the CDU/CSU and the SPD for more investment in infrastructure and education without having to raise taxes. There is talk of an €11 billion fund for infrastructure alone.
Prior to the election, Merkel and Schäuble had announced their intention to use the surpluses to pay off old debts. That won't happen now, and yet the conservatives are not plagued by a guilty conscience, noting that despite the additional spending plans, the country will still remain within its debt limit requirements.
The reorganization of the financial relationships between the national and regional state governments, which is on the agenda in this term, will likely be costly for the national government. Many states would have to cut billions from their budgets so that they can make do without new borrowing starting in 2020. Many state governors complain that it's a burden their states can't handle without national government assistance. They are hell-bent on demanding financial support from Berlin in return for agreeing to a reform of the system of transfer payments from richer to poorer German states.
The states' ability to block legislation in the Bundesrat, the legislative body that represents the states, will likely become costly for the new administration long before that. Merkel is worried at the way in which preliminary coaltion talks in recent weeks turned into haggling over money between the national and state governments. "We just had a national parliamentary election, not 16 state parliamentary elections," an irritated Merkel recently told the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.
There may also be a major restructuring in the way transport projects are funded, due to the states' lack of money. The CSU's pet project, the automobile toll, stands a good chance of being approved, since it would generate new revenues.
More Powers For European Commission
During the negotiations, CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer presented a plan for how the toll could become a reality. It calls for drivers to pay an "infrastructure fee" in the future. Germans would be able claim the fee as a credit against the motor vehicle tax, so that the cost could ultimately be imposed on foreign drivers. According to the document, prepared by Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer, this would be possible under European law.
The new coalition won't face serious resistance to its spending policies, not even from the opposition. With the elimination of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) from the Bundestag, the voice of moderation in budget policy has disappeared. Only the economic wing of the CDU/CSU is likely to put up weak resistance.
So Seehofer will get his toll, the states will be kept happy with financial gifts and the social security offices will hand out benefits. This doesn't exactly sound like an ambitious program for Merkel's second coalition government with the Social Democrats. Instead, it feels like more of the same, or a program of minor improvements, at least on the home front.
But regarding Europe, Merkel is heading for strategic decisions -- and is likely to show more courage to take political risks than usual.
Schäuble, the last dyed-in-the-wool European among Germany's top policymakers, can be pleased. Merkel wants tangible amendments to the European Union treaties: more power for Brussels, and even more power for the much-criticized European Commission. "Unfortunately, there is no other option," say government officials.
Last Thursday, after the final round of exploratory talks with the SPD, Merkel brought European Council President Herman Van Rompuy into the loop in a private conversation at the Chancellery. It was a back-door initiative of the kind so typical in EU policymaking. Documents are already being put together at the German Finance Ministry over how "Protocol 14" of the EU Treaty could be beefed up. It currently contains a few general statements on cooperation in and control of the euro zone. But now, if Berlin is able to implement its carrot-and-stick approach, tangible powers for the European Commission will be added to the protocol.
For instance, the Commission could be given the right to conclude, with each euro country, an agreement of sorts to improve competitiveness, investments and budgetary discipline. Such "contractual arrangements" would be riddled with figures and deadlines, so that they could be monitored and possibly even contested at any time. In return, a new, long-discussed Brussels budget will become available to individual countries, an additional euro-zone budget with sums in the double-digit billions for obedient member states.
Protocol 14 could also be used to install the full-time head of the Euro Group. The influential job is now held by one the member states' finance ministers, currently Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Devoted Europeans like Schäuble have long dreamed of installing a "euro finance minister."
Resistance Against Merkel's European Plans
If Chancellor Merkel is focusing on an amendment of this central part of the EU treaties, it is a remarkable about-face. Still, the new course is risky, and it has many detractors and an uncertain outcome. None of this is to the chancellor's taste, at least not the chancellor we know. But Merkel has already deployed her key European strategist. The relevant department head in the Chancellery, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, outlined the German plan at a Brussels meeting in early October. It didn't go down very well.
Opponents of the common currency are rapidly gaining popularity in almost all euro countries. Every change in the balance of power in Europe and every upgrading of the European Commission make governments more vulnerable to domestic political attacks. More power for "Brussels?" No way.
There are even growing doubts in the European Parliament, albeit for completely different reasons. Both leftists and conservatives fear that anyone who opens the door to amending the treaties "won't be able to close it again that quickly," says a top Christian Democrat. Especially the British government, driven by the radical, anti-European UK Independence Party (UKIP), could use the opportunity to retrieve powers from Brussels, essentially renationalizing the European Union.
The SPD could raise objections. "The SPD won't support any arrangements if Merkel conducts parallel negotiations with Britain's David Cameron to transfer EU powers back to member states," Axel Schäfer, deputy leader of the SPD's parliamentary group, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He added that the SPD won't accept any treaty changes that relate to referendums in individual EU states.
The president of the European Parliament, German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, has already warned Merkel privately that he won't back any change in EU treaties. He wants national governments to make the euro zone resilient to future crises by using the instruments created step-by-step over the last three years -- without treaty changes. Schulz fears that a treaty change would take too long and that referendums necessary in some countries couldn't be won given current poor public sentiment regarding the EU. "We will check all the chancellor's proposals to see whether they can be implemented in all EU states," says Schulz, who will be part of the SPD's negotiating team in the coalition talks, responsible for all issues pertaining to Europe.
But Merkel seems undaunted by these obstacles. And she already has a timetable. First she wants to wait and see what happens in the May 2014 European parliamentary election. Then the new president of the European Commission will have to be chosen once the second term of the current incumbent, José Manuel Barroso, ends in 2014. Merkel got him the job and ensured he got a second term. But these days, she doesn't even bother disguising her contempt for Barroso.
Once the new European Commission is in office, the political window for Merkel's European vision is expected to open. It doesn't seem to bother her that she will be in a clear minority when she embarks on her reform plans. She is familiar with this position from the first days of the euro debt crisis, when she wanted to include the International Monetary Fund as a key authority in distributing aid packages, and almost all other euro countries were against the idea. At the time, she said privately: "I'm pretty much alone here. But I don't care. I'm right."
NIKOLAUS BLOME, CHRSTIANE HOFFMANN, PETER MÜLLER, CHRISTIAN REIERMANN, GORDON REPINSKI, CHRISTOPH SCHULT