On January 21st, 600 delegates from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) will meet in Bonn to decide the fate of a 28-page blueprint for a coalition government between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian sister party (CSU), and the SPD. If delegates give this agreement the go-ahead, followed by a similar vote by rank and file party members, the resulting government in Berlin would be staunchly pro-EU, agreeing to significant leaps into further integration. In short, eurosceptics should care deeply about what’s going on in Germany.
Germany’s federal election, held last September, produced no clear winner. Merkel’s CDU and its CSU allies obtained the largest share of the vote, but came short of an overall majority, meaning they could either risk minority government, or look to other parties to form a coalition.
Having spent eight of the past twelve years in a “grand coalition” with Merkel, the SPD wanted to distance itself from government. Indeed, its partnership with the CDU lost it much of its base, producing the party’s worst result of the postwar era.
After coalition talks with other parties collapsed in November, the CDU and SPD reluctantly began to discuss the potential of yet another grand coalition—a move that would not sit well with either party’s base.
On January 12th, European capitals and stock markets breathed sighs of relief as Merkel and SPD leader Martin Schulz agreed on an outline for a potential coalition deal. Notably, the agreement includes important boons for European integration, such as the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism into a “European Monetary Fund”, and closer alignment with France on numerous fronts.
Indeed, a coalition built on this agreement will be well received in Brussels and especially in Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron has grand ambitions for deeper integration, and knows he will need an eager partner in Berlin to obtain any results.
Though some political commentators believe SPD delegates will ultimately endorse the 28-page blueprint, it is far from guaranteed. The party’s youth wing, as well as its more socialist contingents have portrayed another grand coalition as further watering down the SPD’s core values. By continuing to govern with Merkel, they argue, the SPD loses its credibility as a viable alternative.
Under Merkel, the CDU has successfully coopted many policies traditionally associated with the left, or environmentalists. Joining her in a coalition all but confirms that the two parties ultimately have more in common than not. It is for this reason, some argue, that political movements traditionally on the fringe of German politics have been able to flourish in recent years. Most notably, the last election saw the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party—which denounced the grand coalition government’s migration policy (or lack thereof)—and the Free Democratic Party—which is against pooling eurozone member state debts.
Many in the SPD know that another coalition with Merkel could hit their party hard come next election. As such, even if a majority of delegates end up endorsing the agreement, there remains a mail-in vote to be held by the SPD’s 443,000 party members. This could prove to be a bridge too far for the Merkel-Schulz blueprint, as many rank and file party members oppose another coalition.
The current situation in Germany presents a significant fork in the road, not only nationally, but for the European project. Either the next German government doubles down on a pro-integration agenda with Paris, or, if either the delegates in Bonn or the SPD party membership reject the agreement, Merkel’s CDU might have to attempt minority government or worse, fresh elections.
In the latter scenario, there is a strong possibility that Schulz—a former President of the European Parliament— is replaced as leader. If this were to occur, a more obviously “socialist” candidate (carrying a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis Merkel’s domestic policies) could takes his place.
Similarly, Merkel’s CDU—and especially the CSU—could seize the coalition breakdown as an opportunity to replace her. Indeed, many in her party are worried about its shift to the centre under her chancellorship, creating the vacuum on the conservative end of the spectrum (both social and fiscal) which has now been filled by the AfD and the FDP.
In either case, no deal in Germany would be bad news for Macron and his European ambitions. Whoever his next counterpart would be in Berlin, they would probably be far less inclined to compromise.
So, as unimportant as a party congress on the decision to endorse further coalition talks may sound outside of Germany, the upcoming SPD votes are a very important juncture for Europe. Either Germany joins France in taking yet another leap towards a United States of Europe, or cooler heads prevail, leaving room for Germans to govern themselves in peace.