What’s happening in Germany, explained

A lot is riding on Merkel’s final shot at creating a coalition government.

The leader of Germany's social democratic SPD party Martin Schulz (L), German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk as they wait to be introduced to the German President during a New Year's reception at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin on January 9, 2018. (CREDIT: John Macdougall/AFP Photos/Getty Images)
The leader of Germany's social democratic SPD party Martin Schulz (L), German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk as they wait to be introduced to the German President during a New Year's reception at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin on January 9, 2018. (CREDIT: John Macdougall/AFP Photos/Getty Images)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week entered high-stakes talks with the head of a rival party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), in a final attempt to form a coalition government, hoping to end months of political stalemate in the traditionally stable European Union economic powerhouse.

The SPD used to be part of a coalition with an alliance headed by Merkel — comprised of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU). But the SPD voter base no longer supports such a coalition, or, as party member Norbert Randzio put it, “Anyone who wants a grand coalition is digging a grave for the SPD.” Still, Merkel is trying to gain the SPD’s support.

The outcome of the talks this week will have widespread effects on a number of important issues outside of Germany, including power dynamics in the European Union and the refugee crisis.

“This is uncharted waters for the German system, although I would never go so far as to say that it’s the top of a slippery slope to total chaos and breakdown,” said Jeffrey Anderson, director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

“Everything is working the way it’s supposed to work, but it’s never had to work this way,” he added. Germany is an incredibly stable country — it has had only eight chancellors since 1949 (excluding one acting chancellor who filled in for nine days when Willy Brandt resigned in 1974).

The problem is that neither the CDU nor the SPD have managed to maintain their core electorates in wrangling over domestic issues — the September poll saw both Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance and the SPD getting their worst results since World War II, bleeding supporters to smaller parties.

Merkel will be meeting in a series of talks with SPD leader Martin Schulz until Thursday. If she can win him over, Schulz will still have to rally support from membership at a special party conference later this month, which would then trigger another round of coalition talks.

September’s inconclusive elections have meant that Germany has essentially been working as a minority government for four months. If Merkel succeeds at forming a coalition, the new government will likely be formalized after April. But if those talks fail, then Merkel has two options, neither of which are ideal, said Anderson.

“One is to carry on with a minority government, which would mean a government which does not have a stable majority in the lower house,” Anderson told ThinkProgress. Proceeding as such would mean passing major legislation — such as reforming the country’s health care system — would be difficult or near impossible.

“The government would have to avoid all the controversial issues which would be not an ideal situation, but it would also avoid the second alternative, which would be new elections,” he said, adding that no one wants to go back to the electorate now as “they’re worried that they would suffer additional losses and the situation in the parliament would be even more confused.”

The road to a snap election is complicated:  It would require the lower house to be dissolved by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (under the country’s system, the president has the authority to suspend parliament). But Merkel would have to ask Steinmeier to do this, which she can’t do because she is running a minority, “caretaker” government.

So Steinmeier could nominate her for an election by parliament, and if she didn’t secure more than half of the vote — an absolute majority — then two more rounds of this vote could take place. And then Steinmeier could choose to dissolve the lower house and call for snap elections within two months.

Anderson figures that if these talks fail, Merkel would “stumble along” for a couple of years before stepping aside, rather than pushing for another election. But a minority government will not only be weak within Germany, but will also be less effective in helping the European Union meet the social and economic challenges it faces.

“None of these issues can really be addressed with a German government that isn’t capable of securing a majority in parliament to get approval for what it wants to do at the European level.

“No question that every time she needs to push a piece of legislation through she’d have to ‘ad-hoc’ it…it would be on her shoulder to make a sale,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “That would make the Europeans very nervous because they won’t know what’s going to come out of the oven every time she does that.”

The political relationship between the United States and Germany has already “changed dramatically” since President Donald Trump came into office, said Anderson.

“Although I have to say, with the the exception of a small group of people around the president — and the president himself — the rest of Washington seems to be trying desperately to maintain relations with Europe and Germany on an even keel,” he said.

“It’s not inconceivable that Donald Trump could push the U.S. into a policy position that could cause a break with Europe, but we’re pretty far from that — right now,” he added. As it stands, Germany is a key partner in Europe — more so than the United Kingdom at this point — on a number of issues, ranging from sanctions against Russia to economic ties with Europe.

“A weaker Germany…means the U.S. will get fewer things done and less efficiently, so that’s a net negative for us,” he said.

Janes said this could be looked at through a “bifocal lens” — a weaker Germany would mean there would be less of a European united front on, say, trade, in the E.U.-U.S. relationship, meaning that it might be easier for the United States to get what it wants.

But another concern might be Germany itself swinging more to the right. Merkel’s immigration policy is one of the lightning-rod issues for the far-right mobilizing her political opponents, even though she has walked her pro-refugee policy back significantly since 2015 and agreed to a limit of 200,000 refugees a year in October, something she had previously said she would never do. The country has also stepped up its deportation of Afghans, who Merkel sees as economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing violence.

“There is a real concern about a potential for a populist upswing, which was already manifested in the performance of the AfD — the Alternative for Germany party — in September,” said Anderson, referring to the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) party, which won 13 percent of the seats in the September election and is now the country’s third largest party.

In order to stave off further losses, whoever replaces Merkel will have to be quite conservative. “It’s hard for me to imagine that someone with … a progressive outlook on the approach to refugees would take her place. I just don’t think that faction is very strong,” said Anderson. “When and if she steps down in the next few years, the person who comes her place will almost certainly be much more hardline on this issue,” he said.

Janes is optimistic that Merkel might be able to pull off a coalition not because of domestic issues, but because Germans are very “European-minded.”

“If she pulls it off [manages to build a coalition] that means…that the opportunities to have a common cause, to keep Europe in tact, in the face of Brexit, in the face of Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic — all kinds of centrifugal forces in the E.U. — might be more promising than perhaps the idea of keeping common ground with domestic policies like migration, budget, things like that,” he said.