On March 12th, the Christian Democrats, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, and the Social Democrats signed a Grand Coalition agreement, forming Germany’s next government. On March 14, the Bundestag elected Chancellor Angela Merkel to a fourth consecutive term, set to run through 2021.
The highly anticipated coalition will take on a new look.
Only five ministers from the departing Cabinet have taken up posts in the new government. The new administration is much younger, and women hold almost half of the available posts. The CDU and SPD hold six ministries each, and the CSU holds three. The flurry of moves ends a prolonged period of uncertainty, as Germany once again has formed a stable government with a 57 percent majority in the Bundestag. Merkel’s re-election illustrates she still retains the trust of a large number of voters, yet a shrinking support base shows that a growing number of citizens is disillusioned with her policies, particularly with regards to security and migration. The new coalition is a welcome opportunity for Germany to show that it can shoulder more responsibility on the European and global stages.
Reactions Near and Abroad
In Germany, many observers see the coalition agreement as a positive and overdue signal of progress. A stable German government is viewed as essential to strengthening the European Union’s vision and capacity, especially given the growing commercial and political influence of China, Russia’s continued belligerence, and the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
However, disgruntled members of Merkel’s own party have criticized the agreement for seemingly sacrificing important ministries to the SPD and CSU to secure re-election. The Christian Democrats relinquished control of the ministries of foreign affairs, finance, interior, justice, social welfare, environment, and economic development. Others were left disappointed with what they considered a failure to depart from the general formation of the outgoing Cabinet.
Opposition groups have been quick to express their skepticism. The right-wing Alternative for Germany is focused on undoing Germany’s migration policy and has raised concerns over the government investing more funds into a lagging European Union. The Greens argue that the incoming government has no real agenda for climate change reform, while the liberals contend the coalition agreement further neglects Germany’s middle and lower-income classes and that the agreement offers vague commitments regarding education and digital infrastructure -- two areas impinging on the country’s progress. Effectively, these groups believe the government is kicking the can down the road on serious national issues.
Internationally, France enthusiastically welcomed the signing as a positive step for Europe, since the agreement signifies renewed momentum in the eurozone. Over the coming weeks, the two neighbors will cooperate on joint initiatives to further develop and cement the European Project, including the formation of a European banking union and measures to encourage tax cohesion among member states. Paris and Berlin also hope to transform the European Stability Mechanism into a European Monetary Fund and to establish a more effective, long-term European migration policy. Of course, all of these initiatives will face their own challenges from other EU member states.
Grand Coalition: Grand Plan
The coalition agreement, which was finalized more than five months after the September 2017 elections, features a 177-page paper that lays out new government policies for the next four years.
Key aspects on the foreign policy front include a chapter titled “New Awakening” signaling Berlin’s readiness to push for further European integration. Proposals include a host of economic and commercial measures centered around tax policy, combatting trade protectionism, and the minimum wage. Europe’s foreign and security policy is also prioritized, with Berlin pushing for measures such as PESCO that strengthen European defense cooperation.
Importantly, the agreement expresses an intention to strengthen waning Transatlantic ties. The government will also aim to re-establish Ukraine’s territorial integrity, as well as strengthen relations with Russia and Turkey – both key players in Europe’s future. The sensitive issue of immigration is also targeted, with a proposal to reform Europe’s much-maligned Dublin procedure and change the treatment of third-country asylum seekers. Proposed actions to combat the causes of immigration include furthering humanitarian and development aid to Syria and Iraq in an effort to support regional development.
Many observers estimate that Merkel’s fourth term will be her last one as chancellor. She faces criticism from her own base due to her open-door policy during the refugee crisis, which paved the way for the rise of the AfD and similar populist movements.
At its core, the coalition agreement scarcely departs from the tenets of its predecessor. There are some cosmetic changes, but continuity prevails -- and this is Merkel’s trademark. To regain lost votes, though, Merkel will have to deal more intensely with domestic issues. Parliament will become a more vibrant yet highly contentious domain as four opposition parties now contest for influence, given Merkel’s reduced power base.
The principle of unanimity in the European Council concerning crucial matters may block some of Germany’s more ambitious initiatives, but a rekindling of the Franco-German engine is a realistic and necessary development, since any changes to the EU structure will heavily depend on the two countries seeing eye-to-eye on a number of initiatives. As for Transatlantic ties, the coalition agreement spells out plenty of good intentions. But disagreements concerning the JCPOA and the Paris Treaty on climate change, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of punitive tariffs on European steel and aluminum, further complicate a critical relationship.
Ultimately, for those seeking a complete overhaul of the status quo in Germany, this agreement is not it, and it is highly doubtful that Merkel is the figurehead to lead such a reform agenda. It simply is not in her political DNA. Merkel’s no-thrills, strong and steady approach to politics may be sound during times of stability, but given the overriding sense of unpredictability in global affairs today, it remains to be seen whether this approach remains viable. What remains certain, however, is that Germany will have a part to play.
Dr. Wolfgang Klapper is Vice President, Director of the Regional Security Program and head of Brussels Center of the EastWest Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.