Negotiators from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), their Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) have agreed in principle on a deal for a new "grand coalition" government—one that, in fact, is the same as the one that governed prior to the last election in September 2017.
The deal, if formally ratified by the SPD's rank and file members at a special party congress on March 4, would ensure that Germany has a new government by Easter—and that Merkel, already in power for 12 years, will remain in office for a fourth tenure as chancellor, albeit in a much-weakened position.
Unusually, the 177-page agreement, reached on February 7, is subject to review in two years, when the parties will reassess the coalition. Analysts have speculated that it may be an opportunity for Merkel finally to step down.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (center), stands with Martin Schulz (right), the leader of the Social Democratic Party, and Horst Seehofer (left), Governor of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, after government coalition negotiations on February 7, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
To ensure the deal, the three parties made concessions to each other, all in an effort to prevent fresh elections, in which the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), riding high in the polls, would almost strengthen its position in the German parliament, where it already is the main opposition party.
Merkel's greatest concessions involved the allocation of cabinet positions. Her CDU relinquished control over the influential Interior and Finance ministries. The SPD will now control the three top ministries: finance, foreign affairs and labor. The CSU, which advocates a harder line on immigration than Merkel, will take over the Interior Ministry.
The key points of the deal included agreements on healthcare and housing reform; a commitment to international climate goals; a "billion-euro program" to ensure that all Germans, including those in rural areas, have access to a high-speed internet connection by 2025; and restrictions on German arms exports to all countries taking part in the war in Yemen. The restrictions would include Saudi Arabia, a key market for German defense companies.
With respect to the European Union, the CDU/CSU and SPD agreed to grant more powers to the European Parliament and to create a European Monetary Fund—presumably funded in large measure by Germany—to help protect the eurozone against future financial crises. More significantly, the agreement promises "more investment" for the European Union. The SPD said this amounted to "an end to austerity measures"—cuts to public spending—imposed on the European Union by Germany after the eurozone crisis.
On the most contentious issue, namely that of immigration, the CDU/CSU and SPD agreed to cap the number of asylum seekers coming to Germany at between 180,000 and 220,000 per year. Merkel has long resisted an upper limit on asylum seekers, as demanded by the CSU, but after a million CDU voters defected to the AfD in the last election, she agreed.
The coalition deal also caps the number of migrants brought to Germany through family reunification (Familiennachzug) visas at 1,000 per month for those with so-called subsidiary protection, a temporary protection that falls short of full asylum. The category usually involves migrants fleeing war-torn countries but who cannot prove that they personally face any immediate danger. "Subsidiary protection applies when neither refugee protection nor an entitlement to asylum can be granted and serious harm [torture or death penalty] is threatened in the country of origin," according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
On closer examination, however, the compromise appears to be cosmetic: most of those under subsidiary protection in Germany are not married and do not have children; according to German law, they would not be allowed to bring extended family members in any case. Moreover, those under subsidiary protection involve a relatively small percentage of the migrants in Germany.
Only 200,000 of the more than two million migrants who have arrived in Germany since 2015 are under subsidiary protection, according to the Federal Employment Agency. Of those, between 50,000 and 60,000 have applied for family reunification.
In any event, the cap makes exceptions for "humanitarian grounds," prompting SPD leader Martin Schulz to describe the agreement as a "1,000-plus regulation."
In other words, the "compromise" that supposedly limits the number of family reunifications appears to be a public relations gimmick aimed at persuading German voters that the mainstream parties are taking a harder stance on migration, apparently in an effort to blunt voter appeal for the AfD.
The coalition deal was met with considerable skepticism from across Germany's political spectrum.
A poll conducted for Die Welt on February 8 found that 63%—almost two-thirds of voters—believe that Merkel was "weakened" or "clearly weakened" by the outcome of the coalition negotiations. Only 16% said the chancellor "strengthened" or "clearly strengthened" while 18% said she was neither strengthened nor weakened.
Many commentators said the agreement foreshadowed the beginning of the end of the Merkel era.
The Editor-in-Chief of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Kurt Kister, described Merkel's new cabinet as "a government with an expiry date." He wrote:
"Yes, there were no winners in these coalition negotiations—just as there was no clear winner in the Bundestag election. Maybe the CSU has done the best. Party leader Horst Seehofer, who has nothing left to lose, will be the most important minister [Interior Minister] of the CDU/CSU. Seehofer's upper limit for immigrants now stands as a corridor in the coalition paper: His party (and the CDU) will politically benefit from the upper limit, which corresponds to the ideas of a majority of Germans and also represents the limit of what important parts of the SPD will accept. The SPD has also achieved a lot in the short coalition negotiations, especially by gaining control over the major ministries.
"If a majority of SPD members do not oppose the coalition deal, Angela Merkel will have achieved her most important goal: there will be a (relatively) stable government. If the fourth Merkel cabinet comes about, it will be similar in some respects to the last cabinets of Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. Merkel will govern...but her government will be under the heading 'this will not be long.' This refers to Merkel, and also to the fact that in many parts of the country there is the feeling that 'this' should not continue."
The Berlin correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Volker Witting, wrote:
"Merkel knows that her fourth chancellorship will probably be the last. Even before the federal election, it had taken her long time to decide on running for a fourth term. And not only the opposition is pushing for renewal. Some in the CDU are counting on Merkel leaving—better sooner than later; even if the critics say that only behind closed doors.
"Above all, the right wing of her party cannot forgive Merkel for moving the once conservative CDU far in a liberal-social democratic direction. Conservatives have been grumbling for a long time, but few express their displeasure openly, even though they are thinking about an end to the Merkel era. For instance, Schleswig-Holstein Prime Minister Daniel Günther recently said: "A new government must include individuals who have a perspective for the post-Angela Merkel period."
The Münchner Merkur, in an article entitled, "CDU grumbles about Merkel: 'One could hardly have negotiated worse,'" wrote:
"The draft agreement could secure Merkel's political survival, but puts pressure on her internally. The price for the agreement with the SPD and CSU is relinquishing the most important ministries. Foreign affairs, finance, labor—all gone. The CDU retains control of the beautiful-sounding, but in fact powerless Ministry of Economy, the unpopular Ministry of Health, the crisis-prone Ministry of Defense and the shadowy existence of ministerial posts in the Chancellery, education and agriculture. That is little for the strongest faction in the Bundestag."
Germany's largest-circulation newspaper, Bild, in an article entitled, "Help, I have shrunk the CDU!," documented a growing rebellion against Merkel from within the CDU. Reaction to the coalition agreement included comments such as: "a political mistake," "completely unacceptable," "our own party is being wiped out," "it bears the handwriting of the SPD," "devastating," and "not good." Bild wrote: "The fact is: The CDU has lost more influence in the new government than it has gained. The Merkel critics in the CDU camp are getting louder."
In an essay entitled, "Why German Politics Can't Move Beyond Merkel," René Pfister, head of Der Spiegel's Berlin bureau, wrote:
"Ever since the German general election last September, there has been a whiff of farewell hovering over everything. In that vote, Merkel's conservatives suffered their worst result since 1949, and if indications aren't completely misleading, it looks as though Merkel is in the process of arranging for a successor to lead the Christian Democrats (CDU) once she's gone.
"Germans are strangely divided over the woman who has governed for so long; the younger generation can no longer remember a time when a male chancellor led the country. On the one hand, there is a desire for change, a Merkel fatigue that made itself apparent in the brief hype surrounding the launch of Martin Schulz's candidacy a year ago, but also in the rise of the anti-Merkel party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). On the other hand, Germans seem to be afraid of the very change they long for, with 51 percent of voters in favor of Merkel remaining chancellor. Behind Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, she is the most popular politician in Germany.
"But it is completely unclear what will come after Merkel. One of the characteristics of the later Merkel years has been that all political impetus is derived entirely from her. It begins with the AfD, whose name itself is a reference to Merkel's famous declaration that there was no alternative to saving the euro.
"Depending on your perspective, the AfD is either the ugly child of the Merkel era or an expression of a healthy democracy. But there can be no doubt that there would never have been an AfD without Merkel. For the right-wing populist party, she is both a mother figure and the focus of hatred. The party rejects nobody as vehemently as it does Merkel. Indeed, the emotion inherent in the party's repudiation of the chancellor is reminiscent of a family feud.
"A popular question these days is what, exactly, will remain from the Merkel era once she is gone. Adenauer is known for anchoring the country in the Western community of nations. Kohl's legacy is the introduction of the euro. But one can make the argument that with her political style, Merkel changed the country more fundamentally than any of her predecessors.
"The dominant trend these days is that of the political movement...the established big-tent parties seem strangely outmoded, trapped in a corset of rituals and ideological constraints. But it was likely Merkel herself who first realized how potent it could be if the party leader emancipated herself from her own party's doctrine.
"Merkel has never had the kind of charisma possessed by [France's President Emmanuel] Macron. And she certainly didn't transform the CDU into a vehicle of her own ambition with the vehemence and speed that Sebastian Kurz transformed the ÖVP [Austrian People's Party]. But the persistence with which she relieved the party of everything that once distinguished it from the political competition had a similar effect over time: What ultimately mattered was no longer the common convictions held by the party, but the party chair's determination to cling to power. The CDU was transformed into Merkel's own personal political party.
"On the way, though, the competition of political ideas—the policy conflicts that are the lifeblood of democracy and which provide voters with direction—was lost. As was the CDU's identity. The result is a battle over the party's direction that has been raging for quite some time, but has less to do with policy than with the question: 'Where do you stand on Merkel?'"
Writing for Der Spiegel, columnist Jan Fleischhauer warned that with the SPD controlling the Finance Ministry, the new coalition government would further increase runaway government spending:
"The next government knows how to spend money without stopping. If there ever was a willingness to be modest, then it was lost in the coalition negotiations. One should withhold numbers in columns, one does not want to bore readers. But it has to be here. 1,392 trillion euros: this is the number of expenditures the federal budget plan will provide for the current legislative period. Because this fabulous sum is not enough for the leaders of the grand coalition, they have agreed to spend another 46 billion euros, so that really every wish can be fulfilled.
"Even before the new cabinet is sworn in, Angela Merkel can claim to be the most expensive chancellor of all time.
"I respect the Chancellor, really. I admire the perseverance and the conscientiousness with which she accepts every problem that arises. I do not know anybody who works so hard for our country. She never sleeps for more than four or five hours, then she starts all over again. Yet she never complains.
"I only think that Angela Merkel has too light a relationship to other people's money. That's my problem with her.
"Deciding for oneself how one wants to spend what one has earned seems to her to be a strange thought. Every human being can notice the imprints of childhood. The older you get, the more it emerges. Merkel now combines the rectory [of her father who was a pastor] and the former Communist East Germany. They call it evangelical frugality when they find the reference to socialism too hard: it amounts to the same thing.
"You only have to look at the range of services offered by the modern welfare state. There is nothing that does not matter. It provides discounted opera tickets and language courses in Tuscany as well as free marriage counseling. You can think that's social. I think it is frivolous.
"Chancellery head Peter Altmaier had hopes to follow Wolfgang Schäuble as Finance Minister. Like his boss, Altmaier has a rather loose way of dealing with other people's money. Basically, he is convinced that every euro that the citizens spend themselves is a betrayal of the Chancellor, who knows a thousand times better what is good for the country. Now the Ministry of Finance goes to the SPD."
The Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, in a commentary article entitled, "Merkel IV," wrote:
"The result of the coalition negotiations can be summed up in one sentence: Angela Merkel saves her chancellorship, Schulz rescues himself into the Foreign Ministry, Seehofer saves himself to Berlin. It is an alliance of three politicians whose time has already expired."
On Tichys Einblick, a leading German liberal-conservative blog, Rainer Zitelmann argued:
"Actually, all opposition parties in the German Bundestag can be happy. From a broader perspective, the SPD is being crushed between the Left Party and the Greens and the CDU between [classical liberal] FDP and AfD. Merkel does not care. She knows that this is her last term."
In an essay entitled, "The Eternal Merkel," the Editor-in-Chief of the Westdeutschen Allgemeine Zeitung, Lutz Heuken, wrote:
"Angela Merkel has been chancellor since 2005—and has long since secured a place in the history books. For many citizens, the chancellor was a guarantor of stability for many years. But like so many real or supposedly great things in history, Angela Merkel made a crucial mistake: she missed the timely farewell with dignity.
"Maybe because she considers herself irreplaceable. Perhaps because no one in her environment dares to point out to her the obvious signs that she has long passed her zenith. Or perhaps because there really is no one in the CDU who could replace her in the short term because she did not allow anyone to, because of her drive for pure power.
"The SPD is now—forcibly—planning a change of leadership and generation from Martin Schulz to Andrea Nahles. At the CDU, such a change is currently unimaginable. This is not good for the Union and almost tragic for Angela Merkel."
If the SPD's 460,000 members fail to approve the coalition agreement, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier probably will call fresh elections. Polls indicate that the outcome would be largely the same as the elections held on September 24, 2017, when Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance won around 33% of the vote, its worst electoral result in nearly 70 years. Merkel's main challenger, Martin Schulz's SPD won 20.5%, the party's worst-ever showing.
According to the latest ARD poll "Germany Trend" (Deutschlandtrend) published on February 1, support for the CDU is at 33%, while support for the SDP fell to 18%, a record low, and only four points ahead of the AfD, which increased to 14%. Together, the two grand coalition parties barely scored 51%.
In the January 18 edition of the same poll, only 45% of voters said that another grand coalition was a good idea; 52% of respondents said it was not. The same poll showed that 53% of respondents think it would be very good or good if Merkel remains in office (a three-point decline compared to the previous month). Forty-nine percent of the respondents said that Merkel should complete a full term; 45% said she should leave prematurely.