82m Germans heaved a collective sigh of relief on Monday when they heard that the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats had finally cut a deal to form a grand coalition government, to be headed by Angela Merkel. Germans do not much like uncertainty, and they certainly do not like it with in their politics. After the three weeks of wrangling following ourfollowing the inconclusive election on September 18 poll, had begun to feel as though they’d never endinterminible. By Monday, it seemed as though any news, it seemed any news would be good news. But just how good is it, and for whom?
The advent of WellGermany’s first female chancellor is good news for women, who happen to make up half of the electorate. Look where you will, in Germany’s political parties, the corporate sector, academia: in terms of promotion seniorityequality in the workplace or and work-life-balance, German women lag ten 10 years behind the rest of Europe and at least fifteen 15 years behind the US. Having women in top jobs matters – and this particular promotion is the biggest any German woman has ever achieved.
But that is already it. The This Ms Merkel’s grand coalition, however, is merely an interregnum arrangement. With luck, it will last two years. Its only historical predecessor in German postwar history lasted all of three years (1966-69), before it ended – and there was far broader agreement between the two camps thirty 30 years ago than there is now.
Angela Ms Merkel is a canny, cool-headed operator who has built a political career on being underestimated, most memorably by her mentor Helmut Kohl, former chancellor, who used to refer to her as “the girl”. She proved that she could be ruthless her ruthlessness when, at the height of a conservative party financing scandal, she publicly called wrote a public letter calling on Mr for Kohl to resignationresign. He did; her career was launched.
However, Ms Merkel has yet to prove that she can not only win, but keep maintain, a victory. Her only one previous stint in government was as a colourless minister for women and the environment. Unlike her persuasive predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who could have charmed a tree stump to cast a ballot for him, she has difficulty connecting to voters, including her own. She has few close friends in her party’s leadership. The “Black Barons”, conservatives like such as Bavaria’s Edmund Stoiber or Hesse’s Roland Koch, who sidestepped into state politics to escape Mr Kohl’s toxic shadow, are so intensely jealous of her that they were willing to be publicly disloyal to their candidate during in the election campaign – even when this hurt their own popularity polls rather than hers. For these reasons alone, Angela Ms Merkel might yet turn out to be a dead woman walking: a leader beginning the end of her career rather than ending the beginning. Yet Ms Merkel must also lead a potentially explosive coalition. In theory, both camps agree that Mr Schröder’s “Agenda 2010” reform programme should be the point of departure; both publicly insist that they do not want to form a “lowest common denominator” coalition.
But what are they likely to be able to agree upon? Reform of Germany’s creaking federalist structures? Yes, because both parties have worked been working on this together in the parliament’s upper house (the Bundesrat) for years. Greater centralisation and liberalisation might make it easier to shake up Germany’s underperforming universities and schools, and allow police and domestic security services to co-operate in combating terrorism. Healthcare or tax reform? Perhaps.
But on the one really crucial issue – reform of Germany’s rigid and restrictive labour market – majorities in both parties oppose the radical changes necessary to crank up Germanythe ailing economy. Only a tiny fraction of the newly elected members of the Bundestag, which must convene on October 18 to elect the new government, are entrepreneurs. For most of the others, “liberal” is a four-letter word. Not that Germany will have much freedom of movement in economic affairs. Although Germany it has broken the European Union’s budget deficit limits three years in a row, the European Commission was reluctant to punish the leadership of the EU’s largest economy. Now, with Berlin set to break its promises of fiscal responsibility for the fourth time, and the Commission considering punitive measures, Germany could find itself in a fiscal corset so rigid as to preclude any chance of economic recovery.
The outlook is slightly better On the foreign policy front, the outlook is slightly better – if only because there is little substantive disagreement on most issues between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. on most issues. A Chancellor Merkel will would not wonsend soldiers to Iraq, granted, but she wonwill also would not pose for Christmas family photographs with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. eitherBut do not hope for strong or even innovative German leadership in European or transatlantic affairs – nobody will have the energy for that. For there is one more negative force to be reckoned with: the Left party, composed of former East German communists and renegade Social Democrats. They may well split up over their own cultural and ideological disagreements. But they are clearly setting themselves up as spoilers on all fronts. Finally, One more good thing, thoughon the upside, Berlin taxi drivers will stop asking their guests: “Have we got a government yet, have you heard the radio?” I haven’t listened to the news for at least two hours.”At least for the next two years.
The writer is director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office