The Days of Chaos in Berlin

Formation of a new government in Germany opens up opportunities for a stronger Europe and more cooperation with Russia.

These are the days of chaos in Berlin – such is the unanimous opinion of the media and most citizens who are interested in politics. And people around the world rub their eyes: chaos in Germany? Politicians from other countries have not experienced this from the largest member state of the European Union. But discontent is growing enormously in German politics: Chancellor Angela Merkel is being heavily attacked from politicians in her own Christian Democratic party (CDU). Many CDU politicians are criticizing their party boss for giving far too much to her old and soon-to-be-new coalition partner SPD. And she is especially attacked for giving the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – the most important ones – to the Social Democrats. Merkel is trying to wind up her critics by naming a few younger and new ministers and she is pushing for another four years as Chancellor despite massive resistance in her own party.

The SPD, which has its 465,000 members voting on the negotiated coalition agreement in early March, is in turmoil, with opponents and supporters of a renewed coalition with Merkel fighting each other. Martin Schulz, the party leader, has already announced the transfer of his office as SPD chairman to the faction leader Andrea Nahles. She held the post of Labour and Social Affairs Minister in the previous Cabinet before she became head of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary group after the federal election on September 24, 2017. Schulz also resigned from his ambition to become Foreign Minister instead of Sigmar Gabriel. Since then, there is confusion as to whether the SPD members agree to the coalition agreement or block their re-election to the government with their vote, and who should take over which government office.

Both in the CDU, along with its Bavarian sister party CSU, and in the SPD there is fear for the existence of their parties. Great is the concern to be politically unrecognizable through too much compromise, losing their target groups and ultimately losing massive voters – to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the left-wing populist party The Left (Die Linke).

In the general election, SPD and CDU/CSU received the worst results since the founding of the Federal Republic. CDU/CSU came to 32.9% (-8.9%), the SPD to 20.5% (-5.2), the right-wing AfD came with 12.6%, making it to the German parliament for the first time. Merkel’s weeks-long attempt to negotiate on a government coalition of the CDU, the CSU, the liberal party FDP and the Green Party (Grüne) had failed. After that, the SPD went – despite initially contrary opinion – in negotiations for a new coalition with Merkel.

Unnoticed in the background

The days of chaos in Berlin continue unchanged. But it is almost unnoticed that for the first time in German history two women have the power in the two largest parties – and thus in the politics of the country. Likewise hitherto unnoticed or too little seen is the fact that the coalition agreement for the new German government includes an important “Keep it up!”: that Berlin, despite all the turmoil and course changes in Washington, Vienna and London, continues to focus on the strengthening of a united Europe, on unilateralism instead of national egoism, on a world free of nuclear weapons. And that the new federal government now has 46 billion euros to spend for jointly negotiated projects over the next four years – such as raising child support, higher benefits for mothers, increasing basic pensions and other social benefits, billions for the expansion of kindergartens and schools, the digital infrastructure. A total of 1,438 billion euros is available for 2018 to 2021 (compared to 1,254 billion in 2014-2017). Therefore, the Handelsblatt has already dubbed the new government “Merkel’s most expensive coalition.” Criticism of the joy of spending and lack of tax cuts has come especially from business associations.

Above all, the coalition agreement is characterized by “a new departure for Europe” – which was previously urged by France’s young president Emmanuel Macron and, in the negotiations with the CDU/CSU, was especially demanded by the former SPD leader Martin Schulz, previously President of the European Parliament. “New priorities of the United States, the strengthening of China and the policy of Russia make it clear: Europe must take its fate more than before in its own hands,” says the agreement. “Only together, the EU has a chance to assert itself in this world and to assert the common interests of its member states. Only together can we defend our values and our solidarity-based social model, coupled with the social market economy.”

Signals for Eastern Europe

The agreement also gives clear signals to Eastern European countries: “The democratic and constitutional values and principles on which European unity rests must be enforced even more consistently than hitherto within the EU,” it says – without naming Hungary, Poland and other states, which are being accused of infringement of EU principles. And the government document sends ambivalent signals to Serbia and other countries hoping to join the European Union: “The EU enlargement policy remains important in order to promote peace, stability and cooperation. At the same time, the EU must ensure its capacity to act through internal reforms. All countries of the Western Balkans have the prospect of accession.”

The EU should face profound reforms that should strengthen competitiveness – which the CDU in particular had demanded – and at the same time introduce minimum social standards. This is the Social Democratic handwriting in the paper as well as the demands for fight against tax evasion, taxation of multinationals like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, which are named directly. In addition, there should be “common, consolidated bases of assessment and minimum rates of corporate taxes.” The chapter on Europe also promises: “We want to strengthen the EU financially, so that it can perform its tasks better.” For this purpose, “especially in close partnership with France, the euro area should be sustainably strengthened and reformed.” A clear SPD demand is that “the principle of mutual solidarity must apply to the EU budget.” In addition, it says: “Of particular importance for us is the German-Polish partnership.”

Russia and Ukraine

Russia and Ukraine are also mentioned in the coalition agreement. However, there is no recognizable change in Berlin’s policy: “Germany has a strong interest in good relations with Russia and close cooperation to secure peace and to resolve important international challenges.” This is based on OSCE principles and economic interests. “Therefore, we regret that Russia’s policy, including the human rights situation, represents a significant step backwards. Russia violates the European peace order through its illegal annexation of Crimea and intervention in the east of Ukraine. The present Russian foreign policy demands of us special attentiveness and resilience,” the coalition agreement says. However, Moscow is also given a promise: “We stick to the vision of a common economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” “Return to relations based on mutual trust and peaceful reconciliation of interests, which again allow a close partnership,” remains the goal of German policy toward Russia.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is also mentioned in the coalition agreement, and it includes suggestions from Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Germany and France will continue to work intensively to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine and implement the Minsk agreements. At the heart of this effort is the observance of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and the withdrawal of all heavy weapons and armed forces from the area. These developments are to be secured by a United Nations mission. Both Russia and Ukraine must fulfil their obligations under the Minsk agreements. In implementing the Minsk agreements, we are ready to scale down sanctions and, through them, we will engage in dialogue with our European partners.”

Ukraine should be actively supported in “restoring full territorial integrity and strengthening stability and social development.” But Kiev is also given a warning: “We expect and promote consistent implementation of the reform agenda in Ukraine, in particular the fight against corruption, with the aim of comprehensive modernization of the country. We will only grant our financial transfers under strict conditions. Germany is prepared to make a substantial contribution to the reconstruction of Donbass as soon as substantial progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements makes this possible.”

The Trump policy

Just as clear are indications of the current US policy: “The United States is undergoing a profound change, which presents us with great challenges.” It is to be met with “an open, intensive dialogue with the US Administration, Congress and representatives of the US States” as well as intensified efforts to make German and European positions in Washington heard. This includes a stronger, regular presence of German and European decision makers in the US. “The government is very clear on trade issues raised by Donald Trump: “We want fair and reliable trade relations with the United States. Protectionism is not the way to go.”

If there is not much new in the East, the Coalition Agreement provides nuanced changes in the western policy, in particular by strengthening prevention, a little more independence from the US and more European defense policy. To this end, the paper mentions the “principle of primacy of the political over the military” and German policy increasingly “aimed at securing peace, detente and civil crises prevention.” While Trump undermines international organizations, “the overriding task of German politics is to strengthen and develop rule-based international cooperation, institutions and organizations as the basis for peace, security and stability.” At the same time, it reads: “Europe must become more independent and capable of acting internationally. At the same time, we want to consolidate the bonds with the USA. We want to remain transatlantic and become more European.” The following statement is nuancedly new: “The EU also needs a common foreign and human rights policy.” A course change – especially promoted by the SPD – is that “in addition to defense spending, the funds for crisis prevention, humanitarian aid, external cultural and educational policies and development cooperation” are to be increased 1:1.

New defense policy

“We will fill the European Defence Union with life,” the coalition agreement stresses. “We are committed to providing a well-equipped EU headquarters for civilian and military missions. We want the planning processes within the EU to be coordinated more efficiently and harmonized with those of NATO.” The EU should “plan, develop, procure and operate military capabilities more closely in the future.” At the same time, NATO remains an indispensable guarantor and the foundation of our safety. Germany is and remains a reliable partner in the alliance. Germany will continue to make an appropriate contribution to preserving the Alliance’s deterrence and defense capabilities and to strong European defense. At the same time, NATO remains ready for dialogue.”

It underlines that the Coalition “welcomes the resumption of regular consultations within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council and will continue its efforts to make greater use of this instrument for confidence-building and conflict reduction.”

A particular focus is that “arms control and disarmament remain priority objectives of German foreign and security policy.” And: “The goal of our policy is a nuclear weapon-free world,” the coalition writes. “In the nuclear sector, we are committed to strict compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement. Full verifiability is essential. The Russian breach of the treaty, for which there are reasonable concerns, would have a significant impact, as such weapons could reach any target in Europe.” In addition, “conventional arms control has to be strengthened.”

However, Germany remains the same, especially with regard to international organizations: “We reaffirm the central role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for pan-European security and confidence-building and for the resolution of armed conflicts in Europe. We are committed to strengthening the SMM Special Monitoring Mission as a central element in implementing the Minsk Agreements in Ukraine.” In addition, the United Nations (UN) should be strengthened. Because: “The United Nations (UN) is the foundation of a rule-based international order. Germany wants to take more responsibility for peace and security, even with the assumption of a permanent seat on the Security Council.”

It is still a long way to go. First, the SPD members have to agree to the contract and thus clear the way for a new Merkel Cabinet. And then, the new ministers are to be named. Meanwhile, the days of chaos in Berlin continue.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.