Last Sunday, 21 January 2018, the German Social Democrats Party (SPD) approved the continuation of coalition talks with Merkel’s conservative bloc (CDU/CSU) on a special party convention in Bonn. Coalition talks will begin next week. Merkel indicated that she wanted an agreement to be reach before Carnival, i.e. before February 8th. Before the SPD would form a government with the Merkel’s CDU and the CSU, the Bavarian sister party, Martin Schulz has already announced that he would let the party members have a vote on the coalition agreement. I will personally vote against a renewal of the grand coalition (aka. GroKo) and here are the reasons why.
The Grand Coalition was voted out
First, the party leaders of the SPD, including Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles, head of the SPD group in the Bundestag, have ruled out a renewal of the coalition with the conservatives. The decision was welcomed by many people – even beyond the party – because there were good reasons to do so. Alltogether, the SPD and the CDU/CSU lost 13,7% of the total vote: the GroKo had been voted out.
Second, the AfD obtained 12,6% of the vote and is now the third biggest party. It is the first rightwing populist party to make it into the German Bundestag since World War II. Martin Schulz announced just after the election results were known that the SPD would not leave the main opposition role and could thus present his party as a ‚bulwark of democracy‘ (Bollwerk der Demokratie).
Third, the SPD lost significantly despite important achievements, such as the introduction of a minimum salary, more investments in communes and education, transparency laws to overcome the pay gap between men and women, and others. Moreover, the German economy was doing ‚rather well‘ at the end of the last legislative term. The election results however suggest that the SPD did not get any credit for its achievements. This is the second time that the SPD looses support after a grand coalition. There is empircal evidence for saying that the GroKo harms the popularity of the SPD.
Finally, the blueprint for the coalition talks which was agreed during the preliminary talks between CDU, CSU and SPD takes up only few of the SPD’s major demands. Main topics such as a reform of the health care system, taxes for higher incomes or tighter conditions on temporary contracts, did not make it into the agreement. The conservatives, in turn, obtained major concessions, notably when it comes to a more restrictive refugee policy, including a de facto cap on refugees.
None of the arguments that were presented by the party leaders – who nevertheless campaign for entering a new grand coalition – seem convincing. The main claim was that the party should not refrain from taking over responsibility, refusing a coalition would amount to betraying the voters. But I would reverse this argument: Don’t you betray the voters when you want to govern the country in a constellation that evidently has lost the trust of the citizens in the elections?
The Grand Coalition: A better solution for Europe?
There may be one topic that might have a little more weight: Europe. The preliminary agreement contains major commitment to engage into reforms of the European Union with a view to deepening the Eurozone and a renewed call for solidary among Member States. The signature of the SPD is very obvious, given that the conservatives appeared rather sceptical with regards especially to a Eurzone reform. The SPD could be a driving force when it comes to picking up on Macron’s demands, who has made a strong pledge to reforming Europe.
However, I don’t believe that reforming the EU will depend on the SPD. The CDU/CSU is not anti-European – on the contrary, they reckon themselves to be pro-European – and the pressing need for reforms in addition to the pressure exerted by Macron has become quite obvious. One way or another, there will be reforms, proposed by the Commission and negotiated between all 28 Member States and the European Parliament. The SPD would probably contribute to having a German government which is on the same line as Macron. Their participation is not however essential.
What is more, the SPD has nothing to win from achievements on the European level. Since Merkel would still be chancellor and sitting in the European Council where the main orientation would be negotiated, she would take all the credit for reforms and also be able to design the major lines. On the flipside, the SPD would lose more ground in the next elections, making the strongly pro-European, federalist political forces even weaker than they are now. What is the benefit for Europe on the long term?
The spectre of reelections
Another argument is that reelections would be disastrous: not only for the stability of the country but also for the SPD who has lost even more support according to recent polls. But I strongly doubt that there would be reelections. For this to happen, there are two options: either 1) the chancellor loses a motion of censure or 2) after a failed chancellor election.
Ad 1) there can be no motion of censure by the current Bundestag because the current Bundestag has not elected a chancellor yet. Merkel is currently only the managing chancellor. A motion of censure consists in retrieving the confidence in the executive; but you cannot retrieve confidence which you haven’t conferred in the first place.
Ad 2) a failed chancellor election would require that some party (most likely the CDU) proposes a candidate for election. If in the first two rounds, this candidate doesn’t get an majority in the first two rounds, the president can decide to nominate the candidate who gets a simple majority after the third round or call for new elections. This means that it would be up to Steinmeier to trigger reelctions (and not Merkel).
And at that point, I strongly doubt that the CDU would not reconsider the possibility of forming a minority government instead of risking reelctions which would not improve their starting position. Merkel has indeed excluded the possibility of heading a minority government. But who says that Merkel has to stay?
A stronger voice for the youth
Last but not least, the party youth of the SPD, the Jusos, are against a renewal of the GroKo. We want a renewal of the party, not a continuation of the same old politics. The party leaders claim that a renewal would also be possible in a grand coalition. I do not understand however how a renewal would be possible without taking into account the young generation more seriously. A truly new beginning is possible if you accept new point of views, fresh ideas, which are brought into the game by young people.
On this note, I want to end with a quotation with Hannah Arendt who hightlights the deep link between birth and a new beginning: „With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. [The impulse of this insertion] springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative“. A truly new beginning is possible because new men and women are born and insert themselves into the world. If we really want a change, they must have a strong voice.