Stop the world. Germany is stepping off
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When last did a nation collapse under the unbearable weight of its prosperity? For a visitor in Berlin, Germany’s coalition talks straddled the line between complacency and smugness. Elsewhere, European politicians are struggling to balance the books by cutting education spending and capping pensions. Angela Merkel and her prospective coalition partners spent a fruitless month arguing about how to share out the rich spoils of economic success.
If you believe the headlines, the failure of the chancellor’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, to strike a deal with the economically liberal Free Democrats and the leftish Greens has plunged the nation into crisis. No one has told the well-heeled Christmas shoppers crowding Berlin’s stores. Wages are high, unemployment is low and the government is awash with cash. Crisis, Germans are asking, what crisis?
The country has turned inward as well as rightward. The politics of plenty might have persuaded an earlier generation of postwar politicians to raise their sights to the future of Europe. Not this one. Now what you catch is a visible irritation with the troubles of Germany’s less fortunate partners in the eurozone. If they want to succeed, they should jolly well behave more like, well, Germany.
What was it that Ms Merkel said not so long ago about picking up the torch for liberal democratic values and working with French president Emmanuel Macron to advance the cause of European integration? By the account of those inside the talks, the chancellor now professes indifference. A coalition agreement should say nothing to offend Mr Macron directly. On the other hand, it need not make any commitments.
The breakdown of the talks was a shock to Berlin’s political establishment. A deal would be reached, everyone had previously agreed, because the alternatives of a minority government or another election were unthinkable. The Brexit vote in the UK, Donald Trump in the US, even the success of the nativist Alternative for Germany in September’s elections — these are things that should have taught us that politics is no longer played by the old rules.
Germany may have to get used to a new dynamic. By taking nearly 13 per cent of the vote, the AfD changed the arithmetic of traditional coalition building. Add its share to the 9 per cent score of the formerly communist Die Linke and more than a fifth of the seats in the Bundestag are now occupied by MPs shunned by the political mainstream. The permutations for workable coalitions have shrunk accordingly.
Political calculation on the part of the Free Democrats rather than irreconcilable policy collisions with the Christian Democrats and Greens scuppered Ms Merkel’s hopes for a Jamaica coalition — so called because the three parties’ colours match that of the Caribbean nation’s flag. There were real differences — about immigration controls, climate change, Europe, and tax and spending — but a mix of compromises and fudges had all but closed even the gaps between the Greens and the CSU.