Few cheers for Germany’s last-resort coalition

Thomas Escritt –
Angela Merkel’s conservatives and their Social Democrat (SPD) partners faced a chorus of scepticism on Thursday as allies and opponents alike criticised a loveless coalition deal that some said showed the German chancellor’s time was coming to an end.
The deal, reached in record time to end months of political paralysis after Merkel had failed to form a coalition with two smaller parties, faces its first test when the SPD’s membership vote next month on whether to ratify a deal many never wanted.
But Merkel’s camp was also forced to defend a deal that sees the conservatives cede the crucial finance minister post in exchange for a fourth term in office for the woman who has dominated European politics for the past 12 years.
Christian von Stetten, a lawmaker from Merkel’s own Christian Democrats (CDU), said the allocation of cabinet posts, and the finance ministry in particular, had been “a political mistake”.
Both camps had to make major sacrifices to secure a deal.
The agreement promises an unusual half-time review after two years, when the parties will reassess the coalition — already being seen as a possible opportunity for Merkel finally to step down.
“If it happens, the fourth Merkel cabinet will in some respects resemble the last cabinets of Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt,” wrote Kurt Kister, editor of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
“This government could be captioned ‘Won’t last long’.”
Even that may prove optimistic if SPD leader Martin Schulz fails to persuade the party’s 464,000 members to ratify the deal in a postal ballot, the results of which will be announced on March 4.
The centre-left party saw its previous four years in “grand coalition” with the conservatives rewarded with its worst poll result in decades in September’s national election, and the slide has continued since.
The SPD was on 18 per cent in a GMS poll conducted before the deal was announced, the lowest reading GMS had ever registered, and only four points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Together, the two grand coalition parties, which have between them shaped Germany’s postwar politics, barely scored 50 per cent.
Opponents of the deal say Schulz’s team failed to put a left-wing stamp on the programme, which continues to promise the budget discipline that has been the hallmark of Merkel’s three governments.
It is unclear if they will be persuaded by his response that the SPD will control top ministries including finance, foreign affairs and labour.
Schulz’s defenders emphasise new commitments on welfare spending, housing and pensions, and worker-friendly labour law reforms. Paradoxically, the political right’s dismay could win over more reluctant SPD members.
The mass-selling daily Bild said Merkel had sold out. “Chancellor at any price,” Bild wrote on its front page. “Merkel gifts the SPD the government.”
In a reminder of how indispensable Berlin has become to European affairs, the ill temper in Germany was not matched in other capitals, where news of a prospective end to four months of uncertainty was greeted with relief.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the coalition agreement was “very positive” and opened the way for convergence with France on reform of the euro zone, something that the SPD had championed.
The European Union leaders’ chairman, Donald Tusk, also welcomed the coalition deal, which contains commitments to contribute more to the EU budget, to develop the euro zone’s bailout fund into a full-blown European Monetary Fund, and to support the use of budgetary means to shield the euro zone from crises.
“Now it is high time to build an inclusive pan-European Grand Coalition for an ambitious budget, wise agreement on migration and a better euro zone,” Tusk tweeted. Senior figures in both camps were happy to acknowledge that the coalition, born of painful necessity, was nobody’s first choice. — Reuters