Having initially ruled out joining the government, Martin Schultz’s party has performed a screeching U-turn. The long-term consequences for his party—and for Germany—could be severeby Leopold Traugott / January 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
“We are not available to join another grand coalition.” It was less than two months ago that Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), categorically rejected the idea of joining Chancellor Angela Merkel in government once more. After four years of grand coalition with Merkel’s conservative bloc of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU), the three parties together lost 13.9 per cent of their vote share in last September’s federal elections. The SPD itself suffered its worst electoral result since 1949.
Drawing lessons from what had gone wrong, the Social Democrats prescribed themselves four years of reflection and renewal in parliamentary opposition. Or so they thought, until coalition negotiations for the only other stable government option available to Germany—a “Jamaica Coalition” of Conservatives, Greens and Free Democrats—collapsed. After much back and forth, the talks which were originally “open-ended” between the Social Democrats and Merkel’s conservatives on Friday ended in an announcement that both parties would seek to negotiate another grand coalition. It’s not all sewn up yet, but with the party leaderships on board formal talks are likely to succeed.
So to the joy of some and disappointment of others, the SPD looks to have done a complete turnaround. What might be positive for Europe in the short run however, is likely to prove harmful for the party itself.
Many SPD supporters are clearly unhappy with the idea. A recent poll by public broadcaster ZDF indicated that 49 percent of them feel negatively about the prospect of another such coalition. The party’s youth wing unanimously adopted a resolution against a new grand coalition back in November. Now that the party leadership has officially announced it wants formal coalition negotiations, the first SPD MPs have made public their intention to thwart this plan. Indeed, in the states of Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin, the Social Democratic branch has already voted against it.
Other parties could ignore such discontent in their own ranks. Not the Social Democrats. The party occasionally grants decision-making powers on key questions to its members, and has pledged do so on this new coalition. At an extraordinary party conference on 21st January, 600 SPD delegates, representing the party’s rank-and-file, will be asked to give the green light for formal negotiations. Later, once a final coalition agreement is reached, this will be put to a vote by all party members. If internal opposition grows too strong, the SPD may find itself without a mandate to join government. This extreme scenario is unlikely. But even a narrow victory will be problematic. Four years in government can be a long time when nearly half of your own party disagrees with you being there.
“At an extraordinary party conference on 21st January, 600 SPD delegates will be asked to give the green light for formal coalition negotiations”
Aware of the internal scepticism towards a new coalition with Merkel, the SPD tried its best to sugarcoat its U-turn. Schulz’s speech at party conference in December (remember, the time he called for all EU member states to leave the bloc if they disagreed with a federal constitution by 2025?) was an attempt at framing any future move into government as a pro-European act. Only with the Social Democrats in power, ran the narrative, would Berlin be able to respond to President Emmanuel Macron’s call to save the EU from populism.
Just months earlier, during the election campaign, Schulz had largely dodged the issue of Europe in favour of campaigning on social justice at home. The Social Democrats also doubled down on this issue: if the SPD were to help Merkel form a government once again, Schulz argued, then it should be at as high a price as possible, bringing socialist policies into the coalition agreement.
Looking at the preliminary agreements of the exploratory talks, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the SPD actually achieved that. There are some achievements for the Social Democrats. The party wants to tackle problems in Germany’s federal education system, to make pensions more secure, and to provide a better framework for people to return to full-time employment. The paper speaks to these issues, while on Europe it is staunchly positive and takes up many of the SPD’s demands. It singles out new commitments to reform the eurozone, strengthen the bloc’s democratic credentials, and crack down on tax-evading corporations.
Overall, however, the agreement still looks rather unimpressive from the SPD’s perspective. The party’s flagship project of unitary healthcare for all Germans was not achieved. Its demand to increase taxes for higher income brackets does not feature. However, many of the CSU’s hardline immigration policies made it into the paper. The upper limit for refugees stays, and asylum seekers will be housed in central facilities until their applications are decided upon. Even the environmentalist goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 40 per cent by 2020 looks to have been dropped.
“This is not a recipe for Social Democratic renewal, but for its continued demise”
Is the programme as it currently stands a complete disaster? Far from it. It is the result of the normal give and take in such negotiations, with the SPD as junior partner having to compromise on many fronts. Still, it is miles away from anything the SPD set out to do when it elected Martin Schulz party leader in March of last year. Instead of decisively moving back to the left and reclaiming the traditional socialist position, the SPD will again have to carry a government agreement that accommodates key conservative positions made by the CDU and CSU.
What sweetens the proposed deal for the Social Democrats is that, in exchange for supporting another Merkel government, they would at least be able to credit themselves with bringing Germany back on a more integrationist course regarding the EU—if for now only on paper. Many people in Germany and abroad would be grateful for this. However, whether these are the policies that can help the SPD win back its former working-class electorate is questionable. It will do little to win back all those who withdrew their support from the party in disappointment over the “Blairite” policies carried by the Social Democrats over the last decade. In the 2017 elections, around one million of these voters shifted to the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland or far-left Die Linke.
Much is still uncertain about Germany’s potential new government. The Social Democrats need approval from the membership both to start official coalition negotiations, and to conclude them. Much of what has been agreed between the parties so far will be renegotiated and tweaked over the next weeks. The result of the parties’ exploratory talks is not yet a government agreement, and the SPD has already said it would like improvement on certain issues. Nevertheless, the general framework that has been agreed so far looks bad for the Social Democrats. It does little to reflect on where the party went wrong over the past years—if anything the party is committing new mistakes. It is not a recipe for Social Democratic renewal, but for its continued demise. And that may have worrying implications for the long-term future of democracy in Germany.