Germany’s dubious deal


There is general relief that after an extraordinary four months without a new government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed to put together a coalition with the socialist partners in her previous administration. But this relief is premature.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats are shocked that she has been forced to give the powerful finance ministry to the center-left Social Democrats (CDU). It had been assumed the socialists would have been content with the foreign affairs portfolio. Passing the finance baton to the socialists means the pushing aside of Merkel’s redoubtable fellow Christian Democrat, Wolfgang Schäuble, whose good housekeeping has underpinned her past success. The socialist mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, takes over the finance ministry prompting fears among CDU conservatives that Merkel’s fourth government will see an unaffordable opening of the spending taps.

Indeed, given that the socialists had their worst post-war result in last September’s election it is remarkable that they have emerged with six ministries, one more than Merkel’s CDU. But there is another worrying outcome to the four months of political horse-trading. Bavaria’s CSU, the long-time south German partners of the CDU, gets the interior ministry. Despite serving in her last government, CSU leader Horst Seehofer was an outspoken critic of Merkel’s immigration policy. Far from seeing it as proof of German decency and generous support for human rights, his condemnation drifted dangerously close to that of the racist bigots of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

The AfD’s open Islamophobia and its relentless campaign to demonize the largely Muslim asylum seekers that Merkel had welcomed played to the concerns of ordinary Germans who wondered if their well-ordered society could in reality absorb the new arrivals. Most particularly, they were concerned that among the hundreds and thousands of desperate migrants were hidden terrorist members of Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS).

After his party’s drubbing last fall, socialist leader Martin Schulz vowed that he would no longer be part of any new CDU coalition. The analysis was that his party had lost even more support than the CDU over the asylum issue. Yet Schulz also feared that if Merkel were forced to ask for a fresh election, the socialist support, which has continued to decline since September, would be further eroded. Indeed some analysts have been predicting that the party could face near wipeout while the AfD further boosted its representation in the Bundestag.

In these terms, the deal Schulz has wrung from the Chancellor is quite remarkable. But it also demonstrates Merkel’s desperation to avoid a second election because of her own appreciation of the hideous threat from the AfD. Yet handing the interior ministry to a man who shares at least some of the AfD’s intolerance may allow racist bigotry to creep into her administration via the backdoor. While the socialist finance minister will be pushing for generous state handouts, Merkel’s interior minister will be pursuing policies designed to undo her magnificent record in admitting over a million Muslim asylum seekers.

There has been much media talk of Germany’s return finally to political stability. This is surely not the way that it looks to the politically wise. The successful electoral challenge of the abhorrent AfD has unbalanced the political establishment with potentially dangerous long-term consequences. No one should ever forget that Germany has been here before.