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Coalition crisis: Germany’s uncertain future

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Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany are facing an uncertain future after talks to form a coalition government – and secure her a fourth term – collapsed. Chancellor Merkel’s party, which lacks a majority in the Bundestag, had spent weeks trying to cobble together a ruling coalition with three other parties.

But the plan fell apart when the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) walked out of talks shortly before midnight on Sunday over disagreements on issues ranging from energy policy to migration.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party lacks a clear majority in the Bundestag (parliament). Merkel had hoped to build a coalition consisting of her conservative CDU, its sister party the Christian Social Union, the pro-business FDP, and the Green Party.

FDP negotiators walked out of what they described as “chaotic” talks, with party leader Christian Lindner said it was “better not to govern than govern badly”. All other parties attacked the liberals for deliberately collapsing the talks in a bid to boost its support in any snap election. FDP negotiators walked out of what they described as “chaotic” talks, with party leader Christian Lindner said it was “better not to govern than govern badly”.

The FDP’s walkout came after the four parties had already missed several self-imposed deadline to resolve their differences. But all other parties attacked the liberals for deliberately collapsing the talks in a bid to boost its support in any snap election. 

The AfD hailed the collapse of coalition talks. “We are glad that Jamaica isn’t happening,” said AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland. “Merkel has failed.” His co-leader, Alice Weidel, welcomed the prospect of fresh elections and called on Merkel to resign. Others suggested the walk-out was a high-risk FDP attempt to weaken Dr Merkel and forced fresh elections in which the liberals would pull back protest voters from the AfD. FDP rivals expressed concern that Lindner’s high-risk tactic could result in a further boost in support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which polled almost 13 per cent in the September 24th election.

Fragile coalition 

Merkel’s position was widely seen as unassailable in the run-up to September’s elections, with many commentators suggesting the outcome was so predictable as to be boring.  Merkel had spent weeks trying to cobble together a ruling coalition with three other parties. But the plan fell apart when the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) walked out of talks over disagreements on issues ranging from energy policy to migration. The political analysts suggested the FDP’s move could blow up in its face. There are politicians who are strong with their back to the wall, why should Merkel not be one of those?”

The Chancellor told state broadcaster ZDF that she has not considered resigning. “There was no question that I should face personal consequences,” she said.

Merkel had been forced to seek an alliance with an unlikely group of parties after the ballot left her without a majority.  Voicing regret for the FDP’s decision, Merkel vowed to steer Germany through the crisis. “As chancellor, I will do everything to ensure that this country comes out well through this difficult time,” she said. The Greens’ leaders also deplored the collapse of talks, saying they had believed a deal could be done despite the differences.

A poll by Welt online also found that 61.4 percent of people surveyed said a collapse of talks would mean an end to Merkel as chancellor. Only 31.5 percent thought otherwise.

Germany’s Sept. 24 election produced an awkward result that left Merkel’s two-party conservative bloc seeking a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens. The combination of ideologically disparate parties hadn’t been tried before in a national government, and came to nothing when the Free Democrats walked out of talks. Unable to form a coalition with one other party (as is the norm in Germany), Merkel emerged from the election substantially weakened.

Merkel’s liberal refugee policy that let in more than a million asylum-seekers since 2015 had also pushed some voters to the far-right AfD, which in September campaigned on an anti-immigration platform.

The country’s two mainstream parties — Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) — suffered big losses.  Smaller parties, including the FDP and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — who won 12.6% of the vote and entered parliament for the first time — were the beneficiaries.

While the FDP blamed the CDU/CSU alliance for the breakdown, the Green Party thanked Merkel and the leader of the CSU, Horst Seehofer, for negotiating “hard” but “fair,” and accused the FDP of quitting the talks without good reason. The so-called “Jamaica coalition” — named after the parties’ colors — would have been unprecedented at federal level.

Christian Lindner, leader of the FDP said that the four discussion partners have no common vision for modernization of the country or common basis of trust. “It is better not to govern than to govern badly.” He expressed regret that the talks had failed but said that his party would have had to compromise on its core principles. His party returned to parliament in September four years after voters, unimpressed with its performance as the junior partner in Merkel’s 2009-2013 government, ejected it. “It is better not to govern than to govern wrong,” Lindner said.

For Dr Merkel there is only one other possible option of avoiding fresh elections: wooing back the SPD into office for a third grand coalition. But senior SPD figures signaled that eight years as Dr Merkel’s junior partner since 2005 was enough. “We are not Germany’s parliamentary majority reserve,” said Andrea Nahles, SPD Bundestag leader. Merkel could now try to convince the Social Democratic Party, which has been the junior coalition partner in her government since 2013, to return to the fold. But after suffering a humiliating loss at the polls, the party’s top brass has repeatedly said the SDP’s place was now in the opposition. Merkel is set to consult the country’s president and the possibility of new elections looming.

Trust deficit

The country has been plunged into its worst political crisis in years after negotiations to form the next government collapsed overnight, dealing a serious blow to Merkel and raising questions about the future of the longtime Chancellor. Germany could likely be forced to hold new elections. But that is not without peril for Merkel, who would face questions from within her party on whether she is still the best candidate to lead them into a new electoral campaign.

Following more than a month of grueling negotiations, the leader of the pro-business FDP, Christian Lindner, walked out of talks, saying there was no “basis of trust” to forge a government with Merkel’s conservative alliance CDU-CSU and ecologist Greens, adding that the parties did not share “a common vision on modernizing” Germany.

The negotiations, which turned increasingly acrimonious, had stumbled on a series of issues including immigration policy. Key sticking points during the talks were the issues of migration and climate change, on which the Greens and the other parties diverged, but also Free Democrat demands on tax policy. The parties also differed on environmental issues, with the ecologists wanting to phase out dirty coal and combustion-engine cars, while the conservatives and FDP emphasized the need to protect industry and jobs.

Clearly, there is a serious trust deficit among the coalition partners that came to the fore in the negotiations. Party chiefs had initially set a deadline, but that passed without a breakthrough – after already missing a previous target on Thursday. But s the parties dug in their heels on key sticking points.

It’s likely to be a while before the situation is resolved. The only other politically plausible combination with a parliamentary majority is a repeat of Merkel’s outgoing coalition with the center-left Social Democrats — but they have insisted time and again that they will go into opposition after a disastrous election result.

If they stick to that insistence, that leaves a minority government — not previously tried in post-World War II Germany — or new elections as the only options. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will ultimately have to make that decision, since the German constitution doesn’t allow parliament to dissolve itself.

Fresh poll

Two months on, however, that untested alliance has hit the wall meaning Germany and Europe face an extended period of insecurity. When the Bundestag meets for its second sitting, still without a government, acting chancellor Dr Merkel has no legal means to table a motion of no confidence to trigger fresh elections. The parties failed to make progress on a number of policy areas — including the right for family members of refugees in Germany to join them there — and tensions had risen.

Apparently, the end of Markel era is being talked about now as the collation of partners keep moving one by one, though she expressed the hope she would  be successful eventually and would  put in place a new government.

Fresh elections in Germany appeared increasingly likely after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she preferred a new vote over governing without a parliamentary majority. Merkel said her conservatives had left nothing untried to find a solution.  “I will contact the president and we will see how things develop,” said a clearly exhausted Dr Merkel, departing the talks. “It is a day to think long and hard about where things go now . . . and as acting chancellor I will do everything to ensure Germany is led well through these difficult days.”

Merkel, Germany’s leader since 2005 said she would consult President Steinmeier “and then “we will have to see how things develop.” She didn’t say more about her plans, or address whether she would run again if there are new elections.

To get to either destination, Steinmeier would first have to propose a chancellor to parliament, who must win a majority of all lawmakers to be elected. Assuming that fails, parliament has 14 days to elect a candidate of its own choosing by an absolute majority. And if that fails, Steinmeier would then propose a candidate who could be elected by a plurality of lawmakers.

Steinmeier would then have to decide whether to appoint a minority government or dissolve parliament, triggering an election within 60 days. Merkel’s Union bloc is easily the biggest group in parliament, but is 109 seats short of a majority.

To get to either destination, Steinmeier would first have to propose a chancellor to parliament, who must win a majority of all lawmakers to be elected. Assuming that fails, parliament has 14 days to elect a candidate of its own choosing by an absolute majority. And if that fails, Steinmeier would then propose a candidate who could be elected by a plurality of lawmakers.

Merkel said that the “path of minority government” should be considered “very very closely”. “I am very skeptical and I believe that new elections would be the better path,” she said. Merkel also confirmed that she would be ready to lead her party into any new vote. She did not rule out further talks with other parties, however, and acknowledged that the country’s next steps were in the hands of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “The four discussion partners have no common vision for modernization of the country or common basis of trust,” said Christian Lindner, leader of the FDP. “It is better not to govern than to govern badly.”

Germany

Germany is facing unprecedented situation of coalition crisis. Was Germany’s past also was filled with crises?

Germany is a great power with a strong economy; it has the world’s 4th largest economy by nominal GDP. As a global leader in several industrial and technological sectors, it is both the world’s third-largest exporter and importer of goods. It is a developed country with a very high standard of living sustained by a skilled and productive society. It upholds a social security and universal health care system, environmental protection, and a tuition-free university education.

The Federal Republic of Germany was a founding member of the European Economic Community in 1957 and the European Union in 1993. It is part of the Schengen Area, and became a co-founder of the Eurozone in 1999. Germany is a member of the United Nations, NATO, the G7 (formerly G8 along with Russia), and the OECD. The national military expenditure is the 9th highest in the world. Known for its rich cultural history, Germany has been continuously the home of influential and successful artists, philosophers, musicians, sportspeople, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and inventors.

Germany was declared a republic at the beginning of the German Revolution in November 1918. The worldwide Great Depression hit Germany in 1929. The Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler won the special federal election of 1932. After a series of unsuccessful cabinets, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933.[56] After the Reichstag fire, a decree abrogated basic civil rights and within weeks the first Nazi concentration camp at Dachau opened. The Enabling Act of 1933 gave Hitler unrestricted legislative power; subsequently, his government established a centralized totalitarian state, withdrew from the League of Nations following a national referendum, and began military rearmament

In 1935, the regime withdrew from the Treaty of Versailles and introduced the Nuremberg Laws which targeted Jews and other minorities. Germany also reacquired control of the Saar in 1935,[64] remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938, annexed the Sudetenland in 1938 with the Munich Agreement and in direct violation of the agreement occupied Czechoslovakia with the proclamation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moraviain March 1939. In August 1939, Hitler’s government negotiated and signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact that divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Following the agreement, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.  In August 1939, Hitler’s government negotiated and signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact that divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. Following the agreement, on 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.

Britain and France declared war on Germany.[68] In the spring of 1940, Germany conquered Denmark and Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France forcing the French government to sign an armistice after German troops occupied most of the country. The British repelled German air attacks in the Battle of Britain in the same year. In 1941, German troops invaded Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union.

By 1942, Germany and other Axis powers controlled most of continental Europe and North Africa, but following the Soviet Union’s victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, the allies’ reconquest of North Africa and invasion of Italy in 1943, German forces suffered repeated military defeats. In June 1944, the Western allies landed in France and the Soviets pushed into Eastern Europe. By late 1944, the Western allies had entered Germany despite one final German counter offensive in the Ardennes Forest. Following Hitler’s suicide during the Battle of Berlin, German armed forces surrendered on 8 May 1945, ending World War II in Europe. After World War II, former members of the Nazi regime were tried for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.

In what later became known as The Holocaust, the German government persecuted minorities and used a network of concentration and death camps across Europe to conduct genocide of what they considered to be inferior peoples. In total, over 10 million civilians of all races were systematically murdered

Nazi policies in the German occupied countries resulted in the deaths of 2.7 million Poles, 1.3 million Ukrainians and an estimated 2.8 million Soviet war prisoners. In addition, the Nazi regime abducted approximately 12 million people from across the German occupied Europe for use as slave labor in the German industry. German military war casualties have been estimated at 5.3 million, and around 900,000 German civilians died; 400,000 from Allied bombing, and 500,000 in the course of the Soviet invasion from the east. Around 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled from across Eastern Europe. Germany lost roughly one-quarter of its pre-war territory. Strategic bombing and land warfare destroyed many cities and cultural heritage sites.

After Germany surrendered, the Allies partitioned Berlin and Germany’s remaining territory into four military occupation zones. The western sectors, controlled by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, were merged on 23 May 1949 to form the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland); on 7 October 1949, the Soviet Zone became the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). They were informally known as West Germany and East Germany. East Germany selected East Berlin as its capital, while West Germany chose Bonn as a provisional capital, to emphasize its stance that the two-state solution was an artificial and temporary status quo.

East Germany was an Eastern Bloc state under political and military control by the USSR via occupation forces and the Warsaw Pact. Although East Germany claimed to be a democracy, political power was exercised solely by leading members (Politbüro) of the communist-controlled Socialist Unity Party of Germany, supported by the Stasi, an immense secret service controlling many aspects of the society. A Soviet-style command economy was set up and the GDR later became a Comecon state

West Germany was established as a federal parliamentary republic with a “social market economy”. Starting in 1948 West Germany became a major recipient of reconstruction aid under the Marshall Plan and used this to rebuild its industry.  The Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955 and was a founding member of the European Economic Community in 1957.

The Berlin Wall, rapidly built on 13 August 1961 prevented East German citizens from escaping to West Germany, eventually becoming a symbol of the Cold War. Tensions between East and West Germany were reduced in the early 1970s by Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. In summer 1989, Hungary decided to dismantle the Iron Curtain and open the borders, causing the emigration of thousands of East Germans to West Germany via Hungary. This had devastating effects on the GDR, where regular mass demonstrations received increasing support. The East German authorities eased the border restrictions, allowing East German citizens to travel to the West, preparing ground for reunion of Germany. The fall of the Wall in 1989 became a symbol of the Fall of Communism, the Dissolution of the Soviet Union, German Reunification

The united Germany is considered to be the enlarged continuation of the Federal Republic of Germany and not a successor state. As such, it retained all of West Germany’s memberships in international organisations. Based on the Berlin/Bonn Act, adopted in 1994, Berlin once again became the capital of the reunified Germany, while Bonn obtained the unique status of a Bundesstadt(federal city) retaining some federal ministries. The relocation of the government was completed in 1999.  Following the 1998 elections, SPD politician Gerhard Schröder became the first Chancellor of a red–green coalition with the Greens party. Among the major projects of the two Schröder legislatures was the Agenda 2010 to reform the labor market to become more flexible and reduce unemployment.

The modernisation and integration of the eastern German economy was a long-term process scheduled to last until the year 2019, with annual transfers from west to east amounting to roughly $80 billion

Since reunification, Germany has taken a more active role in the European Union. Together with its European partners Germany signed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, established the Eurozone in 1999, and signed the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. Germany sent a peacekeeping force to secure stability in the Balkans and sent a force of German troops to Afghanistan as part of a NATO effort to provide security in that country after the ousting of the Taliban. These deployments were controversial since Germany is bound by domestic law only to deploy troops for defence roles

In the 2005 elections, Angela Merkel became the first female Chancellor of Germany as the leader of a grand coalition.[43] In 2009 the German government approved a €50 billion economic stimulus plan to protect several sectors from a downturn.[94]

In 2009, a liberal-conservative coalition under Merkel assumed leadership of the country. In 2013, a grand coalition was established in a Third Merkel cabinet. Among the major German political projects of the early 21st century are the advancement of European integration, the energy transition (Energiewende) for a sustainable energy supply, the “Debt Brake” for balanced budgets, measures to increase the fertility rate significantly (pronatalism), and high-tech strategies for the future transition of the German economy, summarized as Industry 4.0.[95]

Germany was affected by the European migrant crisis in 2015 as it became the final destination of choice for many asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East entering the EU. The country took in over a million refugees and migrants and developed a quota system which redistributed migrants around its federal states based on their tax income and existing population density

Observation: Options and uncertainly

End of Markel era is being talked about now as the collation of partners keep moving one by one. Short of resolving the impasse with the FDP, Merkel’s options are limited. President Steinmeier would then have to decide whether to appoint a minority government or dissolve parliament, triggering an election within 60 days. Merkel’s Union bloc is easily the biggest group in parliament, but is 109 seats short of a majority.

The article 63 of the post-war Basic Law requires three attempts to elect a new chancellor – a humiliating process for Dr Merkel if, as they signaled, none of the other parties are prepared to back her. The FDP was “deeply traumatized” by its term in office with Dr Merkel which ended in its 2013 election expulsion from the Bundestag. 

The euro fell following the news, although analysts said the longer-term implications for the currency were not yet clear.

Germany as the leader of European Union of Germany has been plunged into its worst political crisis in years after negotiations to form the next government collapsed overnight, dealing a serious blow to Merkel and raising questions about the future of the longtime Chancellor. Merkel, who has been in power for 12 years, could also lead a minority government but she had signaled that she was not in favor of such instability. German president warns politicians to solve political crisis.

Not only Germany, but for EU as well the collapse in Germany of ruling coalition would have serious repercussions. Europe’s biggest economy now faces weeks, if not months, of paralysis with a lame-duck government that is unlikely to take bold policy action. And with no other viable coalition in sight, Germany may be forced to hold new elections that risk being as inconclusive as September’s polls.

Angela Merkel is now facing uncertainly as the clash of interests in the u ruling coalition questions reliability of her leadership. Merkel is left battling for political survival after high-stakes talks to form a new government collapsed, plunging the country into a crisis that could trigger fresh elections. She said that she “will do everything to ensure that this country is well-led through these difficult weeks.”  Merkel also vows to fight snap election to retain power. Germany: Angela Merkel runs out of options. That vote was viewed as a slap in the face for the outgoing coalition of Dr Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The SPD, Merkel’s junior governing partner for the last four years, ruled out a renewal of their so-called “Grand Coalition” on the night of the election and reiterated that position. The SPD is also reluctant to renew the coalition as it would leave the AfD as the largest opposition party, granting it a set of privileges including the right to respond first to the Chancellor and a boost in resources — an outcome none of the other parties want.

Fresh elections are the option after the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) walked out just before midnight on Sunday following four weeks of exploratory talks with Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her Bavarian (CSU) allies and the Green Party.

Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance could still attempt to form a minority government with either the FDP or the Green Party separately, but this has happened rarely — and never successfully — at the federal level in Germany.  Recent polling puts all parties roughly where they were on election night, meaning a new election could result in similar deadlock.

If all other options fail, Steinmeier, the German President, has the power to set in motion a complex process that could lead to a new vote early next year.

Europe

The Rise of Far Right Populism in Europe Ahead of EU Elections

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Authors: Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardane*

Populism in Europe as a civilizational legacy has a deeply rooted history which dates back to Greco Roman antiquity and as it has been recorded by classical historians like Livy, the overarching political structure of Roman republic nailed by populism that arose as a result of the loopholes of the system. The role of Publius Cloudius against Roman nobility during the late republic was a reflection of how populist discourse functioned in classical world. Nevertheless the principles emerged after the post second world war Europe such as social welfare system, social democracy and cultural integration reduced the gravity of populist discourse as a powerful political tool. Moreover the mass migration of political refugees from Eastern Europe to Western Europe during cold war was a phenomenal factor that encouraged west and its citizens to accept refugees or asylum seekers more dearly and it was rather a display of European values. But  as all good things come to an end this wave of immigrations from Non-European countries to Western Europe gradually conceived the seeds of socio economic and political turmoil in the continent that finally paved the path for a greater revival of populist politics in Europe.  Especially the political trajectory created with the Syrian refugee crisis since 2015 in Europe has compelled the people to look for Right wing politics as an alternative. Recent discussion held in Warsaw, Poland between Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and Jaroslaw Kaczynsi shows the spark of far right populist coalition in European Union against its center right more socio democratic leadership of Germany and France. The significance of this meeting lies in the fact that how EU politics has been changed in the recent years before its troubled policies over the illegal immigration and refugee crisis and this Polish Italian axis seems to create a decisive impacts upon the upcoming elections to EU parliament.

As a matter of fact in the past, it never really mattered much if the Euro election was carried by the left or the right: the result was the same anyway. The parliament has always been keeper of the federalist flame, but the unorthodox political upheavals Europe envisaged for past two years have such as BREXIT in 2016 and Trump’s victory in US presidential elections have upset the center right liberal orthodoxy in EU. Moreover it is a fact not be ignored that how national politics in European countries have taken a populist bend as a consoling since most of the common people in Europe are gutted by the refugee crisis and economic deprivation.  Especially being the undisputed forerunner in EU Germany has faced severe social issues since 2015 as Angela Merkel  decided to not to close Germany’s borders resulting in the arrival of more than one million of people.  Last August in Italy the Migrants mainly coming from former Italian colony Eretria had been stranded at a port in Sicily before Italian deputy premier Salvini finally allowed them to disembarked after Ireland and Catholic Church in Italy agreed to take most of them in. Apart from Italy most of European states have been exposed to the wave of populism mixed up with far right ideological elements. For an example elections held in Sweden in 2018 September dragged the country into a political limbo as the results of the elections did not leave either main parliamentary block with a majority and its far right anti-immigrant party Sweden democrats won 17.6% of the votes. Being a country that has resisted populist politics and far right wing ideology since the end of its notorious dictator Farco’s era, Spain too has witnessed the new wave of populism in its national level politics. The dazzling impact created by Santiago Abascal’s Vox party at the election held in Andalusia by gaining 10.97 % of the votes and 12 out of 109 cannot be ignored despite the fact that his party is still in its infancy stage.

Populist discourse spreading across Europe has not been emerged out of the blue as it is imbued with how common people in Europe perceive the socio economic and political circumstances currently. It was a misconception that many analysts believed that rise populism sprang from the financial collapse and unemployment, because it is evident that the rise of populism has not been solely attributed to the economic crisis. If economic growth had been decisive in Poland, which enjoyed the faster growth rate in Europe between 1989 and 2015, the populist Law and Justice Party would never have become the country’s dominant political force. The bitter truth portraying from the rise populism is non-other than Europe antipathy over mass immigration and their concern for preserving common European values. This aptly shows from how Hungarians have rallied around Mr. Victor Orban as he triumphantly calls himself the defender of Christian Europe. On the other hand such xenophobic notions like cultural preservation, growth of Islam have been clearly captured by populist parties as drawbacks created by the apathy of European Union and its center right liberal democracy. Perhaps the influence coming from Putin’s Russia can be taken as one pivotal factor that has intensified the populist discourse, because president Putin’s knack on ethno nationalism and religious traditionalism seem to have allured the populist movements in Europe.

It is a fact beyond dispute that the rises of populist political parties under its far right ideologies in the backdrop of European Union parliamentary elections have destabilized the continuation of European integration under liberal center right outlook. The populist plan to expand their numbers in EU parliament in 2019 May elections have begun to upset the ostensible stability of EU and its French German leadership or perhaps this year Europe will face the arch encounter between newly emerged far right populism and the social democracy that has been the ruling slogan in Europe since 1968 in an open space.

*Eshan Jayawardne holds BA in Sociology from Delhi University and MA in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is currently serving as a guest lecturer at Sri Lanka Open University. He can be reached at eshan.jayawardane[at]gmail.com

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Europe

Europe-US: Results of 2018 and prospects for 2019

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Speaking at a December 4 news conference in Brussels following a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that the rule-based multilateral world order that for many decades has served the collective interests of the Western nations is no longer working. He backed up this claim by citing the weakness and incapacity of the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the African Union and some other international organizations.

Much to the Europeans’ surprise, while holding up the NATO alliance as an “indispensable” institution, Pompeo also put the European Union on the list of outdated and unviable ones. These “shocking” comments wrapped up the past 12-month period, probably the most tense in trans-Atlantic relations since 1945.

By the start of 2018, relations between the US and the EU were characterized by a great deal of uncertainty. On the one hand, in the US National Security Doctrine published in mid-December 2017, Trump finally reiterated Washington’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic (Washington) Treaty, which is something Europeans had been waiting for. He also promised to support America’s European allies against the imaginary “threat” from Russia and China, which he described as “revisionist countries” out to change the existing world order.

On the other hand,the US National Security Council’s view of the countries’ competition in the world conforms to Hobbes’ “all against all” principle. In other words, it rejects the idea of multilateralism, which is a fundamental principle the countries of “old” Europe stick to. Moreover, the entire world order that the US helped establish after 1945, is described as the source of a flurry of serious challenges to America. The Strategy section, devoted to the “world of universal competition,” makes no mention whatsoever of America’s “allies,” while the repeated mention of the obligatory “mutual benefit” of allied relations looks like an undisguised desire to “monetize” friendship.

Washington’s practical steps made in 2017 left Europeans wondering about the price (in the financial sense of the word) Trump would expect them to pay for honoring America’s trans-Atlantic obligations. As a result, Europe was torn between the desire by a sizeable part of its establishment to retain the US leadership , even at the cost of far-going concessions, and a growing disillusionment with the policy of its overseas partner.

The past year confirmed the Europeans’ worst fears: the world, according to Donald Trump, is a world without global rules, a world where the strongest always comes out on top. The White House acted as if it viewed the European Union not so much an ally, as a competitor to fight with. In the spring, Trump suggested to the French President Emmanuel Macron that he pull France out of the European Union in return for a lucrative bilateral trade deal with the US.

Trump supported the UK’s exit from the EU, and even threatened the British Prime Minister Theresa May with economic “measures” in the event of a “softer” Brexit. On June 1, Trump imposed duties on steel and aluminum imports from Europe and threatened to slap new ones – this time on imported European autos.

During the G7 summit in Canada in June, President Trump tried to drive a wedge between the Europeans. Finally, during the NATO summit in July, Trump made it clear that if Europeans refused to “cooperate,” Washington could roll back its military support and even withdraw the US military contingent from Germany. Washington has also made it clear that he considers any further EU foot-dragging on defense spending hikes as a deliberate policy by Europeans, who view the United States as an unfailing guarantor of their security.

During the first half of 2018, the Europeans openly pushed back against Trump’s insistence that his G7 or NATO partners accept the dramatic change in Washington’s approach to these pillars of the Western world, their goals and objectives.

The emergence of Donald Trump has exposed the “royal nudity” of the European Union, which has not yet outlined a common foreign policy on major tracks, or come up with anything in terms of strengthening its power in order to be able to stand up to Washington’s demands.

On the other hand, the heavy-handed and self-serving US policy is too inconsistent as it tries to win over only the partners it can rely on in its fight against Chinese and Russian “revisionism.”

And still, watching the growing signs of US hostility, Europeans start asking themselves a virtually existential question, and that is where the current US Administration is going? Is this the beginning of a long-term trend, a fundamental change in US strategy, or a tactical zigzag meant to achieve some short-term goals? If it is the latter, just like it happened before, then will it be enough to just “wait it out”? If it is the former, will the EU opt for strategic autonomy as part of an increasingly amorphous, but civilizationally homogeneous West, or will it have to solve the colossal task  of creating a full-fledged European “power center” that would interact with the US, mainly, if not exclusively, on the principles of “Realpolitik”?

At the same time, a “wait-and-see” tactic could backfire against Europeans. On the other hand, the “all-strops-out” trade war between the US and China, which broke out last year, is forcing the EU to perform a balancing act, maneuvering its way between the world’s two largest economies. This necessitates an independent geo-economic policy in the face of a looming global economic recession. The long-term challenge to Europe is to build a new, previously unknown, system of international architecture: “economic bipolarity between the United States and China and strategic bipolarity between the United States and Russia.”

Experts believe that if Europeans want to push back against Washington’s plans and avoid the EU’s fragmentation, they should start thinking about making Europe stronger, and do it now.

By mid-2018, more and more European politicians had realized that, in the wake of the Cold War, Washington’s policy in Europe was aimed at undermining Europe’s global competitiveness. The question is, however, to what extent the American establishment as a whole shares Trump’s stated goal of maintaining or increasing America’s dominance, even at the cost of economically destroying the “allies,” who are now being perceived by Washington as competitors.

Trump’s initiatives are clearly aimed against the very idea of European unity, which fuels European suspicions about his desire to implement the classic “divide and rule policy” in Europe.

Having all these factors in mind, the EU’s overarching task was to work out measures to resist Trump’s four-pronged “geopolitical attack” in trade, defense, on Iran and migration policy. On June 6, the European Commission approved €2.8 billion worth of import duties on US-made goods. Following the July visit to Washington by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the Europeans achieved at least a semblance of a “truce” in their trade relations with the US. Surprisingly to many, the reconciliation had a demonstrative, even flashy character. After meeting Juncker, Trump said that the US was putting on hold the planned introduction of new tariffs on imported European goods, and would work to settle existing trade disputes in order to avoid a full-scale trade war.

According to experts, Europeans have no wish at all to share with the US the burden of a new economic slump, which Trump’s “reckless” protectionism may entail. Therefore, the EU could best respond to Trump’s policy by assuming the role of the leader of countries committed to preserving the rules of liberalism in international trade. The EU’s economic potential matches that of the United States and its economy is almost the only area of international relations where the bloc can act on a par with, or even independently, from Washington.

However, even though unable to compete economically with the US on a one-to-one basis, EU members remain divided on many issues. Fully aware of this, Donald Trump uses every opportunity available to try to pit them against one another.

So, capitalizing on Europeans’ discord over migration, Trump has banked on unraveling the traditional European political parties by mixing all the trends. Newly-appointed US ambassadors openly support far-right populist parties in Italy, Germany, Britain, and in Central Europe.

Meanwhile, the traditional European parties are preparing to challenge Eurosceptics in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, set for May 2019. Internationally, the EU responds by ramping up diplomacy aimed at cobbling together coalitions without the US in a bid to preserve the existing world order. In July 2018, the EU and Japan agreed to set up a free trade zone; Brussels has likewise been intensifying efforts to establish a free trade area also with MERCOSUR, Australia and New Zealand, and is actively engaged in informal efforts aimed at promoting liberal values and institutions.

The EU’s stance concerning the US sanctions on Iran, has been equally firm, prohibiting companies and individuals located on the territory of the EU from following American sanctions against Iran. According to the new EU rules, European firms hurt by US sanctions will be able to demand compensation. Brussels also reiterated its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and is actively looking for ways to circumvent US financial hegemony and sanctions. The EU is mulling an independent system of financial settlements, the European Monetary Fund – an analogue of the IMF – as well as financial instruments that would be “completely independent” from Washington. However, ensuring even a simple majority of “yes” votes by individual EU members on these issues will not be easy.

The biggest hurdle here is security, because without the United States, NATO as a military organization becomes virtually ineffective  making Europe hostage to America when it comes to security. This effectively weakens the EU’s hand even on the continent, let alone the world. The European NATO members face the hard choice of either playing the role of US-led partners, which may imply their agreement to weaken European unity to benefit Washington’s new foreign policy interests, or stay the course of greater independence, including in matters of collective defense (European army), which, however, is fraught with a great deal of uncertainty.

With the onset of autumn, the issue of “European sovereignty” sprang to the top of the EU leaders’ agenda. At the end of August 2018, the French President Macron and the German Foreign Minister Maas went on record emphasizing the need for Europe to play a new role and “strengthen” its position in the global alignment of forcesemerging in the world. In early November, Macron and the German Chancellor Merkel reiterated their call for a “European army,” “real pan-European armed forces.” Moreover, the US was named among the threats Europe needs to defend against.

During the past year, Europe was making mainly tactical steps aimed at making up for the damage caused by US sanctions. Simultaneously, it was actively looking for a future strategy of trans-Atlantic relations, as well as ways for institutionalizing its independent identity, both in foreign policy and defense.

There is little doubt that all of Europe will not turn its back on America, even though most of the countries of “old” Western Europe have been seeking greater “strategic autonomy” for the EU and a system that could function without relying on the hegemonic might of the United States. By contrast, many Central and East European states are making every effort to strengthen ties, above all military, with Washington, so Europe is still wondering how it can possibly to preserve the “old order.”

The outcome of the November 2018 mid-term elections in the US showed  that American voters were losing faith in Donald Trump’s way of handling the country’s foreign policy and foreign trade. With Democrats regaining control of the lower chamber of Congress – the House of Representatives – Trump may need a positive foreign policy agenda, and what better way to achieve this than to restore constructive relations with traditional allies and negotiate with the Europeans? Including on joint measures to “contain” Russia.

Simultaneously, the notion, whereby the EU project is on the brink of collapse and so the US needs to present NATO as a new unifier of Europe is getting increasingly popular in the United States. This is the idea that was pitched late last year by none other than US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

This could pull the rug from under the feet of not only those who seek Europe’s strategic autonomy, but even the advocates of a more centralized EU. Therefore, the question of whether the leading European countries will go beyond pacifying voters with talk about the creation of an “independent center of power” remains open. And further moves by the EU in relations with the United States, at least until the May elections to the European Parliament and the change of leadership of the European Commission, will largely depend on Washington’s policy towards its European allies.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Europe

A clear signal for the German chancellor

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It’s a difficult time for the Chancellor of Germany. She had to pass the power inside the Christian Democrat Party to her rival, Kramp-Karenbauer. In a conference, Karenbauer rejected claims that she was the “mini Merkel”.

“People consider me a ‘mini,’ a copy, a simple ‘more of the same,’ but I can tell you that I stand here as my own person, just as life has shaped me and of that I am proud,” she said.

Angela Merkel has announced that she will step down of power in 2021, but the polls conducted in Germany has intensively worried her. The results of these polls indicate that the total popularity of the two traditional German parties, the coalition of the Christian and Social Democrats, have fallen below 50%. This suggests the unpopularity of the coalition government among the German citizens. Merkel now has to run the weak coalition government until 2021!

Many analysts of Europe’s affairs believe that Merkel’s power is actually over. The Chancellor of Germany is no longer the symbol of power in the united Europe. She has lost the power of managing the power equations in her country. In other words, Merkel has become a “passive player” in Berlin, the European Union and the Eurozone.

This is while Merkel had previously said that she hoped her planned departure would end bitter fighting in her weak and fractious right-left coalition, confessing that “the picture the government is sending out is unacceptable”.

According to an Infratest dimap survey, the Alternative for Germany (AFD), the Green Party and Liberal Democrats are now increasing their relative popularity to challenge the two ruling parties (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) and to end the domination of the two traditional German parties on the power equations in Berlin.

Undoubtedly, Merkel can’t be now regarded as a successful politician at the head of the political and administrative equations of Germany. At the beginning of the German coalition government, many analysts believed that the presence of Social-Democrats alongside the Christian Democrats was a big mistake.

The anti-EU and anti-immigration party of “Alternative for Germany” has become the main opposition party in the German parliament. On the other hand, as the current trend continues and the popularity of the two traditional German ruling parties drops in the polls, they will lose more votes in the upcoming German elections in 2021.

What is happening today in Germany is a big catastrophe for Merkel, the Christian Democrat and, subsequently, the Social-Democratic Party. It’s not possible to restore the political power of these two parties in the near future, that is, as long as they are working together in the coalition government of Germany. On the other hand, the political equations in Germany are so complex that none of the traditional German parties will be able to win the majority of seats in the parliament.

As a result, a large part of the German authorities’ time and energy will be consumed by forming a coalition government (which will be a weak one). This will undermine the position of Germany’s leadership in the United Europe. In this sophisticated game, the Alternative for Germany (which the other German parties are unwilling to join) have been struggling to broaden its political and social popularity.

This extremist party hopes that other right-wingers, including French national leader Marin Le Pen, will be able to win good results in the elections and other political platforms in their country, and that their victory will influence Germany.

Merkel is no longer the symbol of Christian Democrats’ power in Germany’s and Europe’s equations. Political history of the German Chancellor as the EU leader has come an end at a time when her substitute (in the event of a relative and fragile victory in the country’s next general elections), should devote her power to attempts for the formation of a coalition or minimal government in Berlin. Without a doubt, Angela Merkel never imagined that she would have to permanently withdraw from power in Europe by 2021, as an incapable chancellor.

First published in our partner MNA

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