Almost half a year after last September’s federal elections, German politics is on its way to form a new coalition government. After lots of very ‘un-German’ turmoil, only one hurdle remains, and the political future of Angela Merkel lies in the hands of the SPD-members.
After the 2013 federal election, the then-candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, introduced the unprecedented custom of having the members of his own party vote on the draft-coalition agreement with Angela Merkel’s conservative union (CDU/CSU) – giving them the ultimate say in whether another grand coalition would be formed. Whether or not this strategic move has had an impact on the results of the coalition talks remains subject to discussion, but the precedent has been set and the party member vote will also be conducted for this year’s formation of a government.
Given the party base’s narrow vote in favor of taking up coalition talks alone (56.4%) earlier this year, the party member vote over the final coalition agreement is surrounded with more than just the usual amount of uncertainty. Kevin Kühnert, chairman of the party’s influential left-leaning youth organization “Jusos” has been gaining increasing traction with his “NoGroKo” campaign and hasn’t shied away from strong statements against another grand coalition. Since almost half the party did not even favor the results of the preliminary talks, the negotiators’ task was clearly defined as increasing the visibility of the social democratic influence in the final coalition agreement.
Immigration and Security: a coalition chased by the nationalist AfD
Regarding the immigration of refugees and their family members, the coalition parties agreed on the compromise that the CDU and CSU made as a result of their dramatic losses in voter support during the federal election: the government will aim at containing the number of incoming refugees and their family members to 220,000 per year. Family reunification for persons with subsidiary protection status (e.g. civil war refugees) will be limited to 1,000 people per month, plus additional cases of hardship. The Social Democrats failed with their claim to ease regulations for those cases and have been criticized harshly by Jusos. It seems relevant to note at this point that up until a few years ago, the state of “subsidiary protection” did not even exist since it describes people who are neither eligible to the right for asylum nor fall under the definition of the UN convention for refugees. Therefore, having implemented cases of hardship for this group of people in itself should be counted as a victory for the Social Democrats.
The debate around immigration has also included the declaration to support the immigration of qualified foreign professionals, which is supposed to be guided by the “requirements of our economy, qualification, age, language knowledge as well as proof of a concrete workplace”. Regions with high unemployment will retain the right to give preference to equally skilled German citizen job applicants.
In light of the recent rise in criminal activity in Germany, the coalition aims to increase the police force by 15,000 (7,500 for federal and the states respectively) and to strengthen the authority of the federal Bundespolizei. Additionally, the judicial system will be reinforced with 6,000 new positions. Video surveillance in public spaces is planned to be expanded moderately, whilst the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the National Counterterrorism Center is going to be invigorated. These can be considered responses to the rising influence of right- and left-wing extremism in Germany as much as a spike in petty crimes and assault, which is largely attributed to recent immigrants .
Overall, the agreement on migration and security policy is a testament to the fear of the rise of the right-wing nationalists from the AfD, who have identified these emotional topics as beneficial for their voting outcomes. This analysis proves valid with Horst Seehofer (CSU), current Ministerpräsident (governor) of Bavaria set to become the new Minister for Home Affairs. The conservative Bavarian is known for his support of a binding ceiling for immigrants, which was a significant liability during the federal elections because it clouded the relations between the sister-parties CDU and CSU and likely contributed to the loss of credibility and votes of the two parties. He has also been cited with planning to bring chancellor Merkel to the Federal Constitutional Court over her decisions relating to immigration policy and publicly displays his friendship with the controversial and conservative Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán.
Social Policy: overly-due adjustments
In social policy, the influence of the imminent SPD member vote was very well visible. Not only will the use of limited-term contracts in employment become more restricted, there will also be the right to return to full employment after part-time work and the legal entitlement to daycare in primary schools starting in 2025. Moreover, the premium for health insurance will in the future be paid by the employer and the employee equally. Up to now, additional fees had to be paid by the employee alone.
To battle old-age poverty, the parties agreed on a basic pension for everyone who has contributed to the system for at least 35 years. This pension is planned to lie 10 percent above the basic security benefits.
In education, 11 billion Euros are earmarked to be invested within the coming four years. To make this possible, the constitution will need to be changed and the prohibition of federal involvement in education, a state level issue, will need to be amended. Up to now, the federal government was only allowed to support schools in financially weak districts, with the new coalition agreement this would be possible in all cases, with the exception of staff-financing.
The social democrats went into the coalition talks with the claim for a universal health care scheme in which all citizens would contribute to the public healthcare system and gain equal services, which would constitute the end of private health insurance; considered a way to elude the solidarity system for people who can afford it. This concept, called Bürgerversicherung (citizen insurance) was one of the key items that the SPD-base would have liked to see realized since many consider it an opportunity to fight rising inequality. The final draft agreement of the coalition talks, however, does not include an overhaul of the complete healthcare system but marks the establishment of a commission that is supposed to work on the topic. In hindsight, the party base’s claim may have been too idealistic to be realized in only a few weeks of negotiations.
In the broad field of social policy, many positions from the Social Democrats’ negotiation team found their way into the final document. Given the sobering results of September’s election, this outcome can be considered a huge success. Some may regard it as not social enough, since more options to decrease inequality, bring higher inheritance taxes and stricter regulations against the abuse of limited work arrangements were not considered. Also, the commitment of creating 8,000 new positions in nursing care is widely considered ineffective, since the need for the workforce in this field is significantly larger.
European Policy: more means, more integration
With the progressive energy of the new French president Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s role as the other key driver in the European Union will become more and more important. The coalition agreement lists the willingness to contribute more funds to support the creation of an EU budget, introducing a fiscal policy on a supranational level. The budget is supposed to be earmarked for the creation of economic stability and social convergence, such as the fight against youth unemployment in Southern Europe. Additionally, the coalition is planning to work towards a more just taxation of large internet companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon.
There was little disagreement in this field between the Union and SPD since they are both largely in support of stronger European integration. What’s fascinating is the distribution of ministries: traditionally the smaller of both coalition partners are entitled to the foreign ministry and the vice-chancellery. In addition to that, the SPD also secured the ministry of finance, which has been occupied by Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) since 2009. The conservative politician has become infamous for his strict austerity policy, especially in the European context. With social democratic foreign- and finance ministries and a highly supportive chancellor, we could see a significant turn towards more European solidarity in the coming four years.
Voting for Stability
Besides recent upheaval in the social democratic leadership, after which former candidate Martin Schulz lost both the party chairmanship and the chance to be Foreign Minister, the more than 460,000 SPD-members now have the chance to vote in favor or against the coalition contract. The voting will start on February 20th and the results are planned to be released on the weekend of March 3rd and 4th.
According to a representative study by the online institute Civey, roughly 50 percent of Germans think that the SPD has had the most significant influence in the coalition talks. On the other hand, 65 percent do currently not consider the SPD to be able to govern on a federal level. In total, more than 58 percent evaluate the compromise at the end of the coalition talks as “negative” or “very negative”. Whether the content of the coalition agreement was the reason for this vote must, however, be questioned. It seems more likely that an overall negative sentiment surrounding Angela Merkel’s fourth cabinet is rooted in frustration about another grand coalition which based on experience is not expected to bring about much change. Also, the undignified mud fights within the SPD’s leadership and Merkel’s reputation to remain above the fray of national politics may have contributed significantly to a certain amount of frustration.
Keeping both eyes on the policy, however, allows us to recognize significant improvements to old regulations and initiatives that are rooted in solidarity and the willingness to decrease inequality. After the release of the coalition document and the proclamation of which party would head which ministry, the critics of the grand coalition have lost substance in their attacks and tend to escape into general comments about the “invalidity of the political style” and lament that the discussion about personnel would overshadow policy discussions. Some of their criticism remains valid, however: The two main points that the party base agreed on ahead of the coalition talks did not find their way into the agreement: the creation of a less unequal healthcare system was outsourced to a commission and many SPD members don’t seem to think that much more will come out of it. Also, the unsubstantiated limitation of employment contracts was not completely abolished as demanded but merely complicated.
Chancellor Merkel was willing to give up a lot for her third grand coalition to come to life, even the support within her own party. Losing the ministries of Finance to the SPD and Internal Affairs to CSU marks a significant decrease in reputation and is met by many Christian Democrats with criticism. It seems that Merkel realized how high the stakes are, should the SPD member vote decline approval. Since she steadfastly refused to govern as head of a minority government, the next step, in this case, could be reelection, as currently there is no other viable coalition combination in sight. Additionally, the embarrassment of all moderate parties who have been involved in coalition talks since the election (CDU, CSU, SPD, FDP, The Greens) would largely help the case of the AfD, who in their first months in parliament have proven to be less than constructive and largely fixated on achieving maximum media attention.
SPD members will, therefore, have to decide on more than the fate of their own party. To many, the draft coalition agreement presents a realistic framework that in many aspects bears the sentiments of the Social Democrats and is an improvement in the outcome of the preliminary talks. Uncertainty within the party leadership has, however, stirred up old resentments and distrust, which could in the worst case influence the stability of the whole country. The social democratic base would benefit from turning their eyes away from internal turmoil and look at the chances that a disproportionately strong participation in the next government could hold for them.