More than three months since Germany’s inconclusive national elections, efforts to form a new government have come down to a last stab at reviving the partnership between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right and the center-left that governed the country the last eight years. The political uncertainty does not seem to be unduly troubling for Germans, who are doing quite well in other respects.
But Europe, and the world, are in urgent need of strong leadership from Berlin as quickly as possible, so the sooner the Germans sort out their politics, the better for all.
The sort of bargaining that has gone on since the Sept. 24 elections has been a critical national conversation on immigration, health care, education, infrastructure and the like.
But several factors have made the current situation different. One is that the traditional major parties, both Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and even more painfully their past partners, the Social Democrats, took a drubbing in the September vote, while a xenophobic far-right party entered Parliament for the first time. In the changed political chemistry, the Socialists strongly resisted entering another “grand coalition” with Ms. Merkel, and it has taken a lot of cajoling to get the Socialist leader Martin Schulz into coalition talks.
Ms. Merkel’s 12-year reign is widely perceived as on its last stretch. The unfamiliar notion of a Germany, and a Europe, without Ms. Merkel’s calm, principled and wise leadership figures heavily in the political discussions.
Yet it is a sign of Germany’s expanded role as the largest and richest country in the European Union that the main contention between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists is over Europe. The Socialists strongly support the greater economic integration of Europe championed by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron; the conservatives are less enthusiastic, even if Ms. Merkel herself is a staunch Europeanist.
All that makes for high stakes in the talks between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists that began Sunday. The parties have vowed silence until they reach a decision, expected Thursday, on whether they have enough common ground to start formal coalition talks. If they fail, Ms. Merkel has only two options: a minority government, which she does not want, or new elections with all the greater uncertainties and further delays that entails.
Ms. Merkel was characteristically calm as the talks began Sunday. “I think that it can be done,” she said. “We will work very swiftly and very intensively.” Elsewhere in Europe, the suspense was better expressed by Le Monde in France: “If European leaders are able to emerge from their confinement for one single message, here it is: “Beeilen Sie sich, Frau Merkel! Hurry up, Ms. Merkel!” With so much of the Western world in the grip of various forms of populism and nationalism, reopening Berlin for business can’t happen too soon.