With the political situation in Germany still unresolved, the German government is unable to make firm decisions on any matters involving the budget, including defense spending. Until a new coalition government is formed, the Germans cannot move ahead on existing proposals to increase the defense budget. As the political paralysis continues, voices both at home and abroad are warning the German government about the current levels of spending, and the readiness of the Bundeswehr. In a nutshell, even though German defense spending has risen slightly over the past four years it remains below the 2% of economic output that is mandated for NATO members to follow. To make matters even worse, the current readiness level of the Bundeswehr is poor to say the least, and some of Germany’s closest allies have taken notice.
On Monday, US Army Secretary Mark Esper cautioned Germany that if it does not increase its defense spending the result will be a weakened NATO alliance. Esper’s comments were made to reporters during a visit to US troops in Germany. Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, and Germany’s former ambassador to the US echoed Esper’s warning. He criticized Germany’s contribution to the war on ISIS which did not include a combat role. Ischinger also pushed for Chancellor Angela Merkel to make certain Germany lives up to its NATO commitments.
2017 was not a stellar year for the Bundeswehr. The German Navy’s Baden-Wurttemberg class frigates were heralded as a new type of warship for the 21st century. Unfortunately, the lead ship of the class was riddled with so many hardware and software defects that the German Navy refused to commission her and sent the frigate back to the shipbuilder. Surface ships are not the only headache for Germany’s naval arm. It has no operational diesel submarines for the moment, a result of low funding, and a general lack of spare parts.
Every service branch is suffering from similar problems. Only half of the German Army’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks are currently operational even though the service is in the midst of upgrading and expanding the MBT force. Just 30 of the Luftwaffe’s 95 Tornado fighters are currently operational. Given these current conditions it’s not likely that Germany could put together a strong military force at short notice should Russia suddenly expand its adventurism to the Baltics.
As Mark Esper said on Monday, a weakened German military is not only a problem for Berlin. It is an even greater problem for NATO.
It all comes down to this for Angela Merkel. This week brings about what will likely be her final attempt to form a coalition government and end the political stalemate in Germany. Discussions are underway between Merkel and the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, with the German chancellor attempting to bring the SDP back into the fold of a new coalition. In the past, SDP had been part of a coalition led by Merkel, but when the party’s voter support for it diminished, SDP withdrew. This time around, even if Merkel receives the support of SDP leader Martin Schulz, he will need to gain the support of party membership before a formal agreement is reached. Given the proclivities of SDP voters concerning domestic issues, as well as Merkel’s polarizing effect, there is no guarantee the party will support joining a coalition that will reverse her political fortunes.
If Merkel fails to forge a coalition, her options are limited. She can continue ahead with a minority government. Without a stable majority in the Bundestag, it is unlikely that Merkel’s government will be able to pass any major legislation, or tackle significant issues. The support simply will not be there for such ventures.
Another alternative is to hold new elections. Returning to the electorate would be a risky proposition which could see the government lose even more seats and muddle the situation in the Bundestag even more. Simply reaching the point where snap elections can be held is almost impossible for Merkel. To call for the elections, she must first request that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier dissolve the Bundestag. Since Merkel is the head of a caretaker government, she cannot do this. A third, less realistic option is for Steinmeier to nominate her for an election by parliament however, the road there is also complex and fraught with potential pitfalls.
With its own agenda tied to Merkel’s political fortunes, the European Union is keeping close tabs on events in Berlin this week. The EU realizes it cannot make any major strides with Germany remaining on the sidelines and preoccupied with its own political drama. Brussels is eager to move forward, though its hands are tied until the mess in Berlin is resolved.
All things must come to an end and that includes political eras. The Merkel Era is drawing to a close. Germany and Europe are anxiously peering ahead into an ambiguous future. Regrettably for them, the Merkel Era does not seem to be going gently into that good night. Instead of a quick death, it appears destined to linger for an extended period of time before dying off. Its current status is comparable to a patient entering hospice care. The end is inevitable, and family members have gathered around to say goodbye, though no one is certain when that will be. And, to quote Tom Petty, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’
Germany is in a period of political stasis. Politicians, and political parties alike have been behaving out of character since Angela Merkel’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Nobody wants to join a coalition government chaired by the chancellor. Her efforts to build a coalition have been rebuffed and stonewalled by friend and foe alike. The Free Democrats (FDP) stepped away and are now pursuing their own path to power, while the Social Democrats (SPD) have been carping over the details so much they have made it readily apparent that they want nothing to do with a Merkel-built coalition. Eventually, a coalition will be formed and Merkel will be the head of it, but she might do more harm than good. Her political capital has been exhausted and the September elections made it clear that a significant number of Germans want to move away from Merkelism. She may not cede power for another year or two, but German politicians are already positioning themselves for the post-Merkel Era future.
The European Union is in an even more delicate position. The political crisis in Germany has stopped the EU agenda dead in its tracks. Efforts to figure out the shape institutional reforms cannot move ahead until the situation in Germany resolves itself. France’s president Emanuel Macron has his own set of ideas, and reforms which he would like to be considered. Unfortunately, the EU is reluctant to even begin discussing Macron’s ideas until the German situation resolves itself. In other words, the EU is not going to be making consequential decisions, or moving forward on major issues without Germany. With or without Angela Merkel in power, Germany continues to be central to all things Europe in the eyes of the EU. It’s unclear if this will remain true as the political fortunes of Emanuel Macron rise, but at present, most in the EU appear reluctant to rock the boat.
Even with the Merkel Era waning away, and the current German government adopting a caretaker status, Germany remains the undisputed Godfather of the continent.
A quiet panic is materializing in Brussels right now as German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains unable to end Germany’s political deadlock and form a coalition. Every day that goes by with conditions remaining unchanged diminishes Merkel’s political power both at home and across Europe. To be frank, Germany appears to be growing weary of Merkel. In all likelihood she will head the new government when it forms. However, this has more to do with a lack of challengers facing her than it does her political acumen. In Brussels and beyond, a growing number of European Union officials, and their supporters are feeling as if the European project is caving in. The EU is at a pivotal moment in its history with the supranational body on the verge of enacting major reforms. But without Germany there to support and guide the EU through the uncharted territory, concern is turning to panic rapidly.
The European Union is facing a tumultuous period of uncertainty. Brexit, the nagging Eurozone crisis, a continent-wide lack of unity, and the rise of right wing populist politicians and governments have combined to challenge the EU like never before. Brussels had been counting on Merkel emerging from the September elections ready to lead the reform efforts. After all, Germany has been the guiding force behind the European Union for years whether EU officials care to admit it or not. Those hopes have been dashed. Regardless of what happens in Berlin, Germany and its leader will emerge from this political crisis with its prestige and power bruised. For Germany, this issue will reverse itself eventually. For the EU, the bedrock that German support, and leadership is no longer a given.
In the wings is France and its leader Emanuel Macron. EU hopes for the future could very well be pinned on him, although he is no Angela Merkel, and France is not the economic, and political colossus that the Federal Republic of Germany is. Something to be remembered in the coming weeks.
It has long been widely accepted across Europe, and the world for that matter, that the stability of the German government is guaranteed. In the past two days this presumption has evaporated. Contrary to the beliefs of millions in the EU and beyond, Germany’s government is not invulnerable to disorganized change. Although Angela Merkel and her party emerged as the winners in Germany’s latest round of federal elections, the victory was a pyrrhic one. Gains made by her Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) were not enough to form a majority government. Merkel’s subsequent efforts to form a coalition have failed. Ruling as the minority party is not a viable option because of the instability it could bring. Therefore, new elections will probably be in the cards for Germany, and not until February at the earliest. Between now and the new elections, Germany’s current government will assume a caretaker status. The beacon of stability that Germany has been in times of political unrest could quite possibly be coming to an end.
The spectacle of Angela Merkel having to reach out to political parties of very different ideologies in order to form a coalition speaks volumes of the new political realities encroaching upon the Federal Republic of Germany. Merkel’s handling of the European Migrant Crisis, the liberal immigration policies she put into place for Germany, and the consequences of both have played a major role in creating the wave of populism that has swept across Europe. Most of Germany’s neighbors in Central Europe are now leaning right politically. The European Union has looked to Berlin for inspiration and leadership as the continent becomes increasingly polarized. More specifically, the EU has relied on Merkel for inspiration and leadership. But now, with Merkel weakened politically, and her days as chancellor perhaps numbered, Germany will not be playing an active role in the supranational body. The end result could very well be a paralyzed EU.
Since taking power in 2005 Angela Merkel has been Germany and vice versa. As Germany goes, so does Europe. They now face a future where this is no longer the case. Supporters of the EU must be horrified at the idea of losing the leader they considered to be their bulwark of democratic stability, and firewall against populism. In Germany, the realization is no less frightening. For a nation where in ordnung is a way of life, the notion of political chaos is nothing short of a nightmare.
Authors note: I was planning to look at the Saudi Arabia and Iran confrontation in-depth over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. However, I am going to shelve that for the moment and instead post a detailed entry about the German political crisis and what it means for Europe.