German coalition offers a grey manifesto

After a gestation of 66 days, the energy appears to have been sucked out of Berlin politics

Stock market traders in Frankfurt concentrate on their monitors as a TV shows Angela Merkel presenting the coalition treaty with the SPD. Photograph: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Stock market traders in Frankfurt concentrate on their monitors as a TV shows Angela Merkel presenting the coalition treaty with the SPD. Photograph: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach


One of the small ways in which Berlin life differs from London life is that people rarely rush on escalators. Even in the heart of the city, there’s no two-speed traffic on the way down to the underground. You just stand there and wait. If you miss the next U-Bahn, so be it: another will come along.

Much the same logic applies to politics. Whereas the current British government was formed during a frantic five-day wargaming session, hurried along by fears that the markets would make the government “pay a price” for indecision, 66 days separate the German general election and yesterday’s presentation of a coalition agreement.

And that may not even be the end of it: only if a coalition deal passes an SPD membership ballot will Angela Merkel be sworn in for her third term as German chancellor on December 17th.

If the Social Democrat party faithful say no, everything goes back to the top of the escalator, so to speak.

Asked by a Danish journalist at her press conference yesterday if she didn’t find the speed of the process frustrating, Merkel shook her head: “I just sit calmly and get on with my work.”

Sapped of spirit
The advantage of the slow-stream approach to coalition-forming is that it should produce stabler coalitions and more thought-through policies; the risk is that it can entirely sap the process of its spirit of adventure, and make bold decisions unlikely.

The coalition agreement bears out the latter rather than the former. The SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, can present his party members with at least three key policies that have survived from his election manifesto: the introduction of a minimum wage, rent controls in major cities and dual citizenship, all of which had previously been noisily dismissed by conservative politicians.

There are caveats: the minimum wage won’t come into full effect until 2017 and dual citizenship will only apply to those born in Germany, not the first generation of “guest workers” who gave birth to them. But these policies have been discussed at such length that it is hard not to see them being realised in the coming term. It should be enough to guarantee a yes in the SPD ballot.

What is noticeable is that while the left mostly got its way on social issues, the conservatives barely had to compromise on more fundamental questions around healthcare, tax rises or Europe.

Greece is mentioned in the coalition agreement but there are no concrete measures on debt restructuring or what to do about Greek unemployment.

The title of the coalition treaty is Shaping Germany’s Future, but the priorities it sets are very much those of an ageing nation.

On pensions, the two parties pushed through changes that will please their elder members.

While crisis-hit countries such as Greece are raising the pension age, Germany will move to lower it: in the future, those who have worked for 45 years can earn a full pension from 63, four years earlier than the statutory threshold of 67.

The CDU has got its way with a “mothers’ pension”, which aims to do more to compensate mothers who had children before 1992: more “fairness” for senior citizens.

Old vs young
Experts calculate the cost of the “pension with 63” at €5 billion a year and the “mothers’ pension” at €6.5 billion, dwarfing the €6 billion the coalition pledges to invest in education and research for younger people.

At 45, Germany’s median age is almost 3½ years higher than that of the rest of Europe.

The coalition agreement reads like the manifesto of a country that feels it has worked hard and doesn’t fancy too much heavy lifting in the future.– (Guardian service)

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