Angela’s agonies as German coalition talks drag on

Angela Merkel has failed in her promise to leave the stage at a moment of her choosing

This New Year’s Eve even Angela Merkel may join in Germany’s favourite party tradition: lead pouring. You melt a piece of lead in a spoon over a flame, tip it into a bowl of cold water, fish it out and try to guess its shape – and the future. A tree? Things will grow and thrive. A fish? Money coming your way. The German leader is hoping for a flower – new friendship – but may yet get a dragon: strong headwinds looming.

On Christmas Eve, with no new coalition under the tree, Merkel marked three bitter months since voters handed her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) its worst result in almost 70 years. Her outgoing coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), fared even worse. The two parties had shared power twice in grand coalition since 2005, but it seemed German voters had voted for change. Reading German voters’ wishes, however, is as difficult as deciphering clumps of New Year’s Eve lead.

The SPD announced its departure for opposition, leaving the German leader with one final option: talks with the centre-left Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party for an untested and ideologically strained “Jamaica” coalition, so called because the colours of the parties concerned match that of the Jamaican flag. Merkel officials predicted an arduous but vigorous rowing-boat journey. But the boat sank – and, with it, hopes of a coalition by Christmas.

Another grand coalition is Merkel's preferred option, allowing her to hover, presidentially, over the political fray

Now all eyes are on Merkel’s Easter resurrection, after the SPD agreed to “open-ended” talks. As the year ends, three options are likely. Another grand coalition is Merkel’s preferred option, allowing her to hover, presidentially, over the political fray. Wary of making her look good again, some senior SPD figures prefer a minority or confidence-and-supply arrangement. Such an untested set-up, they hope, will help voters notice – and reward – the SPD for pushing through election promises. Fresh elections are the final, least-likely option.


After a 27-year career of being underestimated, no one should underrate Angela Merkel’s ability to make political lemonade from election-night lemons. But even if she pulls off a fourth term she has failed to meet the promise she made herself as a young minister: to leave the stage at the moment of her choosing rather than be “carried out a half-dead wreck”.

Down but not out, a visibly exhausted Merkel insisted she wanted to run for a fourth term. But her aides admit she had little choice. Failing to groom a successor at home meant that departing the stage was not an option, particularly given Donald Trump’s White House takeover and Germany’s migration-crisis aftershocks.

A year ago on December 19th, an Islamic State sympathiser rammed a stolen articulated lorry into a Berlin Christmas market , killing 12. The perpetrator, a failed Tunisian asylum seeker milking the welfare system with a dozen false identities, exposed a staggering loss of control by the state, compounded by revelations of cack-handed surveillance before the attack and investigations since.

For Merkel a fourth term is a chance to correct the consequences of her decision not to close Germany's borders to asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan

For Merkel a fourth term is a last chance to win back rattled Germans and correct the unintended, negative consequences of her September 2015 decision not to close Germany’s borders to asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Facing growing pressure in her party from young pretenders, she cancelled December’s CDU party conference to focus on winning over the SPD. That party is promising to be more independent and less reliable, anxious to avoid her final political kiss of death in the next elections.

Her re-election as chancellor will bring a new challenge in the Bundestag, where, as largest opposition party, the first right of reply to her speeches may go to the far-right, populist Alternative für Deutschland. With its mastery of social media, populist messaging and parliamentary provocation, the party has 92 MPs, stands at more than 13 per cent in polls and is punching above its weight with anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and Eurosceptic rhetoric.

Still, a fourth and final Merkel term offers hope of a final pivot. The departure of the hawkish Wolfgang Schäuble from the finance ministry makes it easier to yield to SPD demands for greater social and infrastructure spending – cutting the budget surplus loathed by Germany’s neighbours. On post-Brexit Europe, however, the shortage of ideas in Berlin prompted the SPD foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, to joke that Paris was 10-0 ahead.

The German leader’s major task for 2018 is to appear to back the soaring vision for Europe of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, while gently bringing him back to earth. The divided EU lacks the capacity for a major leap, Merkel is convinced, and voters would be far happier with a patched-up EU that addresses their concerns about security and jobs.

Happily, that is in tune with Irish thinking and underpins this month’s launch of a comprehensive review of Ireland-German relations. Tánaiste Simon Coveney was supposed to announce the review recently in Berlin – until the Brexit crisis intervened. All going well, a rescheduled St Patrick’s Day visit would give him a chance to present a re-elected Angela Merkel with the results.