No songs, few laughs on Angela Merkel’s rocky road to Jamaica

Time and options are running out for the German chancellor to ensure the so-called Jamaica alliance has a chance

German chancellor Angela Merkel: only if the exploratory talks end in a successful engagement will proper coalition talks begin. Photograph: AFP / DPA / Michael Kappeler

German chancellor Angela Merkel: only if the exploratory talks end in a successful engagement will proper coalition talks begin. Photograph: AFP / DPA / Michael Kappeler

 

If Bing Crosby and Bob Hope weren’t dead, they would be welcome guests in Berlin on these grey November days.

Together the two Hollywood stars made seven road movies, visiting everywhere from Singapore to Zanzibar. So you’d be forgiven for expecting Hope and Crosby in the Road to Jamaica, showing in Berlin for the last eight weeks. No such luck. Jamaica is an all-German production with no songs, few laughs and an uncertain ending for Angela Merkel.

When German polls closed at 6pm eight weeks ago, voters handed the three-term chancellor the worst result in 68 years for her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Her outgoing Social Democrat (SPD) partners, also hammered in polls, slunk off for a lie down in opposition, leaving Merkel with only one realistic coalition for a fourth term.

This coalition, an untested alliance with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the centre-left Green Party, has been dubbed the “Jamaica option” because the parties’ respective colours match the island’s flag.

Since then the novelty has worn off Germany’s first three-way coalition – four-way if you include Merkel’s outspoken Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

After four weeks of throwing shapes, and another four of exploratory talks, Merkel has demanded all parties decide by Thursday – or, more likely, in the early hours of Friday morning – whether they believe such a Jamaica alliance has a real chance. 

Only if the exploratory talks end in a successful engagement will proper coalition talks begin, ending in the pre-nuptual agreement for a coalition marriage of convenience.

Immigration

It’s a slow way of doing things but usually leads to stable, full-term German governments. Having four parties at the table this time, though, has created 24 possible permutations for political friction and, even after weeks of talks about talks, ideological and political gaps persist on core social, economic, foreign and environmental policies.

“There are big chunks ahead of us still,” said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, co-leader of the Greens. “We’ve come here with the will to negotiate, but we’ve also come with clear goals.”

The most difficult issue is also the most emotive: immigration. Two years after the peak of the refugee crisis, when more than one million people arrived from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, German politicians are struggling to balance their humanitarian obligations with growing voter security and integration concerns.

The CDU/CSU are proposing an annual cap of 200,000 asylum seekers, with some wriggle room in a crisis, while the Greens oppose caps and demand successive migration to reunite families – rejected by all others.

Climate t argets

On another core policy pillar, the environment, the Greens are fighting an uphill battle to close dirty coal energy plants in a final push to meet Germany’s elusive 2020 climate targets.

While Green negotiators have dropped their demand for a 2030 cut-off point for combustion engines, they are holding firm on additional taxes and obligatory engine retrofits for dirty diesel vehicles.

But from Bavaria, home to BMW, the CSU is leading opposition with its outgoing transport minister Alexander Dobrindt admitting that “no convergence” means “it’s going to be very, very hard”.

The liberal FDP, back in the Bundestag after four years in the wilderness, has scrapped its election tax cut promise but has dug in on abolishing the “Soli”, a levy introduced in 1990 to pay for unification.

It is also playing hardball on the EU, opposing plans for the European banking union, with its common banking insurance, and French proposals for a euro finance minister equipped with a euro investment fund.

“Additional transfers to a common fund or shared liabilities are, for us, out of the question,” said Christian Lindner, FDP leader. On his insistence, a recent draft paper reads: “We do not support a fiscal capacity in order to buffer the effects of economic shocks.”

Ghostly figure

Given high expectations across Europe of the next Berlin government, the EU’s low profile in coalition talks has sparked criticism from observers. “They’re doing nothing but ad hoc decisions in talks, there is no European policy to speak of,” said Carsten Schneider, Bundestag general secretary for the SPD.

A final complication is an ongoing leadership struggle within the CSU. After an election drubbing of its own, and a looming state poll next year, its politicians have adopted hard lines and a harsh tone across the board in Berlin, anxious to win back supporters in Bavaria.

But the longer talks drag on in Berlin, the more elusive Jamaica becomes. A poll last week for German public broadcaster ARD found just 45 per cent still support the Jamaica option, a 12-point slump in a month, while 52 per cent said it would be “bad” or “less good” for Germany.

Throughout talks, Angela Merkel has been a ghostly figure – listening a lot and saying little. With her self-imposed deadline running out, so are her options. Failing to reach Jamaica, or to woo back the ailing SPD, gives her two unappetising options: a minority government or fresh elections.

But the only party to gain support in recent weeks has been the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). To prevent that, and secure a deal, Merkel will need to deploy all her skills at 11th hour compromises.

In her last-minute dash down the road to Jamaica, there is still some hope after all, but no Crosby.

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