What she knew


Notwithstanding her angry protestations about US “Cold War” bugging tactics, the German public is not altogether convinced at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s manifestations of surprise and indignation. Were the half a billion taps a month on German citizens’ communications really news to her – a remarkable confession of the apparent inadequacy of her counter-espionage service? The domestic intelligence chief has said he knew nothing of such widespread NSA surveillance. Or was she aware of the reality that “they are in bed with the Germans, just like with most other Western states”, in the words of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden? And turned a blind eye?

Neither alternative reflects well on Merkel and the debate about what she knew, and when, has taken off nicely just two months ahead of a general election. She retains a comfortable 19-point poll lead against nearest rival, the Social Democrats (SPD), and few doubt she will top the poll. But returning as head of government is very much in doubt. With the chancellor’s CDU/CSU alliance unlikely to take more than 40 per cent of the seats in the Bundestag, she will certainly need one or more coalition allies to form a government. There also appears to be every possibility that current partner, liberal Free Democrats (FDP), will either not cross the vote threshold for representation, or not have enough to create a majority for Merkel on its own. That would mean relying on a reluctant SPD and/or the Greens.

The Social Democrats were badly burned electorally by their last “grand coalition” deal with the chancellor, and many of the 13 of the 16 state capitals they now control are led by prime ministers who strongly oppose another similar arrangement. With neither a centre-left nor centre-right majority now likely, post-election negotiations between the parties are likely to be very prolonged and see the Social Democrats willing to play hardball and demand a high price for their support.

What Merkel does not need now is a no-win row about what she knew or didn’t know.