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German coalition talks collapse: the press verdict

November 20, 2017

The German press was virtually unanimous that Christian Lindner's FDP was to blame for the collapse of government coalition talks. But few could agree on what would be best now.

Deutschland Bundestagswahl 2017 Wahlplakate Die Grünen FDP CDU
Image: Imago/C. von der Laage

The dramatic failure of negotiations for a new four-way German government coalition has left Angela Merkel's fourth term in office on a knife's edge and raised the possibility of what is unthinkable in a country used to political stability — a new general election within months of the last.

But the German papers at least knew who to blame, though, as mass-circulation Bild put it bluntly, "everyone is a loser" among the four parties that were supposed to form Germany's first federal "Jamaica" coalition: Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister-party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the ecologist Greens.

Read more: What now for Germany after coalition talks fail?

Did Lindner ever want in? 

Stefan Kuzmany of Der Spiegel wondered, along with many commentators, whether FDP leader Christian Lindner's sudden departure on Sunday was as spontaneous as it appeared — after all, at 8:30 p.m. the FDP's press team had already called a press conference with Lindner for Monday morning, apparently without the other parties. "Did he really want an agreement?" Kuzmany asked.

Deutschland Christian Lindner teilt Scheitern der Sondierungsgespräche in Berlin mit
One Christian Democrat sarcastically called Lindner's withdrawal an example of 'well prepared spontaneity'Image: picture alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Der Spiegel was not the only media outlet to note that it was the FDP that rejected all compromises on the vexed issue of immigration policy, apparently even "irritating" the conservative CSU with a sudden right-wing shift.

Lindner, Der Spiegel argued, never really wanted to join the government, something that had become clear from his muted reaction to the election result back in September, when the FDP won 10.7 percent of the vote. "It seemed he would have preferred to install himself in opposition and drive a listless and sluggish grand coalition around in front of him with slick demands for modernization," wrote Kuzmany.

The analysis that Lindner had turned the negotiations into a sham was backed up by CDU politicians and other internet commentators:

The taz agreed with the general verdict, but went one step further, condemning Lindner as "a player" who had not "ruined the Jamaica coalition by accident," but with "strategic purpose." His plan had always been to promote the FDP as an "anti-establishment force."

"Strangely, Lindner and co. couldn't say which precise demands the FDP couldn't agree with," wrote taz political correspondent Stefan Reinecke. "The FDP has plunged the republic into a crisis without being able to convincingly explain why. A lot of posing – 'us against the Green-Christian-Democratic front' — but little substance. Anyone who might be vaguely thinking of Trump wouldn't be wrong."

Deutschland Fortsetzung der Sondierungsverhandlungen
The talks were always liable to be difficult, but many had expected a deal would ultimately get doneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

But Die Welt found someone else to blame: the chancellor herself — or more specifically, her briefly liberal refugee policy. "Merkel's decision to open the German border to refugees for a number of different reasons led to the door to the first German multi-party coalition falling shut on Sunday."

"The differences between the Greens, FDP, and CSU on immigration — specifically on family reunification — was the deciding reason for that," the paper's Torsten Krauel wrote.

The Guardian, meanwhile, suggested that the deeper issue was not Lindner's instransigence - but Merkel's habitual flexibility, because the FDP had found out what it was like to be subsumed by a Merkel coalition before. "The FDP's petulance, and the Social Democrats’ unwillingness to open up talks about another 'grand coalition' with the CDU, are directly linked to the Merkel question: both parties suffered existential setbacks after going into government with a chancellor who has become an expert at adopting and coopting other parties' key policies," wrote Philip Oltermann.

Read more: Opinion: Germany's political shock

What now?

Die Zeit, looking ahead with a mixture of optimism and pessimism, said that, of the two options apparently available on Monday — a minority government of the CDU/CSU and the Greens, or a new election — "the first would be a gamble, but presumably less of one than the second solution."

A new election would only bring a similar result and more pressure from the electorate, the paper wrote, before suggesting that there were good precedents for minority governments elsewhere: "Scandinavian countries have been run well with minority governments for decades, often built on with deals with the opposition parties. And in Germany too there have been successful toleration models: the first in Hesse … that later led to the first SPD-Green coalition."

Meanwhile, The Economist worried what Lindner's "doubtful decision" would mean for Germany's reputation for stability and Merkel's steadying presence in Europe. "Both of those truths are now, if not dead, then slipping away," wrote Jeremy Cliffe. "The next German government will take months more to emerge and will be distinctly fragile in comparison with its predecessors. The end of the Merkel era has surely begun, though whether it has weeks, months or a short number of years to run is anyone's guess."

That theme was picked up by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which was concerned that the failure of the coalition talks would have serious repercussions in a "western world that is suffering from enormous leadership problems, where Spain, Italy, and Britain are struggling with their domestic weaknesses, where the Central Europeans can only establish their supposed strength through drastic isolationism — in this moment the crisis in Germany will seem like a shock." 

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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