Tougher Immigration Policies Split Germany’s Ruling Parties

German chancellor Angela Merkel confers with her finance and economy ministers, Wolfgang Schäuble and Sigmar Gabriel, January 23, 2014
German chancellor Angela Merkel confers with her finance and economy ministers, Wolfgang Schäuble and Sigmar Gabriel, January 23, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

Having solved one immigration crisis in her coalition government, German chancellor Angela Merkel now faces another.

Last week, she calmed down her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, by agreeing to the creation of “transit zones” on Germany’s borders to control the influx of asylum seekers and temporarily freeze family reunifications.

Her other coalition partners are up in arms about the new policies. Read more “Tougher Immigration Policies Split Germany’s Ruling Parties”

Steinmeier Unlikely to Effect Change in German-Russian Relations

German chancellor Angela Merkel talks with her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and other colleagues in Berlin, December 17
German chancellor Angela Merkel talks with her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and other colleagues in Berlin, December 17 (Bundesregierung)

Germany might want to pursue a more friendly policy toward Russia under the stewardship of its new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but in her coalition with the Social Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel faces many of same challenges in the east she did during the last four years.

Steinmeier, who was also foreign minister in Merkel’s first cabinet between 2005 and 2009, is considered something of a Russophile in the vein of his party’s former leader, Gerhard Schröder. The latter famously described President Vladmir Putin once as a “flawless democrat” and now chairs the company that operates the submarine Nord Stream pipeline that delivers Russian natural gas to Germany.

Steinmeier calls for dialogue and engagement but so did his predecessor, the liberal Guido Westerwelle, who said in a radio interview last year that he was “very keen for the strategic partnership with Russia to be expanded.” That didn’t stop him from showing up at a demonstration in Kiev last week where thousands of Ukrainians had gathered to protest their government’s decision to put off an association agreement with the European Union and deepen ties with Russia instead.

German president Joachim Gauck has also used his largely ceremonial office to pursue a more moral foreign policy. He canceled a visit to Ukraine last year to protest the persecution of its former prime minister, the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko, by the government of its more pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich. Gauck announced this week that he will also not attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — apparently without informing the chancellery beforehand.

Yet it is in all likelihood Merkel who will continue to exert the most influence over her country’s Russia policy. Whatever Steinmeier’s conciliatory instincts, the chancellor has rather cooled to Russia in recent years and there is no reason to believe this will change under her third government which took office on Tuesday.

Merkel implicitly criticized Russia’s treatment of nongovernmental organizations, some of which have been banned, in a speech in April when she argued that economic progress “can happen most successfully when there is an active civil society.” She added, “We must intensify these discussions, develop our ideas and we must give the NGOs, who we know as a motor for innovation, a good chance in Russia.”

A June trip to Saint Petersburg also didn’t go without controversy when she asked for artworks that were looted during the Second World War and displayed at the Hermitage Museum to be returned to Germany.

Germany has a clear interest in maintaining stable relations with Russia. More than a third of the natural gas it consumes is imported from that country and this share might increase as it intends to shut all of its nuclear power plants within less than a decade.

But it might have a more immediate stake in Central Europe where countries have become wary about its increased independence of transit nations since it started to import gas from Russia directly through the Nord Stream pipeline. These countries, Poland especially, are deeply integrated with the German economy.

The case for a closer German-Polish relationship has also grown stronger since a change of government in Paris last year weakened the Franco-German axis, long the most pivotal in Europe. The socialist president there, François Hollande, sympathizes more with the heavily indebted Mediterranean states than his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did. Poland’s liberal prime minister Donald Tusk, by contrast, shares many of Merkel’s priorities for economic and fiscal reform in the European Union.

Finally, Merkel has a domestic political imperative to distance herself from Putin. What seemed like a continuation of Schröder’s Russia policy during her second term was far from uncontroversial. The Social Democrats, then in opposition, criticized her for cozying up to an authoritarian regime. Some Christian Democrats, traditionally more Atlanticist, worried about the prospect of a German-Russian condominium in the east. Certainly neither of the parties is in favor of deepening ties with Putin’s regime. Germany’s interests suggest it will not take a firm stand against Russia either but it does seem likely that Steinmeier will have to be a bit more confrontational than he might like — and Russia seems to expect.

German Party Vote Clears Way for Third Merkel Government

German party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle talk in parliament in Berlin, October 22
German party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle talk in parliament in Berlin, October 22 (Bundesregierung)

Germany’s Social Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favor of a coalition agreement with Angela Merkel’s conservatives, the party said on Saturday, clearing the way for the chancellor’s third government to take office next week.

76 percent of the leftist party’s members voted in favor of the deal. Despite their misgivings about entering into another “grand coalition” with the right, which last time cost them more than 10 percent support in the polls, most analysts agreed that the threat of grassroots members voting down the agreement enabled them to get more out of the negotiations than their disappointing election result would otherwise have allowed them to, including the introduction of a national minimum wage and dual citizenship for the children of immigrations. Read more “German Party Vote Clears Way for Third Merkel Government”

Germany’s Right-Wing Press Decries Social Democrats’ “Victory”

Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel addresses parliament in Berlin, September 14, 2012 (Bundesregierung/Guido Bergmann)

Germany’s right-wing press interprets the coalition agreement Chancellor Angela Merkel has struck with her Social Democratic rivals as a victory for the left.

But leftwingers aren’t satisfied either, seeing the accord — which will form the basis for the next four years of government — as still a largely conservative document. Read more “Germany’s Right-Wing Press Decries Social Democrats’ “Victory””

German Parties Close to Coalition Deal But Eye Smaller Partners

German party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle talk in parliament in Berlin, October 22
German party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle talk in parliament in Berlin, October 22 (Bundesregierung)

Germany’s Christian and Social Democrats are almost certain to form a ruling coalition for the next four years yet both are exploring pacts with smaller parties. The Social Democrats signaled last week that they might at some point cooperate with Die Linke while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are deepening ties with the Greens. Read more “German Parties Close to Coalition Deal But Eye Smaller Partners”

German Coalition Expected to Introduce National Minimum Wage

German party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle talk in parliament in Berlin, October 22
German party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle talk in parliament in Berlin, October 22 (Bundesregierung)

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are expected to agree to the introduction of a national minimum wage despite warnings from economists that it will lead to significant job losses in the formerly communist east of the country.

Handelsblatt newspaper reports that the Christian Democrats, who fell just five seats short of a parliamentary majority in an election last month, will agree to an €8.50 hourly minimum wage as demanded by the Social Democrats in coalition talks. In return, the leftists will not demand higher income taxes which had been their other key campaign promise.

Most workers who would immediately benefit from a federal minimum wage introduction are in former East Germany. Roughly a quarter of the workers there earns less than €8.50 per hour compared to some 10 percent in the states that composed the western Federal Republic of Germany before reunification in 1990.

The country’s leading economic institutes are skeptical. “A blanket minimum wage that applies to all sectors and all regions would probably have significantly more negative consequences for the labor market than the current sectoral deals,” they warn in a twice yearly report commissioned by the German government.

Unlike most other European countries, Germany relies exclusively on collective wage deals that are negotiated per region between employers and labor unions. Coverage by such agreements has decreased to 59 percent of the workforce from more than 70 percent in 1998, however, according to the Hans Böckler Foundation, which is aligned to the trade union movement. Low pay has surged especially in the wake of labor reforms that were enacted in the early 2000s — and which enabled Germany to weather the recent economic and financial crises with relatively low unemployment.

Critics fear that a federally mandated minimum wage will prompt companies in the east of Germany to move their operations across the border into the Czech Republic and Poland where labor costs are much lower.

But the Social Democrats must have at least one signature achievement to prevent them from suffering defeat in the next election as they did after the last time they joined Merkel’s parties in government. A vast majority of Germans favors another left-right coalition but many also say they see little difference between the two major parties anymore. Another “grand coalition” could further obscure the differences, to the Social Democrats’ detriment who face competition on the left from the Green party and the radical Die Linke.

Formal coalition talks began on Wednesday and are expected to last at least two weeks. Social democrat party members will be able to vote on whatever deal is reached which could put further pressure on their leaders to extract concessions from the right.

Merkel to Lure Opponents into Coalition, Conservatives Wary

German chancellor Angela Merkel listens during a meeting with other European conservative party leaders in Brussels, December 13, 2012
German chancellor Angela Merkel listens during a meeting with other European conservative party leaders in Brussels, December 13, 2012 (EPP)

German chancellor Angela Merkel will try to form a coalition government with her Social Democrat opponents after narrowly failing to secure an absolute majority in parliament for her ruling conservative party two weeks ago.

Winning 41.5 percent of the votes, Merkel’s Christian Democrats fell just five seats short of a majority in elections for the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament. Left-wing parties also still hold a majority in the upper chamber, meaning a minority government — which Germany hasn’t had since before the Second World War — is a last resort at best.

The Social Democrats, who only modestly improved upon what was their worst postwar election performance four years ago, are likely to demand significant concessions for entering another “grand coalition” with Merkel’s conservatives. The last such left-right alliance was exactly what cost them more than 10 percent support in 2009.

The left could technically find a majority of its own but the Social Democrats have ruled out forming a coalition with Die Linke, the successor to former East Germany’s ruling communist party which got 8.6 percent support.

German news media report that the Social Democrats will demand six cabinet posts, including the powerful Finance Ministry which has been held by Merkel’s conservative ally and fiscal hawk Wolfgang Schäuble throughout the European debt crisis.

Even if polls show that a vast majority of Germans favor another grand coalition, conservatives are wary. They pledged not to raise taxes before the election while the Social Democrats will have little to show for if they don’t get any. Like the Greens, they advocate raising the top income rate from 42 to 49 percent. They also favor a nationwide minimum wage. Merkel resists both proposals which she fears will undermine Germany’s competitiveness.

Conservative party heavyweights have reassured right-wing voters that tax increases are off the table. “Our election manifesto is absolutely imperative: We reject tax increases,” said party secretary Hermann Gröhe last week. Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer, who won a resounding victory for his party in state elections a week before the federal vote, similarly dismissed the left’s tax proposal as “unspeakable and totally superfluous” in an interview with the tabloid Bild.

The conservative press has been no less adamant. Dismissing the Social Democrats’ demands as “megalomania,” Die Welt newspaper argued that Merkel “has been tasked by the German people to continue her policy. She won on two issues — reforming the European Union and preventing tax increases. The Social Democrats lost the election with their vague message on Europe and support for higher taxes.”

The paper warned that if Merkel breaks her word, other European countries might conclude that she will similarly water down her demands for institutional reform in the eurozone. “A broken promise today will undermine Germany’s authority in Brussels.”

In a grand coalition, Merkel will likely have to pursue a sightly more pro-European policy in any event. Politically, the greater danger for her is that it might convince rightwingers to vote for Alternative für Deutschland in next year’s elections for the European Parliament. The Euroskeptics failed to cross the 5 percent election threshold last month but enjoy considerable support among German voters who are tired of bailing out weaker states in the periphery of the currency union.

The chancellor’s only other option is drawing the Greens into a coalition but they have yet to resolve whether to lurch to the left or to the center after a disappointing election performance that prompted their leaders to resign. If the more pacifist and socialist wing of the party ends up in control, a coalition government with the conservatives will be out of the question.

Merkel has nevertheless scheduled talks with the ecologists, possibly to put pressure on the Social Democrats who plan to call a party conference to approve any coalition plans — which is meant to put pressure on Merkel in the first place as members are unlikely to vote in favor if they don’t get their way on at least some signature policies.

German Social Democrats Shun Both Conservatives, Far Left

German opposition leader Peer Steinbrück said on Sunday that he would not enter into a “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives as the junior party, raising the possibility of a right-wing victory in September’s election.

Steinbrück, who was Merkel’s finance minister in the last such grand coalition between 2005 and 2009, told ZDF television that a government of Christian and Social Democrats was unlikely. “We all know what happened last time around,” he said, referring to support for his party plunging to 23 percent in the 2009 election from 34 percent in 2005. Read more “German Social Democrats Shun Both Conservatives, Far Left”

Schröder’s Legacy Still Relevant to German Left

The German Social Democrats’ draft election manifesto released last week revealed two things: they are at once haunted by their past and have learned from it.

Ten years ago, Germany’s Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder initiated far-reaching economic and social reforms. While there is ongoing academic debate about whether these reforms are solely responsible for the resilient German economy (PDF) and labor market (PDF), there is widespread agreement that they are at least part of the nation’s current success.

This puts the party’s contender for the chancellorship, Peer Steinbrück, in a delicate position, not least since he was one of the strongest supporters of Schröder’s agenda. Incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is in the comfortable position of continuing to run with a program that was originally designed by the left yet showed in many parts an ideological affinity with the economic right.

Steinbrück and the chairman of his party, Sigmar Gabriel, are trying to find the middle ground between maintaining the inheritance of their successful reforms and the necessity of presenting themselves as an alternative to Merkel’s conservatives. Read more “Schröder’s Legacy Still Relevant to German Left”