Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Germany: a Grand Coalition would be a very problematic project

Former German Foreign Minister and former Green Party leader Joschka Fischer is someone I quote often here. He often has sensible, realistic observations on foreign policy and Germany's European policy.

Joschka Fischer, high-powered business consultant and former German Green Party leader

In Merkel in the Land of Smiles Project Syndicate 09/24/2013, he has more good observations. But he also shows how far he's adopted a neoliberal view of policy and politics.

Good part first:

Nothing fades as quickly as the glow of an election victory, and the German idyll will soon be disturbed by harsh reality – the European Union’s simmering crisis, Syria, Iran, and energy policy.

The need for consensus is especially acute with respect to the difficult decisions concerning Europe that the German government now faces. Greece needs more debt relief. A European banking union with joint liability cannot be put off much longer. The same is true of many other issues. A winter of discontent awaits Merkel, followed by a European election campaign that is likely to bring the CDU back down to earth.

But no one should expect a significant change in Merkel's EU policy or her approach to foreign affairs and security questions. Her positions on these issues have now been endorsed by a huge portion of the German electorate; and, from a certain age, most people – including those in high office – do not change easily.[my emphasis]
He also notes that "in these matters, there is no longer much difference between the center-right CDU and the center-left SPD."

The latter is not good news, for the reasons Fischer indicates. Merkel's policy has prolonged the euro crisis and made it chronic, squeezing out the advantages for Germany's export-oriented economy that benefits heavily from the common currency, which is considerably cheaper than a German currency would be. And the SPD hasn't yet elaborated and defended any meaningful alternative to Merkel's approach.

He also calls attention to Germany's energy industry:

It will also be interesting to see if and how Merkel tackles Germany’s muddled Energiewende (energy turnaround) – the move to a low-carbon economy that is the most important domestic project of her tenure. Either she will succeed with it, or it will become a monumental disgrace for Germany and a disaster for the German economy. The decisive questions now are whether she musters the courage to concentrate all the necessary responsibilities for this mega-project in the energy ministry, and whom she entrusts with overseeing this Herculean task.
After leaving government, Fischer has a business consulting firm, which included offering services to energy companies. One of his consulting gigs involved facilitating a pipeline project. He now consults as part of Fischer & Co. The company's website lists him as a member of the board of directors of the International Crisis Group and the European Council on Foreign Relations. The German site Lobbypedia has an entry dealing with Fischer's consulting business, which has also included BMW.

His corporate clients will presumably be cheered by most of this part of his column:

The liberals have always formed a key part of German postwar democracy; now they are gone. Responsibility for that lies, first and foremost, with the FDP. No governing party can afford such woefully incompetent ministers and leadership; Merkel had merely to stand back and watch the liberals' public suicide over the last four years.

The opposition parties, too, paid the price for their failure to come to grips with reality. The economy is humming, unemployment is low, and most Germans are better off than ever before. But, rather than focusing on the government's weaknesses – energy, Europe, education, and family policy – they bet their political fortunes on social justice. Merkel's Panglossian campaign was much more in tune with the sentiment of the German electorate than the opposing parties' tristesse about working-class distress, which was rightly seen as a ploy for raising taxes.

Governing majorities (and therefore elections) in Germany are always won in the center. Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Gerhard Schröder, knew this well. But this time her opponents – the SPD, Die Linke (The Left), and the Greens – cleared the center and cannibalized each other on the left. The leadership issue made matters worse – the SPD's Peer Steinbrück and the Greens' Jürgen Trittin never had the slightest chance against Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. [my emphasis in bold]
"Governing majorities ... are always won in the center." I do hate to see Joschka Fischer sounding like David "Bobo" Brooks, even if Fischer when he's really wrong is better than Bobo when he's right.

Fischer's picture of the German economy is overly rosy. I should note that he was the Green Party leader in the red-green coalition that enacted the neoliberal Agenda 2010 program, which has resulted in lower wages and a reduction in job security for many German workers. Since he bears major responsibility for Agenda 2010, it's perhaps understandable that he wouldn't want to focus on its very real faults.

But his talk about the SPD and the Greens made a shift to the left is a spin worthy of an American Pod Pundit, I'm sorry to say. Albrecht Müller writes in Für Anhänger der SPD und der Grünen folgen ein paar Hinweise auf seltsame Vorgänge, vor allem auf die fortwährenden Versuche der Fremdbestimmung NachDenkSeiten 24.09.2013

Bei den Grünen spielt sich eine Manipulation und am Ende auch Tragödie ab, die wir aus der Geschichte der SPD wie auch in Teilen der Grünen schon seit einiger Zeit kennen. Um die Ordinate in beiden Parteien immer weiter nach rechts rücken zu können, wird ein Linksruck behauptet.

With the Greens a manipulation, and in the end also a tragedy, is being played out, which we have known for a long time from the history of the SPD and also in parts of the Green Party. In order to be able shift the ordinate {coordinates} in both parties always more to the right, a shift to the left is claimed. [emphasis in original]
In other words, people who want to shift the political center of gravity to the right for both the SPD and the Greens will criticize them for having made a shift to the left. Which Fischer is doing in that quoted passage.

In fact, Green Party leader Jürgen Tritten, like Merkel a pragmatic/opportunist politician from the former East Germany, was identified with the more conservative side of the Party. And the Greens like the SPD had supporter Merkel's awful eurozone policies, which Fischer says even in that piece are temporary, inadequate fixes.

Fischer's criticisms would seemingly eliminate the prospect for the left parties (Greens, SPD, Left) to build a strong and constructive criticism of Merkel's European policies, as well as a broader profile for a red-red-green coalition of the three left parties. Fischer goes Bobo in his approving acceptance of a CDU/SPD Grand Coalition government: "So Germany will be left with a grand coalition – just as the German electorate wanted." Let's see. Forty-two percent of the voters last Sunday picked Merkel's party, giving them something just short of a majority in the Bundestag. The three left parties, on the other hand, together have a majority in the Bundestag, and their popular vote was roughly the same as Angie's CDU. Her coalition partner, the FDP lost votes to the point that it's no longer has Bundestag seats and is in serious danger of going out of business as a party.

So just how is that a voter endorsement of a Grand Coalition that would continue to follow the European policies that Fischer criticizes? There is considerable protest from state and local SPD parties against a Grand Coalition, the sentiment being what's depicted here:

So a lot of the SPD doesn't have the sense that supporting Merkel was what their voters elected them to do.

As Von Sebastian Kempkens und Anna-Lena Roth point out in Neuer Bundestag: Die Gefahren einer Zwergen-Opposition Spiegel Online 25.09.2013, a Grand Coalition would be facing a relatively small opposition consisting of the Greens (less left than the SPD) and the Left Party (more left than the SPD). At a time when Germany and the EU really need a serious opposition criticism and resistance to Merkel's disastrous austerity policies, that would not be a good thing. And with less than a fourth of the votes - the Grand Coalition would have 503 to the opposition's 127, with 210 votes being the one-quarter level - they would not be able to use some opposition tools, like the ability to conduct special investigations of governmental operations or to call special sessions of the Bundestag.

It will be a major missed opportunity for all three of the left parties if they don't either insist on forming a red-red-green government or staying in the opposition. All the hype about Merkel's election victory is obscuring the fact that the opposing parties have very strong cards to play. And also that going into a coalition with Merkel's CDU is a virtually guaranteed way to lose votes int he next election.

Finally, Fischer is making even a fairly superficial criticism of the FDP's failure to get into the Bundestag. Wolfgang Münchau takes a broader strategic look at their current position in Neuer Liberalismus: Drei Fragen für die FDP Spiegel Online 25.09.2013. The depression has shown how bankrupt their free-market, deregulation-oriented economic policies are. Even Merkel's "ordoliberalism" sees a stronger regulatory and protective role for the state than the FDP's approach does. Although in Merkel's case that has meant putting the euro and even the EU at high risk for the sake of providing protection to German banks, at the cost of huge suffering in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

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