Earlier this month I visited Berlin to meet CSU MPs and Ministers. I
travelled with Alistair Burt MP, and together we had several productive
meetings on economic development and urban regeneration. We were made
most welcome and I was strongly reminded that we have good political
bedfellows in our CDU/CSU colleagues.
Politically, Berlin is beginning a new chapter. Since 2005, the
Government has been a ‘Grand Coalition’ of the CDU/CSU parties and the
left of centre SPD. When the election gave them 226 and 222 seats
respectively and neither could do a deal with the minor parties, they
were forced to turn to each other.
The result was a 143-page coalition agreement which sets out an agenda
on everything from health care reform to labour market changes, from
tax increases and spending cuts, all designed to help turn the
once-mighty German economy around.
Some minor political progress has been made and there are encouraging signs of the economy improving. However the domestic political scene is in stalemate. The left-right divide on almost every policy aspect has sharply reduced the ability of the Government to make clear and decisive changes.
The opinion polls reflect the problem. The chancellor, Angela Merkel is now enjoying satisfaction ratings of over 55%. However the CDU/CSU parties are only at 38%. Meanwhile the SPD’s ratings are in the mid 20s, not least because their Leader Kurt Beck is rather unpopular. The maverick Oscar Lafontaine’s Left Party is proving popular with much of the SPD’s base.
As a visitor I asked if this would cause the collapse of the coalition, but the overwhelming view was that a continued domestic stalemate was most likely until 2009, when the coalition agreement runs out. Neither the CDU/CSU nor the SPD could be confident of victory, and the German voters would punish anyone seen to have been responsible for collapsing the government.
Interestingly, the consequence of this domestic inertia has been to direct political attention abroad. Over the last year Germany has been the host of the G8 and EC Council meetings. Understandably, the general consensus is that Angela Merkel’s reputation has been significantly enhanced. Frequently underestimated, she has proved a highly effective negotiator.
With the summits behind her, the view in Berlin is that as foreign affairs is something not covered by the coalition agreement, it would afford the Chancellor the opportunity to act freely and effectively, for the good of the nation and, of course, her own political fortunes.
In practice what may this mean? First there’s much to be done on trade. The German economy is export-led, not least to China. Merkel will want to ensure that she can help open markets and increase those exports, thus delivering much needed employment at home.
Given her scientific background and interest in matters environmental, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she sought to actively promote overseas Germany’s technological expertise in countering the effects of climate change.
Second, we may well see an increasing willingness to deploy German soldiers abroad – albeit strictly in a diplomatic and humanitarian role.There are in fact over 10,000 troops serving abroad now and this may well increase. Perhaps not in war zones, but certainly in those areas where German support can be seen to be a positive influence. Iraq aside, this is something NATO and we in Britain should factor in, to our future thinking.
For Germans – and especially Berliners – their history has tended to encourage caution against an assertive foreign policy. Yet, in talking to politicians, diplomats and public I got the impression that as they become more optimistic about their economic future, so they may become more confident about expressing themselves abroad.
In their Chancellor, they may have just the right person to help them find their voice.