Bütikofer: In the name of EU, Steinmeier will put pressure on his comrades

Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, speaking to journalists on 23 November 2017. [Georgi Gotev]

Germany’s failed coalition talks are hurting Europe’s reform agenda so Brussels and the EU capitals should lean on the country’s political leaders to find an agreement and avoid another election, Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, who took part in the talks, said on Thursday (23 November).

He shared his opinion with journalists about what solutions could be expected.

German coalition talks collapsed on Sunday (19 November) when the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) unexpectedly walked out of the talks with Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Greens, saying that the three parties could not find compromises on key issues like immigration and the environment.

German coalition talks collapse after Liberals walk out

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a three-way coalition government that would secure her a fourth term hit a major setback on Sunday after a would-be coalition partner pulled out of exploratory talks, citing irreconcilable differences.

Bütikofer called that the breakdown of an “extraordinary experiment”, adding that he had been doubtful from the beginning if the Liberals (FDP) had been willing to conclude an agreement in the first place.

He explained that FDP were much more comfortable in opposition, to preserve their image of the “new kid on the block who says it all” and that they were afraid to join the government.

A return to the Jamaica formula is excluded, Bütikofer said. (The Jamaica flag consist of the colours of CDU/CSU – black,  of FDP – yellow, and of the Greens). The FDP is not going to be a partner in any government in a foreseeable future, he added.

The pressure, he said, was now on the Social Democrats (SPD), to turn around from their rejection of another grand coalition, a position which he said was popular with their electorate immediately after the disastrous result of the 24 September election, but no longer today.

Most probable scenario

Bütikofer said that today the risk is that in a new election the Social Democrats, “after having refused to save the fatherland in a time of crisis, might end up with even fewer votes”.

“There is a rethinking. It’s hard to predict how it would turn out, but I think Social Democrats are so unhappy with their present leadership, which seems to be inept at dealing with the situation, that they might just use the opportunity to change card, and turn back to the table and form another grand coalition,” Bütikofer said, adding that the probability was “not below 40%”.

Another option, he said, was a “Kenya coalition” (black, red and green, after the colors of CDU/CSU, SPD and the Greens), but he said this should be excluded, because in his words it makes little sense to argue that it would be the interest of the Greens to join an SPD and CDU/CSU coalition.

He said that Social Democrats had told the greens in private conversations that they would not have conceded a major move favoured by the Greens, the 7-gigawatt reduction on coal, which was part of the elements on which the three forces found agreement before the talks collapsed.

There is also the idea of having a minority government, the options being CDU/CSU plus Greens, or CDU/CSU with the liberals. Bütikofer said he assumed neither option was probable.

Minority government?

The second most probable option, Bütikofer said, is a transitional minority cabinet with only CDU/CSU in government, with the only ambition to facilitate a new election, which probably couldn’t happen before April.

That, of course, would be risky, he said, because nobody knows what the voters would do.

Bütikofer said that another downside of this strategy, which builds on the organisation of another Bundestag election, is the European angle.

“We have a very narrow window of opportunity. Macron has been waiting already half a year. Juncker has tabled his ideas in the State of the Union speech in September”, Bütikofer said, hinting that the badly needed post-Brexit reforms could not wait.

If there was an election in April, there might be a government in place in June, he said, which would leave only the summer break to achieve results.

“That would be ridiculous. Everybody expects by the end of next year we either have results, or we have found agreement, not just between Paris and Berlin, but between all the capitals and the Commission, on how to move forward, or there won’t be any progress. Do we want to be the culprits to prevent that from happening? That’s a very big downside,” Bütikofer said.

He also said that there could, of course, be something like a minority government, but with a pact on EU affairs with pro-European parties. But would that really be stable?

“I don’t think so”, he said.

Asked by EURACTIV what would be the role of President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Bütikofer said that so far he hadn’t been able to impress the FDP leader Christian Lindner, but added that he might be more successful “with his own former comrades”.

Steinmeier is going to play it fair, Bütikofer said.

“He’s not going to come hard on Merkel, he will come much harder on his own, he will try to force the Social Democrats to turn around and return to their tradition that whenever the fatherland calls, they wrap themselves in the flag and say ‘we’re here for service, we’re here for sacrifice’.”

Bütikofer praised Merkel for what he said was taking the hardship in a very sportive way.

He conceded, however, that Merkel had suffered some harm on the “image front”.

The green MEP also stressed the European angle of the failed coalition negotiations in which European issues and European actors played a big role in his words

“On all the sides of the table you had European politicians, Manfred Weber (CSU) was there, Alexander Graf Lambsdorf (former MEP from FDP) was there, Daniel Caspary (CDU) was there. That’s a change”, the Green MEP said.

As a message to Brussels and to major EU capitals, he said he hoped that “phone calls” with key politicians in Berlin would be held.

“I’m not sure if the European consequences of what we do in Berlin are really on the top of everybody’s agenda. I hope there will be a lot of phone calls from Brussels to Berlin and from other capitals to impress that on people”, he said.