European jitters over German coalition talks

German Chancellor and CDU head Angela Merkel with leader of the Bavarian Christian Democrats (CSU) Horst Seehofer and leader of the German Social Democrats (SPD) Martin Schulz on January 12, 2018 in Berlin, Germany Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Angela Merkel has been in coalition talks with the leaders of the CSU and SPD parties

Coalition building after parliamentary elections is hardly a hold-on-to-your-seats-ladies-and-gentlemen kind of affair in Europe.

It's often arduous and tedious for the parties involved, never mind onlookers - just ask the Dutch.

Which makes the current, almost obsessive international focus on Angela Merkel's rather painful attempts to form a German government all the more striking.

"There's one subject that comes up over and over again in European circles at the moment," German MEP Jo Leinen told me in slightly exasperated tones. "When will Germany have a government?"

The Spaniards, the Dutch, they all want to know, he said, but most of all, the French.

Of course they do.

What happens in Germany directly affects the rest of Europe. Huge country, huge economy equals enormous influence.

Germany has arguably presided over, if not run, the European show over the past decade or so.

Ambitious Emmanuel Macron wants France to steal back the limelight - a return to what he will see as the good old days when France played Europe's starring role.

But France cannot become more significant on the European stage without Germany's help, and President Macron knows it.

Right now he stands alone among EU leaders with an unabashedly pro-European stance plus a clear, far-reaching agenda for EU reform.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Emmanuel Macron wants France to play a stronger role in Europe

But listen carefully to his speeches, Carnegie Europe senior fellow Judy Dempsey told me, such as his big Europe speech in September at the Sorbonne university where he calls for more EU integration in the eurozone, in defence, migration and more.

He also very clearly says to Germany: I can't do this without you.

This is a new generation in France realising the essential importance of bringing Germany in.

The prospect of a powerful Franco-German motor once again propelling the EU put smiles back on Eurocrat faces after their disappointment at the Brexit vote.

But the once-mighty Angela Merkel, whom President Macron has done so much to woo, was hobbled by a drubbing at the polls around the same time he made his Euro-visionary Sorbonne speech.

Without a government, Germany can only tread political water.

And the longer the process of German coalition building goes on, the twitchier Mr Macron and other European leaders become.

"Time isn't a luxury," Judy Dempsey notes.

With an unpredictable President Trump in the White House, EU countries in Eastern and Central Europe thumbing their noses at what Brussels calls European values, a Brexit deal to be struck and European Parliamentary elections coming up next year, never mind possibly rowdy elections in Italy, Hungary and Sweden later this year - the space to agree meaningful EU reform looks suffocatingly narrow.

And so everyone looks earnestly, impatiently, to Germany and to a meeting this Sunday that would not normally tickle pan-European headlines - a party conference in Bonn of Germany's Social Democrat Party, the SPD.

Will the party agree to start formal coalition talks with Mrs Merkel's conservatives after preliminary discussions which ended last week?

And even if it does, will SPD members later approve the resulting coalition agreement?

It's far from a done deal.

The SPD performed badly in the autumn general elections. Many in the party blame too much time in coalition, wilting under Chancellor Merkel's shadow.

For them, another four years of being bossed about by "Mutti" is unappealing.

Emmanuel Macron and those favouring a strong EU are willing the SPD to say "ja" (yes).

The prize for them is massive.

You don't need to read too many of the 28 pages making up the preliminary SPD-conservative agreement to realise that Europe is topic number one.

Angela Merkel has always been an ardent defender of the EU but never, in all her years as chancellor, has she made a visionary Europe speech.

But in SPD leader Martin Schulz - a former president of the European Parliament and close colleague of EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker - Mr Macron has met his match for Euro-enthusiasm.

On the flip side, though, if these coalition talks collapse, so potentially do the dreams of a re-energised, more integrated European Union.

Mr Schulz would most probably be out of a job and Mr Macron would likely see his EU reform plans fester, denting his standing at home and abroad.

The tension in European circles as they await news from Germany is palpable.

Influential MEP Manfred Weber told the European Parliament on Wednesday that Europe was at a crossroads.

He warned of the ongoing tide of political populism and concluded: "It's either hate or hope. It's either an ambitious Europe or no Europe at all."

And the failure to agree a so-called grand coalition in Germany has direct implications for Brexit too.

It could mean the EU's most powerful country will be in full general election upheaval just as negotiators go into battle over the future shape of trade and other relations between the European Union and post-Brexit UK .

That prospect alone is making eyes water - on both sides of the Channel.

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