A New Grand Coalition for Germany – and Europe

As featured in Project Syndicate | November 28, 2017

Friends of Germany and Europe around the world have been breathing a sigh of relief at the newfound willingness of Germany’s Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (SPD) to discuss reprising their grand coalition government. The world needs a strong and forward-looking Germany in a dynamic European Union. A new grand coalition working alongside French President Emmanuel Macron’s government would make that possible.

The SPD’s initial decision to go into opposition after its poor election result in September may have been sincere, and even strategically sound. But it is not timely. Diplomacy almost everywhere is fractured.

The United States is reckoning with a psychologically unstable president, a plutocratic cabinet, and a Republican congressional majority. Europe is in the throes of multiple economic, social, political, and institutional crises. China, by contrast, is dynamic and outward-looking – providing good reason for the EU to assume vigorous leadership and engage in constructive partnerships with China on key initiatives (such as sustainable infrastructure across Eurasia).

In short, this is a critical time for Germany and Europe to provide vision, stability, and global leadership. And that imperative extends to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the SPD.

But the CDU/CSU and the SPD need to do more than merely extend the previous government, which was too parochial in outlook and temperament. The world and Europe need an outward-looking Germany that offers more institutional and financial innovation, so that Europe can be a true counterpart to the US and China on global affairs. I say this as someone who believes firmly in Europe’s commitment and pioneering statecraft when it comes to sustainable development, the core requirement of our time.

Economic growth that is socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable is a very European idea, one that has now been embraced globally in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Europe’s experience with social democracy and Christian democracy made this global vision possible. But now that its agenda has been adopted worldwide, Europe’s leadership in fulfilling it has become essential.

A grand coalition government in Germany must help put Europe in a position to lead. French President Emmanuel Macron has offered some important ideas: a European finance minister; Eurobonds to finance a new European investment program; more emphasis on innovation; a financial transactions tax to fund increased aid to Africa, where Europe has a strategic interest in long-term development; and tax harmonization more generally, before the US triggers a global race to the bottom on taxing corporations and the rich.

Contrary to the Germans who oppose such ideas, a European finance minister and Eurobonds would not and should not lead to fiscal profligacy, but rather to a revival of investment-led green growth in Europe. China has proposed the Belt and Road Initiative to build green infrastructure linking Southeast Asia and Central Asia with Europe. This is the time for Europe to offer the same bold vision, creating a partnership with China to renovate Eurasia’s infrastructure for a low-carbon future.

If Europe plays its cards right, Europe’s (and China’s) scientific and technical excellence would flourish under such a vision. If not, we will all be driving Chinese electric vehicles charged by Chinese photovoltaic cells in the future, while Germany’s automotive industry will become a historical footnote.

A European finance minister would, moreover, finally end Europe’s self-inflicted agony in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As difficult as it is to believe, Greece’s crisis continues to this day, at Great Depression scale, ten years after the onset of the crisis.

This is because Europe has been unable, and Germany unwilling, to clean up the financial mess (including Greece’s unpayable debts) in a fair and forward-looking manner (akin to the 1953 London Agreement on German External Debts, as Germany’s friends have repeatedly reminded it). If Germany won’t help to lead on this issue, Europe as a whole will face a prolonged crisis with severe social, economic, and political repercussions.

In three weeks, Macron will convene world leaders in Paris on the second anniversary of the climate accord. France should certainly take a bow here, but so should Germany. During Germany’s G20 Presidency, Merkel kept 19 of the 20members of the G20 firmly committed to the Paris agreement, despite US President Donald Trump’s disgraceful attempt to wreck it.

Yes, the corruption of US politics (especially campaign funding by the oil and gas industry) threatened the global consensus on climate change. But Germany stood firm. The new coalition should also ensure that the country’s Energiewende(“energy transition”) delivers on the 2020 targets set by previous governments. These achievable and important commitments should not be a bargaining chip in coalition talks.

A CDU/CSU-SPD alliance, working with France and the rest of Europe, could and should do much more on climate change. Most important, Europe needs a comprehensive energy plan to decarbonize fully by 2050. This will require a zero-carbon smart power grid that extends across the continent and taps into the wind and solar power not only of southern Europe but also of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Once again, Eurobonds, a green partnership with China, and unity within Europe could make all the difference.

Such an alliance would also enable a new foreign policy for Europe, one that promotes peace and sustainable development, underpinned by new security arrangements that do not depend so heavily on the US. Europe, a magnet for hundreds of millions of would-be economic migrants, could, should, and I believe would regain control of its borders, allowing it to strengthen and enforce necessary limits on migration.

The political terms of a new grand coalition government, it would seem, are clear. The SPD should hold out for ministerial leadership on economic and financial policy, while the CDU/CSU holds the chancellorship. That would be a true coalition, not one that could bury the SPD politically or deny it the means to push for a truly green, inclusive, EU-wide, sustainable development agenda.

With Merkel and SPD leader Martin Schulz in the lead, the German government would be in excellent, responsible, and experienced hands. Germany’s friends and admirers, and all supporters of global sustainable development, are hoping for this breakthrough.

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