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Merkel Greens: Germany’s Next Big Transformation

Why Angela Merkel will ultimately opt for a Black-Green coalition.

September 30, 2013

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Credit: Armin Linnartz - Wikipedia)

At decisive moments in her political career, Angela Merkel has stood out for courageously breaking with the past. She may very well be about to do so again.

The two best-known previous incidences were, first, in 1999, when she called on Helmut Kohl, then the figure towering over her own party, the CDU, and the man to whom she owed her initial rise, to resign. Many people in her party were stunned, but her move ultimately proved successful.

Then, in 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, she literally turned on a dime — and ended the decades-long run of nuclear power in Germany. Again, many people, especially in conservative circles, were initially shocked. But Merkel got her way.

The third opportunity for Merkel to prove her guts and her mettle could arise if she selected the Green Party as her preferred coalition partner. In the now familiar theme, many conservatives would feel shocked initially. But there are plenty of reasons why this would be the most sensible move.

Why marry the black with the green

The three biggest reasons why to opt for a so-called black-green coalition are, first, going full throttle on marrying the economy and the environment, the current “grand project” of German politics. The second reason is maintaining democratic decency, and the third is dynamizing Germany’s political landscape.

Mrs. Merkel, a former environment minister, has proven that she sees the energy/environment issue as key for the future. After all, she initiated the Energiewende, the fundamental transformation of the energy sector that is now underway in Germany. She shares that spirit with the Greens. In fact, it was the latter party’s founding motive.

There are many who assume that the Greens would never join the CDU in a coalition. But the party must soberly assess its own future prospects. Under Angela Merkel, the German government has effectively made the core plank of the Greens into the policy of the national government.

By joining forces with Merkel now, the party will be able to (re)claim its paternity of the idea — and share in the trials and tribulations of making it a policy and economic reality.

Second, democratic decency. The CDU/CSU and SPD combined would jointly account for almost 80% of all the members of the German Bundestag. That is not so much a “grand” coalition, as a German government formed by the two largest parties is commonly called, but a stifling behemoth. It smacks of a unity government unbefitting a modern democracy because the role of the opposition, given those overwhelming numbers, becomes a travesty. At a minimum, it is not becoming to democratic sanity.

Third, there is the matter of dynamizing Germany’s political landscape. Angela Merkel is widely viewed around the world as Madame Reliable and as wedded to the safety-first principle. But for somebody who is supposedly so opposed to taking big political risks, she has willingly engaged in her fair share of them.

Moreover, it is fair to assume that “replaying” a grand coalition, which governed Germany under Merkel from 2005 to 2009, would look like a boring repeat in her own mind. Been there, done that. Where’s the challenge in that?

It is at least as likely that Merkel would opt for something new. Hence, the very real prospect of the black-green coalition. A profound political strategist, Merkel knows that, by joining forces with the Greens, she would alter the German political landscape for good.

Changing the center of politics

In particular, by pushing the SPD into the opposition role, she would possibly reconsolidate the left wing of German politics. Parts of the SPD are already very torn over joining forces with the Left Party. By pushing the SPD to the left, Merkel would change the center of German politics, essentially by helping establish the Greens as the new center element of German politics.

There are downside risks to choosing that option, including the voting constellation in the German Bundesrat, the Upper House. While not insignificant, those are not considerations that would keep Merkel from giving the Greens a real-life try.

Perhaps the most exciting one is that the Greens were just chastised at the polls. The resounding message the party received from its own (past) voters is that tax levels in Germany are high enough by any measure and that it’s not a promising position to suggest a yet again higher tax take for the public sector.

Merkel and the CDU must be broadly comfortable with that position. The Greens, needing some reinvention, could and should focus on modernizing public administration and making it more cost-effective and accountable to the citizens.

Reforming the public administration apparatus may sound like an unexciting notion anywhere — except in Germany. There, the management of federal-state relations has always been understood to play a very important role in people’s well-being.

Few people will doubt that a lot of pruning can be done, for example, by moving funds from the administrative back offices to front-line services and using IT more smartly and efficiently.

Since Merkel has done little on the domestic front over the last four years, adding the Greens to the political mix should be really interesting — and should interest the Greens a lot. Topics such as real education reform and improving the country’s physical infrastructure could only benefit from having the Green seal of approval.

And now that the party has shed its leftist leaders after the poor election performance, the odds for more pragmatic hands to take over the party are strong. Now that the FDP, the classic liberal party, was thrown out of parliament by the voters, the Green Party has a very real option to occupy the civic space which the FDP had originally usurped.

In short, there are plenty of reasons for Merkel to once again shed her don’t-rock-the-boat reputation. She has proved a daredevil before in moments when it really counted and when transformative moments of German politics lay right in front of her, ripe for the taking. Now is precisely such a moment.

None of that means that Merkel’s party shouldn’t offer negotiations to the SPD first, as is now reported. That’s all a matter of negotiating tactics and could very well be part of the ultimate ploy.

A version of this article appeared in the Financial Times on October 1.


At decisive moments in her political career, Merkel has stood out for courageously breaking with the past.

By joining forces with Merkel, the Green party will (re)claim its paternity of the energy/environment issue.

Democratic decency militates against a “grand” coalition. It smacks of a unity government.

“Replaying” a grand coalition would look like a boring repeat in Merkel’s mind.

By joining forces with the Greens, Merkel would alter the German political landscape for good.

Merkel has proved a daredevil when it counted in transformative moments of politics. Now is such a moment.