Germany’s acting finance minister, Peter Altmaier, is fond of playing the cosmopolitan European diplomat on visits to Brussels. Articulate and multilingual, Altmaier doesn’t shy away from speaking a bit of Dutch into the microphone and is perfectly at home chatting with outgoing Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem or delivering a withering critique of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax plan.
But once the doors close and his counterparts begin asking him the question that is foremost on their minds — when is Europe’s most important country going to finally assemble a new government? — Altmaier has no choice but to tell them the sobering truth. The constitutional situation in Germany, he notes, is complicated. Furthermore, if a renewed coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — a pairing known as a “grand coalition” — does, in fact, take shape, the SPD has said it plans to have the grassroots vote on it. That will take time, Altmaier says, looking into the shocked faces surrounding him.
With its current provisional government, Germany is in the process of gambling away its excellent political reputation in Europe. The country used to be considered a paragon of democracy with a parliamentary system that worked just as reliably as its cars and industrial machinery.
Yet with the German general election, held on Sept. 24, rapidly fading into the rearview mirror and parties like the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the SPD — both of which with plenty of experience as members of governing coalitions in Germany — shying away from joining Merkel’s conservatives in a political alliance, many abroad have begun seeing the country in a new light. The growing skepticism started, of course, with Berlin’s misadventures in its attempt to build a simple airport and the doubts have gained credence with a series of other mishaps, most recently German rail’s inability to get its much-ballyhooed new high-speed line between Munich and Berlin working properly. And now the country can’t even seem to assemble a governing coalition. Can’t the Germans do anything anymore?