Germany risks losing power and influence in Brussels if the Social Democrats pull the plug on the country’s coalition government, the EU’s Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger said on Monday.
The warning from the outgoing German commissioner comes as the so-called grand coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — of which Oettinger is a member — and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has come under increasing strain.
The next general election is scheduled for fall 2021, but the government’s future has been thrown into doubt by disagreements and the SPD’s ongoing leadership contest, which is seen as a referendum on whether the party should continue its coalition with the CDU.
“I think the influence of the German government and the German chancellor [in the EU] is really impressive,” Oettinger said in an interview for POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast, to be released later this week. “My main question is: What will happen if there is a new German government?”
He added: “There is a concern that this level of authority and influence may not be guaranteed” leading up to a possible snap election “and after a new government comes into [force].”
Oettinger said the leadership ballot, as well as the SPD’s upcoming party conference in December, had cast doubt on the longevity of the coalition.
SPD members will elect a new leadership duo in a run-off vote at the end of November. They have the choice between Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz, who support continuing the coalition, and the more left-leaning pair of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, who have indicated they may ditch the alliance with the CDU.
With the SPD polling at historic lows, many members want the party to exit the coalition, hoping they can revive their fortunes in the opposition.
Oettinger said the leadership ballot, as well as the SPD’s upcoming party conference in December, had cast doubt on the longevity of the coalition. “We have to see … is the SPD ready and able and willing to continue, what are the conditions [for this]?” he asked.
He urged the SPD to stay in the coalition to ensure stability in Berlin, especially given that Germany will take up the rotating Council of the EU presidency in the second half of 2020.
“The second semester of next year is a very important semester … We will have a lot of problems on our European agenda, so a strong and experienced German government is what we are preferring,” he said. “So we would prefer that the grand coalition will continue up to the end of the mandate [in] summer 2021.”
Oettinger also pointed to risks such as a looming recession and U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat of imposing tariffs on European cars as reasons why the SPD ought to continue governing with the CDU.
“If there was a special problem for German industries, from car producers to manufacturing, and if Germany was coming into a recession, as it seems to be now in autumn 2019, and in parallel the grand coalition was weaker and weaker, or we have extraordinary elections, then the German influence could come into some problems,” he said.
When asked who his own party should put forward as a lead candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor in the next election, Oettinger said it was “too early” to make a decision.
However, he said he had been a supporter of Merkel rival Friedrich Merz, who last year lost the vote for the CDU chairmanship to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the current German defense minister and Merkel protégé.
“We should come to [a] decision when we need a decision, so normally summer next year,” Oettinger said. “If we have an extraordinary election in spring next year — which I don’t hope — then we need a decision immediately [after] it’s clear there will be an extraordinary [election].”
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