The show will go on: EU enlargement and the new German government

Signing of the coalition agreement, 27.11.2013 (author:CDUCSU)

Last week the German SPD and CDU/CSU signed the agreement for forming a grand coalition. This 185 page long document sets out the agenda for the new government has been negotiated now for some 2 months. It also discusses EU enlargement, making it a key document in assessing the perspectives for the EU integration of the Western Balkans in the coming years. German is not just an important member state, but with 75 percent of Germans against enlargement in the coming years, the country with the highest number of enlargement skeptics. The section on enlargement (p. 165) towards the Western Balkans is just one paragraph long (part of one page on EU enlargement and Eastern partnership), here in the German original (it thus did not receive much attention in the German press covering the coalition agreement, see SZ, FAZ  and FR):

“Die Erweiterung der EU ist aktive europäische Friedenspolitik. Die bisherigen EU-Erweiterungen sind im Interesse Deutschlands und Europas. Wir stehen dazu, dass dieser Prozess unter strikter Beachtung der Beitrittskriterien fortgesetzt wird und die Staaten des Westlichen Balkans eine Beitrittsperspektive haben. Sowohl Serbien als auch Kosovo müssen ihre eingegangenen Verpflichtungen erfüllen. Wir wollen KFOR im Einklang mit der Sicherheitsentwicklung schrittweise reduzieren und zum Ab-schluss führen. Gemeinsam mit unseren Partnern und Verbündeten werden wir die Heranführung der Länder des Westlichen Balkans an EU und NATO aktiv vorantreiben. Für die EU-Erweiterung sind die Anwendung strenger Kriterien und klar überprüfbarer Fortschritte wichtig. Maßgeblich sind sowohl die Beitrittsfähigkeit der Kandidaten als auch die Aufnahmefähigkeit der Europäischen Union.”

In essence, it maintains the German committment to EU enlargement and describes it as a peace project and German and European interest. However, it also points out that the process shall continue “under strict observation of the accession criteria” and later once more “strict criteria and clearly identifiable progress. Essential is both the ability of the candidates to join, as well as the ability of the EU to absorb the countries”. As a result, the coalition agreement suggest that the new German government will pursue the enlargement as in recent years. The multiple references to strict criteria, visible progress and the absorption capacity of the EU all suggest that enlargement will remain difficult and Germany, reflecting the larger tendency of the EU for member states to get invovled in the enlargement process, will assess the readiness of countries seperate from the Commission.

Some change is though likely: the composition of the new government has not been announced yet, as the SPD members have to first vote on the coalition agreement, but traditionally the junior partner in coalitions holds the Foreign Ministry. It is likely that an SPD-led Foreign Ministry will be more supportive of EU enlargement than the previous FDP-led ministry. The coalition agreement, however does note, that all EU policy decisisons will be particularly coordinated by the government under leadership of the chancellor and vice-chancellor, so there will be little room for a different policy of the SPD. In addition, the short mention of enlargement does also serve as a reminder that it is a low priority for the new German government.

Grand coalitions are not so grand anymore

What do recent elections in Austria, Luxembourg and Germany mean for scholars of power-sharing in divided societies? At first glance, seemingly little. Neither is a particularly divided society, and identity politics is not a defining feature of political choices. Yet, there is a significance in the results: When Arend Lijphart and other scholars first wrote about consociationalism  in the late 1960s and 1970s, the main examples for countries governed by this form of democracy where in the Benelux, Switzerland and Austria. Lijphart observed that unlike larger countries that had alternating large parties in power, these countries had fairly stable grand coalitions governing the country, usually including socialists and christian democrats. His writings challenged the idea that consolidated stable democracies have majoritarian systems with one large parties (alone or in coalition with smaller parties) governing. Not only are these consociational systems equally viable democracies, but the scholarship on these systems argued that they provided for democracy in societies that had deep cleavages. These were less based on ethnicity or language, but on political families and elections usually did not shift power-relations profoundly.

Now times have changed since these observations. While in Belgium, grand coalitions still remain strong (but increasingly difficult, see the more than one year long coalition talks following the 2010 elections) due to the linguistic divide.The Netherlands, Lijphart’s first case study, grand coalitions have fallen out of favor by the 1990s. Austria has been governing for half of the 68 years since 1945 by grand coalitions (1945-1966, 1987-2000 and since 2007). Elections in September have led to a drop in support for both ruling parties, Social democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party, but both still hold a slight majority and are likely to govern together. Luxembourg had a similar experience as Austria, governed by a grand coalition for most of the post-war period (1945-1969, 1984-1999 and since 2004). Yet after elections in October, the so-called “Gambia coalition” between Socialists, Greens and Liberals seems most likely.  Grand coalitions are on the retreat in classic consociational countries. This has happened before, but earlier, this was based on the strength of one of the large parties (social democrats or conservatives), now it is based on their weakness. Furthermore, the underlying structure that propped up these grand coalitions has eroded.

Ironically, a grand coalition is most likely and also according to voters most desired in Germany that saw only few episodes of grand coalitions since 1945 (1966-1969 and 2005-2009). Thus, the elections confirm that the classic divide between larger more majoritarian and smaller consociational democracies no longer seems to be true. Of course, the fact that grand coalitions loose support and consociationalism abolishes itself might be true in some of the original cases scholars looked at, but this does not mean the same will be true in “harder cases” like Lebanon or Bosnia. However, some of the reasons why citizens turn their backs on established consociational arrangements are similar to those why dissatisfaction runs high in others. Blurring the line between countries that are governed by grand coalitions and those that are not highlights that this might be a useful temporary constellation, but in the long run, it creates dissatisfaction with citizens who feel unable to effect change.  Certainly the continuous decline of consociationalism in the original core countries of this form of democracy should give room for reflection on its challenges in divided societies around the world.

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