THERE is a decent chance that the pro-business Free Democrats will join the next German government under Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), either as her sole coalition partner or alongside the Greens in a so-called “Jamaica” formation (black-yellow-green, like the flag). It would be a remarkable comeback for a party that crashed out of the Bundestag in 2013; a revival that I explain in this week’s issue.
But what would that mean, for Germany and the world? Last week I sat down with Christian Lindner, the party’s leader, for a wide-ranging discussion about Germany, its domestic and foreign policies and the FDP itself. The full transcript is here. We met in the shadow of Cologne Cathedral, in his home state of North-Rhine Westphalia. It was our second recent meeting. Earlier I had joined him on the campaign trail in Frankfurt, where he brought a crowd of students to its feet with a spirited paean to liberalism.
Where does Mr Lindner stand, really? Founded shortly after the war by old liberals from the pre-Nazi era, the FDP has several intellectual tendencies: social liberal, classic liberal, free-market conservative. The balance between them has shifted throughout the party’s history; partly in line with its coalitions. It has governed most often with Christian Democrats like Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl and Mrs Merkel, but also with SPD leaders like Willy Brandt and, currently, Malu Dreyer, the state minister-president of the Rhineland-Palatinate. Mr Lindner melds these trends. On Europe and migration, he is less liberal than Mrs Merkel. On the economy and society he is more so. Like it or not, it is a balance that well suits a party of ageing suburbanites and younger, well-off professionals; a party of the golf course and the cocktail bar.
Mr Lindner’s answers were crisp, fluent and peppered with hyphenated Anglicisms: “cutting-edge”, “pro-market”, “B-to-B”. In style (confident, slick, youthful) and in political tilt (economically liberal, politically reformist and somewhat populist) he reminded me of Sebastian Kurz, the centre-right politician who will probably become Austrian chancellor in October. Like Mr Kurz, he picks his words carefully.
Most notably, he said that:
- Germany is living a “prosperity hallucination” thanks to benign international circumstances
- the country’s weak capital markets and digital infrastructure are holding it back
- Germany is a poor climate for start-ups and undervalues entrepreneurship
- highly restrictive data privacy policies in Germany must be updated if the country is to stay competitive
- Germany’s huge trade surplus is not a problem
- the answer to the low investment rate is to cut taxes and social costs for individuals and use tax incentives to encourage companies to spend
- the German government, along with politicians, firms and civil society, must do more to build a “bypass” around Donald Trump to co-operative counterparts in Congress and America’s states
- sustaining the transatlantic relationship should be the next government’s top foreign policy priority
- Berlin should try to open conversations with Moscow on topics like the Syrian conflict
- if such conversations achieve results, Germany should consider reducing sanctions on Russia even if there has been no progress on the Crimea
- if they do not, the German government should pull its support for the controversial NordStream 2 pipeline and perhaps even toughen sanctions
- it is an illusion to believe Britain can stay in the Single Market without free movement
- the FDP would not change the German government’s approach to Brexit (reports in Britain that FDP participation in a new Merkel government would reset the talks in London’s favour are wrong)
- Brussels is being fair to Britain in the negotiations but the Brits themselves remain deluded about the “crude demagogy” of Brexit
- Michel Barnier is sensible to resist discussing Britain’s future relationship with the EU before progress is made in the divorce talks
- a Euro zone finance minister is a good idea if the job involves policing the currency’s rules
- the FDP is against any Euro zone budget used to plug holes in national finances
- Emmanuel Macron must accept that he “cannot just get sweets” from Germany and “has to swallow some sour too”
- the FDP is prepared to look at proposals for jointly financed Euro zone investments
- a Grexit would not be a disaster for the Euro zone and may even be desirable
- the FDP would approve no new Bundestag vote on further German involvement in Greek assistance programmes
- the party’s priorities are “education, digitalisation, economic renewal, also finance, energy and immigration”
- there are areas of alignment between the FDP and the Greens on issues including civic rights (notably in security debates), education and environmentalism
- the Greens’ policies on migration (specifically on closing the Mediterranean route, deporting unsuccessful asylum claimants and integrating those who stay) make it almost impossible to imagine the two parties governing together
The FDP may end up as the largest opposition party in the Bundestag in the event of a new grand coalition. If, alternatively, it joins the government it may well hold the German foreign ministry and a few other departments (as well as the vice chancellorship). How effectively it would assert its politics is unclear. Some point to its absence of experienced ministers in the FDP ranks. But failing to make the party’s influence felt in its last coalition with Mrs Merkel led to its electoral disaster in 2013, Mr Lindner notes with furrowed brow, pledging not to make the same mistake again. His views probably matter.