Germany Between the End of the 20th and the Beginning of the 21st Century
German political life continued to be dominated by attempts to find solutions to three major questions connected, more or less directly, to the national reunification achieved in 1990: the integration between East and West, the modernization of the productive system and the redefinition of international status of the country. Despite some progress, in fact, large socio-economic disparities persisted between the western and eastern Länder, the latter further penalized by economic stagnation (2001-2004) and the rapid rise in unemployment. The growing costs of the welfare state, then, made it urgent to accelerate the reform of the welfare system, that is, one of the foundations of that ‘social market economy’ which had represented the German development model since the war. Finally, on the world stage, Germany’s more incisive diplomatic presence required a rethinking of the country’s role in international organizations and the request for recognition of its increased role in geopolitical balances.
The alliance between the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) and Verdi (Bündnis’ 90 – Die Grünen), in government after the electoral victory in September 1998, was also called to deal with these problems. In its first year of life, the action of the executive, chaired by the Social Democrat Germany Schröder, was conditioned by divisions within the majority: conflicts arose between the SPD and the Greens and within the same two parties, which manifested themselves above all on nuclear power and participation in the military intervention in Yugoslavia (March-June 1999). Particularly bitter was the confrontation in the SPD between a reformist current and one more linked to the Marxist inspiration: the leader of the latter, O. Lafontaine, minister of finance and president of the party, resigned from the two offices he held (March 1999) and Schröder, a supporter of an ideological renewal of social democracy, assumed the presidency of the SPD in April. In May, the Chancellor, in a joint text with British Prime Minister T. Blair, presented a manifesto for a new progressive policy (the ‘third way’). It seemed the beginning of a more incisive activity on the part of the parliamentary majority: a new law on German citizenship was approved, which allowed the children of resident immigrants to have dual nationality up to the age of majority, and he was elected to the presidency of the Republic on social democrat J. Rau (May 1999). But in the European elections in June, the government forces suffered a clear defeat and, in the following months, recorded other electoral failures in the Länder. During the summer, however, the central administration managed to almost complete the transfer of the national institutions from Bonn to Berlin, the capital of the reunified Germany By 2000 Schröder eliminated some conflicts within the majority and government action seemed to benefit from this. SPD and Verdi reached an agreement on the nuclear issue and in June the chancellor announced the dismantling of all power plants by 2021. However, there was no shortage of protests from the most radical ecological movements, which exploded in a sensational way in the following March, when thousands of demonstrators tried to block a train loaded with nuclear waste. In 2000 however, the government’s major efforts began to focus on launching a program of socio-economic reforms. The stipulation of a Pact for work between employers and trade unions was favored (Jan.), a tax reform was approved (July) and a project for the reform of the social security system was presented (Dec.). The executive also sought to counter with greater energy the growth of xenophobic and anti-Semitic violence. Schröder became the spokesperson for a proposed dissolution of the NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands), the political arm of neo-Nazi groups: the request was approved by Parliament (December 2000), but was subsequently rejected by the Constitutional Court (March 2003). On the other hand, the government’s policy was more effective in resolving the issue of compensation requested by those, mostly Jews, who were expropriated or forced to work for German industries during the Nazi regime. In fact, in July 2000, an international agreement was signed and, thanks to a fund made up of public and private funding, in May 2001 the payment of reimbursements began. The discovery of illegal funding for the largest opposition party, the CDU (Christlich-Demokratische Union), also contributed to strengthening the executive during this period. In the scandal, denounced by the mass media in November 1999, among others, the former chancellor H. Kohl, honorary president of the party, and the leader of the CDU himself, W. Schäuble, were involved. After the opening of a parliamentary inquiry, Kohl resigned from the honorary presidency and Schäuble left the leadership of the party (February 2000). In her place was elected A. Merkel (Apr.), An East German, who had grown up politically under Kohl’s leadership but was determined to call for a replacement of the party’s ruling class. The crisis of the CDU, however, did not ensure a stable enlargement of the consensus for the SPD-Verdi alliance. Despite some successes, such as the approval in May 2001,of a pension reform, the victory of the SPD in the Berlin elections and the vote of confidence obtained by Schröder for participating in the military intervention in Afghānistān (both in October), the governing coalition struggled to realize the reform program announced after the rise to power in 1998. The economic crisis contributed to this, but also, after the attacks in the United States of September 2001, the urgent need to counter the threat of international terrorism. The police, in fact, discovered the existence in Germany of Islamic groups linked to subversive organizations, and the government decided to strengthen anti-terrorism legislation and impose stricter controls on immigration. However, Schröder managed to recover some of the consensus lost in the four years of government during the election campaign for the federal elections in September 2002.. With a clever media strategy, centered on his personal charisma and on the pacifist sentiments of the majority of Germans, the chancellor presented himself as one of the most determined opponents of the US hypothesis of a military intervention in Irāq and as the most effective defender of those principles. of social justice that would have been endangered by the coming to power of his contender, the social-Christian E. Stoiber. At the polls the SPD obtained 38.5 % of the votes, the CDU 29.5 %, the CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union) 9 %, the Greens 8.6 %, the liberals of the FDP (Freie demokratische Partei – Die Liberalen) 7.4 %, the post-communists of the PDS (Partei des demokratischen Sozialismus) 4 %. The SPD-Verdi alliance remained in government, thanks above all to the good success of the latter (+ 1.9 % compared to 1998, against – 2.4 % of the Social Democrats). But the CDU-CSU (+ 3.4 %), after winning the elections in Lower Saxony and Hesse (February 2003), strengthened its control over the Bundesrat, forcing the SPD to seek agreements in order to carry out its programs. Schröder’s second mandate, however, was characterized above all by the effort to implement the plan ‘Agenda 2010’, a package of reforms designed to reduce unemployment and stimulate the economy, but which involved a significant downsizing of the social protection system. The plan, approved by the government in August 2003, immediately met with strong resistance in public opinion, in the trade unions and among the SPD militants themselves, weakening the Chancellor’s position. Since the first provision, a reform of the health system (Sept. 2003), Schröder was in fact forced to threaten his resignation to obtain the compact vote of the majority and, after the approval of a new labor regulation, he became the target of strong criticism from his own party. The following month, the subsequent welfare and tax reforms were not better received, nor the announced interventions on pensions. In protest, the vice president of the SPD, R. Scharping, resigned. A series of demonstrations against Schröder’s policy began which, however, in November 2003 he was reconfirmed at the head of the party. In December, Parliament approved the ‘Agenda 2010 package’. Tensions within the SPD continued to provoke clashes and Schröder decided to leave the presidency of the party, then entrusted to F. Müntefering (March 2004). The government managed to find a compromise with the opposition to pass a new immigration law (May), which opened borders to the entry of skilled workers while tightening measures against illegal and suspected terrorist links. The consensus for the chancellor and for his party continued, however, to show clear signs of erosion. The SPD experienced a sharp drop in votes in Hamburg (Feb. 2004) and then in the European elections in June. Meanwhile, in May, H. Köhler, candidate of the CDU and the FDP, was elected president of the Republic. Controversies over economic and social reforms also flared up again after the Bundesrat passed a law in July to reduce unemployment benefits and social benefits. Thousands of people began taking to the streets every Monday (Montagsdemos), in various German cities, demanding the resignation of the government. Among the leftist militants, membership of the dissident groups of the SPD increased, which founded, in January 2005, a new party, WASG (Arbeit und soziale Gerechtigkeit-Die Wahlalternative). At the beginning of the same year Schröder found himself politically isolated, shaken by new electoral defeats in the Länder and weakened by a difficult economic situation aggravated by the news of the five million unemployed threshold being exceeded, a phenomenon that had not occurred since the 1930s. Thus, after the victory of the CDU in the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia in May, the chancellor surprisingly announced his intention to call the Germans to the polls earlier than the natural expiration of the legislature. In July, the government purposely did not get a vote of confidence and elections were called for September. While the CDU and CSU chose Merkel as a candidate for the chancellery, WASG and PDS formed an electoral cartel, Die Linkspartei, led by Lafontaine and Germany Gysi.
During the electoral campaign, Schröder focused on opposition to the war in Irāq and on the need to complete economic and social reforms, while Merkel suggested the use of a more liberal policy to stimulate productive recovery. At the polls the SPD obtained the 34.2 % of the votes, the CDU on 27.8 %, the CSU 7.4 %, the FDP 9.8 %, Die Linkspartei ‘s 8.7 %, the Greens’ 8.1 %, the NPD 1.6 %. The SPD-Verdi alliance no longer had a majority, but the CDU-CSU had also lost votes compared to 2002 (- 3.3%). After noting the impossibility of establishing majorities with minor parties, the SPD and CDU-CSU agreed to form a ‘grand coalition’ (Oct.), a political formula already tested between 1966 and 1969. Merkel became the first female chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany in November and also the first from an eastern Land. The SPD had eight ministers, the CDU six (including Merkel) and the CSU two.
At the beginning of the new century Germany’s foreign policy continued in an attempt, initiated after the reunification, to strengthen the country’s international status by adjusting it to its demographic and economic weight. While remaining faithful to traditional strategic orientations, primarily Atlanticism and Europeanism, German diplomacy did not hesitate to assume a more enterprising role on the world stage. After the contribution to NATO military operations in Yugoslavia, the country participated in September 2001 in the establishment of the peacekeeping missionin Macedonia and the following month, despite the opposition of some sectors of the parliamentary majority, to the international military intervention in Afghānistān. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York in September 2001, Schröder was indeed one of the most active leaders in offering support to the US government. But when, after the war in Afghānistān, the White House began to propose the hypothesis of an intervention in ̔Irāq, German-American relations began to crack. After the start of military operations (March 2003), the controversy between Germany and the United States turned, in some cases, into a diplomatic clash. The opposition with Washington favored a new approach by Germany to France, which was also opposed to military intervention in the Middle Eastern country. Only in the autumn of 2004 did relations between Schröder and US President GW Bush begin to improve, also thanks to the German offer to participate in financing the Iraqi police and army. Furthermore, during the SPD-Verdi government, Germany strengthened its relations with the states of Eastern Europe, especially with Russia, and launched a close diplomatic campaign to gather support for his candidacy for a permanent post on the Council of UN security.