FOR nearly half a year serious business in the European Union has been on hold as Germany struggled to cobble together a government. On March 4th the waiting came to an end when the centre-left Social Democratic Party declared that its members had voted two-to-one to rejoin Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in coalition. The sighs of relief in Paris and Brussels were almost audible. Yet inside the Willy Brandt Haus, the SPD’s Berlin headquarters, the mood was distinctly flat. So divisive had the issue been that party apparatchiks agreed in advance to mute their reactions to the result. The SPD has secured juicy ministries and all sorts of policy concessions from Mrs Merkel. But announcing the news on Sunday, Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s acting chairman and the presumed next finance minister, displayed all the enthusiasm of a funeral celebrant on Xanax.

That reflected the deep ambivalence of a wounded party towards renewing an arrangement that since 2013 has squashed its identity (and its vote share). It might also serve as a warning for foreigners who expect the SPD to inject a dash of vigour into Germany’s European policy. EU officials speak of a window of opportunity for reforms opened by Emmanuel Macron’s election in France, a sprightly economic upswing and the unfamiliar absence of crisis. Their hopes were further elevated by a SPD-CDU coalition agreement apparently infused with Europhilia, its first chapter titled “A new departure for the EU”. The red lines outsiders had come to expect from Germany on matters like risk-sharing in the euro zone seemed conspicuously absent.

But officials from both German governing parties are at pains to lower outsiders’ expectations about what might be achieved, and then to lower them more. On the euro zone, Mr Macron’s dreams of whopping budgets and an all-powerful finance minister have already been shelved, at least for now. Instead difficult, grinding negotiations lie ahead on matters like reforming the euro zone’s bail-out fund and creating automatic mechanisms to restructure the debt of troubled countries. Even completing the banking union, a project that EU officials once thought was straightforward, looks tricky. Proposals for a cross-national deposit-insurance scheme, appears to sceptical Germans like a ruse to raid the pockets of the frugal to prop up the profligate.

If such discussions have a whiff of 2011 to them, that is the point. The first phase of the euro crisis receded in 2012 when Mario Draghi deployed the monetary guns of the European Central Bank, but it left deep mistrust in Germany towards other countries and the EU institutions. “Beyond small circles in Berlin, no one in Germany talks about Europe,” says Sebastian Dullien, an economics professor at Berlin’s University of Applied Sciences. The EU barely featured in last year’s election campaign.

Nor did the SPD’s bigwigs see it as a way to mobilise support for the coalition deal they were pressing on their members. The party’s quest to regain relevance will begin at home; Mr Scholz, who will take office next week when the coalition is sworn in, will begin the job with a fiscal surplus to manage. For all its fine words, the coalition deal is vague on Europe but specific on domestic spending commitments. Beyond a promise to stop hectoring other governments, Mr Scholz shows little sign of devoting political capital to tricky European debates. His powerful ministry, which drove German policy during the euro crisis, has suspicion of spendthrift foreigners coursing through its corridors.

Even so, the Germans recognise that, in Mr Macron, for the first time in years France has a president both energetic and clearly pro-European. The shuttle diplomacy between Paris and Berlin will intensify in the weeks ahead, culminating in joint proposals on euro-zone reform and other matters, such as tax harmonisation, before an important EU summit in June. Yet in some corners of Berlin there is a growing concern about Mr Macron’s intentions. Some German officials fear his push for a “multi-speed” Europe risks widening the EU’s east-west fractures. Others wonder if his calls for a European intervention force are simply a way to place German money at the service of French soldiers. Such attitudes will inevitably colour the euro-zone debate.

The road to Rome

Who might be the casualties of this approach? For an answer turn to Italy, where the messy outcome of last week’s election means that no government is possible without either the anti-establishment Five Star Movement or the right-wing Northern League. Both parties have toyed with the idea of quitting the euro. Put this to EU or German officials, and they say they are used to Italian caprice. Whichever chancer emerges as prime minister will soon moderate rash pledges under pressure from other leaders and the markets, just as Greece’s hard-left government did. Investors seem to agree; Italian bond yields shrugged after the election.

This smacks of complacency. The Eurosceptic turn in Italy is partly explained by the country’s dreadful economic stagnation, and high unemployment, especially among the young; the single currency makes for an obvious scapegoat. Italy’s banks are weak and its debt burdensome. It is badly placed to weather the next crisis, especially if the ECB fulfils its pledge to end bond-buying later this year. Italians have plumped for political rupture under relatively benign conditions. A financial shock from China or elsewhere could do real political damage there.

One danger is that the disarray in Italy will make euro-zone reform even harder. A second is that Italy will be excluded from Franco-German talks. France’s interests sometimes align with Italy’s, but Mr Macron will not die on a hill for the right of Italian banks to keep dodgy loans. A deal cooked up elsewhere would feed Italian populists’ claim that they are only ever on the receiving end of EU diktats. The point about the Franco-German tandem is that it is supposed to pull everyone else along. It doesn’t work if the passengers are veering off in different directions.