Doing things differently?
Radical change won’t oust tradition in some areas
Led by a party that has acted as Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner for 12 out of 16 years, and two parties with an energy to do things differently, Germany’s next government represents an odd mix of status quo thinking and reformist instincts.
The coalition agreement presented by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) yesterday gives a hint of where the world can expect German to change – and where the country might stay the same.
By claiming a new climate-energy-economy super-ministry, as well as the ministries for the environment and agriculture, the Green party should have the means to shape Germany’s environmental agenda in a distinctly new and more unified way. In past governments, the environment and economic ministries had often pushed in opposite directions.
The coalition agreement states that Germany will shut down the country’s last coal-fired power plant by 2030 – eight years earlier than envisaged by the outgoing government. By the same year the country is to draw 80% of energy from renewables. Power generation from gas will be ended by 2040, while gas boilers will be banned in new buildings and existing ones replaced by 2030.
In a surprise move, Germany’s next transport minister will hail from the free-market liberal FDP, which should quash the last hopes of those who want the country to at last impose a maximum speed limit on the autobahn. The FDP promotes itself as the last remaining champion of the internal combustion engine.
The next German government will act on Olaf Scholz’s central campaign promise to raise the national minimum wage to 12 euros (£10.08) an hour, a move that will affect about 10 million people living in Germany – and especially in the struggling areas of the north-east and the Ruhr valley where the SPD performed strongly in September.
The reintroduction of a wealth tax – something called for by both
the Social Democrats and the Greens in the election manifestos – did not survive coalition talks. The new finance minister, Christian Lindner, of the debt-averse FDP, is likely to act as an obstacle rather than a booster to further spending plans on behalf of the two centre left parties.
Germany will legalise the controlled sale of cannabis for recreational use to adults, a decision that the German Economic Institute in Cologne predicts could create 2.5bn in additional revenues a year.
None of the parties that will make up the new government has promised a radical change in Germany’s stance on Europe.
In Lindner, the new German government will have a finance minister whom many governments in southern Europe fear could drag the continent’s most powerful economy back to the fiscally conservative stance of prepandemic times. Whether Lindner will shape the finance ministry or vice versa remains to be seen. The coalition agreement states that Germany must live up to its role as Europe’s “anchor of stability”: “solid finances and the frugal use of taxpayers’ money are the principles of our budget and finance policies”, it says.
The Greens have won the right to nominate the country’s European commissioner if the commission’s president is not from Germany, as is currently the case with Ursula von der Leyen. This is likely to give them some leverage in European policymaking.
The new government mentions Britain in passing, as one of the partners with which it wants to maintain close relations. “The UK remains one of Germany’s closest partners outside the EU,” it says. This will “enable the realisation of a demanding agenda. We want to cooperate on foreign and security policy as well.”
China and Russia
The new German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has vowed to forge a more “active” foreign policy agenda than that of her predecessor, mainly by setting a tougher tone in dealings with Russia and China, with more emphasis on democratic values and human rights, and less attention to the old credo of Wandel durch Handel – encouraging democratisation through economic engagement. The FDP, broadly transatlanticist in outlook, is likely to support that course.
During the Merkel era, German foreign policy was in effect run from her chancellory, with the foreign ministry at times reduced to giving diplomatic soundbites. Whether the same will be the case under Scholz, who has not until now stood out as someone with strong views on foreign policy, is still unclear.
Some fairly specific language in the coalition agreement suggests the change of direction could be real. The parties call for fresh elections in Belarus, calls Russian interference “unacceptable” and supports the use of further sanctions should Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, not change course.
The government says it will raise human rights abuses in its dealings with China, especially in Xinjiang, and “supports democratic Taiwan’s issue-specific involvement in international organisations”.
NordStream II, the controversial gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany that is supported by the SPD but opposed by the Greens, is not mentioned in the coalition treaty.
The most pressing issue Germany’s new government currently needs to address is the pandemic, with rising infections, a stagnant vaccination rate and a state of epidemic emergency that runs out this month.
But during coalition talks management of the pandemic has also been the issue the three parties seemed least willing to answer. According to reports in the German media, the three parties have tried to palm off the health ministry to each other, knowing full well that the next politician in the post faces a tough choice over a possible vaccine mandate and expectations that are nigh impossible to meet.
In the end, it got stuck with the SPD, which said yesterday it would not announce the names of its new minister until early next month.