A new German era dawns, but collisions lie in wait for coalition

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<span>Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

The ‘traffic light’ parties all want progress but have different ideas about what that means on business and green issues

In Unterleuten, a bestselling novel by the German novelist Juli Zeh, the inhabitants of a village outside Berlin are shocked to find out that a plot of land on their doorstep has been earmarked for a gigantic wind farm.

One of the characters, a birdwatcher called Gerhard Fliess, knows what to do: he calls an old friend at the local environment ministry to remind him that the countryside around Unterleuten is the habitat of an endangered species of sandpiper. Surely that will halt the bulldozers.

His friend at the ministry has different ideas, however. “So what,” he comments wryly, “that’s the future.” Green policy made in Germany no longer just means protecting nesting wading birds, but unleashing business to build, build, build.

Zeh’s village saga, published in 2016 but recently turned into a television drama, could make for prophetic reading as Germany enters the post-Merkel era under a new government.

Viewed from outside the country, the three parties that are likely to fill the government benches from the second week of December make an odd match, even by the centrist standards of German coalition politics.

While the Social Democratic party (SPD) of future chancellor Olaf Scholz has showcased its ideological flexibility by acting as junior partner to Merkel’s conservatives for three out of her four terms, the two smaller parties enter government with agendas that seem almost diametrically opposed: a Green party that vows to protect the environment from Germany’s dirty industry, and a Free Democratic party (FDP) that wants to liberate industry from burdensome regulation.

“The three parties clearly agree that they want to see more progress but they are not necessarily pointing in the same direction,” said Wolfgang Merkel, a political scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin. “What is certain is that there will be collisions of interest along the way.”

With its leader, Christian Lindner, installed at the finance ministry, the debt-averse FDP will have a de-facto veto over the two centre-left parties’ spending plans. Conflicting agendas mean Germany’s next government already looks hamstrung in areas like tax reform, where the SPD and Greens want to increase rates and the FDP wants to slash them. As a result, they will feel pressure to unleash a flurry of activity in those areas where their ideas of change overlap.

The three parties want to liberalise archaic citizenship laws, streamline immigration, improve gay and transgender rights, lower the voting age to 16 and legalise the recreational use of cannabis. Lit up by this “traffic light” government, Germany may at last live up to the liberal billing that was often associated with Merkel’s name abroad, but less so at home.

In other areas, it may simply mean cutting red tape to speed up structural changes without having to reach too deeply into the state’s coffers.

The 173-page coalition agreement published on Wednesday contains variations of the term “unbureaucratic” or “de-bureaucratising” on every third page, vowing to “remove all hurdles and barriers” to ensure renewables account for 80% of the country’s gross electricity demand by 2030. In the hands of the liberal FDP, the justice ministry will see it as its job to ease this process.

Wind farms are to be built on at least 2% of each of the 16 German states’ lands – and sandpiper habitats will have to drop down the priority list to ensure that can happen.

Both the Greens and the FDP have been in government before: the ecological party acted as junior partner to Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005, and the liberals shared power with Merkel’s Christian Democrats from 2009 to 2013. But the outlook of both parties has changed considerably since then, and they will use the next four years to show how.

The Green party has not only doubled its membership but also moved on from its pacifist roots on foreign policy. The new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has already signalled a more confrontational course with China and Russia. The coalition agreement calls on Brussels to take a tougher stance in its rule-of-law battles with states like Poland and Hungary, and backs the procurement of armed drones for the military.

The FDP, meanwhile, has pushed its libertarian tendencies to the fringes of the party. “They have moved on from being a neo-liberal party focused purely on the economy to again talk more about civil liberties and digitisation,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor of political communication at the Hertie School in Berlin. “They started playing that role during the corona crisis, and it went down well.”

Gone are the days of Genscherism, when the FDP envisioned Germany acting as a bridge between east and west. Last month, the liberal party called on German universities to cut their ties to the Confucius Institute, the academic network seen as an instrument for Beijing’s soft power.

The mission statements of the two smaller parties, who will have more seats in the Bundestag between them than the SPD, don’t sound too dissimilar on paper: to catch up on missed opportunities of the last decade and make Germany future-proof.

The Greens define sustainability ecologically, the FDP in economic terms. “The stories we want to tell are complementary,” said Karl-Heinz Paqué, the chair of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, an FDP-affiliated thinktank.

In finance minister Lindner and Green co-leader Robert Habeck, the new vice chancellor and climate-economy super-minister, they also have two politicians with rhetorical talent and an appetite for power to give a voice to these narratives.

For Scholz, the risk is that he will be reduced as chancellor to the role of the moderator while the two activist politicians to his left and right set the country’s agenda.

“The Greens and FDP are often portrayed as antagonists but there are plenty of similarities,” said Andreas Busch, a professor of political science at the University of Göttingen. “They are the ‘well off’ in German party politics, parties whose voters are highly educated and economically well-to-do.” It will likely fall on the centre-left to protect the rest of the country from the knock-on effects of the creative class’s campaign of creative destruction.

“The days in which a German chancellor sets the direction of travel and the government follows have been gone for some time,” said Wolfgang Merkel. “But that’s not to say that Scholz cannot copy the trick that Merkel played: to take the credit for their best ideas, and convert that into strong support for his party.”

To do so, Scholz will also have to fashion a public persona that sounds different to his predecessor. That much was apparent when the parties presented their deal on Wednesday: Lindner held forth freely and at length, while Habeck cut off SPD co-leader Saska Esken to tell her she had to wait her turn. Scholz, meanwhile, read out a scripted speech with a Merkel-esque, monotone delivery.

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