TTHREE AND A HALF German policy seemed exhausted years ago. Angela Merkel had just formed her third “grand coalition”, a tired centrist alliance that left no one satisfied. Today, two months after an election that saw Merkel’s Christian Democrats dismissed from office, the mood is much more positive. On November 24, the leaders of the German Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), a pro-business party, exuded optimism as they gathered in a converted Berlin warehouse to greet their new coalition “at the traffic lights” (named after the red, green and yellow colors of the parties). In 177 pages and 52,000 words – one more nuance than “The Great Gatsby” – their tripartite agreement sets out a political program for the next four years.
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Seeking to evoke the coherence of a heavy project, the parties push a narrative of “modernization” of Germany after 16 years of conservative regime of Mrs. Merkel. The idea that three disparate parties could resolve their differences so quickly seemed dubious. But their leaders insisted that the two-month coalition negotiations – which went relatively smoothly, on time, and for the most part without leaks – built a foundation of trust. Olaf Scholz, the SPDThe silent future chancellor of, says he hopes the parties will campaign jointly in the next election. People were skeptical of traffic lights when they were introduced to Berlin in the 1920s, he noted, but they are indispensable today.
The promise of party modernization is expressed in a series of legislative proposals. These include liberalization of Germany’s archaic citizenship laws, streamlining of bureaucracy, electoral reform to reduce the bloated Bundestag, improvements in gay and trans rights and of the legalization of weed. Negotiators say they quickly reached agreement on these issues. The language of the agreement on other topics bears the mark of more delicate negotiations.
A commitment to keep Germany on the “1.5 degree path” (ie to limit global warming) is in place everywhere. A commitment to advance the phase-out of coal to 2030 from 2038 is welcome though symbolic, as carbon pricing is already killing the substance. More significant is the expected increase in the share of renewable energies in the German electricity mix to 80% by 2030, compared to 65% currently (and 45% today). The deal is thinner on transport, says Alexander Reitzenstein, climate expert at Das Progressive Zentrum, a think tank, and, to his surprise, offers nothing on the increase in the national carbon price.
The parties quarreled over tax policy and public investment. A constitutional “debt brake”, strongly supported by the FDP, limit deficit spending. A series of complex tools will be used to circumvent it, including strengthening the state development bank, extending debt repayments and changing the calculation of Germany’s structural budget deficit. Details on all of this are slim, but the coalition will likely struggle to meet the Greens’ target of 50 billion euros ($ 56 billion) per year in new money. Next year, this national discussion will turn into a European discussion on tax rules, a delicate subject in Germany. Here, the agreement’s vague commitment to use the rules to secure growth and foster investment in the EU offers more than some had dared to hope.
“The chapter on foreign policy is stronger than I expected,” says Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The wish to attend the first meeting of the signatories to a new nuclear weapons treaty next year will be of concern NATO allies. But it is counterbalanced by a strong commitment NATOGermany’s nuclear sharing agreements, under which Germany agrees to host American nuclear weapons and maintain planes capable of delivering them. Talks with Russia have been particularly controversial, and the coalition agreement avoids the explicit mention of Nord Stream 2, a hated Russian gas pipeline in America and much of Europe. But Chinese German Hawks are thrilled with the deal’s robust language, including support for Taiwan’s involvement in international organizations. Merkel’s engagement-driven approach to China is set to expire with her Chancellery.
Agreement is weaker on reforms to the German pension system, which faces chronic pressure from an aging population. The relaxation of restrictions on the immigration of labor from outside the EU is welcome but cannot bridge the demographic gap. Regarding asylum, the new government is proposing the carrot (easier family reunification rules) and the stick (faster expulsions). Yet for a squatted country in the center of Europe, there is little that national policies can do without an agreement to strengthen the EUcommon asylum rules. A new migrant crisis at Europe’s borders could strain the traffic light government as it did Merkel.
Many of the 17 ministerial posts have yet to be divided, but the most important are already known. A crucial relationship will be between Christian Lindner, the FDP leader and presumed finance minister of Mr Scholz, and Robert Habeck, the co-chair of the Greens, who will head a strengthened climate and economy ministry (Annalena Baerbock, the other leader of the Greens, will be the first woman minister of foreigners from Germany). The tax liberal and the environmental statist claim to be united in the mission of managing Germany’s energy transition. Reality will test this promise.
Yet unforeseen events will prove to be the biggest challenge. In this sense, the pandemic which is once again raging in Germany offers the traffic light coalition a grim welcome. The government of Mr. Scholz will be sworn in the week of December 6. By then, with thousands of Germans dying of covid-19 every week, many hospitals will be under great pressure. The new chancellor is already grappling with demands for another national lockdown and an Austrian-style vaccination mandate. The wedding went as well as you might expect. But the honeymoon will be brief. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “All Systems Will”