CAROLINE SMRSTIK, ZURICH
Will Germany’s unlikely coalition truly bring the Merkel era to a close? The government’s first weeks in power suggest it just might.
After 16 years of Angela Merkel’s Chancellorship and a Germany where nothing ever changes, observers are watching the new German government with hope and anxiety—anxiety among those who think it’s best when nothing changes, hope among those who think something has to change. The coalition is only a month old, but the “something’s got to change” faction looks to be ascendent. If the coalition can hang together—and the odds are better than many think—this really could be the end of the Merkel era.
This government marks a new generation. At 63, Chancellor Scholz is the elder statesman. Most of the new cabinet was born between in the mid-1960s and 1970s, and this profoundly colors their experience of Germany and the world. Their parents’ outlook was shaped by the trauma of the Second World War; this crew’s formative experience was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The cost of uniting East and West Germany doesn’t weigh on their minds; the costs of climate change do. Europe no longer stops at the Oder.The Oder river runs on Germany’s eastern border to Poland. The US is a partner, but not an automatic guarantor of safety and democracy for Europe.
The coalition agreement is titled “Dare more progress,” and while titles like that are silly, it nonetheless suggests the aspirations of a Germany that is questioning received wisdom and setting new priorities.
Wandel durch Handel, for example, or “change through trade,” has been Germany’s mantra for years. But the ugly side of that policy is epitomized by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which not only affords Russia massive new infrastructure in Europe (conveniently allowing it to bypass Ukraine) but gives SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder a sweet retirement deal. (Imagine Barack Obama getting a seat on Huawei’s board after his presidency: it’s about like that.) In November, as temperatures began to drop, Russia choked off Europe’s gas. Flows hit a six-year low. Germans shivered, realizing the warnings from Washington, Warsaw, and Kiev that Moscow would use this pipeline to subjugate weren’t scaremongering, but common sense.
There is now widespread recognition among Germany’s chattering classes that the change-through-trade policy hasn’t worked with China, though the crucial auto industry—especially Volkswagen–is terrified of getting on Beijing’s wrong side.
How far will the new German leadership go in putting human rights and Europe’s security ahead of the trade balance? That remains to be seen, but for the first time in decades, a change in tone and policy is on the table.
AN UNLIKELY COALITION
It’s called the “traffic light coalition,” owing to the colors with which the parties are associated: SPD red; FDP yellow; Green—green. There have been three-party coalitions in Germany before, but they were always between two big stars and one small supporting actor. The balance in this new government is far more like a tripod. The SPD, which received the most votes (25.7 percent), can’t dominate its partners. The Greens came in with 14.8 percent and the FDP with 11.5 percent, so even two-against-one won’t work. There’s no way to get anything near a majority unless all three parties work together.
The government’s split personality is vexing German pundits, who can’t quite figure out how to take potshots, since the coalition represents so many conflicting viewpoints and ideologies. Not a day goes by without a German news outlet declaring a rift in the coalition; predicting the government’s imminent demise has become a Berlin parlor game.
But this government may work better than the pundits expect. That all three parties quickly agreed on a coalition contract—one full of tricky and ambitious goals—shows their determination to make it work.
And there is a great deal of pent-up demand for a government that can do what they’ve promised.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
The nothing-ever-changes quality of German government has its roots in Germany’s traumatic history. Since introduction in 1949 of the Basic Law, German elections have always resulted in a coalition government: most of the world, and Germany itself, felt safer when no single party dominated. The phrase that has characterized German government since 1949 has been, “Don’t rock the boat.”
What’s more, Germans tend to be aspirational in their vote, imagining they’re comfortable members of the middle class, owners of successful businesses, board members, or union bosses. So the two big parties have always been big enough to absorb more radical elements. The largest parties, by far, are the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU), center-right moderates, and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), a center-left party with close ties to Germany’s powerful labor unions. The Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU), to give the regional party its full name, augments the CDU at the federal level, where the CDU/CSU are collectively known as “the Union.” During her 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel (CDU) co-opted so much of the SPD’s social policy that it became difficult for the SPD to position itself.
The Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) has often played the role of kingmaker, happily switching allegiances in 1982 from the SPD (supporting Chancellor Willy Brandt) to the CDU (under Helmut Kohl) and returning to support Merkel in 2005, in the end spending more time in a governing coalition than any other German political party. Libertarian, the FDP champions personal freedom and a small state. In 2013, the FDP failed reach the 5 percent floor required to enter the Bundestag. Following this debacle, Christian Lindner—then age 34—took the reins of the party. For the past eight years, he’s worked to make the party less academic and more relevant to voters. It paid off in a strong showing in 2021.
The Greens remain focused on environmental issues. In a reference to their roots, they’re known in Germany as Bündnis 90/Die Grünen—the party emerged thirty years ago from the union of a progressive civic movement in the former East Germany and a collection of pacifist environmentalists in the west. Their first experience of government, in a coalition with the SPD between 1998 and 1995 under the cigar-chomping Gerhard Schroeder, was an experience they might prefer to forget. Nonetheless, it was remarkable that the party entered government less than 20 years after its founding.
It was only after reunification, in 1990, that the staid national party landscape slowly began to expand. Die Linke, or The Left, registered itself as a party in 2007. A descendent of the former East Germany’s SED, it drew support in the east from former communists and in the west from protest voters. It’s now the only major party to reject military missions abroad and propose disbanding NATO. In some regional and local governments, Die Linke governs with the SPD—but at the federal level it is viewed as unacceptable.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Alternative für Deutchland (AfD), originally founded in 2013 as an academic, Eurosceptic party for neoliberal free marketeers. It purloined voters from every major party except the Greens. In 2015, the AfD reacted to the Syrian refugee crisis with an anti-immigration platform and discovered this was a message that mobilized people who usually didn’t vote. Some of its leaders try to project a socially acceptable face, but the more militant wing of the party is under state surveillance and no other party would consider partnership with it.
The most obvious sign that Germans are at last ready for change was the CDU’s poor showing in the election, which was widely attributed to the lack of a generational change in its ranks. It’s the only major party that has failed to usher in a new guard. Granted, Angela Merkel is a hard act to follow, but the party could suggest no one more impressive than a washed-out Armin Laschet to lead it, or the arrogant Markus Söder from Bavaria. Party leadership is no sinecure for men with yesterday’s rhetoric—at least, not in Germany, not anymore.
A FRESH BREEZE
For those who despaired of Merkel’s willingness to endlessly accommodate Russia and overlook China’s human rights abuses, Germany’s new foreign minister, Green Party co-chair Annalena Baerbock, has so far been a pleasant surprise. Many worried she was too inexperienced and even jejune, but her first steps onto the slippery international parquet have been utterly correct. For example, following a German court’s verdict that Moscow had ordered the assassination, in Berlin, of a Chechen field commander—which the court correctly described as “state-sponsored terrorism”—Baerbock wasted no time in summoning the Russian ambassador and informing him that two Russian diplomats had been declared persona non grata. Prime Minister Olaf Scholz is giving Baerbock leeway to do things her way: His silence in response to Russian complaints, including Moscow’s quid pro quo expulsion of two German diplomats, was telling.
Rumors of a showdown between Baerbock and Scholz on Russia policy have been just that: rumors. So far, the two have carefully coordinated their public appearances and statements to avoid displaying any hint of disagreement. While senior SPD officials continue to insist that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a mere business venture, clearly Germany doesn’t want to be seen—at home or abroad—to be doing favors for Moscow. Especially given the new coalition’s commitment to making the German economy less dependent on fossil fuels, that pipeline is looking less and less attractive.
So perhaps it is no accident that Nord Stream 2’s opening is being held up—by Germany. The German energy regulator has put a hold on the full certification of the pipeline, supposedly because the Swiss-based consortium running the pipeline hasn’t yet established a company in Germany. This would seem to be a formality. But the regulator seems to be in no hurry: They say there will be no decision in the first half of 2022. This leaves ample time for negotiation and pressure—not just vis-à-vis Russia, but within the German government.
Among the coalition’s ambitious goals: phasing out coal by 2030 and replacing 80 percent of it with renewables, increasing rail freight transport by 25 percent, and putting 15 million electric cars on the roads. They plan, too, to push for a European air travel surcharge, like the one that is already in place in Germany.
The coalition says it wants to change rules on immigration, allowing newcomers to apply for citizenship after five years and to hold dual citizenship. This would be a huge and welcome change for thousands of ethnic Turks, many of whom remain foreign nationals after decades in Germany. They propose creating a points-based immigration system to draw in qualified workers. They also plan to increase the minimum wage, legalize cannabis, build 400,000 new apartments, and lower the voting age to 16. Germany is using its G7 presidency this year to push renewable energy, not incidentally touting its own technology. The energy transition will mean huge transformations in the German economy. It has so far only taken baby steps. Might this unlikely coalition be the ones to see it through?
The three-pronged coalition may well mark a new era in German politics. Political parties that seek to further the common aspirations for the country instead of their own party agendas would be a radical change.
Refreshingly, members of the new government seem more interested in getting something done than in grinding old axes or preserving the status quo. That could be the hidden superpower of this government: German pragmatism for a new generation.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner was born and educated in the US, worked as a foreign correspondent in Central and Eastern Europe, and now lives in Switzerland. She is the founder and owner of Smrstik Communications: “Only the name is complicated.”
|↑1||The Oder river runs on Germany’s eastern border to Poland.|