Press play to listen to this article
BERLIN — Germany took a big step toward forming a new government on Wednesday as the three parties engaged in talks — the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) — reached a tentative agreement on a coalition program.
The 178-page document, the fruit of weeks of intense negotiations following September’s national election, outlines the would-be coalition’s positions on everything from the minimum wage to armed drones, with a little weed mixed in for good measure.
It now goes back to the three parties for final approval (for the SPD and FDP, that entails a delegate vote at a party convention and for the Greens, a membership ballot).
If the deal is approved, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz is expected to be elected chancellor by the Bundestag, the German parliament, in the second week of December.
After 16 years of steady-as-she-goes politics under Angela Merkel, the so-called traffic-light coalition (a reference to the trio’s party colors) has promised to renew Germany across the board by investing heavily in infrastructure, weaning the economy off of fossil fuels and making the country more inclusive.
On the issues that matter most to people outside of Germany — whether Europe, the transatlantic relationship or Germany’s stance toward Russia and China — the agreement suggests the world should expect more of the same. The EU, the U.S. and NATO all take a star turn in the pact, but no more or less than one would expect from a country that in its foreign policy tends to play all sides of every issue.
Here are five takeaways on the agreement:
1. Don’t believe everything you read
Despite all the work that went into the coalition pact (in some cases, negotiators spent “hours” debating single sentences, FDP leader Christian Lindner said), it might best be described as an aspirational document.
Chancellor-in-waiting Scholz described the agreement as the cornerstone for a “decade of investment” to transform Europe’s biggest country into a social-democratic, green Wunderland. That certainly sounds ambitious, the only question is how they’re going to pay for it all. Among the pledges is one to reactivate Germany’s “debt brake” in 2023, i.e. a balanced budget law that makes extra borrowing tricky. Though the parties signaled they would rely on creative accounting with the help of state-owned reconstruction lender KfW to achieve more fiscal leeway in the coming years, that’s unlikely to provide the coalition with the kind of resources it will need to reach its spending goals without breaking the bank.
So what’s with all the song and dance? The best way to think of the coalition agreement is as a marketing prospectus party leaders can use to sell the coalition to their bases, because without their vote, there’s no deal.
2. Culture and remembrance
One of the most striking features of the traffic-light coalition’s sales pitch is how much space it devotes to progressive causes. The parties say they want to lower the voting age to 16, legalize cannabis and make it easier for foreigners not just to become German, but to have dual citizenship. Those are all red-meat issues for conservatives, especially the citizenship plan, suggesting that Germany could soon see a return to the divisive migration debates triggered by the refugee crisis in 2015.
If that’s not enough controversy, the parties have also resolved to tackle the minefield of gender identity. The pact’s chapter on “queer life” is nearly three times as long as the section on Jews, a fact that prompted raised eyebrows in some quarters given the recent surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Germany.
3. All that glitters isn’t Green
Given the central role of the Greens in the proposed coalition, it’s not surprising that climate policy is a dominant theme. What is surprising, however, is how unrealistic some of the targets are. The parties said they would seek to stop burning coal by 2030 and vowed to increase the contribution of renewable energy to Germany’s supply of electricity to 80 percent by the same year. Renewables currently account for just 35 percent of electricity generation. With the country due to switch off its last nuclear power plant in 2022, the new goals are extremely ambitious — all the more so when one considers that the price of natural gas (the only non-renewable fallback) is soaring.
Keep in mind that Germany’s renewable push has already left the country with some of Europe’s highest electricity prices. With inflation already rising and working people complaining about their heating bills, accelerating the coal pullout could soon prove politically untenable.
4. Beware of the Bundesrat
The Bundesrat is Germany’s federal upper chamber, where the 16 states have a big say on important legislation. Without it, the traffic-light agenda is nothing more than a pipe dream. Trouble is, the three parties don’t have anything close to a majority there, meaning that they will need buy-in from the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) on all of their big projects. Together, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU belong to 10 of the 16 regional governments, giving them substantial influence over the governing coalition’s agenda.
5. The unknown unknowns
If there’s one thing that Merkel’s tenure should have taught her successor, it’s that in Germany’s modern politics, nothing goes according to plan. None of the issues that dominated Merkel’s time in office, whether the banking crisis of 2008, the European debt crisis, refugees or the pandemic, were mentioned in any of the carefully prepared coalition agreements. There’s little reason to believe Scholz will have any more luck.
And as with Merkel, he will be judged not according to how many chapters of the coalition agreement he managed to pass, but on his leadership when the Scheiße hits the fan.