Post-Merkel coalition in Germany promises progressive agenda

Published : November 25, 2021 16:25 IST

Many of the polices put forward the coalition deal represent a departure from those of the Merkel era. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats offered up several progressive steps in their announcement.

The three parties about to form the next German government presented in Berlin its plans on November 24 under the title "Risk More Progress," aiming to set itself off from the Merkel era by serving as an "alliance for freedom, justice, and sustainability," as the parties taglined their cooperation deal.

The key deal appeared to be between the two junior partners in the coalition: The Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). While the environmentalists were able to secure the target of ending Germany's coal industry "ideally" by 2030 (eight years ahead of the German government's current target), the FDP got their hands on the second most powerful office in the land: their party leader, Christian Lindner, is now poised to take over the Finance Ministry. Green co-leader Robert Habeck is set to take over the Economy and Energy Ministry, whose portfolio is to be expanded into climate as well.

Other Green demands were also present: The new government is aiming to ensure that by 2030, some 80 per cent of the country's power comes from renewable sources (doubling the current proportion) and that 15 million fully electric cars are on German roads. Habeck promised at November 24's presentation that this contract would put Germany "on the path to 1.5 degrees" — meaning to cap the current rise in global warming at 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels, a goal many climate scientists already see as out of reach.

But environmental groups were critical, railing at the absence of concrete measures for reducing CO2 emissions in the short term: There was no mention of a speed limit on the Autobahn (a win for the FDP) and no absolute date for phasing out gas- or diesel-fueled cars.

The FDP, meanwhile, can point to plenty of wins: Germany's "debt brake" (a mechanism meant to stop the country from taking on new debt) is to be reapplied in 2023, having been lifted to cope with the economic fallout of COVID-19. And there is no mention of any tax increases in the new contract, though on the other hand, there was also no pledge to rule out tax increases, something that had been in the initial negotiation paper presented a few weeks ago when the parties first came together.

Departure from conservative policies

Elsewhere, there was plenty of evidence that the conservative impulses of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has run the country for the last 16 years, have been banished. The new government contract promises several progressive measures that would have been unthinkable under a CDU government: The sale of cannabis for recreational use from licensed stores is to be legalized, voting is to be made legal from aged 16, and the notorious Nazi-era Paragraph 219a (which largely bans any advertising or publicized information about abortion care) is to be scrapped.

In addition, a new citizenship law is to be introduced, which will make two crucial things easier for millions of immigrants in Germany: They will be allowed to gain citizenship after as little as three years in the country and they will be allowed to keep their prior nationalities upon naturalization. Two of those measures — lowering the voting age and allowing dual or multiple citizenship — may have had strategic considerations behind them, because they will effectively enfranchise demographics that are more likely to vote for the governing parties than for the center-right CDU or the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Other progressive NGOs offered some cautious approval: Anti-arms trade campaigners welcomed the fact that the government is planning a new export control law, while reserving judgment to see what it would contain. And anti-lobbying groups welcomed some small but crucial steps to better transparency about who has access to parliamentarians.

What the SPD gained

The winner of September's election, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), can of course point to their overall power in the new government: Apart from having Olaf Scholz in the chancellery, Social Democrats will take over six Cabinet ministries, including the Interior, Defense, and Health — the latter being both crucial during the pandemic and an interesting development, as rumors had emerged last weekend that the FDP would gain this post.

Altogether, the distribution of Cabinet posts suggests that the SPD appears to have been given the role of managing the basics of maintaining social cohesion: The center-left party has also taken over the Labor Ministry, which next year will raise the minimum wage to €12 ($13.50) an hour from the current €9.60, and an all-new Construction Ministry, which is promising to build 400,000 new apartments per year to ease the rent crises in several major German cities. But the housing plans attracted criticism from renters' associations, because there was precious little scope in the contract for expanding the current rental controls already in place.