Online Commentary

Jan 19, 2022

Three Ruling Parties for Germany, One Voice for Europe

The “Traffic Light” Coalition Must Be Prepared to Compromise on Franco-German Cooperation
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France’s European policy agenda is ambitious. President Macron – aware that his prospects for reelection in April are also dependent on this agenda’s success – wants to work with Germany to drive it forward during France’s presidency of the EU Council. Germany’s “traffic light” government does share many of the French goals. The question in Berlin, however, is how peace can be maintained within a ruling coalition of three parties with differing positions while simultaneously meeting European, and especially French, expectations. Three issues are crucial for the success of both.


Berlin: One Traffic Light, Too Many Shades of Opinion?

The ambiguous positions of Germany’s previous government, the Grand Coalition of Social and Christian Democrats led by Angela Merkel, had long been criticized by the country’s European partners. The new ruling coalition of three parties – called a “traffic light” after the colors that are used to represent its members, the Social Democrats (red), the Greens (green), and the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) – seems to have learned from this. It is focusing on sharpening its European policy profile in which relations with France play a key role.

Rule by a traffic light coalition is a novelty for Germany. Therefore, like officials in the capitals of Germany’s other partners, those in Paris are vacillating between hopes that new impetus will come from Berlin and worries about unknowns in dealing with the current federal government. It has already become clear that it will be difficult for this government to keep the promises it made during the election campaign and in its coalition agreement because each of the three ruling parties has its own agenda. Three key issues of French European policy – promoting nuclear energy, loosening the EU’s fiscal rules, and sharpening European defense policy – will each cause intense difficulties for at least one of the coalition partners.

Green: A Taxonomy Dispute as the First Test for the “Climate Government”

To meet the EU’s climate and energy targets for 2030, the European Commission has been given the power to funnel direct investments toward sustainable projects and activities. But which ones should benefit? Just in time for the start of the French presidency of the Council, the Commission presented its controversial taxonomy proposal that classifies both nuclear power and natural gas as “sustainable” investments. Originally intended as a compromise, not least between the German (natural gas) and French (nuclear power) positions, the proposal is now also causing unrest within Germany’s traffic light coalition.

Emmanuel Macron’s continued commitment to the expansion of nuclear energy as part of his France 2030 Strategy – preferably supported by European funds – has been met with criticism by Germany’s Greens, including those leading key federal ministries. Steffi Lemke, Germany’s federal minister for the environment, explicitly declared her opposition to the taxonomy proposal, a position that she claimed the federal government “unanimously” represented. However, a ministry spokesman later conceded that the government was “still in consultation” on its final position. The lapse reflects the pressure that the Greens are under on this issue. Environmental groups and activists are already calling the German vote on taxonomy in Brussels a litmus test for the country’s self-proclaimed “climate government.”

The truth is that the traffic light coalition inherited its problems on this issue from the previous government: Insufficient interdepartmental coordination and Angela Merkel’s refusal to make use of her authority to issue directives meant that Germany had not taken a clear position in Brussels. Consequently, German criticism of nuclear energy being classified as sustainable is now parried by French criticism of the second “sustainable” energy source: natural gas. Given Germany’s impending phase out of nuclear- and coal-based energy, Chancellor Scholz – a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – feels compelled to promote natural gas as a “bridging technology” with a view to security of supply. The stance of the Federal Chancellery is therefore in line with that of large parts of the SPD which also defend the commissioning of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline in light of security of supply.

Yellow: Germany’s Paradigm Shift in Economic Policy

Germany’s Finance Minister Christian Lindner – a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – received an unwanted present from Paris before Christmas. On December 23, the Financial Times published an article written by Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi in which both called for a reform of European fiscal rules. They wrote that the rules of the European Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) were in need of reform even before they were suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. They advocated for renegotiating them instead of reactivating them unchanged at the end of 2022 as planned.

In the absence of an unambiguous position on these rules by German government, France and Italy are making clear proposals for the future of the European economy. Corresponding passages in Germany’s coalition agreement are conspicuously imprecise and hardly conceal the disagreement between the negotiating partners. The agreement states that the Economic and Monetary Union should be “deepened” – a formulation that does not rule out joint European debt beyond the Next Generation EU (NGEU) reconstruction fund. While Scholz has sympathized with the idea in the past, his liberal coalition partners have repeatedly stressed that the NGEU is an “instrument limited in time and amount.” The SGP, the coalition agreement says, has “proven its flexibility,” which can actually mean anything. Lindner recognized this danger and tried to temper expectations during his inaugural visit to Paris on December 13. He advised his counterpart, Bruno Le Maire, that France should “concentrate on more promising things” during its Council presidency than reforming the SGP.

But Linder’s careful attempt to manage expectations is in danger of being undermined by the Federal Chancellery. In France, the impression prevails that Scholz and his government have moved away from traditional German positions and taken France’s interventionist line. Indeed, in summer 2020, long before its federal elections last autumn, Germany had already agreed to the European reconstruction fund and accepted joint European debt – a historic decision that France had been pushing for more than a decade.

Red: Peace Policy Initiatives Bring Back Bad Memories

Significant funds will also be at stake in the current legislative period in the context of defense and armaments policy. In addition to French-Italian demands for massive investment that explicitly include defense policy, France wants to create European “champions” that will produce the next generation of European weapons systems and underline Europe’s claim to sovereignty. Accordingly, Paris welcomes the commitment in Germany’s coalition agreement to strengthen Europe’s “strategic sovereignty,” Macron’s central demand since his 2017 Sorbonne speech and a core concern of the French presidency of the Council. Unlike the “illusions of a strategic autonomy of Europe” vehemently rejected in 2020 by then-Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – like Merkel, a member of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) – the new formula reflected in the coalition agreement seems to be capable of consensus in Berlin.

And yet, “strategic sovereignty” is a concept that continues to gloss over major differences. In Paris, Germany’s new defense minister, Christine Lambrecht of the SPD, cannot yet be assessed. This makes statements by other top SPD politicians all the more striking. In January, Parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich called for “urgent disarmament initiatives” and a “pluralistic security community” while hoping for an “end to military alliances.” After visiting Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in the Sahel in late 2021, Eva Högl, Germany’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, brought up the idea of an end to the UN stabilization mission and the EU training mission in Mali.

Discussions on arms exports, which also relate to important goals of France’s presidency of the Council, will certainly not become easier with the new German government. While for Paris, French arms deliveries – such as the sale of 80 Rafale jets to the United Arab Emirates – are a natural part of national foreign and security policy, large sections of Germany’s SPD and Greens currently regard them as a red flag. Accordingly, it is difficult to imagine a joint export policy for both governments, especially for megaprojects such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS). After all, memories of the 2019 arms export controversy are still fresh. Then, the French ambassador in Berlin felt compelled to criticize Germany’s unpredictability in matters of export policy in a public letter.

Germany Must Show Its Colors

So how can Germany’s traffic light government succeed in finding a compromise between coherence among the coalition partners on the one hand and European, especially French, expectations on the other? First, leaders in Berlin must agree to speak with one voice in Brussels and show their colors. This may mean bitter concessions for all coalition partners in the national debate, but it is nevertheless essential for Germany’s credibility in Europe. After all, the continuity of a gray “business as usual” would be worse than a dispute over energy and climate policy, the future of the European economic model, or armaments and defense policy. Especially since continuing as before could reinforce the impression that the German government is dominated by France in the absence of a common position in Brussels.

For Germany’s traffic light government to move forward on European policy, the following seems clear: The Greens will have to accept that the ambitions of their “climate foreign policy” will not immediately convince everyone in Europe. The FDP will have to find a compromise between fiscal responsibility and investment in European projects for the future. And the SPD will have to come to terms with the fact that more Europe cannot just mean more peace policy. The key to real European progress also lies in sharpening German interests.

Bibliographic data

This online commentary was published on 21 January 2022.

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