The new German traffic light coalition has declared its ambitions. Can he deliver?

The Social Democrats have reached an agreement with the FDP and the Greens: what will their Germany look like? DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

They promised to form a coalition by December 6 and they kept their promises. Germany’s Social Democrats, Green Party and Free Democratic Party (collectively known as the Traffic Light Coalition after their respective party colors) have, after two months of negotiations, agreed to a program government and a distribution of ministerial posts. Assuming their party members approve the deal (and there are no signs of serious opposition so far), the new government will be in place in a few weeks.

This will be the first time that Germany will have a tripartite coalition (although the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union are technically separate entities, they function in practice as a single political unit). This could complicate the management of government affairs. But the three parties skilfully conducted their negotiations to form the coalition and there is no reason why they should not continue to do so when they are in power. The decisions they will face in the coming months will force them to get to work.

The document they agreed to is long – about the same number of pages as a short novel – and full of ambitious language. Much of this is a recap of traditional German policies. But in some areas this reflects a shift in priorities. On climate change and environmental issues, it incorporates ambitious goals: coal will be completely phased out by 2030 instead of 2038, and by the same date 80% of Germany’s energy should come from renewable sources. But the nuclear phase-out also remains in place and there is no indication how the loss of coal will be compensated for.

There will also be changes in social policy. Cannabis will be legalized for private use by adults and trans people will be able to self-certify. The minimum wage will drop from 9.60 euros per hour to 12 euros. It will be easier for immigrants to acquire German nationality. The voting age will be reduced to 16.

The agreement sets potentially ambitious goals for the development of the EU. The new government will indeed seek to make it a federal state. But, as always in German political discourse, there is no indication of what additional powers should be given to the EU to achieve this or how exactly such an EU would be different from the current one. Likewise, the foreign policy of the new government will be more European and more values-oriented. But when it comes to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the focus is on the Minsk agreement from which the EU is excluded; and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is not mentioned.

There is also no evidence that the new government will be more inclined than its predecessors to spend its taxpayers’ money on European projects. The bloc’s Covid stimulus fund is characterized as being temporary in nature; and although there is a recognition of the need for some flexibility in the application of EU fiscal rules, there is no commitment to ambitious new programs of the type promoted by President Macron.

However, the focus will be more on the rule of law in the EU. Countries that do not meet EU standards should not expect to receive money from the EU, a clear message for Poland and Hungary. This general approach also applies to the UK, which is directly threatened with countermeasures if it does not implement the Northern Ireland Protocol. There are also a lot of ideas about the procedure: more majority voting, more power for the European Parliament and transnational lists for the European elections.

In matters of foreign policy more broadly, there are few surprises. The attachment to the transatlantic relationship is maintained. There is, however, no reference to NATO’s target of 2% of GDP spending on defense. Instead, the government will commit to spending 3% on defense, diplomacy and development assistance combined. It is not known what this will mean for the individual sectors concerned, but it does not suggest any significant increase.

A similar rig was found for what was to be one of the most controversial issues in the coalition negotiations, namely Germany’s future role in NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy. On the one hand, Germany will join, as an observer, the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which no other NATO country has done. This is a symbolic gesture with no practical significance, but a scam of anti-nuclear supporters of the Greens and the SPD. On the other hand, the somewhat torturous language about the replacement of the Bundeswehr’s Tornadoes fleet leaves open the possibility that the aircraft’s successor will also be equipped to deliver tactical dual-key nuclear weapons, by which the aircraft Germans would deliver American nuclear bombs.

Under the German constitution, the Chancellor is more than a first among his peers and enjoys the right to set the direction of government policy (this is one of the reasons why, in order to establish a policy to l advance, coalition agreements must be so detailed). Olaf Scholz, the first social democratic chancellor since the departure of Gerhard Schröder in 2005, will therefore be the dominant figure in the new government. He enjoys great personal popularity and is credited with the rejuvenation of his party, which has quite unexpectedly become the leader of the polls in the final weeks of the election campaign. He will also be the most experienced member of his Cabinet. A politician his entire life, he was twice Federal Minister, most recently Minister of Finance, and Mayor of Hamburg. None of his colleagues from the Greens or the FDP has any federal government experience.

He is not a charismatic figure, unlike his SPD predecessors Brandt, Schmidt and Schröder, and during the election campaign he was occasionally sacked as Merkel-lite. He is not even the leader of his own party, which has two co-leaders and whose main figures are mostly to his left politically. But for now his home power is solid. He will also likely inherit – and to President Macron’s chagrin – Merkel’s position as a leading figure in Europe: the size and strength of the German economy makes this inevitable.

But he won’t have things entirely his way. Her party won just 25 percent of the vote, the lowest ever recorded by the party providing the Chancellor and no more than the Greens and FDP combined. Only a minority of ministers will be social democrats. If the two small parties manage to work together, as they did at the start of the coalition negotiations, they will form a substantial counterweight. FDP leader and future finance minister Christian Lindner is a pro-business tax conservative keen to establish his own political profile. It will be the same for Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the Greens, who should take over a super ministry of the Economy and the Environment. The party’s other co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, is expected to become Minister of Foreign Affairs. She has had a disappointing campaign as her party’s chancellor candidate and has little international experience. It remains to be seen whether his declared willingness to take a tougher human rights line with Russia and China will prevail over concerns in the German business community.

And what about the likely attitude of the new government towards Britain? Along with the threat of retaliation over the Northern Ireland protocol, the coalition deal notes that the UK is one of Germany’s most important partners outside the EU. Barely a resounding approval, but an acknowledgment that they’ll have to have some sort of relationship with us. There is, however, no reservoir of goodwill towards Great Britain in Germany and the Johnson brand remains toxic. The new government will see the UK through a European prism. If our relations with the EU improve, Germany will be open to bilateral cooperation on foreign and defense policy. But we’re unlikely to capture much of their attention.

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