Within a couple of days of each other The Economist and the FT have written pieces about how tensions in the governing coalition in Berlin are having an impact on EU policymaking.
The central topic is Germany’s decision to oppose the phase out of internal combustion engine powered cars at the very last stage of the EU legislative process. And this comes after a few previous headaches Germany has caused, or at least was alleged to have caused – a unilateral decision on a gas price cap that angered southern Europe, and a slow commitment to assistance for Ukraine.
While both articles are well researched and worth reading, I think the diagnosis is a little off. It is largely framed as these issues being a headache of having three parties in coalition, something that is new in German politics at the federal level. The line is that the two smaller parties, the Grüne (Greens) and FDP (Free Democrats), are the ones causing the difficulties and the tensions.
That the FDP is behaving in a narrow and clientelistic manner – defending the interests of the drivers and manufacturers of powerful cars – is not unexpected. This is how the FDP behaves under the leadership of Christian Lindner and his shrill sidekick Volker Wissing. Recent Land election setbacks for the FDP have led to the conclusion that the party does not have the wrong recipe on any of this, but that they have to shout about it louder. I might find this line irritating and ethically incorrect, but at least they look like they have some direction.
On the other side you have the Grüne who are trying to demonstrate they are responsible enough to govern, and are showing themselves ready to swallow some bitter pills to that end – the internal combustion engine debacle being just one such case, but compromise over coal phaseout likewise caused some raised eyebrows. This determine to show they are Regierungsfähig – capable of governing – means the Grüne leaders in the coalition, Baerbock and Habeck, have not been criticising the FDP in public. But likewise where the Grüne stand, or want to stand, is clear. On the engine phase out, the Grüne would have wanted it done yesterday.
Which brings us to Scholz.
Faced with junior coalition partners pulling in opposite directions, what does he do?
If Scholz actually knew what his government was for, what the SPD is for, he might be able to mediate between the FDP and Grüne. But his own policy agenda, and indeed his party’s policy agenda is as diffuse as his predecessor Merkel – yet he also lacks the personal and political ability to put junior partners back in their box when that is necessary, in the way Merkel did when she had to.
What even is the SPD position on phasing out internal combustion engines? There is nothing to really indicate that Scholz letting Wissing and the FDP get their way here was anything but expediency and keeping a pesky junior partner happy. Losing face at EU level or even – hell! – doing the right thing never looks like it impacts Scholz’s calculations. A thoughtful SPD position on this matter would realise that internal combustion engine phase out is both imperative and inevitable, but seek to shape and support the German car industry’s transition to electric drive trains. Indeed it is not even the case that the entire German car industry is as dead set against the combustion engine phase out as the FDP frames it in their public communication.
So as I see it the blame for this currently unruly coalition is not with the Grüne or the FDP, but with the person who is notionally meant to lead the whole thing – Scholz and his listless SPD. It is hard to lead any government, let alone a three-party coalition, if you don’t know what you yourself stand for.