Road ahead still unclear for Germany’s ‘traffic light’ coalition

Parties keen to move on from the Merkel era, but ambitious reform pledges lack detail

FDP leader Christian Lindner, SPD candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz and Greens  co-leaders  Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habecka  during a press conference on Wednesday, where they presented proposals for their post-Merkel government. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

FDP leader Christian Lindner, SPD candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz and Greens co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habecka during a press conference on Wednesday, where they presented proposals for their post-Merkel government. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

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Germany’s prospective “traffic light” coalition turned green on an ambitious reform agenda on Wednesday, but nothing could dispel the pandemic pall over proceedings.

Two months after German voters dealt a historic defeat to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her party’s main rivals agreed to do everything better, faster, quicker than the outgoing four-term chancellor.

No one mentioned the outgoing leader by name, but all nodded to the pile of unfinished business she leaves her successors: a runaway fourth pandemic wave; uncertain energy security and climate goals; incomplete transformation of Germany’s industry; and a public administration still often run by fax machine.

Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor hopeful Olaf Scholz, speaking in Hanseatic vowels as sharp as his close-cropped hair, promised Germans “precise, concrete government” of “clear, ordered action that doesn’t put things off”.

After Merkel-era reform avoidance, something that came back to haunt Germany in the pandemic, Berlin’s new coalition promises to “modernise public infrastructure, public spaces and networks by expediting considerably planning, approval and implementation”.

After a rush for the prime cabinet jobs, the SPD has agreed to take the little-loved health portfolio but, as of Wednesday, had found no brave soul yet to take it.

Fingerprints

Meanwhile the fingerprints of the junior Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens are visible in proposals for climate-friendly prosperity: a promise to simplify climate grants for business and cut red tape for families who want to put a solar panel on the roof of their home.

After a winning election campaign based on the promise of “respect”, the SPD secured extra spending on child allowance and pensions. 

Quizzed on the hazy financing for these big-ticket spending items, Scholz insisted such programmes involved “decades of investment”, beyond the life – and means – of this government. Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck was similarly elliptical, insisting that “we know what we want and we know how we will pay for it”.

Whether FDP leader Christian Lindner, a welfare-wary finance minister, will be prepared to sign the cheques is a battle for another day.

Although the will to move beyond the Merkel era was palpable on Wednesday, it has yet to translate into a workable political way; three parties and six leaders meant it was an hour before journalists could ask a question.

The biggest question of all – whether Germany’s self-described “alliance for freedom, justice and sustainability” can take office in Berlin – now goes to the traffic coalition party members. Support is all but assured.

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