First birthday tensions for Berlin’s traffic-light coalition

Anniversary exposes just how much Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has scrambled the coalition promise to be an ‘alliance for freedom, justice and sustainability’

From left: FDP leader Christian Lindner, SPD chancellor Olaf Scholz and Greens co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty

Germany’s first traffic light was installed in Berlin in 1924 to tame the city’s chaotic Potsdamer Platz junction. It took nearly a century for the Ampel, or traffic light, as a metaphor, to shift one kilometre north and take control of the German Bundestag – as the traffic light coalition.

Named after Germany’s three coalition party colours, the Ampelkoalition saw the (red) Social Democratic Party with Olaf Scholz take back the chancellery after 16 years last December; the (yellow) liberal Free Democratic Party and its leader Christian Lindner win the powerful finance ministry; and Green Party foreign and economics ministries, under Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck respectively, promise to revolutionise Germany’s relations with the world and its environment.

Thursday’s first anniversary in office has exposed just how much Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has scrambled the coalition promise to be an “alliance for freedom, justice and sustainability”.

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The SPD, the Russia-friendly centre-left grouping that lay behind the Brandt-era détente and Schröder-era policy of transformation-through-trade, has cut most ties with Moscow. Now it wants Europe to “organise its security not with Russia, but against it”.


Just as staggering: the SPD, and the pacifist Greens, have embraced a €100 billion “special fund”, the largest military spending programme in modern German history.

This year was dominated by energy security and then the price question. That’s not gone, but next year will be about industry and competition policy

—  Green economics and energy minister Robert Habeck

Framing its post-February 24th approach, the Scholz administration speaks of a Zeitenwende, or watershed, to explain its expedited redefinition of its interests, obligations and expectations.

“Many assume we are on the brink of an era of bipolarity in the international order – they see the dawn of a new cold war approaching, one that will pit the United States against China,” wrote Gerhard Schröder in the latest Foreign Affairs journal. “I do not subscribe to this view.”

Instead, he said, Germany – and Europe – see a multipolar world looming, of shifting partnerships based on the rule of law and human rights, “without ideological blinkers”, where success will require “pragmatism and a degree of humility”.

Despite the chancellor’s many worries, his party is – unusually – not one of them. Tight leadership has seen the SPD morph from insecure junior Merkel partner into a calm and disciplined senior coalition party. Despite the war chaos, it has moved quickly on key election promises: welfare, healthcare and the legalisation of cannabis.

Things are more bumpy with the Greens where, to fill the gap left by Russian gas, grumbling grassroots members have accepted a four-month extension of nuclear energy to April and new liquefied natural gas (LNG) deliveries from Qatar until 2041.

For Green economics and energy minister Robert Habeck, the first year in office ends with a series of achievements: finding replacements for Russian energy while filling gas reserves to the brim. Habeck is particularly proud of a 25 per cent reduction in industry gas usage, with production down just 1.4 per cent, and he says the country is well placed to get through this winter.

“This year was dominated by energy security and then the price question,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday edition. “That’s not gone, but next year will be about industry and competition policy.”

Already a source of tension this year with Germany’s EU neighbours, domestic stimulus packages are a ballooning statist nightmare for the FDP.

It came to power promising to cut taxes and debt, but now finance minister and FDP leader Christian Lindner is overseeing record borrowing – parked in off-balance-sheet columns.

How things go from here on depend on whether they can shake off the Merkel-era need for harmony and to cover up dissent

—  Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist

As well as the military package, his ministry is behind an unprecedented €200 billion energy support package for companies and households. Lindner concedes he faces a political “dilemma” after frustrated voters abandoned the party in a series of state election disasters. And though party support is down to half its 2021 election backing, the FDP leader has vowed to ride it out: “It would be not just ideological but also economic nonsense if, as finance minister, I denied the necessary relief just because it wasn’t in the 2020 FDP election manifesto.”

Opinion is divided on the traffic light coalition, with some analysts suggesting it has already in its first 12 months expended enough political and financial capital for an entire four-year term.

“If they continue like this, they won’t make it to the end,” said Dr Albrecht von Lucke, publisher of the Blätter political journal. “And if the energy crisis escalates in the new year, that can happen faster than one might think.”

Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist with the University of Münster, suggests that “given the circumstances of the last year, I think things have gone rather well for them all in all”.

“How things go from here on depend on whether they can shake off the Merkel-era need for harmony and to cover up dissent,” he said, “and instead dare to speak openly and honestly to people about the challenges ahead.”