Olaf Scholz dodges duel as serious fault line revealed in coalition

Ministers from Greens and FDP fall out over redistributive role of the state

Meseberg Palace, a gleaming white baroque pile two hours north of Berlin, is said to be the backdrop for Theodor Fontane’s 1895 classic novel Effi Briest.

Our eponymous heroine agrees at 17 to an ill-fated marriage with an older baron, triggering enough drama and duels in the novel to reduce Samuel Beckett, on repeated readings, to tearful sighs of “Oh, Effi ...”

The playwright would have plenty to sigh about the drama looming next weekend when Berlin’s so-called traffic-light coalition checks into Meseberg, now the federal government’s official guest house.

Halfway through its four-year term, the three-way coalition of chancellor Olaf Scholz is in desperate need of throuples counselling.


After taking office in December 2021 the novel alliance of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) held steady on pandemic measures while making a radical pivot on military exports for Ukraine and greater defence spending.

But as daily domestic politics loom larger once more, so too do the parties’ ideological gaps.

After very public policy rows earlier this year, ministers picked up where they left off on Wednesday when the first post-holiday cabinet meeting turned into a duel between federal finance minister and FDP leader Christian Lindner and Green family minister Lisa Paus.

Linder pulled from his sleeve a plan to boost the shrinking German economy with an economic growth package – mostly tax breaks for businesses – only to have it vetoed by Paus.

Such a drastic veto is rare, but Paus felt she had a point to prove. Weeks after Lindner pruned back her ambitious €7 billion plan to tackle child poverty, she jammed a stick into the spokes of a stimulus package many Greens attacked as expensive clientelism for FDP-voting managers.

Coalition spin doctors sprang into action to flag that other measures were passed by the fractious cabinet meeting – cannabis legalisation, anyone? – but the row was too great to ignore.

As senior FDP officials briefed darkly about “blackmail”, Lindner, smarting after a cancelled press conference, went on the warpath. Spending more money on families was not always a good idea, he said, “given the link between child poverty and immigration”.

“Just giving these parents more money doesn’t automatically improve their childrens’ chances,” he told the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) daily. “This problem consists of redistributing by an increasingly unfocused welfare state.”

Common sense for the liberal leader and FAZ readers, but fighting words for Paus.

“We always say that children are our future but what kind of society allows one in five grow up on the social margins?” she told the same newspaper. “It makes no economic sense not to support these children, who can then make an important societal contribution.”

The Linder-Paus row – about the redistributive role of the state – reveals a major fault line over which Scholz now has to position himself.

Watching his sparring coalition partners this week, Scholz warned against “debt-financed flash-in-the-pan” stimulus measures.

The trouble for the pragmatic centrist chancellor is that he came to power in 2021 promising “more respect” for the working class and socially weak. Now many leftists in his party – of which Scholz is not leader – have come out in support of the Paus revolt.

Instead of tax breaks for business, or Linder’s dream of a balanced budget, many in the SPD would prefer to see Berlin spend its way out of technical recession with major infrastructure investment.

Meanwhile the Greens – almost all cabinet ministers and much of its voter base – back Paus. They are gunning for Lindner, whom they blame for a series of humiliating policy defeats, with the chancellor’s tacit backing.

After a four-term Merkel reform holiday, the clock is ticking in Germany. With coalition partners blocking each other on pensions, tax, housing and much more, a long weekend looms for Scholz in Meseberg.

To lighten the mood, and avoid coalition duels at dawn, perhaps he can organise a late-night screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 adaptation of Effi Briest. The intellectual German director dedicated his film to people “who have an idea of their possibilities and their needs and still accept the prevailing system in their heads through their deeds and thus consolidate and confirm it”. As Samuel Beckett might have put it: “Oh Olaf ...”