Updated: Jan 27, 2022
If there is one thing that the German people could rely on in the last tumultuous years of crises and a global pandemic, it was Chancellor Merkel sitting in the Bundestag and conveying a staunch portrait of steadiness. After 16 years in office, a new election rolled around, presenting citizens of the German Republic with a new choice. For the first time, the Green party presented the people with a candidate for the chancellor position: Annalena Baerbock, a candidate with a strong connection to European values and commitment to fighting the climate crisis. While she did not win the election, the results showed a desire for more green politics, as her party won 15% of votes.
Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU party, with their candidate Armin Laschet as her potential successor, received the second most votes with 24.1%, a large decrease compared to the last election in which Merkel was re-elected. The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, comes from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and has previously served as the vice chancellor to Merkel.
In the aftermath of the election, a new “Traffic Light Coalition” between the SPD, Greens and FDP (Free Democratic Party) was formed and inaugurated on December 8th 2021. What changes does this parting of an established politician and a move towards new governance in Germany bring? Can we expect a tumultuous time of dramatic departure and new beginning, as some candidates promised during the election? Since we are talking about Germany – probably not. In fact, this election result is deeply representative of the way that Germans like their politics – stable, predictable, and somewhat dry. One article by the Taz points out that the German political spirit is not prone to big changes or ruptures in a greater sense (as evinced by 16 unbroken years of Merkel). Once our former chancellor was not an option anymore, the vice chancellor was elected instead. With this pragmatism in mind, one can acknowledge the fact that Germany is presented with an opportunity for change and progress – of course with moderation.
In the following section, we will have a closer look at new faces in the ministries and the policies that the new government is proposing.
The coalition’s plans related to climate policy are among those most widely picked up in the European press. Climate change is undoubtedly one of the main focuses of the traffic light coalition, and the new government wants all future laws to be double-checked regarding their effect on climate change. Leaders have highlighted that this government is the last one that can still win the fight against climate change. The coalition emphasizes that meeting the targets of the Paris climate accord is one of their highest priorities; they aim to develop an industrial strategy linked up to the European Green Deal, and to avoid carbon leakage. Renewable energy will be boosted by installing solar power facilities on new commercial buildings and residential houses and by creating more wind farms, in particular at sea. The coalition has presented numerous ambitious climate goals, among which are that by 2030, 80% of German electricity should come from renewable energy sources.
The new Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has announced that Germany will be tougher on Russia and China, with the coalition treaty emphasising human rights and welcoming the U.S. alliance of democracies. According to its coalition agreement, the new German government wants to strengthen the powers of the EU Parliament and adopt a tougher line against any violation of the rule of law by EU member states such as Poland and Hungary. The Scholz government also wants to forge greater cooperation between national armies with joint command structures and a possible joint civil-military headquarters.
For the new German Minister of Health, Karl Lauterbach, the battle to curb COVID-19 is the most pressing issue. He spoke of this being Germany's biggest health crisis since World War II. Germany has a shortage of healthcare workers. Many ICU nurses have quit or gone part-time following the stressful first waves of the COVID pandemic, prompting the coalition’s plans for bonus payments for healthcare workers. The new government also aims to make healthcare work more attractive by boosting staffing levels and wages.
Christian Lindner was a familiar and polarizing face from the past election as the leader of the classic liberal party FDP. With his appointment as Minister of Finance, he fulfilled a goal for himself as well as his party. Somewhat notoriously known in the German political landscape, Lindner has been getting a lot of attention in the media, for instance by speaking out against climate activists and Covid-19 restrictions; he is accused of turning the FDP into a “One-Man-show”.
Beyond those core ministries and their plans, there are also other interesting policies being developed and discussed. One popularly debated policy is the legalisation of cannabis for recreational use. Currently, it is illegal to buy cannabis, but not to consume it. Should this change, Germany would be the first European country to take a step beyond simply decriminalizing it, as has been done in the Netherlands, for example. Another step that has been considered long overdue by many people is the revision of a controversial abortion law in Germany. Under a technicality, abortions are illegal in Germany, however “exceptions” are made under certain circumstances and abortions within the first 12 weeks of conception and go without punishment. Especially the Greens have been pointing out how this is in dire need of change, especially because there are restrictions on the access to information about abortion procedures. Until 2019, doctors were not allowed to publicly state that they perform abortions and could refuse to do so based on personal beliefs. In effect, it was harder for people that seeking an abortion to find trustworthy information and access to safe abortions in Germany. While it is not yet decided what new legislation in this domain will look like, at least seriously considering change is an important step in the right direction.
Beyond that, the new coalition is arguably focused on looking into the future, with plans to raise investment in Research & Development from 3.2% of the GDP to 3.5% a year. Further, there will most likely be a change in the voting age in Germany from 18 to 16 years old. This arguably represents a challenge and an opportunity to young people in Germany to get more involved and change the political landscape. It should be noted that this could have lasting effects on the future outcomes of the election, because studies have shown that 44% of young people (<25 years old) have voted for either the Greens or the FDP instead of the older established parties CDU and SPD. This trend is likely to continue as a reflection of the growing interests and concerns of the younger population. As an interviewee in an article by the Financial Times states, “The Greens have ecology. The FDP has liberalism. What do the CDU and SPD have?”
With regards to refugees and migration, it seems that the coalition will not engage in a grand restructuring of German migration laws as it has not been made a priority thus far. The only new policy they have proposed has been a plan to make the arrival procedure for the relatives of refugees already living in Germany easier. Finally, the traffic light coalition has agreed to elevate the minimum wage from 9.60 Euros to 12.00 Euros.
All in all, we can see that there are progressive movements (or at least plans) in the German republic. Especially with a look at the younger generations getting more involved in voting, this might be foreshadowing of a new political post-Merkel era.
To conclude the sixteen years of Angela Merkel leading Germany, the question arises: what will be her legacy and what does this mean for the EU’s future and for Germany's role in it? Merkel was popular in Germany but even more so abroad. She transformed Germany into the leader of Europe, not just an economic leader, but a moral one too. However, her critics say that Merkel often opted to pacify instead of acting decisively when crisis erupted; she did just enough to deescalate the acute problem, without tackling the deeper challenges that triggered the crisis. The new traffic light coalition is now left to deal with these deeper issues. While the coalition is agreeably pro-European, they face the challenge of accelerating European integration in all areas: defence, security, social, migration and industries. Several papers evaluate that the new government will not mean a major change for Europe but only time will tell.
Written by Leandra Porcher & Nadia Nasrdine, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
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Government?” December 9, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/what-are-the-main-tasks-for-olaf-scholz-and-germanys-new-
The New York Times. 2021. "The New Government Promises to be Tougher on China and
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