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Post-Merkel coalition plans progressive agenda

November 30, 2021

The Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats have offered up several progressive steps in their new coalition contract. But many climate activists have concerns, saying the deal comes up short.

Olaf Scholz points toward the camera while flanked by Annalena Baerbock, Robert Habeck and Christian Lindner before the presentation of the new German governing coalition deal
Many of the polices put forward in the coalition deal represent a departure from those of the Merkel eraImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The three parties set to form the next German government presented their plans in Berlin on November 24, under the title "Dare more progress," aiming to set themselves off from the Merkel era by serving as an "alliance for freedom, justice, and sustainability," as the parties taglined their cooperation deal.

Some of the main points were:

  • Germany will ideally phase out coal by 2030 and commit to 80% renewable energy

  • Increase rail freight transport by 25% and have at least 15 million electric cars on the roads by 2030
  • Push for a European air travel surcharge like the one that is already in place in Germany
  • Immigrants able to apply for citizenship after five years and allowed dual citizenship, a potential big change for thousands of ethnic Turks, many of whom remain foreign nationals after decades in Germany
  • Increasing the minimum wage to €12
  • Plans to legalize the regulated sale of cannabis
  • Build 400,000 new apartments a year to fight a housing crisis,
  • Lower the voting age to 16
  • Create a points-based immigration system to draw in qualified workers

The key deal appeared to be between the two junior partners in the coalition: the Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

While the environmentalists were able to secure the target of ending Germany's coal industry "ideally" by 2030, eight years ahead of the German government's current target, the FDP got their hands on the second most powerful office in the land: their party leader, Christian Lindner, is now poised to take over the Finance Ministry. Green co-leader Robert Habeck is set to take over the Economy and Energy Ministry, whose portfolio is to be expanded into climate as well. 

Other Green demands were also present: The new government is aiming to ensure that by 2030, some 80% of the country's power comes from renewable sources (doubling the current proportion) and that 15 million fully electric cars are on German roads. Habeck promised at Wednesday's presentation that this contract would put Germany "on the path to 1.5 degrees" — meaning to cap the current rise in global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, a goal many climate scientists already see as out of reach.

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But environmental groups have been critical of the incoming government, railing at the absence of concrete measures for reducing CO2 emissions in the short term. There was no mention of a speed limit on the Autobahn (a win for the FDP) and no absolute date for phasing out gas- or diesel-fueled cars.

The FDP, meanwhile, can point to plenty of wins: Germany's "debt brake" (a mechanism meant to stop the country from taking on new debt) is to be reapplied in 2023, having been lifted to cope with the economic fallout of COVID-19. And there is no mention of any tax increases in the new contract. But on the other hand, there was also no pledge to rule out tax increases, something that had been in the initial negotiation paper presented a few weeks ago when the parties first came together.

Departure from conservative policies

Elsewhere, there was plenty of evidence that the conservative impulses of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has run the country for the last 16 years, have been banished.

The new government contract promises several progressive measures that would have been unthinkable under a CDU government: the sale of cannabis for recreational use from licensed stores is to be legalized, the voting age will be lowered to 16 and the notorious Nazi-era Paragraph 219a (which largely bans any advertising or publicized information about abortion care) is to be scrapped. 

In addition, a new citizenship law is to be introduced, which will make two crucial things easier for millions of immigrants in Germany. Residents will be allowed to gain citizenship after as little as three years in the country, and they will be allowed to keep their prior nationalities upon naturalization.

Progressive NGOs have offered some cautious approval of the plans. Anti-arms trade campaigners welcomed the fact that the government is planning a new export control law, while reserving judgment to see what it would contain. And anti-lobbying groups were pleased to see some small but crucial steps to better transparency about who has access to parliamentarians.

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What the SPD gained

The winner of September's election, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), can of course point to their overall power in the new government. Apart from having Olaf Scholz in the chancellery, Social Democrats will take over six Cabinet ministries, including Interior, Defense and Health — the latter being both crucial during the pandemic and an interesting development, as rumors had emerged last weekend that the FDP would gain this post.

Altogether, the distribution of Cabinet posts suggests the SPD appears to have been given the role of managing the basics of maintaining social cohesion. The center-left party has also taken over the Labor Ministry, which next year will raise the minimum wage to €12 ($13.50) an hour from the current €9.60, and an all-new Construction Ministry, which is promising to build 400,000 new apartments per year to ease the rent crises in several major German cities.

But the housing plans have attracted criticism from renters' associations, because there was precious little scope in the contract for expanding the current rental controls already in place.

Cabinet posts

Following the presentation of the coalition deal, the parties started naming their candidates for the 15 cabinet positions.

The FDP went on record first, naming three men and one woman for their four ministries: Christian Lindner (Finance), Volker Wissing (Transport), Marco Buschmann (Justice), and Bettina Stark-Watzinger (Education).

A couple of days later, and after some internal strife, the Greens named their five candidates: Robert Habeck (Economics and Climate, and vice-chancellor), Annalena Baerbock (Foreign), Cem Özdemir (Agriculture), Steffi Lemke (Environment), Anne Spiegel (Family)

The SPD is yet to name the ministers for Interior and Homeland, Labor and Social Affairs, Defense, Health, Construction, and Economic Cooperation and Development. As Olaf Scholz has vowed to have an equal number of men and women in the cabinet, four women have to be among the SPD's appointees to make up that number.

Speculation will continue until after the party conference at the coming weekend.

This article has been updated since its first publication on November 24. Edited by: Rina Goldenberg.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight