During their first closed Cabinet meeting since taking office just over six weeks ago, ministers from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's traffic light coalition already have plenty to talk about.
Going into the session on Friday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his Cabinet would face pressing challenges such as Ukraine and coronavirus.
However, he also said it would address fundamental issues such as climate change as part of Germany's presidency of the G7 group of industrialized nations.
"We have a lot planned for this legislative period, for the whole decade," said Scholz. "Every day, our work is also determined by the current challenges — with the struggles of the coronavirus pandemic or also the very, very difficult situation with Ukraine and the question of security and peace in Europe."
"These are tasks that we will address today, of course, within the scope of the Cabinet, but the closed session will also serve to discuss a few in-depth issues," he said, adding that the country would use its G7 presidency to push for more action to tackle climate change — including a "climate club."
"Germany has ambitious plans in this context. We want to do something for a more coordinated and concerted fight to stop climate change."
Russia and Ukraine
Germany's presidency of the G7 group also makes the issue of Russia's amassing of troops on the Ukraine border even more acute for Berlin.
The Cabinet meeting coincided with a meeting between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The coalition parties are wrestling with the question of what leverage they can use to prevent further military escalation by Russia.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's Green Party has said it is prepared to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project in the face of Russian aggression. Social Democrat (SPD) Scholz has shied away from instrumentalizing the pipeline — which runs under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany — but still maintains closing it is an option.
Speaking to the issue, Scholz called the situation, "very, very oppressive." He vowed that any military aggression toward Ukraine "would carry a high price," adding, "We're all in agreement on that, and we are preparing so that we can react."
The neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) have signaled they would prefer a tougher approach toward Russia.
Ukraine is also urging Germany to supply it with weapons to help repel any attack, Berlin has so far refused.
Record coronavirus figures
Ministers also discussed changes to Germany's Infection Protection Act, which sets a limit on measures that the country's 16 states can take. It prevents, for example, a blanket lockdown.
However, with infection numbers on the rise — a record 140,160 new daily cases were reported on Friday — such steps could come up for discussion again if the healthcare system reaches its limits.
It's thought that the FDP would likely put the brakes on a re-tightening of the act.
Friday's meeting also highlighted disagreements between coalition partners on how to deal with the ongoing situation. Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP), for instance, openly stated, "A vaccine mandate is not something the coalition is planning." That directly contradicts statements made by Chancellor Scholz, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of a mandate and on Friday defended his approach.
Bureaucracy 'Made in Germany'
One of the key issues ministers discussed Friday was how to speed up planning and approval processes for major infrastructure projects for housing, renewable energy, transportation and digitalization.
Progress on major projects is glacial in Germany, with new rail segments, for instance, averaging 20 years from start to finish.
Scholz acknowledged the necessity to change that, saying it is important that, "the country picks up the pace. We have to get things moving faster."
Habeck, too, bemoaned Germany's notorious bureaucracy, especially regarding the shift to renewable energy, saying the government needed to cut off "a few old locks."
Finance Minister Lindner said it was important that the new administration show "results" in its first six months at the helm, acknowledging, "Our country is handcuffed, we've handcuffed ourselves."
Those sentiments echo industry voices: "It just takes too long," says Tim-Oliver Müller who represents the German Builders' Association. "Despite prior attempts to speed up planning, approval processes for new projects and expansions have to be shortened considerably."
'New beginning' for Germany
The coalition also sought to make progress on its wider policy aims agreed in a deal between the three parties.
Scholz became Germany's chancellor in December, after 16 years with Angela Merkel at the helm, pledging his center-left-led coalition would offer a "new beginning" for Europe's top economy.
The government's ambitious program includes slashing carbon emissions, overhauling digital infrastructure, modernizing citizenship laws, lifting the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.
Economic Affairs and Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck is planning a two-stage program to speed up climate protection. There are numerous potential points of friction in the details. For example, the question of how to bring forward the phasing out of coal, and on transport.
Proposals on the removal of bureaucratic and planning hurdles when it comes to the expansion of renewable energy such as wind power were also discussed.
js,rc/wmr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)