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Germany's Greens hold intense convention amid budget crisis

November 26, 2023

Germany's budget crisis, the Middle East and climate change topped the agenda at the Green Party's 2023 convention.

Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck in Karlsruhe talk at the party conference
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck are among Germany's leading Green politiciansImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

The Green Party's four-day convention in Karlsruhe was intense. Never before has a convention held by the German environmental party attracted so many visitors — some 4,000 this year, including journalists.

Despite the high numbers, the conference room was unusually quiet. Even the foyer, which is normally filled with people hotly discussing the latest issues, was relatively calm.

This perhaps comes as no surprise. From Russia's war on Ukraine and Israel's war on Hamas to inflation, high energy costs, social polarization in Germany, antisemitism and hostility toward migrants, the many crises faced by the Green Party domestically and internationally require a high degree of concentration.

Any one of these topics could have dominated an entire party conference on its own. This year, they were all being debated at the same time.

Fierce debate on asylum policy

Asylum is a particularly sensitive topic for the Greens. Asylum regulations have been tightened in Germany and the EU, changes that Green politicians helped pass. The debate at the Green party convention was emotional, with harsh criticism coming from some delegates.

For many of the party's young members, known as the Green Youth, the compromises went too far. They spoke of "sham solutions" that the Greens would never have agreed to if they were in opposition. \

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"It is dishonest to talk about caps [in numbers] when the world is on fire," shouted Vasili Franco, a state from Berlin. Other delegates also stressed that the Greens need to continue to advocate for a humanitarian migration policy, as the party has done in the past. "Inhumane asylum policy is not a reality, it is a political decision," said Katharina Stolla, co-chair of the Green Youth.

For leading Green politician Robert Habeck, Germany's vice chancellor and economy minister, this came close to a vote of no confidence in him and other Green federal politicians.   

"The party conference of a governing party is not a game," Habeck warned, adding that he sees such comments as an indirect invitation to leave the governing coaltion.

Deepening budget crisis

Then there's Germany's budget woes, as well as a crisis of the governing coalition made up of the Greens, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP).

Habeck is particularly affected by the budget crisis. He is the one who has to decide what direction Germany will take now that its Constitutional Court has vetoed government plans to use €60 billion (ca. $65 billion) in reallocated COVID funds to tackle climate change.

At the party convention, Habeck was on the defensive. But that isn't where he wants to remain.

CDU a 'party of yesterday'

Habeck said countries all over the world were investing in a sustainable future and pointed out that the United States alone had allocated what he called an astronomical sum of $400 billion. Yet, in Germany, the opposition wants the government to save.

After all, it was the conservative opposition bloc of Christian Democrats and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) who filed the lawsuit that led to the overturning of the government's climate funding plans.

Habeck said the "debt brake" enshrined in the Basic Law was no longer appropriate. He explained that if the government didn't help German companies invest in the future, then the country would fall behind given the strength of the competition.

"We have tied our hands behind our back with the 'debt brake' and now we're going into the boxing ring," he warned on Friday. He said the CDU/CSU's suggestion to leave regulation to the market wasn't in keeping with the times.

Referring to the CDU and its leader Friedrich Merz, he said it was "a party of yesterday, led by a chairman from the day before yesterday."

'Debt brake' no longer appropriate

Habeck's voice grew increasingly louder as he spoke. After his speech, the 825 delegates gave him a long round of applause.

Habeck said he was in favor of reforming the law that links the maximum level of new debt to economic performance, which has been in effect since 2009. He wanted the "debt brake" to remain in place for the main area of the budget, that is, for matters beneficial in the current financial year, but believed that investments in the future shouldn't be subject to it.

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Immediately after Habeck's speech, Jens Südekum, an economist at the University of Dusseldorf, joined in via video link and said: "In Karlsruhe, the debt brake ideology has won a landslide victory." He suggested that the brake should be suspended not only in 2023 but also in 2024.

Franziska Brantner, parliamentary state secretary at the Economy Ministry, told DW that if this didn't happen, even departments led by the SPD and the FDP would be affected by the pressure to save money.

"There are now double-digit billion sums missing for the renovation of the railroad, there is a lack of money for gyms and day care centers," Brantner said, adding that funds were missing almost everywhere.

Middle East high on agenda

Next up was the Middle East. Since Israel declared war on the Islamist militant group Hamas after the October 7 attacks,  German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has visited the region several times. Her voice almost faltered as she recounted a conversation with an Israeli man whose wife and children were abducted by Hamas and held hostage in the Gaza Strip. She said Hamas had "reactivated the trauma of the Shoah" with its attack.

Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organization by numerous nations including Germany, massacred some 1,200 people in its October 7 attacks.

Baerbock also recounted conversations she had held with Palestinian families, whose loved ones in Gaza had died as a result of Israel's counterattacks.

She made it clear that "antisemitic hatred and incitement are not opinions."

Hanna Veiler, the head of the Jewish Student Union of Germany, then spoke to the party conference. "We have not been the same since October 7," Veiler said. "Everything that happens in Israel has an impact on the global diaspora. We are now having to hide our identity. [Jewish] students no longer dare to go to university."

An oppressive silence followed her words.

Party base backs leaders

The current crises are so discouraging that even the party base, which has a tendency to be rebellious, is doing all it can to support the leaders and ministers. Only a few delegates voiced criticism of the Greens' actions as part of the coalition.

"We are making compromises and the FDP, which is much smaller than us, is getting what it wants," shouted one delegate from Hamburg.

Delegates stand and sit at the Green party convention
Germany's Greens, part of the governing coalition, face numerous crisesImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

There was also a feeling that the Greens are bearing the brunt of the population's uncertainty. Leipzig delegate Stanislav Elinson even admitted to DW that this feeling was partly justified.

"We also have to ask ourselves questions and not only point the finger at others," he said. "We mustn't become too radical ... . I see a need for a change of course with us, too."

The Greens, in particular, have attracted public discontent for the government's climate policies. Its popularity with voters has fallen to its lowest in over five years, a poll showed on Sunday.

This article was originally written in German. It was updated on November 26 to include the Green debate on migration.

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. 

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau