Before Angela Merkel's conservatives and the SPD even sat down at the negotiating table, a weed killer controversy has cast doubt on another "grand coalition." It was an ego trip at the wrong time, says DW's Jens Thurau.
This much is sure, German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks and Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt will never become friends. The question of whether or not the controversial herbicide glyphosate should continue to be used within the EU has been a major bone of contention between the two for quite some time. Hendricks, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has been against renewing the license for EU use. Schmidt, of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), has been for it. Schmidt has now used the current administrative conundrum paralyzing Germany's government to take the matter into his own hands. Just hours before yesterday's EU vote, Hendricks made clear to Schmidt that she was still very much opposed to extending permission for the use of glyphosate. Schmidt, however, did not seem to care and ordered his representatives to vote in favor of a five-year extension of the license.
More than just a weed killer
And thus, an herbicide controversy has undermined trust between negotiators as new talks are set to begin over the possibility of the CDU, CSU and SPD once again entering into a so-called grand coalition. Trust would seem to be the most important thing to establish right now. Following September's elections, the SPD seemed relieved to finally be out of an unhappy four-year relationship as junior coalition partners with the CDU/CSU. But after coalition talks between the CDU/CSU, Greens and market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) broke down last week, the Social Democrats have found themselves back at the negotiating table. The glyphosate row has less to do directly with grand coalition talks as such, but it has damaged the foundations on which the current CDU/CSU and SPD caretaker government operates.
No far-reaching decisions
When the SPD made its post-election decision to leave the grand coalition and enter the opposition, Merkel's old government lost its parliamentary basis for making far-reaching decisions. The new parliament, or Bundestag, has since been sworn in and begun work. But until a new coalition can be formed, the old one must continue to handle the day-to-day running of the government. When it comes to weightier decisions, however, the existing caretaker cabinet is expected to exhibit great restraint. When such far-reaching decisions cannot be avoided, the cabinet is required to put them to a parliamentary vote. The issue of just what to do about glyphosate would have been one such instance. Unilateral decisions like the one made by Schmidt are not part of the plan.
Hendricks sticking to the principles of order
Hendricks herself abided by those very restraints just weeks ago. During the last legislative period she fought for a speedy end to coal-powered energy in Germany, although she was ultimately thwarted by resistance from the Chancellery and her old SPD colleague, then-Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel. When 20 countries announced that they would be phasing out coal two weeks ago at the Bonn climate summit, Hendricks asked representatives to understand that she was currently not at liberty to make such decisions as she was simply a caretaker minister at that point. If she had acted then as Schmidt did Monday, she could have made headlines by simply announcing that Germany would join the others. What must she be thinking now? Was it a missed opportunity?
The chancellor is called for, again
It would be nice if Merkel would finally come down from her ivory tower for a moment and provide some direction for the way in which the current caretaker government is to conduct its business. One central tenet would be that prior arrangements be upheld, and ego trips forgone. That would seem all the more important if this caretaker government is to be seamlessly transformed into a new grand coalition, as looks to be the case.