Germany's Kingmakers Difficult Talks Ahead for Greens and Free Democrats

The Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats plan to hold exploratory talks with each other before meeting with the main chancellor candidates in the coming days. They appear to be worlds apart but are already finding some common ground.
FDP leader Christian Lindner and Green Party co-chair Annalena Baerbock: In early talks, the two parties plan to avoid emphasizing which candidate they would prefer as chancellor.

FDP leader Christian Lindner and Green Party co-chair Annalena Baerbock: In early talks, the two parties plan to avoid emphasizing which candidate they would prefer as chancellor.

Foto:

Kay Nietfeld / dpa

At a Monday press conference, German Green Party leaders were asked whether they would be able to explain to the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) that money is an artificial concept but that CO2 emissions are very real. The assumption behind the question was clear: Good luck! But Green Party leader Robert Habeck had a different take: "Following the election, people are now taking a new look. And I wouldn't exclude us from that. We can also reconsider certain issues and perhaps weigh the arguments of others in a more relaxed way.” He said he was very hopeful.

FDP leader Christian Lindner also continued Monday with the message he initiated on election night: measured praise for the potential coalition partner. The Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) are not parties of change, he said. In talks between his party and the Greens, it would therefore be necessary to examine "whether, despite all the differences, this could become the progressive center of a new coalition government," even if that seems like a bit of a stretch.

What a difference a day makes: In the run-up to Sunday’s election, the Greens and FDP had largely scorned and criticized each other. Lindner scoffed at the Green Party’s fantasy world, and former Green Party chair Cem Özdemir lashed out at the economically laissez faire FDP’s über-faith in technology for solving the climate change problem.

But once it became clear after the polls closed that both Armin Laschet of the CDU and Olaf Scholz of the SPD would need the FDP and the Greens if either wanted to become chancellor, the tone changed. It began on election night with cautious flirtation, but after the parties’ committee meetings on Monday, it’s starting to look a lot more like open courting.

More than a Marriage of Convenience?

None of the participants has any illusions that true love is at stake, but they would like to see more come out of it in the end than just a marriage of convenience. During the election campaign, both parties highlighted the country's need for reform.

In the coming days, the leaders of both parties want to sound each other out in small meetings, so-called "exploratory talks.” On Monday, Lindner obtained permission from his party’s national executive committee to start those discussions. They are expected to begin "promptly” and will be attended only by Lindner and FDP General Secretary Volker Wissing. After that, the party would be "open” to talks with further partners.

Lindner revealed that he had spoken on the phone with chancellor candidates Scholz and Laschet as well as Habeck of the Greens after the polls closed on Sunday night. The FDP leader didn’t want to talk about specific policies, but he made clear in an aside that he is counting on a trusting partnership. "I haven’t agreed with Mr. Habeck yet what we will communicate about the content of these talks,” he said.

For his part, Habeck would not comment on any talks during the Green Party’s press conference. He said that both a possible coalition with the center-right Christian Democrats and the FDP and a possible government with the center-left SPD and the FDP followed a "completely separate logic.” He added that it made sense to explore common projects.

The FDP would still prefer to join a government with the CDU’s Laschet as chancellor and the Greens in a "Jamaica,” coalition, so named for the colors affiliated with the three parties. The Greens, however, would prefer to form a "traffic light” coalition with the SPD and the FDP. The idea is to leave the question of which chancellor candidate they prefer out of the initial talks.

In 2017, Green Party co-head Robert Habeck (left) and Wolfgang Kubicki of the Free Democrats successfully negotiated a governing coalition between the two parties in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.

In 2017, Green Party co-head Robert Habeck (left) and Wolfgang Kubicki of the Free Democrats successfully negotiated a governing coalition between the two parties in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Foto: Carsten Rehder / picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa

The parties would instead try to build trust, which is indeed lacking. Lindner said that a "climate of trust” needs to be established. There is no bond at all between Lindner and Baerbock. The FDP chief's relationship with Habeck is slightly better, but hardly solid.

Asked at the Green Party’s press conference about any possible similarities with the FDP, Baerbock jokingly said that Lindner and she were about the same age, that Habeck and Lindner were both men and that they probably all enjoyed eating ice cream. Not exactly a strong foundation.

One potential bridge-builder could be FDP deputy head Wolfgang Kubicki, who worked with Habeck in the state of Schleswig-Holstein to launch a coalition government together with the CDU there. But many Greens hold a skeptical view of him. Other potential bridge-builders could be Britta Hasselmann and Marco Buschmann, both senior officials in the parliamentary groups of the Greens and FDP respectively.

The second goal of the talks is to break the camp dynamic, so that the Christian Democrats and the FDP aren’t on one side and the SPD and the Greens on the other.

The third aim is then to identify areas of agreement and brainstorm ways in which major differences could be bridged.

If you talk to political strategists in both parties, it doesn't take long for a mention of a civil rights coalition to come up. Specifically, they say they could imagine placing security agencies under greater scrutiny and they could abolish Germany’s ban on advertisements for abortions and the country's data retention laws.

They would also consider an amendment to the country’s Transsexual Act that would make it easier for people to decide on the gender they choose to register without hurdles.

Both parties would also like to lower the minimum age for voting in Germany from 18 to 16 – hardly a surprising step given that both parties attract a lot of first-time voters.

Both the FDP and the Greens also want to legalize cannabis.

There is also agreement on the issues of digitalization and education. Most within the FDP would like to see a greater role for the federal government in education policies, as do many Greens - except for those who are part of state governments and want to maintain the current state-level control over schools.

Britta Hasselmann (of the Greens) und Marco Buschmann (of the FDP) are also viewed as possible bridgebuilders within the parties.

Britta Hasselmann (of the Greens) und Marco Buschmann (of the FDP) are also viewed as possible bridgebuilders within the parties.

Foto: Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa

But those issues weren’t dominant in either party’s campaign. The FDP focused on taxes and pensions and the Greens on climate change and social issues. As such, putting the focus on civil rights and education wouldn’t likely go far enough for building the foundations for a coalition government.

Still, compromises are also conceivable in financial and climate policy. The minimum demands from the FDP side are likely to be the elimination of the solidarity tax, a levy used to help finance German reunification, and the renunciation of the wealth tax some on the left have been calling for. Members of the FDP are calculating that neither of those issues will be too difficult for the Greens.

It’s also possible that Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court will soon overturn the solidarity tax. Some Greens have also now come to realize that a wealth tax could turn out to be extremely bureaucratic without even bringing in that much money. One compromise could be a reform of the country’s inheritance tax, which is something the FDP would likely be willing to get onboard with. In addition, leading members of the FDP are considering offering ways to provide the Greens with relief for middle- and lower-income earners.

Although some in the FDP are already willing to talk about concrete ideas, the Greens are more skeptical. The Greens’ self-confidence as an issues-based party seems significant. They have emphasized that they have provided a plan for how they intend to finance their election pledges, but the FDP has been more vague. Lindner, they say, will have to be more precise about how he wants to turn his promises into reality.

Climate Change: An Issue Ripe for Conflict

Without a doubt, the toughest nut to crack will be climate policy. Though the Greens aren’t against the idea of comprehensive emissions trading in principle, they do have two major concerns. First, they worry that prices for CO2 certificates could go through the roof – a development many Greens consider to be socially unfair and also the wrong path to go down. Second, even in an ideal case, it would likely take years to extend certificate trading to all sectors across the EU.

What should happen in during the interim?

Rely on technological innovation alone as the FDP has proposed? The Greens would never be satisfied with that. The FDP would have to make overtures to the Greens on this front – by supporting the elimination of coal as an energy source in Germany at a date earlier than planned. A ban on internal combustion engines would also be a conceivable compromise for the FDP, especially given that the German automobile industry has announced that manufacturers will only be building electric cars in the future anyway. As such, both sides could save face without taking much risk.

The FDP and the Greens are taking the exploratory talks of the next few days very seriously, because they each have a lot at stake. They’re also prisoners of their own rhetoric, which they have used to fuel considerable expectations on many issues. Many within the FDP party are keen to be a part of the government again, but some are also still struggling from the collapsed negotiation talks four years ago to form a government with the CDU and Greens.

One of the FDP’s campaign slogans was, "Things can’t go on as they are.” The line was directed against the grand coalition government of the past eight years, which paired Merkel’s conservatives with the center-left SPD. If talks between the Greens and the FDP collapse, that self-same grand coalition would be the only realistic alternative – and it would be a very difficult one to explain to voters.

The Greens also come into the talks with one critical commitment: the expansion of renewable energies, a faster phase-out of fossil fuels and more decisive action on climate protection. The party has formulated major goals. One of the central messages coming from Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock is that the next government will be the last one that can still actively influence the climate crisis. By doing so, the Greens have set a moral tone that almost obligates them to take responsibility.

If the Greens were to pull out of exploratory talks in the same way the FDP did in the autumn of 2017, the promises made during the election campaign would come back to haunt them.

Looking for Common Ground

As everyone involved knows, a three-party coalition will be a difficult affair. Who will prevail with which issues? Will it be capable of delivering renewal? Joachim Stamp, the head of the state chapter of the FDP and deputy governor in North Rhine-Westphalia told DER SPIEGEL that such a coalition should "think big” in terms of projects like digitalization, education and climate protection. "It shouldn’t be a slapdash affair."

At any rate, both parties seem to have the will to give it a good shot. And a plan is already in place. DER SPIEGEL has learned that a dinner is to be organized in the next few days with Green Party leaders Baerbock and Habeck and FDP leader Lindner and FDP General Secretary Volker Wissing in attendance. After that, the parties’ experts on issues are expected to form small working groups. That’s how the Greens and the FDP found enough common ground in the state of Schleswig-Holstein to join a coalition government there in 2017.

And if they can't reach agreement? One idea involves simply being open about their differences and presenting them to Laschet and Scholz. They should then compete against each other to come up with the best solution.

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