Merkel's Lame Duck Government Stasis in Berlin as Campaign Season Approaches

The general election in Germany is just four months away and little time is left for Chancellor Angela Merkel to complete important projects. Acrimony is intensifying in Berlin.
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, Chancellor Angela Merkel

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, Chancellor Angela Merkel

Foto: EPA / ddp images

Eighty-nine. It was an impressive number, one which the German government was clearly proud of. Eighty-nine measures aimed at combatting right-wing extremism and racism in the country, presented by a cabinet committee established solely for that purpose. It was designed as the governing coalition’s response to the growing threat of right-wing terrorism in the country – to the attacks in Halle  and Hanau  and the murder of Walter Lübcke , the Christian Democratic politician who was head of the governmental district of Kassel.

The German government’s commissioner for integration, Annette Widmann-Mauz, called the package a "milestone,” while Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said that the federal government had "never before” focused so intensely on right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. The 89 measures were presented last November, with the cabinet approving the committee’s final report two weeks ago.

But the achievement is only impressive at first glance. The parties involved in the governing coalition – the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – have since begun quarreling about central elements of the package. The CDU and CSU have grave concerns about a proposed law that would enable rapid and unbureaucratic support for projects aimed at combatting right-wing extremism. The idea of eliminating the term "race” from the German constitution is also under fire. The coalition parties now have doubts that they will be able to find common ground by the end of the current legislative term. The "milestone” looks like it may end up as just a 102-page declaration of intent.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 22/2021 (May 29, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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The spats that have erupted over the package have become symptomatic of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fourth government. Important projects – from the passage of a new law governing Germany’s political parties, to improving protections for insects, to reforming the country’s elderly care system – have screeched to a halt in recent weeks. Some initiatives, such as a new law governing supply chains and a rule regarding the share of women that listed companies must have on their boards, could make it through parliament at the last moment. For others, though – such as a new climate protection law – it is likely too late. The coalition has become a lame duck.

The primary reason for the increased tensions within the coalition is the approaching campaign season ahead of this fall’s general election – one which, with Merkel’s departure, promises to be more wide open than German elections have been in years. Parties are jockeying for position, and sending voters a clear message has become more important than finding political common ground. But the chancellor also shares part of the blame for the government’s stall out. For the last 16 years, Merkel has kept the ruling coalition together, and kept it focused on the task at hand. But even though she is – formally at least – still head of the government, her powers of cohesion have weakened.

Increasingly Prickly

Within the coalition, everyone is only looking out for their own interests, and that of their party. The SPD is seeking to boost its candidate for chancellor, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, while even ministers from Merkel’s own CDU are starting to do their own thing. The chancellor’s word no longer carries much weight. Disagreements are no longer taking place behind the closed doors of cabinet meetings, and lately, it has been Merkel’s own conservatives who are growing increasingly prickly on a number of issues. Projects on which the two parties agreed on years ago have suddenly become controversial once again.

The idea of passing a law to promote democracy by doing more to combat right-wing extremism, for example, first arose in 2013 – a product of the investigative committee in parliament that was looking into the murderous activities of the neo-Nazi terror cell National Socialist Underground, which killed nine people of foreign descent between 2000 and 2006, yet was only discovered in 2011. The CDU, CSU and SPD quickly included the proposal in their coalition agreement. The idea was to provide lasting support to initiatives combating right-wing extremism and eliminating the requirement for them to constantly file new grant applications. The law would also obviate the need to renegotiate funding for such programs as part of annual budget wrangling.

Nevertheless, the idea didn’t get very far at the time, with conservatives finding reason after reason to block attempts by the SPD to push it forward. It still got a mention in the current coalition agreement, but it is far less ambitious than it once was.

Last year, though, Interior Minister Seehofer, a member of the CSU, suddenly threw his support behind the law, saying it was "necessary in these times.” And with the establishment of the cabinet committee focusing on right-wing extremism, it suddenly looked as though its chances for passage were realistic.

But shortly before the draft law was to be introduced in the cabinet, conservatives suddenly had second thoughts. What if, they feared, the wrong initiatives received funding? What if state funding ended up in the hands of anti-democratic, left-wing extremists?

To prevent such abuse, the CDU and CSU demanded that all funding recipients be required to sign a commitment to liberal democracy. The SPD agreed, but the conservatives still aren’t happy, arguing that the Social Democrats were seeking to water down the commitment to democracy by making it simply a box that had to be checked on the application. It is "pathetic,” says Mathias Middelberg, parliamentary spokesman for the conservatives on domestic affairs, that the SPD "is resisting a democracy clause that should be self-evident.”

Negotiations are continuing, but the coalition partners now believe it is unlikely that the project will be completed. There are many points of controversy, say coalition sources, and there also isn’t time to complete an expert evaluation. The SPD is angry at the conservatives’ obstruction. "There was a good compromise between (ex-Family Minister) Franziska Giffey and Horst Seehofer,” says deputy SPD floor leader Dirk Wiese. "That conservatives are rejecting a proposal from their own interior minister is beyond annoying.”

Bitter Acrimony

Conservatives are also skeptical of an additional measure agreed to by Seehofer and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD): The elimination of the word "race” from the Basic Law, Germany’s constitution. To make it clear that the term is no longer commonly accepted, it would be sufficient to insert the word "supposed” before the word "race,” argues Thorsten Frei, deputy floor leader for conservatives in parliament. He opposes amending the constitution to include a ban on discrimination for "racist reasons.” Frei says: "I am not prepared to make changes to our crown jewel of our constitution of which I am not convinced.”

An attempt to make political party donations more transparent has also failed. The SPD produced a draft law that would have extended disclosure requirements to donations as low as 2,000 euros and capped bequests per donor at 100,000 euros per year. The draft law also included stricter rules for third-party sponsoring and advertising. Conservatives, though, said they would only agree if the law also addressed company holdings by political parties – which would have required the SPD to relinquish its stake in the media holding company DDVG, which owns around 20 daily papers in the country. The SPD rejected that proposal, and standstill – coupled with bitter acrimony – has been the result.

When asked why things have become snarled, coalition politicians point to "campaign maneuvering” and "tactical gamesmanship.”

The list of stalled projects goes on. European Union guidelines aimed at protecting whistleblowers must be implemented in national law by the end of 2021. But a draft introduced by Justice Minister Lambrecht proved too ambitious for conservatives, who argued that companies should not be burdened with additional bureaucracy in the middle of a pandemic. If the law isn’t passed by the end of the year, Brussels could slap Germany with penalties.

A badly needed reform aimed at increasing care-giver salaries and lowering costs facing families and care-home residents has been stalled for months, with conservatives and SPD hopelessly at odds.

When asked why, coalition politicians point to "campaign maneuvering” and "tactical gamesmanship.” Neither side of the political spectrum is willing to grant the other side anything that might look like a triumph ahead of the vote this fall.

When it comes to coalition projects, much of the obstruction appears to be coming from the CDU and CSU, which has a lot to do with the current disposition of their parliamentary group. A leading CDU politician says that a sense of nervousness has taken hold within conservative ranks. Many are wondering how they will be able to score points in the campaign. What if people suddenly realize that a lot of the laws Merkel’s government has passed or has proposed are more center-left than center-right – or even green?

Losing Profile

Conservatives have "lost their compass,” says Friedrich Merz, who had been hoping to become the conservative chancellor candidate, before losing out to North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet earlier this year. Now, Merz is in charge of finance and economic issues for Laschet’s campaign. And his assessment of the situation is a rather surprising one: For years, after all, it was the SPD that suffered from being the junior partner in coalition with Merkel’s conservatives. Now, though, with Merkel having moved the CDU to the left on so many issues, it is her party that is afraid of having lost its profile.

One reason that frustration levels have risen so high has to do with parliamentary group leader Ralph Brinkhaus. He was elected to his current role in 2018 in part on the strength of his promise to be far more fractious than his predecessor Volker Kauder. Many of his critics say that, while he kept that promise early on in his tenure, he has recently toned things down significantly. Indeed, during the corona crisis, he didn’t just vociferously support the strict course charted by the chancellor, but also seemed on occasion to want to go even further – something that his more pro-business colleagues continue to be unhappy about.

"As far as our side is concerned, a quick solution is possible.”

SPD deputy floor leader Matthias Miersch

It is unclear whether Brinkhaus will be able to hang on to his current position following the election. For that to happen, parliamentary conservatives will have to use the time still remaining for them to sharpen their profile – and nobody expects that they will receive much help from the Chancellery in that regard. When Merkel participated in a retreat for leading parliamentary group politicians a few weeks ago, the mood was anything but positive. "We also need trophies,” complained Gitta Connemann, deputy parliamentary group leader, according to sources. The chancellor apparently sighed in response: Always these trophies.

One such trophy could be a reform of the Climate Change Act, amendments made necessary by a recent ruling from the Federal Constitutional Court . It took just a few days for conservative ministers to reach agreement with their SPD counterparts on the changes, no doubt partially out of concern that the Green Party could otherwise outflank them in the campaign. The reforms are aimed at reaching a goal of national climate neutrality by 2045. Merkel’s cabinet was quickly able to approve immediate funding of 8 billion euros.

It is now before parliament, yet despite the importance of the project, there is significant resistance from the conservatives’ powerful pro-business wing. The concerns are less about the more ambitious targets and more about how to achieve them.

"Nothing More to Offer"

Carsten Linnemann, the deputy parliamentary group leader responsible for economic issues, has been particularly obstinate. He believes that the package of amendments has been too rushed, and he is critical of many elements. Linnemann is opposed, for example, to the idea of splitting higher energy costs for residential buildings between tenants and landlords. "The parliamentary group should resist on that issue,” Linnemann says. "The proposal will neither increase the rate of building renovations nor does it help the climate. It doesn’t ultimately help tenants, either. Landlords will naturally look for alternative solutions, by increasing base rent, for example.”

Conservatives have also rejected SPD demands for including measures in the climate law amendments to accelerate the expansion of wind and solar facilities. The center-left would like to see a requirement that German states reserve 2 percent of their lands for wind turbines. Such a provision would be a clear broadside against CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. North Rhine-Westphalia, of which he is the governor, recently passed new rules determining the allowed proximity of wind turbines to residential housing – regulations that have essentially put a stop to wind turbine construction. "As far as our side is concerned, a quick solution is possible,” says SPD deputy floor leader Matthias Miersch. "But there is significant resistance among conservatives.”

The German parliament has just two weeks to go until the summer break, after which the campaign will be in full swing. It is hard to imagine that the coalition will be able to push anything significant through before then. "The CDU and the CSU have nothing more to offer,” says senior SPD parliamentarian Carsten Schneider.

Michael Grosse-Brömer, a leader of the conservative group, is more optimistic, noting that the coalition has passed "more than 400 legal reforms.” And he believes that there is still time left to add to that total. Political projects, he says, are sometimes "like diamonds. They need great pressure to achieve the necessary shine.”

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