NATO, China and Nord Stream 2 Germany's Likely Future Coalition Partners Bicker over Foreign Policy

Getting three political parties to agree on anything is tough. In Germany, with coalition negotiations dragging on, that is proving especially true. A look at the differences of opinion within the foreign policy working group highlights the challenges that lay ahead.
The leading figures in Germany's ongoing talks over forming a new government: Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, Olaf Scholz of the SPD and Christian Lindner of the FDP.

The leading figures in Germany's ongoing talks over forming a new government: Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, Olaf Scholz of the SPD and Christian Lindner of the FDP.


Chris Emil Janssen / IMAGO

At least he answers the phone. "Hello,” he says when he picks up the line. "This is the Trappist monastery.” And he’s not far off. A participant in the ongoing coalition negotiations in Germany between the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), the man on the other end of the line apparently wants to pierce the silence that has thus far surrounded the discussions. And he begins to talk – for precisely 21 minutes. But by the time he finally hangs up, he hasn’t really said much at all.

A fellow negotiator then sends a text message with a suggestion: "Why not write a story about how the parties have managed to keep the coalition negotiations secret for several weeks. That’s a super story.”


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 45/2021 (November 6th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Negotiator number three – who is, like the other two, a member of the working group focusing on foreign and security policy – says: "Everything has been constructive. We’re making progress.” The working group has the task of finding compromise on a number of controversial issues – things like defense spending, arms exports and China policy. But when the negotiator is asked how those issues are to be resolved, she demurs.

Negotiators four, five and six also insist that progress is being made, that the discussions are constructive, and that the atmosphere is positive.

The story changes somewhat, though, when negotiator number seven is contacted. A positive atmosphere? Not exactly, she says. And suddenly, the narrative changes. Last Friday morning, for example, the foreign policy negotiators gathered in Berlin for their third meeting. The lead working-group negotiator for the SPD, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, was leading the session and rejected a Green Party proposal with a dismissive wave of the hand. The message, it seemed, was clear: You can forget about it.

Reinhard Bütikofer, a senior member of the Greens and a member of European Parliament, could hardly stay in his chair. "Not like that, Heiko,” he snapped. "Not so overbearing!”

It is a gigantic political experiment. Almost 300 experts from the three parties involved have been meeting for the last 10 days in 22 working groups to define the policies of the "Traffic Light Coalition,” so named due to the colors associated with the three parties (the SPD is red and the FDP is yellow). They want nothing to leak to the outside. That, party leaders believe, is the only way to avoid the kind of public pressure that might ultimately lead to the talks falling apart. Those involved in the negotiations are eager to present an image of harmony. In reality, though, the parties are still far apart on many controversial issues.

It’s not just disagreements on content. The Greens, in particular, are especially sensitive to anything that smacks of arrogance from the SPD, which won the September election. Bütikofer’s outburst was definitely consistent with that sore spot. And they don’t trust the SPD chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Sholz, nor his team of negotiators. The exploratory talks tended to magnify that distrust. Whereas the FDP emerged from those preliminary negotiations looking as though they had pushed through many of their positions, the Greens faced critical questions as to why they had sacrificed so much. The party cannot afford a repeat when it comes to the final coalition agreement.

A "Notarized Testimonial to Distrust"

The Social Democrats want that final deal to be short, believing it is enough to agree on the basic guidelines. Why, after all, are detailed stipulations necessary among political friends? SPD negotiators say that such precise provisions were necessary in its coalitions with the center-right Christian Democrats because the two parties come from opposing political camps, and because the SPD had to deal with Angela Merkel, a practiced tactician who is excellent at making her junior coalition partners fade into invisibility. The coalition deal between the two, says one SPD negotiator, "was a notarized testimonial to distrust.”

This time around, the source continues, the situation is different. The three parties essentially want the same thing: progress, modernization and climate protection.

For the Greens, it all sounds too good to be true. They are concerned that Scholz will follow the Merkel playbook once he moves into the Chancellery, which is why they are eager to spell everything out, down to the last detail. Otherwise, they say, there is a real possibility that they will be duped.

That is also true when it comes to foreign policy. The working group is hammering out policy for three portfolios: foreign policy, defense and development. Very little was said about these issues during the campaign, and the exploratory talks didn’t touch on them much either, with the three parties preferring to paper over their differences. Now, though, clarity must be found on the most significant issues: Germany’s relationships with the U.S., China and Russia; the future of NATO; the German military’s overseas profile; and Germany’s role in the world.

The bickering began already with the length of the joint paper. The leaders of the three parties involved decreed that the working group could only produce a maximum of five pages in Calibri font size 11, with 1.5 line spacing. No time is allowed for renegotiations and the finished paper must be submitted by 6 p.m. next Wednesday.

Some Green Party working group members, though, are rebelling against these parameters. It is impossible, they say, to outline the policy of three cabinet portfolios on just five pages. The SPD, meanwhile, has held firm. "It’s not going to change,” says an SPD member involved in the negotiations. "You can complain all you want, but it won’t help.”

The Social Democrats say that particularly in foreign policy, it isn’t necessary to codify every little thing. The point is to develop a shared approach, a framework. "It’s not about generating 10 draft laws.”

Thus far, the working group’s paper is full of passages written in red, green or yellow, marking passages on which agreement has not yet been reached. Each party makes its own proposal, and the color is only turned to black once agreement has been reached. If a specific formulation finds its way into the media, it is deleted.

The frontlines don’t just run through the working group. Some of them run through the parties themselves. The Greens have always been divided between the more pragmatic wing, known as the Realos, and the left. Within the SPD, pacifists like parliamentary floor leader Rolf Mützenich are at odds with the pragmatics surrounding Scholz. And the SPD delegation is led by Heiko Maas, whose Foreign Ministry leadership came under intense fire during the last legislative period from the Greens and the FDP.

In the paper produced during the initial exploratory phase of the negotiations, the Greens and the FDP managed to insert a provision calling for a parliamentary investigation into the debacle surrounding Germany’s withdrawal from Afghanistan – a demand aimed squarely at Maas.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is leading the SPD in the foreign policy working group as part of ongoing coalition negotiations

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is leading the SPD in the foreign policy working group as part of ongoing coalition negotiations

Foto: Kay Nietfeld/ DPA

The acting foreign minister, meanwhile, is deeply involved in the discussions, say other participants, even though he had actually assumed he would be losing the foreign policy portfolio. In no way, they say, does he seem half-hearted or uninterested, as he was often accused of being during his tenure. Perhaps he is hoping that the Foreign Ministry will remain in the hands of the SPD after all. Maas is also being discussed as a possible defense minister.

The Future of Nuclear Weapons in Germany

The working group’s FDP team is led by Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, while Omid Nouripour holds the reins for the Greens, though both the FDP and the SPD have the impression that the Green delegation essentially has two leaders. Defense policy expert Agnieszka Brugger, they say, has shown no lack of self-confidence and has spoken up repeatedly about feminist foreign policy.

At least the three sides have been able to agree on a location for their meetings. After they held their first meeting at SPD headquarters and the second in a parliament conference room, Maas invited them all on Monday to the Foreign Ministry. The negotiators liked it so much that they agreed to hold all subsequent meetings there.

SPD negotiators are primarily eager to ensure continuity. The broad outlines of German foreign policy are – in contrast to countries like the U.S., France or Poland – not up for debate. But the Greens and the FDP, in particular, would like to see significant changes made to Germany’s approach to authoritarian countries like China and Russia.

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock has insisted that Germany will take a less accommodating approach to China. But what does that mean exactly? How does one spell out a values-based foreign policy in an agreement establishing a coalition government? Negotiators from the Green Party say that it was particularly challenging to get passages included in the foreign policy chapter of the preliminary paper describing the "systemic competition with authoritarian states and dictatorships.”

The reason can be found with the SPD. The Scholz camp, in particular, isn't interested in making any significant changes to German foreign policy. Long-time Scholz confidants believe that he intends to largely stick to the course laid out by outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. Members of the SPD team note that neither the Greens nor the FDP have been in government for many years, adding that it’s common to use sharper language as part of the opposition. They say that the two parties, once they understand the realities of running a country like Germany, will understand that they must focus on defending German interests, even in relations with China. And that, they say, is what Scholz will do once he becomes chancellor. Any changes to foreign policy, they insist, will be minor.

One of the most sensitive points of controversy involves the future of U.S. nuclear weapons currently stationed in Germany – as part of Berlin’s so-called "nuclear sharing” obligations. As part of NATO’s nuclear deterrence, U.S. atomic bombs are stored at an air base called Fliegerhorst Büchel in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. In a conflict situation, German pilots might even be required to fly them to their targets in Tornado warplanes belonging to the German Air Force.

But the planes are ancient and badly need to be replaced. The Air Force says that of the 85 Tornados in its fleet, only 15 are currently deployable. And the situation isn’t likely to improve. Replacement parts are hard to come by and the structure of many of the jets is so poor that not even new parts are enough to get them back into the air.

Last year, the Defense Ministry reached a preliminary decision to replace the Tornados that are part of Germany’s nuclear sharing duties with F-18s from the U.S. and other Tornados with the Eurofighter. But the new government will have to make the final determination and place the order – by early 2023 at the latest.

A Tornado fighter-bomber at Fliegerhorst Büchel.

A Tornado fighter-bomber at Fliegerhorst Büchel.

Foto: Thomas Frey / DPA

Should the decision be delayed, Germany would risk a situation in which the Tornados would have to be mothballed before new aircraft can replace them. And that would be akin to a passive withdrawal from nuclear sharing – with unforeseeable rifts in the NATO alliance. Such divisions would likely be greatest with the Americans, but countries like the Netherlands and Italy, both of which are currently modernizing their fleets at great cost, would also likely be upset.

In their campaigns, both the Greens and the SPD demanded a Germany free of nuclear weapons, while the FDP didn’t mention the issue in its campaign platform. Pragmatists like Scholz and Baerbock insist that any change to the strategy of nuclear deterrence would have to be made together with all alliance partners. De facto, however, that is the same thing as discarding the demand for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany.

The Real Problems Come Later

And SPD floor leader Rolf Mützenich isn’t prepared to discard that demand. A prominent member of the SPD’s left wing, Mützenich is decisively opposed to Germany’s involvement in nuclear sharing. Last weekend, in an interview with German public radio station Deutschlandfunk, he made a plea for a moratorium on decisions pertaining to nuclear sharing. "We want to have four years of quiet, five years of quiet” – time that can be spent negotiating on nuclear weapons. "Maybe we can ultimately get them out of the country, preferably as fast as possible.”

The comment could be interpreted as a plea for a passive withdrawal from nuclear sharing. And Mützenich knows that many in the Green Party share his point of view, such as leftist Jürgen Trittin. Just how the parties plan to resolve the debate in the coalition agreement remains unclear.

Conflict between the SPD and the Greens began on day one of the negotiations. There, too, the focus of the debate was the trans-Atlantic alliance. SPD negotiator Nils Schmid proposed using the phrase "deterrence potential” in reference to NATO. But the Greens immediately rejected it. "You have a problem with the phrase 'deterrence potential?’” Schmid asked. Yes, came the answer, the defensive alliance is more of a "dialogue forum.”

There is one central issue that the working group definitely won’t be able to solve: the question as to Germany’s future defense budget. All three parties are interested in outfitting the German military, the Bundeswehr, appropriately. But it will likely be left up to the financial policymakers to determine exactly what that means.

In a confidential paper circulated among the negotiators, the Defense Ministry’s budget department has proposed the establishment of a "special Bundeswehr fund” in order to "ensure sufficient funding for long-term, multinational cooperation projects and highly complex, large-scale projects that require significant financing.” The paper also demands that the defense budget itself also be continually expanded – so that "Germany can also achieve the 2-percent goal agreed to in NATO.”

The ministry’s budget department notes in the paper that if one were to total up all those projects that the Defense Ministry has been unable to pay for out its own budget, one arrives at a sum of 40 billion euros. Coalition negotiators that are part of the foreign policy working group showed an interest in the paper, but they do not intend to include its proposals in the coalition agreement.

And the group isn’t even responsible for one particularly controversial foreign policy issue: the Baltic Sea natural gas pipeline known as Nord Stream 2. That project is for the energy working group to consider. And apparently, not even the Greens, who would like to see the project suspended, are interested in talking about it. Nobody, it is said, wants to reopen that particular can of worms.

How will the foreign policy working group ultimately resolve its differences? One particularly favored method is that of simply passing along the most difficult passages to party leaders for them to decide on. But one negotiator warns: Text passages that are too verbose or unresolved conflicts will simply be deleted, without giving the experts another chance to put in their two cents. "The group certainly has an interest in finding a compromise on as many issues as possible,” he says.

Still, it is unlikely that the final document will include much in the way of substantial results. Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, says that "the coalition negotiations will produce compromise formulations.” He expects that the real conflicts will only erupt after the talks. "The coalition agreement is the lesser challenge. The real problems will begin when they actually have to govern.”

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