Speaking in the aftermath of the German federal elections in September, Olaf Scholz said his Social Democrats (SPD) gains were a mandate for a “social, ecological, liberal” government. It was a curious phrase from the dry and lackluster former mayor of Hamburg. Could a government really combine these three distinct politico-philosophical traditions? Are there not tensions between and within them? Where is the common ground that unites them?
In fact, the commentary was only an expression of political reality. As in many other European countries, including Spain, the political landscape in Germany is becoming fragmented. Although the Social Democrats made unexpected gains, the elections left them near their historic lows and with too few MPs to govern solely with their preferred partners, the Greens. The Christian Democrats, an alliance of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, could not form a two-party government with their preferred partners, the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), either. Scholz knew that her best chance of succeeding Merkel as Chancellor was to build a radical tripartite government of her Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals – the first such national government in European history.
Known as the “traffic light coalition” because the colors of the three parties are red, green and yellow, it is precisely the government which, after two months of negotiations, will now take charge of the most. large economy of Europe. In the week of December 6, Merkel will step down after 16 years as Chancellor. Scholz will replace her. And so will begin a fascinating experience combining the strengths and visions of social democracy, environmentalism and liberalism. The age of traffic lights is dawning in Germany. If this leads to success, it will be a powerful role model for progressives across Europe.
We are living in a time of crisis: new social divides, pandemic, climate emergency. No ideological school of thought has a monopoly on the answers to these challenges.
Political arithmetic is not the only reason for this coalition. Personalities also make it possible. Scholz is a sort of liberal Social Democrat, who has ruled his port city with pragmatic competence and has been federal finance minister under Merkel for the past three years. The two leaders of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, are both centrists. Liberal leader Christian Lindner is economically right-wing, but also a libertarian whose instincts for individual freedoms align with the left. Together, they presented their coalition deal in Berlin on November 24 – already looking like a government, already like a team.
The involvement of the liberals worries some European partners like Emmanuel Macron. Lindner has already supported Greece’s expulsion from the common currency, has spoken out in favor of a strict stability and growth pact for the eurozone, and opposes European taxes. He will be Minister of Finance under Scholz (Baerbock becomes Minister of Foreign Affairs, Habeck Minister of Economy). Yet the coalition agreement does not rule out a progressive macroeconomics as some feared. It allows for an increase in German domestic investment through special agencies and investment vehicles, and uses open language about the âdevelopmentâ of euro area fiscal rules.
Each party inscribes its main priorities in the coalition agreement. The Social Democrats obtain an increase in the minimum wage from â¬ 9.60 to â¬ 12, stable pensions and the construction of 400,000 new homes. Greens aim to end coal-fired electricity and 80% renewable energy by 2030. FDP secures new tax incentives for businesses and protection of Germany’s constitutional debt brake , which limits deficit spending.
But what is encouraging about the document is that it is not simply a list of the lowest common denominators. Rather, it is a coherent vision of a common project combining the strengths of all three parties. Merkel’s governments brought stability and maturity, but were too cautious and left Germany in need of modernization. This is the mission that the new coalition has set for itself: to lead the country into the future. The title of the coalition agreement is “Dare More Progress”, a reference to Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt’s slogan “Dare More Democracy”.
This progress takes two main forms. First, a bold liberalization of social policy. The traffic light coalition will lower the voting age to 16, legalize cannabis, allow doctors to provide information about abortion services (currently not permitted), and facilitate self-identification for trans people. Most striking is the openness of German identity: citizenship will soon be available to migrants five years after arrival, or in some cases three years, and the new government will end the current ban on dual citizenship. .
Second, there is a major impetus for physical modernization in a âdecade of investmentâ. Germany’s infrastructure is surprisingly poor for such a prosperous country: the Internet is slow; roads, railways and bridges are often in poor condition; and the deployment of renewable energies is slow. The coalition deal includes ways to fund major new investments and make better use of public spending, for example, both by consolidating budgets and encouraging more private initiatives in digital infrastructure.
A new “social-ecological-liberal” policy, if successfully launched in Germany, will be a powerful example of how to navigate the realities of our times of crisis.
Time will tell if the traffic light groups will work well together. Many of the new Social Democratic MPs are young and from the left of the party. Will they really come to an agreement with a Liberal finance minister? Differences in foreign policy, between the Social Democrats ‘focus on exports and the Greens’ focus on human rights, will they provoke conflicts on subjects like China? In addition, the coalition agreement leaves certain things open for debate, such as the German position on euro area fiscal rules. But the spirit is positive: the leaders of the three parties speak of the need for compromise and cooperation. In the policies they announced, they have a serious common mission with real potential to move the country forward.
If the new coalition is successful, it will resonate well beyond Germany’s borders. We are living in a time of crisis: new social fractures, the pandemic, the climate emergency, technological and economic upheavals, the harsh new geopolitical realities. No ideological school of thought has a monopoly on responses to these challenges; no political philosophical tradition has a unique right to the mantle of progressivism. A new “social-ecological-liberal” policy, if successfully launched in Germany, will be a powerful example of how to navigate these realities.
After all, different philosophies need each other. Social democracy depends on a dynamic private sector, the virtues of liberalism, for shared prosperity. A strong social-liberal economy must also value the non-material wealth – clean air, climate security, quality of life, civil liberties – associated with the green political tradition. Environmentalism in turn needs the liberal spirit that will create the new clean technologies needed to stop climate change. For their part, liberalism and ecology both have an indispensable partner in social democracy: neither a fluid market economy nor ambitious environmental action can succeed in societies torn between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, winners. and losers.
It is difficult to imagine our democratic societies up to the challenges of the coming decades without an ingenious fusion of the cohesion brought about by social democracy, the commitment to drastic climate action and a healthier society brought about by the green tradition and the innovation and openness brought about by liberalism. They are mutually reinforcing and all three are needed. This is what makes the political experience about to take power in Berlin so exciting. He can triumph, he can fail. But in any case, the new German Petri dish deserves special attention.