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Mar 26, 2023
Scholz Under Pressure to Bring Fractious Coalition Into Line
(Bloomberg) -- Germany’s ruling coalition is meeting Sunday in Berlin to try to move beyond bickering over issues including climate protection and next year’s budget and dispel the impression that it’s a spent force after only 15 months in power.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-party government — stitched together from his center-left Social Democrats, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats — is unlikely to crumble anytime soon. But recent public sniping has fueled concern that it will be unable to enact policies in the coalition agreement that are essential for Germany’s transition to a more environmentally friendly and technologically advanced economy.
The discord is also an unwelcome distraction as Scholz works to hold together the alliance supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion and attempts to address growing Chinese assertiveness. It has disrupted business at the European Union level and prompted grumbling from Germany’s partners in the bloc that Scholz’s government is sometimes slow to agree internally on the most basic elements of proposed legislation.
Scholz, who will host Sunday evening’s talks at the chancellery in Berlin, has mostly avoided becoming embroiled in the coalition squabbling. He has repeatedly argued that disputes between three parties with competing political objectives and contrasting electoral bases were always to be expected.
“We have set ourselves the task of modernizing our country and overcoming the standstill of many, many years and decades and ensuring that we advance the very ambitious goals we have set,” Scholz said Friday when asked about Sunday’s meeting.
“All of this means that we have to change laws and regulations on a large scale, all of which have been made for more comfortable times,” he added, speaking after talks with EU counterparts in Brussels.
Tensions boiled into the open on Tuesday when Robert Habeck, the Greens economy minister who is also the vice chancellor, attacked the FDP in an interview with public broadcaster ARD. A draft proposal from his ministry on phasing out polluting gas and oil heaters was deliberately leaked to the Bild tabloid “to undermine trust within the government,” he said.
“We have a task to achieve something for the people, for Germany, and at the moment we’re not adequately pursuing that,” Habeck said, urging the three parties to avoid obsessing about opinion polls and their media profiles.
At the same time, he stressed that cooperation at the cabinet level remained “flawless” and said that Sunday’s meeting should serve as a catalyst to speed up a raft of planned legislation. In a separate interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, he said he was “110%” certain that the coalition would serve out its four-year term.
Greens Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has also called for an end to the infighting. “People expect that a government doesn’t permanently fight, but rather solves problems together,” she said during a visit to the North Macedonian capital Skopje on Thursday.
Veronika Grimm, a member of Scholz’s panel of independent economic advisers, said she doesn’t expect the alliance to break apart — at least for the time being. She urged the government to quickly get its act together, especially on implementing effective climate protection.
“The coalition partners certainly have no interest in elections right now,” Grimm said in an interview. “They wouldn’t benefit from that.”
The laborious process of putting together next year’s budget has also played into the coalition dispute. There are limited funds available for 2024 after FDP Finance Minister Christian Lindner — who styles himself as a guardian of sound public finances — insisted on the restoration of a constitutional brake on new borrowing suspended to help deal with the pandemic and the energy crisis.
Lindner’s FDP has performed poorly in recent regional elections and is trying to raise its profile in government and reverse a decline in voter support in opinion polls. An Allensbach survey published Thursday showed backing for the party on 6.5%, down from 11.5% at the 2021 national election and dangerously close to the 5% threshold for getting into parliament.
Lindner even mounted a public challenge to Scholz by saying he would look into canceling a planned extension of the finance ministry and urging the chancellor to do the same with a project to expand his sprawling office complex along the Spree river.
The Greens were particularly irritated by the FDP’s insistence on an exemption for e-fuels from a planned EU ban on combustion-engine cars from 2035, although they played along for the sake of coalition unity before a deal was announced on Saturday.
FDP General Bijan Djir-Sarai on Friday brushed off criticism that his party is sacrificing the greater good for short-term domestic political gain, arguing that “it’s partly about different visions regarding the future of our nation.”
“For me it’s nothing unusual that you discuss details and facts intensively or even argue,” he said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF.
“I can’t promise you that the world will look different after Sunday’s meeting and there will always be conflicts within this government in this combination,” he added. “The great art is then at the end of the day to find solutions for the country together.”
Saskia Esken, a co-leader of Scholz’s SPD, called on coalition members to focus on policy and said she would like discussions to be held internally and not in public.
“Of course all the parties would like to govern alone and have their agenda at the top of the pile but that’s not possible,” she told Deutschlandfunk radio Friday. “We really now have to tackle the tasks we have.”
--With assistance from Petra Sorge and Chris Reiter.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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