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New Start or Keep (Old) Things Going? Germany's New Government

Gerald F. Hetzel

Following the elections in September, the power dynamics in the Bundestag (the German parliament) shifted, creating for the first time a three-party coalition (if you don´t count CDU / CSU [the Christian Democratic Union party and its sister Bavarian party the Christian Social Union] as two parties) led by the head of the Social Democrats Olaf Schultz, who became the first German chancellor since Angela Merkel at the beginning of December. 

The new government of SPD (the Social Democrat Party), Green party and FDP (the Free Democratic Party - a economically liberal party) has, in an unusual twist for Germany, boldly branded itself with strong slogans meant to distinguish itself from the previous government. The SPD has tried to distance itself from the former government in public statements, as if the SPD was not involved in the previous government. The former administration is called a “lame duck”, the new one a “progressive start” even though the SPD was the coalition partner of Merkel’s last administration and achieved much of their stated platform during that time. However, after examining the details of the coalition agreement it seems questionable, how much of it can really be reached. 

In the new coalition contract, many controversial topics are vaguely formulated or left out completely. For example, the exit of coal usage for energy production until 2030 was a main election promise of the Green party. Now, in the coalition contract, the word “ideally” has been added, which means it is not a strict target anymore. Other climate-related demands, like a ban of domestic flights, did not make it into the coalition agreement. Also, the general speed limit on highways, demanded by SPD and Greens, was given up as a concession towards FDP. Only some tax raises for fuel and gas were agreed upon. Especially for the Green party, whose core topics are environmental and climate related policies, such concessions have caused frustration with its supporters. Many climate NGOs and activists already had demonstrations at the SPD and Green party headquarters, to show their strong disappointment about the lack of -in their opinion- necessary climate-protecting bans and policies. 

The new government’s stated policy toward immigration is to ease barriers to migrants. A new law would be created to enable legal immigration to Germany. For people who already have entered Germany illegally, the possibilities of getting a residency permit and obtaining citizenship is slated to be simplified. 

One of the most politically salient topics in Germany are the policies regarding the coronavirus. In autumn, already before the new coalition officially started, when the parliament had already been in place with the new seat allocation, the three parties which formed the coalition later ended most corona-related restrictions (which had been an election promise of FDP). Only a few weeks later, when the infections increased, many of the same restrictions were again restored with some being more stringent and some new measures introduced. For instance, a new measure was introduced where the private gatherings are limited to ten people when all are vaccinated. Another example of a new restriction was one created for non-vaccinated people where private gatherings are limited to two people.

Furthermore, the government plans to put a general vaccine mandate for everyone, something that the former government (as well as all parties before election day, including those now forming the government) had ruled out. This led to demonstrations of people opposing the vaccination mandate, to which the police were instructed to react robustly

Finally, there are two policies the new coalition agreed on quickly, but in the public they are still being widely and actively debated. The first is that the consumption of recreational marijuana will be decriminalized. The second is the relaxation of abortion laws that permits the advertisement of these services and provides them for free. 

On the issue of foreign policy, the new foreign minister announced a “values-based” approach. Despite the new wording, the new government intends to continue the approach of the previous government of maintaining general neutrality in foreign affairs while securing the benefits of a military alliance with the United States.

On the opposition’s side, the CDU needs to find its role after 16 years of leading the government. In a party vote open to all CDU members, the often described right-winger Friedrich Merz was elected as the new leader of the party. In summary, Germany's new government has raised a few new areas that it intends to act on but it is generally expected to continue the approach that the former government paved in most fields.

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