Angela Merkel’s retirement, long overdue, left Germany suffering from bureaucratic sclerosis and declining infrastructure. Policy failures of the Merkel era are too numerous to recount here, but the tip of the iceberg is made up of Byzantine bureaucracy, inadequate public services, near-total absence of success in introducing e-governance, and long-term decline of the health and education systems.
Now, Germany’s new self-declared ‘progressive coalition’, commonly called ‘Ampelkoalition’ (traffic light coalition) of SPD, Greens and liberal FDP lacks any guiding ideas or shared principles. Led by the colourless Olaf Scholz (SPD) as new chancellor, it represents merely a deal of convenience to divide the state’s resources proportionally among the governing parties. When it comes to key issues such as Covid-19 policymaking, foreign policy and government unity, is Germany drifting to an unknown destination?
Conflicts over Covid-19 policymaking
Even before officially entering office, the prospective government was already driven by events. In November, Germany’s Covid-19 czar, the epidemiologist Christian Drosten, speculated that up to 100,000 people would die from the virus over the course of the winter. Later that month, the Constitutional Court, led by Merkel appointee Stephan Harbarth, declared previous Covid-19 emergency measures constitutional under the doctrine of ‘precaution’. Thus, Germany’s ultra-strict policies, including lengthy lockdowns, school closures, nightly curfews and the exclusion of ‘unvaccinated’ citizens from public life (and in certain contexts from education and employment) were legally validated.
Following the Court’s decision, Chancellor Scholz conducted a major policy U-turn. Before the September federal elections, he had declared himself opposed to vaccine mandates – in line with almost all Germany’s political class. Suddenly, he declared that he favoured them. In a notable act of political kindness to her successor, the outgoing Chancellor Merkel also announced her support of vaccine mandates in December – breaking her previous promises.
Spaziergang protest movement
After his election as chancellor in December, Scholz declared that MPs would be able to vote on vaccine mandates according to their conscience. He suggested cross-party negotiations on the topic rather than advancing a direct government legislative proposal, and announced that ‘there can be no longer any red lines’ in addressing the pandemic. By doing so, he triggered a wave of street protests against government authoritarianism that started in the former East Germany and subsequently expanded to the entire country. This so-called ‘Spaziergang’ (or walk) protest movement claimed that the new German government was continuing the course of its predecessor by utilising the pandemic to roll out unprecedented surveillance measures. Critics suspect that plans for the introduction of ‘vaccine passports’ and smartphone-based surveillance, such as QR-codes to control access to public spaces, will become permanent – in order to control citizens’ behavior in line with Chinese and East Asian practices.
Plans for mandatory vaccines collapse
Moderate Covid hospitalisation rates during the winter period and growing doubt over the efficacy and safety of mRNA vaccines, rushed out in reaction to the initial Wuhan variant, in the context of the fifth wave Omicron variant, undermined the case for vaccine mandates. Crucially, the German state television started to critically report for the first time on how citizens harmed by vaccines are being abandoned by the health authorities.
Nevertheless, a group of backbench SPD and Green MPs continued to advocate vaccine mandates. Ultimately, this group lost a final parliamentary vote on 7 April 2022 when their proposal was rejected in the Federal Parliament with 296 votes in favour, 378 against and nine abstentions. This major defeat of the coalition government was due to the majority rejection of the proposal by the liberal FDP. In the absence of a unified government majority, the overwhelming rejection of vaccine mandates by the Left Party and total rejection by the AfD allowed the CDU/CSU main opposition to vote down the plans. Just before the vote, the CDU leader Friedrich Merz suggested that Germany was ‘in good company’ in avoiding vaccine mandates given that most countries worldwide had already rejected such policies.
External shock of Ukraine war
Germany’s domestic political situation suddenly changed beyond recognition due to the Russian military attack on neighboring Ukraine on 24 February. The war pushed the entire world order in an unexpected direction and forced Chancellor Scholz to quickly conduct another U-turn. Prior to the attack, Scholz appeared to have calculated that the long-term project ‘North Stream 2’ (the gas pipeline that would have directly connected Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea further entrenching the long-standing energy partnership between the two countries) might still be a viable option. During his first trip as German chancellor to the USA to meet President Joseph Biden, he kept quiet when Biden told him on 7 February 2022 that in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine ‘there will be no longer a North Stream 2, we will bring an end to it’.
Directly after the Russian invasion, Scholz announced on 27 February a new 100 billion euro special military budget – in effect a German rearmament programme. He subsequently tried to counterbalance this initiative with assurances that Germany would not deliver heavy weaponry to Ukraine and would also not support an immediate boycott of Russian oil and gas imports.
Clearly, the situation is now extremely difficult in both the short and long term. A large number of Ukrainian refugees have entered Germany. The German public now fears further territorial or military expansion of the war while also worrying about (energy-)inflation and a deep recession. Business leaders stress that growing energy prices will question the future of German industry. One regional prime minister suggested that a collapse of Russian energy flows to German would trigger ‘catastrophic’ economic and social consequences arguing that ‘we will not be able to cope in the short or medium term without [Russian] oil deliveries from the Druschba route’.
Internal government division
In this context, the three-party coalition once again suffers from internal divisions. Some individual MPs of the SPD, Greens and FDP are currently agitating for the delivery of ‘heavy weapons’ as part of efforts to ‘defend Ukraine’. These German politicians belong to transatlantic networks now stressing the need for ‘regime change’ in Moscow. Basically, German citizens are steered up to support Ukraine in the strongest military terms – without proper understanding of potential repercussions from Russia.
For his part, Scholz stressed on 7 April 2022 that ‘a special role of Germany would be a big mistake’. He also warned of further escalation toward nuclear war. However, his own foreign minister, the Green politician Annalena Baerbock, subsequently suggested that heavy weapons should be delivered to Ukraine as a matter of urgency. Clearly, the coalition is failing to unite, thereby further undermining the authority of the chancellor.
Dramatic shifts in Europe have enabled Germany’s coalition government to blame long-standing domestic economic and social problems on external factors. The absence of viable plans to modernise the country’s infrastructure no longer matters for the time being. After all, German spending priorities are now supposed to serve military rather than civilian objectives. If the Russian war in Ukraine continues, and oil and gas deliveries were to stop, Germany would quickly face existential challenges in all fields of policymaking.