The Green party need to release the brake

...or why Baerbock might need Laschet

Dear Reader,

The Greens have ambitious plans for Germany. There’s a hitch though..


Jörg & Axel

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Five Things

  • A big welcome to the latest member of Germany’s English speaking community - Jesse Marsch, the wonderfully foul-mouthed American who has been appointed as head coach of RB Leipzig. Mr Marsch has been hoovering up titles with Red Bull’s Salzburg franchise, and is best known for a rousing half time talk he gave during a European tie against Liverpool. Demanding that his players go out and crack a few ribs, he screamed: “Es ist nicht ein fucking Freundschaftsspiel!” His team responded by scoring three second half goals. This interview suggests that his German is now so good he’ll be able to rant at his players with the choicest Teutonic swear words. Let’s hope he can use it to bring the Bundesliga title to the east for a change.

  • Germany’s domestic spying agency has put parts of the Querdenker scene under observation, meaning they can now eavesdrop on their communications and put informants inside the anti-lockdown movement. The agency hasn’t specified which Querdenker they are watching, but they have created a new category of threat that the protesters fit into. They are neither far-right, far-left, nor Islamist, but more generally people who “delegitimize the state.” State broadcaster ARD made a revealing comment, stating that “undoubtedly the spy agency wants those who are not themselves extremists to ask whether they want to protest with extremists.” In other words the spy agency is attempting to influence the German public in its constitutional right to freedom of association. It’s worrying that, in a country with a long history of politicized spy agencies, the state broadcaster doesn’t have a problem with this kind of intervention. To learn more about the history of Germany’s domestic spy agency, read our piece on its use against political opponents here.

  • Angela Merkel was supposed to take her cabinet to China for one of her last major diplomatic tours this week. But they had to make do with hanging out online. As we’ve previously written, Ms Merkel has spent much of her Chancellorship nurturing good relations with the Chinese communist party - she has visited the country 12 times, and one of her last major foreign policy acts was the agreement of an investment pact between the EU and Beijing. But tit-for-tat sanctions between Brussels and Beijing over human rights abuses in Xinjiang have raised questions over whether the European parliament will ratify it. On Wednesday, Ms Merkel reaffirmed her belief that the pact should be the the “foundation of economic relations” between the EU and China.

  • The Constitutional Court has sided with climate campaigners and ordered the government to change its Klimaschutzgesetz (2019). The Bundesverfassungsgericht - Germany’s highest court - ruled that the law put too much of the burden of meeting emissions targets on the decades after 2030, meaning reductions would have to be made “ever more urgently and every more rapidly.” This “could affect almost all freedoms, since every aspect of life is connected to greenhouse gas emissions,” the court found. The ruling is fascinating as, for the first time, it rejected a law based not on an immediate threat to constitutional rights, but on potential future threats. Given that the future is by necessity uncertain, that’s a major shift in the Constitutional Court’s role, potentially to that of a clairvoyant. One might have expected the government to stick up for its own legislation (perhaps by arguing that innovation in green technology won’t be linear and that C02 reduction targets therefore also shouldn’t be). Instead, ministers rushed to praise the judges. Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) called it a “great and meaningful ruling” that was “epochal” for the rights of young people - to which Finance Minister Olaf Scholz replied that “if I recall correctly, you in the CDU blocked the exact thing that the court has now called for.”

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Why the Greens need the CDU next autumn

As the Green party surges ahead in polling, speculation is increasing about whom they might make a coalition with after the Septembers 26th election. Narrow majorities in combination with the Social Democrats and Die Linke (green-red-red), or with the Social Democrats and Free Democrats (“traffic light coalition”) are both realistic, should the Green bubble not burst.

But the truth is that, if the Greens want to push through their ambitious reform agenda, they are going to need a big majority - and that would seem impossible without the CDU.

In their 140-page draft manifesto, the Greens set out a half-a-trillion-euro spending package that would seek to turbo charge Germany’s transformation from a fossil-fuel-based economy to one based on renewables.

Countryfolk would be given cash to buy electric cars, massive investment in rail infrastructure would be make short haul flights redundant in a decade; private cars would make way for a national cycle network and car sharing (which would be connected with rail services by smart apps); a million roofs would be covered in solar panels; schools and town halls would get digital infrastructure fit for the 21st century.

The manifesto melds the German love of technological knowhow with the desire to be a leader in sustainable technologies. It is the perfect pick-me-up for a country whose pride has been wounded by the ham-fisted pandemic response.

“The earth is heating up, schools are falling into disrepair, and Germany is one of the worst performers in the EU when it comes to high-speed internet. We invest too little in our country. These debts are not on the books, but they threaten our prosperity,” the Green manifesto declares, as it calls for a new ecological big state.

For the environmentalists, it is time to leverage the high trust in German bonds and low interest rates to take on new debts. Modernizing infrastructure will accelerate economic growth: as long as the economy grows faster than the interest on debts, the debts will shrink in real terms, they argue. 

Investing to make Germany fighting fit for the 21st century: that’s a message many Germans are likely to go for. The widespread perception that Germany has failed over the past few months due to a sclerotic bureaucracy has led people to question the orthodoxy of the Merkel era that the best way to prepare for the next crisis is to hoard your pennies in the good times.

The major stumbling bloc is that Ms Merkel cemented her way of doing things when she had a supermajority back in 2009. In her first government - a grand coalition that truly deserved the name - she used her alliance with the SPD to write the Schuldenbremse (debt brake) into the constitution, something that needs a two thirds majority in the Bundestag.

The debt brake ties the hands of future governments in the deficits they can run, meaning that they can more or less only spend what they take in in tax receipts.

But tax receipts aren’t going to cover the Greens massive spending plans. They need to loosen the brake.

“We want to bring the debt brake in the constitution in line with the times - to allow for the investments that are so urgently needed,” the party manifesto states.

But how are they going to get the two thirds majority in the Bundestag necessary to change the constitution? There doesn’t seem to be any way past the CDU, who would surely block a change if they were in the opposition.

The Greens will have to try and coax the CDU into a coalition agreement that commits them to weakening the Schuldenbremse.

This won’t be easy. For some in the conservative ranks taking on debts is a red line.

“The debt brake was one of the most ground breaking and enduring policy decisions to limit government spending sprees,” rising star of the party right, Carsten Linnemann, recently said.

Others in the CDU would be prepared to talk, though. Ms Merkel’s chief of staff Helge Braun, dared to go public with his doubts about the Schuldenbremse back in January, arguing that it wasn’t realistic to think that Germany would be able to stick to it in the short term.

CDU leader Armin Laschet’s response to Mr Braun was interesting. He went ballistic. But he wasn’t so much angered by the proposal as by the fact that Mr Braun had made it without consulting with him first.

So if the Greens do emerge from September’s election victorious, one of the first questions they will ask themselves is - how can we get the CDU to give up on their fetish?


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011