A bright post-Merkel future?
In December 2021, it all seemed possible. Scholz’s SPD, the Greens, and the FDP came together for the first time in the country’s history to form a government. The 177- page coalition contract entitled “Mehr Fortschritt wagen” (“risk more progress”), did sound like a great antidote to Merkel’s mantra: do the least that needs doing.
A great start
There was a great burning out of dead wood that had built up in German law-books for decades: paragraph 219a – the bizarre Nazi hangover that stopped doctors advertising abortions, the criminalisation of cannabis, the banning of dual nationality. It was a good start. But it lasted two months. The Russian invasion of Ukraine at the end of February made each government party re-examine its basic purpose.
Free liberal spending
The FDP, the party that had promised fiscal discipline and whose leader Christian Lindner had become finance minister, couldn’t cut government spending and stop borrowing. That’s because the chancellor suddenly announced an injection of €100 billion into the German military. ONE HUNDRED BILLION! Where did that come from?
Foul fuel and pacific weapons
The Greens, who had promised to do something about Germany’s arms exports, were faced with the moral necessity of arming Ukraine. Not only that, they couldn’t drive on with their transition to renewable energy, because Russian gas was no longer a good thing, and Robert Habeck, the Green economy and climate protection minister, had to tour some pretty unsavoury regimes in the Middle East asking for cheap fossil fuel deals. Of course, Russia is bad, but making your country’s energy supply dependent on other authoritarian regimes doesn’t look great either.
Ostpolitik in a shambles
As for Scholz’s SPD: they found themselves standing in the ruins of even older principles. This was the party that had reoriented West Germany’s attitude to the Soviet Union back in the late 1960s. That Ostpolitik was so successful it became part of the “Wandel durch Handel” policy that Merkel’s CDU also bought into: “change through trade”. Okay, it promised, maybe we can’t really “change” Russia, but at least we can bind Moscow to the rule of international law with trade. Global capitalism will save us! Nord Stream, the Russian gas pipelines mysteriously damaged in the late summer, became for all ruling parties the solution to all of Germany’s energy problems.
The €9-silver lining
Crises force you to get creative, and the Scholz government did offer us the best, most innovative idea since Berlin’s rent-freeze. The €9 ticket (unlimited train travel across the country for €9 a month) represented a lot more than cheap travel. It was real freedom for millions of people, and it helped reduce pollution and carbon emissions. What’s more, it served to very slightly reduce people’s cynicism about politics. It showed that, when they want to, politicians can find ways to support people directly and concretely.