Germany on the Road to an SPD-Green-FDP Coalition

The formation of a ‘traffic-light’ government can base itself on a broad social consensus beyond the three parties. The consultation paper looks greener and more social than previous policy but at the same time without breaking from the logic of neoliberalism.

A distinct majority in Germany would like to see changes and stability in equal measure. It is clear to people that in view of the climate crisis there needs to be changes and especially investments in the requisite reconstruction, and it is of course deemed important to strengthen social cohesion again – but all of this with a sense of proportion and discretion. This is exactly what Olaf Scholz stands for as a person, as a new chancellor und guarantor of a Merkel-type policy of the steady hand. Consequently, almost 60% of Germans support a ‘traffic-light coalition’ (so called because of the red-green-yellow colours of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Liberals (FDP)), with 76% for Olaf Scholz as Chancellor.

The basics

The programme as contained in the 12-page consultation paper looks greener and more social than previous policy but at the same time without breaking from the logic of neoliberalism. The actual central line of conflict, the watershed in the face of which the government has various options to act, is seen in the consultation paper in the unresolved contradiction between major investment initiatives – with a reinforcement of public care systems, the expansion of research and development, a large-scale housing construction plan, the raising of the minimum wage, and the maintenance of the status quo for pensions on the one hand and on the other hand the rejection of tax raises and the introduction of a wealth tax along with the maintenance of the balanced-budget requirement. We would also have to ask whether the price for wage raises and maintaining the pension level is flexibilised working times, as the case may be beyond collective-bargaining rules, as well as the adoption of capital-funded state pensions. Whether, beyond this, there is also a conflict in terms of foreign policy is still an open question in view of the reference to Germany’s European and global responsibility – in close cooperation with France – in the improved equipping of the Bundeswehr and the cooperation, to be strengthened, between national and European armies, the development of Germany’s security strategy, and the announced disarmament initiative.

On all this the consultation paper is vague. Therefore a critique – on the part of the social movements and of course also Die LINKE – is urgently necessary. But accusing the Social Democrats and Greens of not acting in a more consistent social, sustainable, and climate-protecting way will not be enough to usher in a true change of direction in policy. On the contrary, the concentration of the consultation paper on some social improvements like the raising of the minimal wage to 12 euros or the defence of pensions as well as the concentration on apartment-house construction with 400,000 apartments including 100,000 subsidised housing units, will specifically help the Social Democrats to assert themselves as the party capable of implementing social justice under difficult conditions. As a complement, the Greens – who are open to social questions – will present themselves as the appropriate party against climate change and environmental destruction that is also viable for everyday life. This has to be taken seriously by Die LINKE as a party for social justice and socio-ecological transformation.

What does this mean concretely?

The ranking of the 10 central themes, their concretisation and weighting, is significant. The paper begins with (1) the modernisation of the state, (2) climate protection, (3) work, continuing with (4) social security, (5) children, family, and education, (6) economic policy, (7) construction, (8) freedom and democracy, (9) budget, and ends (10) with Germany’s responsibility in Europe and the world. Evidently, the controversial subjects were placed at the end and dealt with through formulations that if necessary would make them variously interpretable or allow room for differences without triggering arguments already before the beginning of coalition negotiations.

The consultation paper in detail

  1. The modernisation of the state and administration: Included here are, among other things, the reinforcement of public services, especially in rural areas. It involves a good life with work, internet, good transportation and shopping facilities.
  2. Climate protection: This is understood as a ‘social-ecological market economy’ and includes ecological housing construction or reconstruction, alternative and renewable energy, an exit from coal by 2030, solar roofs as mandatory for new construction, 2% of surfaces for wind power, and the creation of a fund or a foundation for adaptation and compensation measures. Furthermore, the Renewable Energy Law (EEG) as well as the EU programme Fitfor55 is to be reformed. How this is to be done is left open.
  3. The focus ‘respect and change for work’ is explained at the outset with the keywords ‘security’ and ‘learning’ (for ongoing change). Traditional social partnership is to be continued. A minimum wage of 12 euros is to be implemented. At the same time the focus involves flexibilised labour-market models with a limited possibility of diverging from the legal rules in terms of daily working hours if the trade union or factory council agrees – a rule which in view of the falling share of collective-bargaining agreements in the eastern German federal states amounts to company-level disputes, if it even gets to that point. Mini-jobs (incomes below 450 euros a month) and midi-jobs (incomes above 450 and below 1,300 a month) are to be re-regulated. This means for mini-jobs a minimum of 10 hours per week at the minimum wage. What is alluded to here amounts to a consolidation of precarious conditions of employment, all the more so that citizen’s income (the renamed variant of Hartz IV – see the next point on social security) indicates this kind of orientation.
  4. Shape social security in a citizen-friendly way but without giving up the logic that has ruled it up to now: The activating social state is to be maintained, which when needed can act through sanctions. What the differences really are between Hartz IV, which has been in force up to now, and this future citizen’s income will emerge from the coalition negotiations. Up to now it seems to mean an (in any case already) increased ‘Schonvermögen’ (the amount of money a Hartz IV claimant is entitled to keep), which is not counted, and a broadening of the recipient group, using the experience with corona help and the increase of the supplementary income levels. Nevertheless, the logic that has prevailed up to now is retained.
    Still, the pension level is to be ensured at 48% of previous income. Moreover, there is to be no raising of the pensionable age. Legal and private pension coverage will remain. What is new is the introduction of capital-financed state pensions. A focal point remains the state promotion of private funds-based pension provision, even though the previous product (‘Riester Pensions’) failed.
    In care provision, no real changes are in sight. The problem of lack of nursing staff is to be solved by foreign recruitment. Nevertheless, there are to be unified standards, federation-wide, of personnel allocation. The question here is at what level agreement will be possible, considering that, as a result of corona, hospitals have piled up clearly exorbitant mountains of debt and run the risk – as the neoliberal Bertelmanns Stiftung think tank already proposed in 2019 – of being closed or privatised.
    No change is foreseen in private and state healthcare insurance.
  5. ‘Opportunities for children, strong families, and the best education’ requires lifelong learning, a theme that was already take up under the rubric of work. What is new is the pooling of budgets for a basic children’s insurance and, after the collapse of 2021, the anchoring of children’s rights in the Basic Law. Furthermore, the BAFÖG (Federal Training Assistance Act) rules are to be reformed and assigned more independently of the parents’ income.
  6. Economic policy: The competitive capacity of the German economy will be adhered to and for this the budget for research and development is to be raised to 3.5% of GDP.
    Free trade should be rules-based and be reinforced on a foundation of fair social, ecological, and human-rights standards. At the same time Germany declares itself in favour of a German and European trade policy directed against protectionism and unfair trade practices. What this concretely means remains to be seen. Also announced in the paper is that the European domestic market and European competition law are to be strengthened in the face of the unfair competitive practices of authoritarian regimes.
  7. Construction and living: this new focus of the traffic-light government results from the pressure of movements against rent hikes and gentrification and goes back to the successful Berlin Referendum on the expropriation of transnational apartment enterprises (such as Deutsche Wohnen). One could say that with the housing theme Die LINKE was de facto ‘expropriated’. If, as now planned, 400,000 new apartments are to be built a year, of which 100,00 are to be subsidised housing units, this will count as a Social Democratic success story – the rent protection measures less so, however. These are, admittedly, to be examined but a rent cap is not to be introduced.
  8. Freedom and security – equality and diversity in democracy: These keywords involve the libertarian package of ideas that are largely also endorsed by the left-green electorate. Part of this is a modern citizenship law, a modern immigration law, complemented by a point system for winning foreign skilled workers. Beyond this it involves the evaluation of the state’s powers of intervention and their reorientation. In this section there is a clear positioning against anti-Semitism, racism, right-wing extremism, anti-Islamism, anti-queer policies, but also a boundary established on the left – against left-wing extremism.
    The right of self-determination and also the financial independence of women is to be promoted. And this moreover involves the ensuring of diversity and freedom of culture as well as the right to vote from the age of 16.
  9. The utterances on budget have up to now been very vague, so that in view of the planned investment offensive, new housing construction, the introduction of a minimum wage, the safeguarding of the pension level but also the retaining of the requirement of balanced budgets, the question arises of how, for example, investments are at all possible within the framework of balanced budgets and without raising taxes – not to mention that there is to be no wealth tax. The coalition agreement will have to give answers to this.
  10. ‘Germany’s responsibility for Europe and the world’: This is the last complex of issues in the consultation paper and remains very vague.
    What is first stipulated is that Germany bears global responsibility and this responsibility consists in strengthening the European Union to live up to this responsibility. Germany will therefore deepen its European orientation. Therefore, the paper states that foreign, security, and development policy must be constructed in a value-based and more European way and that Europe’s strategic sovereignty must be increased. In concrete terms: ‘We will define German interests in the light of European interests. We want to carry out an active European policy, along the lines of a stronger German-French partnership and in close cooperation with the Weimar Triangle.’ In stating this, the paper stresses – notwithstanding all the current confrontations – the special relationship of Germans to France and Poland.
    The formulation in the paper of stronger cooperation between the national European armies correspond to Macron’s proposal, in which Germany’s changed role as the strongest political power in Europe should be reflected also in its role as strongest military power.
    The German deployment in Afghanistan is to be evaluated by a commission of inquiry; however, further foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr are being basically maintained, while upgrading its equipment.
    At the same time, the traffic-light parties want to present a national security strategy for Germany and put forward an initiative for disarmament, in which Germany is to play a leading role in strengthening international disarmament initiatives and non-proliferation agreements.
    The Stability and Growth Pact is said to have demonstrated its flexibility. Therefore growth should be ensured on this basis, debt sustainability maintained and provisions be made for sustainable and climate-friendly investments. The Green Deal is to be upheld, whose implementations must be worked out in the coalition negotiations.

Conclusion: What does this mean for Die LINKE?

Whatever emerges at the end of the coalition negotiations, it will portray the current state of the political balance of forces in Germany and at the same time also reflect the effects of the political pressure exerted by movements or civil-society initiatives, and not least the not-to-be-underestimated influence of the economic, financial, and insurance lobbies as well as the employers’ associations. But one thing is already clear – this traffic light is wanted by Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals; what is now at stake is the price that each party has to pay.

The announced government programme appears greener and more social without breaking with the practices or logic that has prevailed up to now. Modernity, digitalisation, and technological progress in general are presented as the motor for facing social challenges.

The Left’s criticism of the paper and the accusation that it is not more consistently sustainable, climate-friendly, and more social, will not suffice. On the contrary, the concentration on some social improvements, such as wages, or the defence of the status quo in terms of pension, and the housing-construction programme will make precisely the Social Democrats recognised again as the party for social justice under difficult conditions. Die LINKE has to take this seriously. It has to adapt to the situation in which Social Democrats and Greens are undertaking a socio-ecological alignment of their policies, of whatever kind, thus altering the place for a radical left in Germany.

Die LINKE must be able to develop and present its alternative narrative, its societal vision credibly, together with people locally and in social movements and initiatives. For this it is not enough to only be strong and active in cities and formulate political programmes from an urban perspective. Die LINKE must be anchored, and again become more visible and effective, in both the city and the country, thus in local districts, in everyday life.