Berlin Bulletin: Paralyzing the country — Habeck on the attack — CDU on China
A weekly newsletter on German politics, with news and analysis on the new government.
By FLORIAN EDER
with GABRIEL RINALDI
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SITUATIONAL AWARENESS: Germany is facing a nationwide strike in the transport sector on Monday. Trade unions Verdi and EVG have called on employees at railroads, airports and local transport to down tools; shipping and highways are also affected. Deutsche Bahn will suspend all long-distance traffic throughout the country. There will be no regular flights at Frankfurt and Munich airports on Monday, and no flights to and from Munich on Sunday either.
Why? The unions are paralyzing the whole country to demand more money from public employers; and because they can.
COALITION SUMMIT PRIMER: The tide is turning against the Green party, long spoilt by success with voters and opinion leaders — and as a first, this is shattering their self-image as representing the Light Side of the Force. “It cannot be that in a progress coalition only one coalition partner is responsible for progress and the others [focus on] preventing progress,” Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck told reporters this week, bitterly complaining about being treated badly ahead of a Green party summit. But voters disagree with that self-assessment.
Awareness: The Greens have been falling in polls for months, from 23 percent last summer down to 17 percent, while the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been steadily rising and is now close on the Greens’ tail, at 15 percent. The backlash is growing over climate policies: A last-minute fight of mainly the Free Democrats against legislation banning the combustion-engine car appears to resonate with the electorate; Green proposals for an earlier coal exit anger people in Eastern Germany; and there is an escalating fight over the planned phase-out, by next year already, of gas and oil heating systems.
Sort it out on Sunday: That’s about the situation ahead of a summit of the three coalition parties’ leadership teams on Sunday. The FDP feels emboldened by two-thirds of Germans saying they’re against banning the combustion engine as of 2035. The Greens are lashing out in all directions; and Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democratic Party is sitting on the fence — popcorn in hand. The risk of escalation is palpable ahead of the Sunday crisis meeting.
Case in point: Habeck blamed his government partners for undermining mutual trust by leaking a sensitive draft to the media “deliberately in order to damage confidence in the government” and to achieve a “cheap tactical advantage.” Habeck made the charge in a remarkable interview with broadcaster ARD. Konstantin Kuhle, a deputy FDP group leader, suggested Habeck leaked the draft himself — just to be able to blame the FDP. Others suggested that the SPD could get the most out of the leak — to make Habeck, a potential competitor for chancellor at the next election, look bad.
In short, the Greens are in full trust-nobody mood: Read more here from my colleagues Hans von der Burchard, Gabriel Rinaldi and Peter Wilke.
BETTER TRADE WITH US: Olaf Scholz, in Brussels, urged the Greens and parts of his own party to rethink another strong belief of theirs: that trade agreements might generate prosperity but more importantly incentivize poorer countries to do harm to the environment, hence are the devil’s work. The chancellor wants to use the EU summit to advance the long-delayed Mercosur trade deal with South American countries. His key argument: The EU can be a “fair partner” — in contrast to China. A senior official told reporters that Scholz wants the EU to finalize trade talks with Kenya, Australia, India and Indonesia, too. “We are in a competition with China here,” the official said.
POST-MERKEL CHINA POLICY: Meanwhile, the largest opposition group is planning to overturn their rather pragmatic stance towards China after former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16 years in office. In a draft position paper seen by Berlin Bulletin, the Christian Democrats conclude that maintaining peace through trade has failed not only with Russia, but increasingly with China. Referring to a comprehensive China strategy announced by the government, the CDU’s foreign policy lawmaker Johann Wadephul said that the government is “significantly behind schedule on key foreign and security policy documents.”
We’re here to help: To speed things up, the opposition party offered to work out a “national consensus” with Scholz’s government, embedded in the National Security Strategy — another major project that divided the coalition — and in a European China strategy. Of course, the CDU/CSU group wants to bring something to the table. To this end, the parliamentary group last week presented the draft of its very own China strategy, to be finalized by around Easter. The document outlines key points for a new China policy in 21 pages, spelling out a new approach: No more Beijing-friendly, pragmatic stance to China, especially in trade. In line with the current Zeitgeist, the paper calls for a Zeitenwende in China policy.
A push towards systemic rivalry: In the paper, China is seen as a partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival — nothing too new here. However, it adds: “We should not close our eyes to the fact that China has shifted the balance on its own initiative and clearly pushed the core of the relationship toward systemic rivalry.” It concludes that Germany should respond “with the ability and its own strength to compete” wherever China seeks and forces competition; should build up its resilience and defensive capability and form as well as expand alliances and partnerships with interest and value partners; and demonstrate a willingness to partner where it is openly, transparently and reliably embraced by China.
De-coupling is not desirable: “Our dependence on Russia has led us into a serious crisis, our dependence on China could lead to a catastrophe, at least certainly to an economic catastrophe if, for example, the conflict around Taiwan escalates,” said Jens Spahn, deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU group. To avoid that scenario, the paper calls for a “European China Council” for better cooperation with EU neighbors. This should also include an updated 360-degree analysis of economic dependencies, including Chinese dependencies on Germany, the EU, and partners. A central point is also the strengthening of reciprocity and European as well as German sovereignty. “Decoupling from China is neither realistic nor desirable from a German and European perspective,” it says.
Risk reduction is the goal: Instead, the paper proposes an independent China Policy Expert Commission to be set up in the Bundestag, which is to present an annual “China check” to the parliament regarding dependencies on China in trade, technology, raw materials and foreign trade issues, with the aim of developing a “de-risking” strategy. “That is, after all, a different tone … [than] in some American debates. It’s not about the end of globalization, but rather about … more trade with more partners,” Spahn said.
GERMANS ARE UNDECIDED: What do Germans think about China? According to a poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 27 percent see China as a rival, 27 percent think Beijing is a necessary partner and 23 percent perceive the country as an adversary. Oh, and 4 percent think China is an ally that shares the same interests and values. When asked what adjectives best describe Beijing, the top three of German participants were untrustworthy, strong and aggressive.
GERMAN GUN RIGHTS: In Reutlingen, a city in southern Germany, a police officer was shot on Wednesday during a raid against the far-right extremist Reichsbürger (citizens of the Reich) movement. Back in December, police arrested 25 people from a far-right group on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. Politicians from the government parties are now — again — insisting on stricter conditions for gun owners and more vigilance.
Raids in eight regions: On Wednesday, raids related to the major raid in December were carried out in eight German regions and Switzerland in connection with the Reichsbürger milieu. The shooter was arrested and is in custody. According to the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, it has targeted five new suspects during the investigations — in addition to the 25 main suspects so far suspected of supporting a terrorist organization that wanted to overthrow the political system.
Extremists with weapons: “We are not dealing with harmless nutcases, but with dangerous extremists, who are driven by violent overthrow fantasies and possess many weapons,” German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said to local media. “Unfortunately, we can see how extremely dangerous this scene is by the fact that an SEK officer in Baden-Württemberg was shot today,” Faeser said in a statement. She spoke “urgently” in favor of tightening gun laws.
Ban on semi-automatic weapons? As after the shooting at a Jehovah’s Witness hall in Hamburg two weeks ago, Faeser insisted on changing German weapons laws. After the shooting, she announced a review of the draft law she presented in January. Among other things, it provides for a ban on semi-automatic weapons “similar to weapons of war” for private individuals. In addition, the control of gun owners is to be improved. While the Greens are making the same demands as Faeser, the Free Democrats have reservations (you know the drill).
TAKING SIDES: The coalition’s fights small and big — from the way they work together or against one another to plans to extend government buildings — gave cause to pundits picking their corners.
Stop the infighting: The government “should try to revive the spirit of the coalition negotiations and finally make progress on crucial projects,” writes Maria Fiedler in Tagesspiegel. “Many citizens already no longer trust the parties to solve the major problems in the country. The behavior of the coalition is fueling political disgruntlement in the country.” Over to Scholz: “The chancellor cannot just retreat to the moderator role necessary in a three-party alliance,” she argues. “He must take more leadership.”
Not so simple: The debate about effective climate protection is currently of “remarkable simplicity,” writes Corinna Budras in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “The longing for simple solutions to complex issues is apparently strong.” The Liberals do have a point, she says: “Despite the reservations, the debate about e-fuels is being conducted as if it were merely about fulfilling a small party’s absurd desire … It may well be that in twelve years’ time it will still make no sense to fill up a car with energy-intensive e-fuels. But if they serve, at least on a symbolic level, to ease the transitional pain of a change-averse population, it’s worth a try.”
To build or not to build: Advising to rather not follow through on plans to extend the chancellery building for almost €1 billion, Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s Nicolas Richter writes: “Times have changed since 2019: Construction interest rates are no longer at zero, Europe is no longer living in peace, and Germans are facing an extremely costly energy transition. Seen in this light, the planned chancellery extension actually reflects the office space and representation needs of the past rather than those of the future.”
Strong opinion: The Stuttgarter Zeitung has a different view on building policy (politics, rather). Finance Minister Christian Lindner, who had criticized Scholz for insisting on his new garden house, stopped plans to extend his own ministry. What he “is doing here is nothing other than virtue signaling,” writes Tobias Heimbach. “Lindner is not saving on himself. He doesn’t have to worry about there always being enough room in his minister’s office. But that’s not all: the fact that Lindner seriously wants to examine the possibility to build affordable apartments on the site shows a lack of any political seriousness.”
ROYAL VISIT: On Wednesday, King Charles and his wife Camilla, the queen consort, will be received in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Elke Büdenbender, the first lady. On Thursday, the king will be the first monarch ever to give a speech in the Bundestag, around noon. On Friday, he will continue his trip — by train, to Hamburg.
TECHNOLOGY NEUTRALITY: Tuesday and Wednesday are dedicated to technology openness, the new favorite buzzword of the Free Democrats. At the International MTZ Congress on Future Powertrains, representatives from the automotive industry, energy producers and power grid operators, as well as politicians, will discuss the ongoing change. The Technical Congress, Europe’s most important meeting of the automotive industry, will be held in parallel — March is any auto lobbyists’ best time of the year.
TRASH DEBATE: The construction sector accounts for the largest volume of waste in Germany. On Wednesday, the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag will discuss circular economy in the construction sector. Their motivation: While in the area of new buildings, deconstructability is now being considered by some players, a circular approach based on existing buildings still forms a challenge. The debate starts at 6 p.m. in the Jakob Kaiser House and online.
CRIME AND LAMBRECHT: On Thursday, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser will present the 2022 police crime statistics at the Federal Press Conference starting at 10:30 a.m. On another note, the Grand Tattoo for ex-Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht will take place — after a significant delay — on Tuesday, with the ceremony starting at 8:30 p.m. The three music pieces played in the serenade are traditionally chosen by the person leaving. Bulletin is curious about Lambrecht’s very own selection. How about “Firework” by Katy Perry?
OVER AND OUT
HOP ON FOR FREE: Starting in early June, an autonomous bus is supposed to drive through Berlin’s government district. Due to supply shortages, the launch was delayed for about a year, but now the project will finally kick off, Professor Sahin Albayrak, head of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Technical University Berlin, told POLITICO’s Peter Wilke.
Best of Berlin: The trips are to follow a fixed timetable on a 20 kilometer route between the City West — think Kurfürstendamm — and the government district. Along the route, everyone can hop on and off free of charge at stops operated by Berlin’s public transportation company BVG. The 12-meter vehicle with 30 seats is not entirely on its own: A driver will be on board to hold the steering wheel, as required by law.
THANK YOU: To Peter Wilke and Hans von der Burchard who contributed reporting, to our editor Jones Hayden and producer Giulia Poloni.
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