Berlin Bulletin: Attack on the opposition — Transport problem — Zeitenwende, anyone?

Berlin Bulletin: Attack on the opposition — Transport problem — Zeitenwende, anyone?
Опубликовано: Friday, 17 March 2023 11:27

A weekly newsletter on German politics, with news and analysis on the new government.



Send tips here | | Subscribe for free | View in your browser

FINALLY SOMETHING TO AGREE ON: The governing coalition may disagree on many things — but when it comes to making it harder for the opposition to be represented in the Bundestag, they form a united front. With the votes of the three ruling parties, the German parliament today passed a new electoral law that could effectively keep not one, but two oppositional parties out at the next federal election. Representatives of the government majority have hailed that attempt to keep opponents at bay as a service to democracy, as the new rules will shrink the Bundestag.

Quick introductory course: The new law profoundly changes the system current voters grew up with. What used to be the second vote is now the main one, determining the allocation of mandates. That means that winning a constituency will no longer automatically result in receiving a seat in parliament — a fundamental change. In addition, under the new law, a party that receives less than 5 percent of the vote in total doesn’t receive a single mandate in the Bundestag — regardless of how many constituencies it wins: another measure to render the first vote meaningless.

Political impact: That has direct consequences for two very different parties: In 2021, the Left won 4.9 percent of the votes, but three direct mandates. The Christian Social Union won 45 direct mandates, but only 5.2 percent of the national vote since it only runs in Bavaria. They would be safe with the same result next time — but the scenario is not unthinkable that the CSU could slip below the 5 percent threshold and would not be represented.

Fresh work for the Karlsruhe court: Bavarian state premier Markus Söder told reporters in Berlin on Thursday that his CSU was “not panicking, but still outraged” and will “definitely” appeal to the Federal Constitutional Court against the new law. Some in the coalition got cold feet this week over such theoretical but blatant attacks on the opposition and offered all kinds of unsolicited advice; that the CSU should somehow merge with the bigger CDU was one patronizing proposal.

Hypocrisy alarm: Telling others, in the European Union and beyond, what they should do is what the German government has been keen on. Just this week, Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday rebuked his guest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing “great concern” over planned judicial reforms and advocating for an exercise of broad political consensus-building — in Israel, to be sure. For the hasty change to the electoral law back home, a simple majority was good enough.


TRANSPORT PROBLEM: gas emissions fell by almost 2 percent in Germany last year across the board, the transport sector in particular is moving in the other direction, fresh numbers show. In 2022, Germany met its climate targets on the whole, as around 746 million metric tons of greenhouse gases were released, 1.9 percent less than in 2021.

OK but not great: Overall emissions in Germany have fallen by 40.4 percent since 1990. This is according to an estimate by the German Environment Agency (UBA), which President Dirk Messner presented in Berlin this week. “In order to achieve the federal government’s goals by 2030, 6 percent emissions must now be reduced per year,” he said. However, since 2010, the average has not even been 2 percent, he added.

Increasing emissions in road transport: While the agriculture and waste sectors have met their targets by a wide margin, the buildings and transport sectors have missed their targets. “Transport is the only sector to miss its target at the same time and show an increase in emissions compared to the previous year,” the agency wrote in a statement. As Messner pointed out, emissions in road transport rose again despite particularly high fuel prices and the introduction of the €9 transport ticket, a state-subsidized ticket valid for one month of travel on all buses, trams, metros and regional trains nationwide.

Fewer emissions in industry: The biggest savings, however, were achieved in industry, where emissions fell by 10 percent. The main reason for the drop in energy use, according to the Environment Agency, is energy costs, which have increased due to inflation and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.

Now it’s the ministries’ turn: The German Climate Protection Act states that emissions are to fall by at least 65 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 and that Germany is supposed to be climate neutral by 2045. In the act, there are caps on emissions for each sector and each year. If a sector exceeds its target, the responsible minister must present an emergency program within three months to get back on the reduction path.


THE SUMMIT NO ONE CLIMBED: When Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger meets with her colleagues from the 16 German states today for a mere hour, the only thing they are likely to agree on is an assessment that the German education system, once the pride of the country, is in a serious crisis. There are shortages of teachers; children who can neither read, write nor calculate with confidence when finishing elementary school; and tens of thousands of youth leaving school without a degree every year: A drama for the kids, their parents, businesses, society, and in the end, democracy.

Getting snubbed: But there is no agreement on how to tackle the problem. Stark-Watzinger, who hails from the Free Democrats, is running into a massive roadblock in her attempt to make the school issue a priority of hers — she got outright snubbed: At an “education summit” that she organized in Berlin earlier this week, only two out of the 16 ministers attended. The people who are actually responsible for education didn’t show up to the event meant to find a way out of the crisis.

Federalism strikes again: Stark-Watzinger should have known better. Schools are not within her remit. Some call that fact deplorable, while others would argue that with this setup, at least schools are run properly in some states. The thing is, it’s a rock-solid question of state competence that is unlikely to change just because the federal government, in its coalition agreement, announced the aim of a “new culture of educational cooperation.” On the contrary, the relationship between the federal and state governments in education policy is possibly more strained than ever before.

Three mistakes: What Stark-Watzinger did is to give advice on issues not under her watch, such as teachers’ pay — the best way to annoy the state governments. What she didn’t do, in the eyes of the states’ ministers, is fight for a considerably higher federal education budget — forgoing the chance to make allies: They like the money, only they hate to be told what to do with it. What she tried to do was to call for the “summit” without preparing a strategy, detailed conclusions, or any tangible outcome — the worst professional mistake in politics, regardless of which level.

So, what’s next? The minister announced that a “team education” would be set up, a working group, in plain language, which should meet “swiftly,” she said — adding the failed “summit” was “not the end but the beginning.”


ZEITENWENDE, ANYONE? Shortcomings in nearly all areas. That’s the conclusion of Germany’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Eva Högl, who presented her annual report this week. Högl criticized that “not a single euro or cent has been spent” from the €100 billion pot meant to modernize the military, a year after it was announced. The SPD lawmaker argued that both defense spending and the speed of procurement must be increased to swiftly reach the 2 percent goal — something that the new security strategy will put in writing, as my colleague Hans von der Burchard reported.

How to spend that money? Here are some highlights from the report.

— Infrastructure: German barracks are in a state of disrepair. Or as Högl’s report puts it: “Too many army barracks in Germany are in a deplorable condition. If the current pace and existing conditions were to continue, it would take about half a century to completely modernize just the current Bundeswehr infrastructure.” Is this the Zeitenwende everyone is talking about? As the report deciphers, it’s about “self-evident things like functioning toilets, clean showers, recreation rooms, troop kitchens and Wi-Fi.”

— Personnel: No surprises here. When it comes to female soldiers, “the 15 percent quota to be met for all careers except medical service by the Soldiers’ Equality Act was 9.50 percent in 2022.” As the report pointed out — besides mentioning that there are still not enough properly fitting protective vests for female soldiers — an internal Bundeswehr study found that one-third of sexual harassment “occurs under the influence of alcohol and 80 percent of those affected are female.” Berlin Bulletin wonders if the first figure is related to the second one.

— Strategy: The Bundeswehr is refocusing on national and alliance defense, and growing involvement in NATO’s eastern flank. As Högl’s reports states, this will “inevitably reduce the Bundeswehr’s latitude to participate in conflicts on other continents in light of limited resources.” In other words, the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and the new geopolitical situation might lead to less foreign operations of the German armed forces.

— Weapons: But to defend NATO’s eastern flank, you need weapons and — no less important — ammunition. “It is all the more alarming that ammunition has been in short supply in the Bundeswehr for years. Decades of austerity have led it to order less and less ammunition and to reduce ammunition stockpiles, whereupon the defense industry reduced its production capacity.” What is the best way to solve such self-inflicted problems? Correct, a pan-European solution!

— Radios: To end on a positive note, Bulletin wants to highlight a key achievement: “As one of the first investments to be financed from the special fund, the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag decided … to procure new and modern digital radios. The days when radios from the 1980s had to be replicated should soon be a thing of the past.” Congratulations!


HOW TO FIX THE BUNDESWEHR? What do German pundits think of the state of Germany’s armed forces?

Everything is lacking: Tagesspiegel’s Stephan-Andreas Casdorff writes that national defense would not be possible at the moment. “The Bundeswehr has never been as desolate as it is today,” he says. “Personal equipment, night vision devices, radios, weapons, vehicles, aircraft, ships — everything is lacking. Or it doesn’t work. Not to mention the condition of some barracks.” As Casdorff argues, Eva Högl’s report was also a Zeitenwende speech. “But one that this time is directed at the chancellor and his deputy in the traffic-light coalition.”

‘Cannon fodder’ needed: The radical left-wing publication Junge Welt is worried about new recruits for the German army. Nick Brauns writes that “precisely the green-liberal milieu, which has only recently discovered its love of the military when it comes to fighting ‘the Russian,’ is least willing to stick its own neck out …” As Brauns adds, the Bundeswehr lacks — referring to new soldiers that are urgently needed — “cannon fodder for the coming wars of the rulers.”

Pistorius must act: Markus Decker of Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland writes that Högl — who was passed over when Germany was seeking a new defense minister — would like to see projects implemented more quickly. “The deficits of the Bundeswehr are huge. Boris Pistorius must now basically start from scratch in view of the Russian attack on Ukraine,” Decker says. Pistorius has two major issues to tackle: “There is procurement. Here, too many cooks continue to spoil the broth … And there’s the recruitment issue. The goal of growing the armed forces, which have shrunk over three decades to now 183,000 soldiers, back to 203,000 is an illusion,” he writes.

More money needed: “It’s time that parliament equipped its army well. The requirements have been on the table for far too long,” writes Anja Maier of the Bremen-based Weser Kurier. Protective vests and warm jackets, for example, were sent to the troops in their respective areas of deployment, she writes, adding that with the equipment required in the field, sometimes only one in two worked properly. “It’s hard to understand why the defense report is sobering year after year,” Maier writes.


MORE THAN CHATGPT: What are ethically significant differences between humans and machines? The German Ethics Council will give its views on the challenges posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the Federal Press Conference on Monday, starting at 10 a.m. Chairwoman Alena Buyx and spokespeople from the “Humans and Machines” working group will take a stand and answer questions from the press. The event will be broadcast.

CLIMATE IN NUMBERS: The Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag takes the new synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an opportunity to talk with Friederike Otto, Imperial College London, and Susanne Dröge, Federal Environment Agency, about what extreme weather has to do with the climate. The digital discussion starts at 8 p.m. on Monday.

DIGITAL EDUCATION: On Wednesday and Thursday, the digital association Bitkom will discuss the future of German education. Topics such as smart school or innovative educational technologies (AI and metaverse) will be analyzed. Among others, Education Minister Stark-Watzinger and former minister Thomas de Maizière, who calls for a radical rethinking of education, will be attending. The digital event starts at 1:15 p.m.

CITY OF THE FUTURE: How do we live and do business in a climate-neutral city of the future? What ideas are there for the climate-neutral city? These questions will be discussed by, among others, Construction Minister Klara Geywitz and Federal Environment Agency President Dirk Messner on Thursday at Robert Bosch’s capital representative office. The conference begins at 3:30 p.m.


ON THE MOVE: Stefan Hennewig will become managing director for human resources and finance at the German Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies on April 3. Confirming his move, the 49-year-old on Thursday told our colleague Peter Wilke: “I’m looking forward to the new task and to returning to the area of personnel and finance.” Hennewig’s predecessor, Peter Krug, will retire soon. Hennewig was fired as executive director of the CDU by party Chairman Friedrich Merz last October, after being accused of lacking punch in election campaigns. He had worked for the CDU for a total of 22 years in senior positions including public relations, human resources and administration.

THANK YOU: To Peter Wilke who contributed reporting, our editor Jones Hayden and producer Fiona Lally.

SUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: Brussels Playbook | London Playbook | London Playbook PM | Playbook Paris | POLITICO Confidential | Sunday Crunch | EU Influence | London Influence | Digital Bridge | China Direct | Berlin Bulletin | D.C. Playbook | D.C. Influence | Global Insider | All our POLITICO Pro policy morning newsletters