Berlin Bulletin: Scholz vs the media — Greens home alone — Stinky parting gift
A weekly newsletter on German politics, with news and analysis on the new government.
By FLORIAN EDER
with GABRIEL RINALDI
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SCHOLZ VS THE PRESS: If it were up to Olaf Scholz, he could well do without the media, except perhaps when he wants to distract from his and his government’s own performance. The chancellor and top politicians of his coalition (a quite broad group of 17 people) just about managed to pacify, for now, a policy disagreement and power struggle, preventing the alliance from falling apart. But Scholz, rather than commenting on the talks, was glowing with joy when he instead focused on the press: We all had gotten it wrong, he said.
Ain’t no children’s birthday party: The “media’s pot-banging was never farther off,” a beaming, grinning chancellor declared on Wednesday, adding that what he read about in the press during the 30 hours of negotiations, stretched out over three days, in fact wasn’t on the agenda. The chancellor was referring to days during which senior Bundestag members of his coalition went on the record discussing controversial issues, such as new transfers that some wanted and others warned against.
Reality denial: The same pattern was on display in Brussels of late, when a smirking Scholz accused reporters of being in the “entertainment business” when asked about his government’s artistic performance — a clumsy clown’s number rather than high-rope acrobatics — around synthetic fuels, the German obsession that annoyed the rest of Europe in recent weeks. But hey, at least he didn’t unleash a subordinate authority, unlike back in 2019 when journalists got sued by the financial regulator under the then-finance minister’s watch over their revelations on the Wirecard fraud case.
Arrogance is one way to deal with it: Scholz said that “very, very good progress” had been made in the coalition’s crisis talks. For us mortals, the agreement reached by his Social Democrats, the Greens of Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, and the Free Democratic Party of Finance Minister Christian Lindner appears not so spectacular, considering how long it took to get there. But feel for Scholz, the misunderstood genius: It must be hard to accept that the media have a job to do holding him to account on what he says, does and fails at — rather than confirming his own belief, to be smarter than just about anyone.
COALITION TRUCE TAKE-AWAYS
VERY, VERY GOOD, REALLY: The main items in the package are all on transport: more money for trains, an extension of the Autobahn network where most urgently needed, and a less sectorial approach to annual emission targets — it’ll be enough for the country to meet its overall targets in future, which the transport sector has regularly missed. More on the details here from Hans von der Burchard.
And here are five ways to look at the results:
— 1. Greens are all alone: Both SPD and FDP recently reckoned that the Green party’s electorate may welcome heavy state interventions, bans on technologies, deadlines for the use of those no longer in green fashion, and a general aim to make the car unappealing — their own not so much, if for different reasons, be it the cost for citizens and social balance or a belief that the market will provide.
— 2. This constellation in the threesome is new: Ideologically, Greens and Social Democrats in the past thought they were close. When it comes to wielding power, Greens and Liberals, as the smaller partners, had reckoned it would be wise to heckle the chancellor’s party.
— 3. Sitting it through: It had become practice in past decades to solve conflicts by throwing money at every concern. Not that the desire is all gone (the SPD, for example, this week proposed the next budgetary whammy, for education this time round) — but the coalition summit decided to do it the hard, not the massively debt-financed, way again.
— 4. Climate protection in and out of fashion: There used to be consensus that emission trading — via rising CO2 prices — is the route to take to accelerate climate protection. Since the last respective elections of the German and EU parliaments, a flurry of individual, dubbed emergency, measures took over. The German coalition shifts its policy back at least a little bit to the steering effect of the CO2 price, as trucks have to pay higher tolls the more they are emitting.
— 5. Drama will be back: The grumbling within the Greens, the big losers of this compromise round, is as loud as natural. But it’s not just them, the next escalation could come from any party: All three coalition partners pretend their quite differing stances on climate protection are a matter of survival — of their chances to enter state and federal parliaments, or actually of mankind.
UNRULY COMMENTARIAT: We’ve flipped intensively through the opinion pages, but couldn’t find much of the eulogies the chancellor no doubt would have expected and deserved.
Not enough: The decisions “only solve a small part of the big knots; important issues — including the costs — have been postponed,” writes Heike Göbel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Nevertheless, some results stand out positively because they indicate a new openness of mind and a willingness to resolve conflicts not just on the basis of the lowest and most expensive denominator,” she writes, commending the Greens for making some concessions. “But the Greens’ openness to innovative technology does not yet go far enough.”
Too much: Michael Bauchmüller of the Süddeutsche Zeitung is not much less disappointed, if for a different reason. “What remains is a double superlative: the longest meeting of this coalition — with the leanest result. The marathon may have paid off for the internal peace … because it strengthened the position of the recently ailing FDP. For climate protection and the modernization of this country, however, not much remains … Habeck is being pragmatic and taking what he can get. But from now on, his party is in need of explanation.”
Something for those most in need: Andreas Niesmann of the RND network of local papers points out that “Lindner is having a good laugh, because he and his FDP have prevailed on many points in the marathon negotiations. The smallest and currently weakest coalition partner has imposed its will on the two big parties on many points.” It’s about who’s most in need: “This should not come as a surprise, because the Liberals have the most at stake. After a series of devastating election defeats, Lindner and his party must fear for nothing less than the continued existence of the FDP.”
On media: “Afterwards, everything is always fine again,” comments Nico Fried in the Stern magazine, in a dig at the commentariat. “That was also the case after the coalition committee. Beforehand, they insulted each other via the media, which reported this just as gratefully as their stern commentators one newspaper page further on commented with civic concern on the bad climate in the coalition.”
MIGRANT WORKERS WANTED: According to government math, German businesses need to recruit 400,000 people a year from abroad to compensate for the aging population and counter the shortage of skilled workers. To achieve this goal, Berlin wants to lower the hurdles for migrant workers. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser and Labor Minister Hubertus Heil, both Social Democrats, presented two draft laws adopted by the Cabinet on Wednesday. Here are more details on the plans POLITICO first covered back in the fall.
In short: Germany aims to compete in the global race for the brightest minds. The draft law states there will be three ways to come to Germany as a non-EU foreigner.
Qualification: People with a recognized qualification will be able to take up any qualified job — they will no longer be bound by their professional degree.
Experience: More people will receive a so-called EU Blue Card as the salary threshold is lowered. Applicants with two years of professional experience and a qualification recognized in their own country will no longer have to seek a second recognition in Germany.
Potential: Those without a prior employment contract in Germany can benefit from a points system. The selection criteria includes qualifications, knowledge of German and English, work experience, connection to Germany, age and accompanying partner.
Promoting potential within Germany: “Today is a very good day for Germany as a business location and for a modern and diverse country,” Faeser said, repeatedly pointing out the importance of a cosmopolitan attitude and a genuine culture of welcome in Germany. However, the government has also adopted the draft law on continuing education to address domestic potentials. It includes, for example, a vocational training guarantee for young people and the assumption of travel or accommodation costs. In addition, the law creates new opportunities and financial incentives for the continuing education of employees, especially facing future challenges such as climate change or digitization.
Liberal conditions: In addition to the new rules for work permits, a draft on easier access to citizenship will be presented next week, Faeser announced. In return, the Free Democrats also want to see progress on the opposite of citizenship: deportations. Due to municipalities overburdened with refugees, “the deportation offensive laid down in the coalition agreement must have the highest priority,” Stephan Thomae, the migration expert of the FDP’s Bundestag group, told POLITICO’s Peter Wilke. “What is possible legislatively here should be tackled as the next project in migration policy, for example, in parallel with citizenship law.”
Support from partner: In a new paper, the Seeheimer Kreis — the Social Democrats’ conservative wing — called for “effective deportation practices” that would send a deterrent signal to people likely to be deported. Moreover, the group resurfaces the old demand that all EU member states participate in the hosting of refugees (or face a reduction in EU funds).
EASTER IS COMING: Next week — a politically calm four-day week because of Good Friday — Berlin is preparing for the Easter break. Berlin Bulletin takes a break, too — we will be back in two weeks.
CRITICAL STANDARDS: On Monday, the Greens group will focus on the protection of critical infrastructure. In a first of three expert discussions, the Green parliamentary group is looking at how to structurally protect critical infrastructure such as hospitals, substations, and waterworks, airports and government buildings. The video conference starts at 6:30 p.m.
VON DER LEYEN CONFRONTS CHINA: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to China on Tuesday, and Berlin should watch this space closely: Ahead of her trip, von der Leyen held her somewhat own “Zeitenwende” speech on Thursday, vowing a much tougher EU policy toward the People’s Republic.
Strong rhetoric: Von der Leyen urged EU countries to make “bolder and faster use” of new economic tools against China, including screening of foreign subsidies and a new policy against economic coercion. She also called for a screening of outbound investment in order to ensure that critical industries don’t become too reliant on Beijing. This “de-risking” will also have big implications for German business that is currently increasing, rather than reducing, its business ties with China. Read more.
SMART CITIES: On Wednesday morning, starting at 8 a.m., the industry association Bitkom discusses the challenges of smart cities, the role of digitization for sustainability and climate goals. Rolf Bösinger, State Secretary at the construction ministry, will be this week’s guest.
HOUSING POLICY: The Verdi trade union, notorious for its recent (and to be continued) strikes, talks about housing. “Millions of households are overburdened by their housing costs,” Verdi writes. With representatives from politics, business and unions, the union will discuss on Wednesday how to counter social inequality. The discussion starts at 10:45 a.m. at the Forum Factory.
IT’S THE ECONOMY: On Wednesday, leading economic research institutes will present their Joint Economic Forecast for Spring 2023, starting at 10 a.m. at the Bundespressekonferenz in the government district — an event that likely will be broadcasted. The ifo Institute, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy and even the Austrian Institute for Economic Research will be among the presenters.
OVER AND OUT
TOILETRY AVANT-GARDE: We’ve written about the city of Berlin’s pride to spearhead global progress in infrastructure to satisfy basic human needs. As part of a one-year pilot project by the Senate’s environment department, each Berlin district will get two self-sufficient park toilets. They will be free to use and do not require a water connection or electricity. “Flushing” is done with straw flour, lighting is provided by a solar panel and a motion sensor, State Secretary Markus Kamrad, who hails from of the Greens, said Thursday. As a parting gift of the outgoing Senate to the city, €1.7 million have been earmarked.
So far so relieving: The operator, a startup called Finizio, aims to produce a “super fertilizer” from the feces; that smelly business is to happen, you’ll have guessed it, extra muros. CEO Florian Augustin told Tagesspiegel about his project’s enormous potential to address the global biodiversity crisis. Never shy, in true Berlin spirit, to declare composting human poop the next mission to Mars, he said: “We see these toilets as a portal to the future.” Locations will be visible in the “Berliner Toilette” app.
THANK YOU: To Peter Wilke who contributed reporting, to our editor Jones Hayden and producer Giulia Poloni.
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