Germany’s coalition of chaos

Dispute over gas-boiler ban threatens to unravel Germany’s three-party governing alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz
The row threatens to throw a spanner in the works of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s legislative agenda
(Image credit: Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)

Relations between Germany’s ruling parties plunged to a new low yesterday after the liberals reneged on previously agreed climate legislation, testing the unity of the country’s coalition government.

Tensions flared after the Green party accused the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) of “breaking their word” on a bill to ban gas boilers in new houses from next year.

According to the Financial Times, a “clearly furious” Robert Habeck, the Green vice-chancellor and economy minister, said that the ruling parties had agreed to pass the law on boilers before the summer break.

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The row between the two parties now “threatens to throw a spanner in the works of Scholz’s legislative agenda”, the FT said, as the Greens threatened to respond in kind by blocking legislation put up by the FDP.

What is the gas boiler problem?

The political situation in Germany is “heating up”, said Politico’s Brussels Playbook. To reach its climate goals, Berlin had been “planning a law that will effectively ban installing or replacing new gas or petroleum-powered heating in homes, and instead will make electrical heat pumps the norm”, the site explained.

In 2020, German buildings emitted 112 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The goal is to achieve 67 million tonnes by 2030 to meet climate targets.

Experts say transitioning to renewable energy sources like heat pumps is crucial to achieving substantial emission reductions. However, the FDP reneging on its support of the Greens’ latest bill throws the country’s plan to go carbon-neutral by 2045 into jeopardy.

Are there deeper issues with the coalition?

Angela Merkel’s long reign as Germany’s chancellor was “always going to be a hard act to follow”, said The Economist.

But her “triumphant exit” is not the sole cause of the current government’s malaise. Germans had “dubbed the wobbly-looking coalition die Ampel, the traffic-light”, the magazine said, referring to the colours of its parties: red Social Democrats, yellow Free Democrats, and the Greens. “Yet it also hinted at mixed signals and policy jams.”

The FDP’s latest move comes after the party vowed to assert itself more strongly following a drubbing in a state election last October. The party received a paltry 5% of the vote in Lower Saxony, failing to meet the threshold to enter parliament.

At the time the “pro-business, fiscally hawkish” party, which had suffered a sequence of bad election results, “blamed in part its participation in the national administration”, Reuters said.

“The FDP’s voice must become more pronounced in this coalition,” General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai said after the Lower Saxony result. “We must prevent left-wing projects being implemented in this coalition.”

Experts say that the FDP’s options are somewhat limited. The party cannot afford to leave the coalition, said Frank Decker, a political scientist at the Rheinisch Friedrichs Wilhelms University in Bonn.

“If the FDP were to leave this coalition, it would go under at the next elections,” he said.

According to Philipp Koeker, a political scientist at the University of Hanover, the party would do better by asserting itself positively with policy initiatives of its own rather than just blocking those of their coalition partners.

What will happen next?

After the Greens’ bill was blocked yesterday, Friedrich Merz, the leader of the opposition Christian Democrats, spoke of a “lack of leadership and chaos in the [Social Democrat]-led government”.

Yet all is not lost for the “traffic-light” coalition, said The Economist. “Not only has the Ampel steered Europe’s richest, most populous country through a crisis as challenging as any that faced Mrs Merkel. It has also set Germany – so far gingerly rather than firmly, it is true – on a course towards potentially far-reaching reform,” the magazine said.

And far from showing a lack of leadership, as the opposition suggested, Scholz is proving surprisingly effective in leading a coalition composed of disparate parts, according to Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

“Scholz has the coalition quite well in his grip,” Puglierin told the Economist. “He’s made it clear that he is the one calling the shots.”

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