April 14. 2024. 6:52

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The Brief — Time for ‘ochre-style’ politics in Berlin


The German government looks to be in deep crisis again. From the fate of the combustion engine to the construction of new highways, Berlin is rife with infighting. A new style, let’s call it ochre-politics, may be in order.

Over the weekend, the government went on retreat. Secluded in Meseberg, a picturesque castle north of Berlin, the three-party coalition sought to patch up all the issues that surfaced in recent weeks, including a fight over the upcoming budget, highway construction, the future of heating, and the fate of the combustion engine.

The politicians who stepped out of Meseberg on Monday (6 March) made visible efforts to appear optimistic. The Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the meeting as one where “arms had been linked in a very tangible way”.

Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, who hails from the Greens, noted that the “seclusion of Meseberg” and the “closeness” of the retreat had “made it clear to everyone” that belonging to the government was a “privilege”.

The mood in the government seemingly improved after the conclusion of the two-day retreat,

“At the core, we are committed to the country,” Habeck insisted. Looking decidedly less happy than his coalition partners, he still spoke with conviction, almost as if he was trying to convince himself.

However, don’t be fooled by the concerted effort to demonstrate some form of unity. The past weeks in political Berlin have been dominated by petulant trading of acerbic barbs among partners.

What started with an exchange of testy letters between Vice-Chancellor Habeck and Christian Lindner, the finance minister and leader of the liberal FDP party, demanding fiscal headroom on behalf of their respective parties, climaxed in a magnificent combustion engine fiasco.

The FDP, implicitly backed by the Chancellor in the latter case, torpedoed at the last second an informally agreed EU law that would see new combustion engine cars banned from 2035. This understandably irked the EU lawmakers involved and poured oil into the smouldering dumpster fire that is the German government.

And there are many reasons for the lingering resentment in Berlin.

While the Greens had to take part in a significant resurgence of coal, upsetting many of their voters, and put up with delays to some of their biggest projects, like special social security for children, the FDP was forced to watch on as it suffered historic losses in five separate state elections.

Neither party is happy with the other, but given the country’s challenges, they cannot afford a divorce. Stuck in the middle, the social democrat SPD sympathises with parts of both parties, while the Greens and the FDP awkwardly recognise their partial overlap with the SPD.

In all, aside from the “privilege” to govern the world’s fourth-largest economy, it increasingly looks like there is more that sets the three parties apart than there is uniting them.

All three parties also have wildly differing visions of Germany 20 years down the line, which hardly helps.

Yet, given the context of the developing global “polycrises” and the parties’ atrocious polling figures (all but the Greens are polling 5% below their 2021 results), they really can’t split. But these constant, pathetic attempts to “fix things” cannot continue.

Late-night sessions, magical castle retreats, and public affirmations of “arm in arm” are ultimately just attempts to cover up a deeply dysfunctional government.

It is, therefore, time for the “traffic light” government to switch the lights to ochre.

As a political concept, Ochre would be the result of mixing all three colours of the government parties – the SPD’s red, the FDP’s yellow, and green – on a painter’s palette, creating a joint policy.

In practice, instead of trying to eke out space for their individual pet projects in the government, all three parties should add their own colour to every project—something for every party in every legislative output.

Make no mistake, this is not easy. Doing so successfully would be an arduous, artful task.

But it has been done before. While irritating to EU neighbours, the government’s €200 billion “double whammy” energy crisis support package was one such policy. Social aspects for the SPD, support for green industry, and cheaper than expected given lowering energy prices, thus satisfying the FDP.

This won’t be easy, and it may fail. But the endless horse-trading and last-minute backstabbing are becoming more embarrassing than any failure to achieve “ochre” ever could.


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