After two months of talks, the Social Democrats (SDP), Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens have done a deal. It paves the way for Olaf Scholz, the SDP leader, to become Chancellor in the second week of December.
Whether or not the Scholz Government will be good for Germany, it is unlikely to be good for Britain. Unless, that is, Chancellor Scholz wakes up to the cold blasts from the east and realises that a close Anglo-German friendship is vital for the sake of his country’s security and prosperity.
After 16 years, Angela Merkel will finally bow out, just a few days short of beating Helmut Kohl’s postwar record in office. Her party, the Christian Democrats, must brace itself for opposition. It looks likely to distance itself from her legacy by moving sharply to the Right, in order to reconnect with voters disillusioned by years of occupying the soggy centre of politics.
Scholz will lead the Federal Republic’s first “traffic light” coalition — so-called on account of the party colours: red, yellow and green — and while it leans to the Left, the presence of the centre-Right FDP will inhibit any tax raids on business or inflationary spending. Before the coalition can take office, all three parties must seek approval for their draft programme.
The most eye-catching item in that programme is the legalisation of cannabis, which will make Germany the world’s biggest market for the drug. Yet the policy that caused most internal wrangling is the phasing out of coal by 2030, eight years ahead of schedule — though Germany is still far behind the UK on emissions. There the car is still king: an election promise by the SDP to impose speed limits on the autobahn has now been dropped.
Even so, the Scholz Government will bill itself as the greenest in German history. It will also bang the drum on gender, with equal numbers of male and female ministers. But compared to their British counterparts from ethnic minorities — who currently run the Treasury, Home Office, Health, Education and Business departments — this German Cabinet will be far less diverse.
The most divisive immediate issue is the pandemic. The poorer, former Communist East is also the least well vaccinated and it is there that intensive care units in hospitals are bursting with Covid patients. While the Left-wing SDP and Greens tend to favour tougher restrictions, the FDP is opposed to lockdowns and vaccine passports on principle.
Waiting in the wings are the nationalists of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), who have capitalised on angst over the third jab. Germans are reluctant to mix different vaccines; most have had the home-produced Pfizer jab, but are being offered the imported Moderna vaccine as a booster. So the new government will struggle to raise vaccination rates rapidly without imposing coercive measures, such as the Austrians have just announced.
Another issue that is certain to split the coalition is foreign policy. The immediate question is how to respond to the ominous crises in Eastern Europe and the Far East. Germany has taken a soft line towards both Russia and China, prioritising energy supplies and trade over human rights. However, the new coalition cannot ignore the threat of a new wave of migrants flooding in via Poland, while Putin menaces Ukraine and Xi Jinping raises the spectre of war over Taiwan.
Scholz is cautious about giving Germany a more assertive international role, commensurate with its economic muscle. But the new FDP finance minister, Christian Lindner, hails from the libertarian Right and he is likely to make common cause with the new Green foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock in taking a tough line on human rights. None has the clout of Mrs Merkel, but they also lack her baggage.
Germany’s military might does not match its economy; nor is that likely to change any time soon. Both Greens and Social Democrats are sceptical of Nato and some are overtly anti-American. All the more reason for Scholz to mend fences with the British, the only European power with genuinely global reach. It helps that he speaks good English; he is, after all, a Hamburger. Unfortunately, Scholz, like Mrs Merkel, seems suspicious of Boris Johnson’s Britain, to judge from an outburst in which he blamed Brexit for the UK’s shortage of lorry drivers. Today he praised “friendship” with France and “partnership” with the US. On the UK, Scholz was silent.