Hamburg’s dose of ‘black-green’ Realpolitik

Germany’s politicians are all atwitter after the environmentalist Greens agreed to form a coalition with the conservatives Christian Democrats in Hamburg this week. The Local takes a look at the historic alliance’s impact on the political landscape.

Hamburg's dose of 'black-green' Realpolitik
The Hamburg coalition agreement. Photo: DPA

Politicians are by nature power junkies – keep them in the opposition long enough and eventually they’ll end up in the arms of their most hated political adversaries.

And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened this week in the northern port city of Hamburg when the environmentalist Greens entered a political marriage of convenience with the conservative Christian Democrats. On Thursday, the one-time adversaries announced they had forged an agreement to form a government in the city-state two months after elections there left the parliament with no obvious ruling coalition.

What? Tree-hugging lefties cuddling up to heartless conservatives? The political constellation is indeed an odd one and without historic precedent in Germany. But as exotic and exceptional as it seems, the so-called “black-green” coalition in Hamburg is simply the acknowledgment there has been a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape.

Ever since the hard-line socialist Left Party started to expand from its predominately eastern base into western German state parliaments this year, the four other major parties have been struggling to adjust to the new reality that has rocked German politics.

For the past few decades Germany has had pretty straightforward options for two-party coalitions: either a centre-right alliance between the Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or a centre-left one between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. There have also been eastern exceptions like Berlin’s double red coalition of Social Democrats and the Left Party, but such state alliances had little bearing on federal politics.

Hamburg’s ‘black-green’ coalition, however, could be different.

With the ascendant Left Party making it increasingly difficult for two parties alone to secure a stable majority at the state and federal levels, politicians are scrambling to make nice with colleagues for whom they previously had buckets of disdain. Hence Green “tree-huggers” are now willing to govern with “heartless” Christian Democrats.

What does it all mean for federal elections next year? The major political players are being coy – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Thursday night that no one should read too much into Hamburg tie-up between her party and the Greens. “I say that black-green at federal level is very unlikely,” Merkel said. “I am definitely not going to fight for it.”

Leading Greens also quickly downplayed the idea that their party could overcome the considerable policy differences with the conservatives at the national level.

But let’s not kid ourselves. If the only way Merkel can hang on to power in 2009 is by working with the Greens – who will have perhaps by then realized they can work well with the conservatives in places like Hamburg – then Berlin’s politicians will open up a big can of Realpolitik with enough to go around for everyone.

Perhaps the most telling sign just how serious everyone is taking the groundbreaking ‘black-green’ coalition on the banks of the Elbe is how the traditional allies of the two parties reacted like jilted lovers.

SPD Secretary General Hubertus Heil called it an “indiscriminate” coalition and the leader of the FDP, Guido Westerwelle, railed it showed just how far Merkel’s conservatives had “lurched to the left.”

Perhaps. Or maybe Guido is just frightened at the prospect of getting left on the opposition bank next year while his former good friend Angie is building a ‘black-green’ cabinet. Maybe it’s time for him to take Hubertus out for lunch.


Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

The last time Germany hosted a G7 summit, then-chancellor Angela Merkel produced a series of viral images with Barack Obama, clinking giant mugs in a traditional Bavarian beer garden and communing against a verdant Alpine backdrop.

Can German Chancellor Scholz create a Merkel-like buzz at the G7 in Bavaria?

Her successor Olaf Scholz, hobbled in domestic opinion polls and of modest global stature, may struggle to match that convivial atmosphere when leaders gather again from Sunday.

The centrist Scholz, 64, assumed the presidency of the Group of Seven rich countries in January, just a month after taking office in Berlin.

Since then his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and energy supply complications have put his government to the test while sending his approval ratings plunging.

READ ALSO: Opinion – Scholz is already out of step at Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Scholz told parliament on Wednesday he was ready to seize the three days of talks at the Elmau Castle mountain resort – the same remote, picturesque venue Merkel chose in 2015 – to burnish Germany’s global image and the standing of the West.

“In Europe’s biggest security crisis for decades, Germany as the economically strongest and most populous country in the EU is assuming special responsibility – and not just for its own security but also for the security of its allies,” he said.

A series of summits in the coming days must show “that G7, EU and NATO are as united as ever” and that the “democracies of the world are standing together in the fight against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s imperialism,” Scholz said.

READ ALSO: Germany tightens border controls ahead of G7 summit

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on June 23rd 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Olivier Matthys

‘Merkel tradition’

Joachim Trebbe, a professor of political communication at Berlin’s Free University, said Scholz had a “huge opportunity” with the G7 to dispel any doubts about his leadership skills or resolve against the Russian president.

“At the start of his term and even when the war began, Scholz was quite reserved – perhaps a little bit in the tradition of Ms Merkel,” a
still-popular conservative the Social Democratic chancellor has sought to emulate, Trebbe said.

She also “tended to manage crises and didn’t pay much attention to informing the media at every step”.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 as part of the G7 summit.

Former US President Barack Obama and ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a concert visit in Elmau (Bavaria) in June 2015 during the G7 summit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

After accusations of foot-dragging, Scholz’s attempts at a reset were on display during a long-delayed visit to Kyiv last week, joined by the leaders of France, Italy and Romania.

A journalist from the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung travelling with the chancellor noted that he had a tendency to make gaffes under pressure – like “an old tap that either releases ice-cold or boiling water”.


His trouble finding the middle ground had led him to exercise too much caution when it came to sending weapons to Ukraine, or too little, as when on a visit to Lithuania this month he significantly overstated German arms deliveries.   

The chancellor, whose sometimes robotic style has earned him the nickname Scholzomat, has also found himself outflanked in his own unwieldy ruling coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), ecologist Greens and liberal Free Democrats.

A poll this week showed that the Greens – with popular Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, both credited with clearer messaging on Ukraine — were leading the SPD in voter intentions for the first time since July 2021.

Both parties, however, are currently trailing the conservative opposition, which has relentlessly criticised Scholz’s Ukraine and energy policies as too timid.

READ ALSO: Why has Germany been so slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine?

Trebbe said that initiatives at the G7 bearing Scholz’s imprint on issues including future political and economic support for Ukraine, climate
protection and strengthening democracies worldwide were crucial if he hoped to gain political tailwinds from the summit.

But he said the gathering was nearly as much about generating images, such as the instant meme of Merkel, arms outstretched, explaining her world view to a nonchalant Obama, draped in repose on a wooden bench.

“That’s where symbols of unity, common strategy and strong leadership are created,” Trebbe said.

“I’m pretty sure Scholz has a team of professionals ready to take full advantage of that aspect of the summit.”

By Deborah COLE