A few days back, I saw a recent photo of myself and, like millions before me in their late 30s, spent several seconds staring at that grizzled countenance, deep lines running from eyes to ears, asking myself repeatedly: “Is that really me?”, “Do I look that old?”, and “What the hell has happened to start making me age this visibly?” In this way, I’m probably quite similar to our tripartite coalition government, which started off almost exactly a year ago in eminently Instagram-able form and which now, tellingly, is avoiding photo opportunities like a Hollywood star gone to seed.
Yes, after sixth months of almost continuous wrangling – about weapons deliveries to the Ukraine, Covid restrictions, tackling our energy crisis – the bright eyes of autumn 2021 have lost their lustre, the bushy tails are looking straggly, and behind (not so) closed doors, people are talking: “The Ampelkoalition (traffic light coalition) sure is looking old these days…” Yet, just like me, the German coalition government looks a hell of a site worse than it actually is. It just needs to recover from the shock of seeing itself in the mirror when Olaf Scholz, for the first time, made public use of his Chancellor’s prerogative earlier this week to keep nuclear power stations running.
Russia’s war de-rails projects
So what is responsible for the rapid multiplication of grey hairs in the beards and on the temples of this government? The answer to that question is quite simple: Russia. Twelve months back, when Robert Habeck, Annalena Baerbock, Lars Klingbeil, and Christian Lindner were having their late-night love-in before going on to hammer out the most far-reaching coalition agreement of the last two decades, only the hardest-boiled military intelligence operatives envisioned the possibility of a full-blown land war involving a nuclear superpower just a few hundred miles to our east. The rest of us – politicians, the media, and (not least) voters – were expecting the nascent post-Covid economic recovery to be the main story of 2022; it might have been autumn, but there was a sense of spring – and of ambition – in the air.
And so the SPD was looking forward to atoning for its Hartz IV sins and finally helping the poor while the Greens visibly relished the prospect of picking up where they left off in 2005 and actually getting the green energy transition done. The FDP, meanwhile, had managed to achieve its three main objectives: societal liberalisation (re-examining Covid restrictions, encouraging immigration, legalising cannabis), fiscal stability (Lindner’s hands on the purse strings), and political independence after decades being considered the right-hand man of an increasingly mal-coordinated CDU.
The war, of course, has left seemingly achievable ambitions looking like luxuries from which each of the three parties has been forced to deviate substantially – often while disavowing core parts of their political orthodoxies. It’s no surprise that the SPD is looking tired after, in late February, it was forced into a gruelling, high-speed course of psychotherapy about its relationship to Russia and simultaneously sent to boot-camp to get rid of its pathologically uncritical pacifism. Being the self-proclaimed ‘party of peace’ that puts its political weight behind an unplanned €100-billion defence-spending splurge is certainly going to put a few frown lines on a previously smooth forehead.
Then there’s the FDP, whose founding credo is sound fiscal policy and will not (repeat: not) raise either taxes or borrowing. Yet rather than simply keeping unnecessary expenses low and using additional yields to finance SPD social spending and Green investment (which was the sensible-enough plan), the FDP finance minister Christian Lindner has already had to find €100 billion for the army (see above) and then another €200 billion for gas and emergency relief – just as tax receipts stall in the second recession of 2020s. Thus far, he’s kept the books nominally balanced by banishing these gazillions to the annexes of the annual report: yet you can only play the ‘special one-off expenditure’ card, well, once, twice tops before people start asking questions. Third time round (and there will be at least one more time), you start looking like a homeowner who conveniently omits their ever-growing mountain of credit card debt on mortgage application forms… Money worries are certainly likely to leave their mark on your countenance.
Fact check: Is Germany heading into a recession next year?
And then there are the Greens, who – after two frustrating decades of watching the energy transition they initiated back in the early 2000s grind to a halt – finally got their hands on the levers of power, only for the mistakes of the Merkel-era to come back and bite them – yes, them! – in the arse. It is truly heart-rending to watch the only party in Germany which repeatedly warned against an over-dependency on Russian gas, time and again stressing the importance of diversifying and decarbonising our energy sources, now be forced to kow-tow to Qatar in the hope of emergency gas deliveries while authorising the increased use of coal-fired power stations. Then there’s the galling, Alanis-Morissette-definition irony of having to consent to extending nuclear… No wonder the Greens look careworn!
Despite everything: a functioning German government
So when you remember all of this, it’s not surprising that the Ampelkoalition appears somewhat beleaguered – and it’s actually astonishing that the parties are still in government together. German administrations have foundered over less: as recently as 2019, the SPD was audibly toying with the idea of curtailing its third coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU over issues which, viewed from today, look positively petty. Meanwhile, a brief look around us reveals just how fragile political stability is: Sweden can only form a government under the open toleration of unappetising right-wing populists, Italy is being Italy, and as for the UK… well. Meanwhile, we are blessed with a government which, for all its faults, is backed by a broad range of the electorate, has a stable majority, and reaches compromises (however messy) – or, when it can’t, at least accepts the authority of its chancellor.
All of this, of course, requires huge amounts of effort and self-discipline from those involved: how long each of the three parties can hold its tongue at the right moment – and hold its nerve in the face of downturns in the polls or regional-election routs – is anyone’s guess. There’ll be plenty more tests, too: the enduring tragedy of this coalition’s term in office will be that swathes of the ambitious agreement on which it was founded last autumn have already become inoperable; plans which seemed feasible in 2021 have, in 2022, been replaced by firefighting as the world burns.
Much like youthful dreams, all coalition agreements get dented on first contact with reality: this one, however, was shattered by a full-frontal collision with history in late February. As such, the Ampelkoalition is four years too late to achieve its peacetime agenda, and that’s bitterly disappointing. Yet it’s making a surprisingly good fist of its wartime term – and actually making headway on some planned policies (like benefits reform , citizenship and immigration changes, and, mercifully in these worrying times, cannabis legalisation). Let’s just hope that, after peering into the mirror and noticing the lines, its participants resist the temptation to have a mid-life crisis.