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Germany’s experiment in political philosophy

Fusing social democracy, environmentalism and liberalism, the new German federal government is pioneering a different set of politics for our age of crisis

Jeremy Cliffe
Cinta Arribas

Speaking on the day after the German federal election in September, Olaf Scholz declared that the gains for his Social Democrats (SPD) were a mandate for a “social, ecological, liberal” government. It was a curious phrase from the dry, unflashy former mayor of Hamburg. Could one government really combine those three distinct political-philosophical traditions? Are there not tensions between and within them? Where is the common ground uniting them?

In fact, the comment was merely an expression of political reality. Like in many other European countries, including Spain, the political landscape in Germany is fragmenting. Although the Social Democrats had made unexpected gains, the election left them close to their historical lows and with too few MPs to govern only with their preferred partners, The Greens. Nor could the Christian Democrats, the alliance of the departing chancellor Angela Merkel, form a bipartite government with their preferred partners, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). Scholz knew that his best chance of succeeding Merkel as chancellor was by building a radical tripartite government of his Social Democrats, The Greens and the liberals – the first such national government in European history.

Known as a “traffic light coalition,” as the colors of the three parties are red, green and yellow, that is precisely the government that after two months of negotiations will now take charge of Europe’s largest economy. In the week of December 6, Merkel will step down after 16 years as chancellor. Scholz will replace her. And thus will begin a fascinating experiment in combining the forces and visions of social democracy, environmentalism and liberalism. The age of the traffic light is dawning in Germany. If it leads to success, it will be a powerful model for progressives across Europe.

We live in an age of crisis: new social fractures, the pandemic, the climate emergency. No one school of ideological thought has a monopoly on the answers to these challenges

Political arithmetic is not the only reason for this coalition. The personalities also make it possible. Scholz is a liberal sort of Social Democrat, who ran his harbor city with businesslike competence and served for the last three years a federal finance minister under Merkel. The two leaders of The Greens, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, are both centrists. The liberal leader Christian Lindner is economically right-wing, but also a libertarian whose instincts on personal freedoms align with the left. Together they presented their coalition deal in Berlin on November 24 – looking already like a government, already like a team.

The liberals’ involvement worries some European partners like Emmanuel Macron. Lindner once backed Greece’s expulsion from the common currency, has spoken for a strict Stability and Growth Pact for the eurozone and opposes EU taxes. He will be finance minister under Scholz (Baerbock becomes foreign minister, Habeck economy minister). Yet the coalition deal does not rule out progressive macroeconomics as some feared. It allows for increased German domestic investment through special agencies and investment vehicles, and uses open language about the “further development” of eurozone fiscal rules.

Each party gets its top priorities into the coalition agreement. The Social Democrats get a minimum wage increase from €9.60 to €12, stable pensions and the construction of 400,000 new homes. The Greens get a goal of an end to coal power and 80% of energy from renewables by 2030. The FDP gets new tax incentives for companies and the protection of Germany’s constitutional debt brake, which limits deficit spending.

But what is encouraging about the document is that it is not just a list of lowest common denominators. Instead, it is a coherent vision for a common project combining the three parties’ strengths. Merkel’s governments provided stability and maturity, but were too cautious and left Germany in need of modernization. That is the mission the new coalition has set itself: to lead the country into the future. The title of the coalition deal is “dare more progress,” a reference to the slogan “dare more democracy” of the Social Democrat chancellor Willy Brandt.

This progress takes two main forms. First is a bold liberalization of social policy. The traffic light coalition will cut the voting age to 16, legalize cannabis, allow doctors to provide information about abortion services (not currently allowed) and facilitate self-identification for trans people. Most striking is the opening up of German identity: citizenship will soon be available to migrants five years after arrival, or in some cases, three, and the new government will end the current prohibition of dual citizenship.

Second is a major push for physical modernization in a “decade of investment.” Germany’s infrastructure is surprisingly poor for a country so prosperous: the internet is slow; roads, railways and bridges are often in poor condition; and the rollout of renewable energies is sluggish. The coalition deal includes means of financing major new investments and using government spending better, for example, both consolidating budgets and encouraging more private initiatives in the field of digital infrastructure.

A new ‘social-ecological-liberal’ politics, if successfully pioneered in Germany, will stand as a powerful example of how to navigate the realities of our age of crisis

Time will tell whether the traffic light parties will work well together. Many of the new Social Democrat MPs are young and from the party’s left. Will they really get on with a liberal finance minister? Will differences on foreign policy, between the Social Democrats’ focus on exports and The Greens’ focus on human rights, cause strife on topics like China? Moreover, the coalition deal leaves some things open for debate, like the German stance on eurozone fiscal rules. But the spirit is positive: leaders of all three parties speak of the need for compromise and cooperation. In the policies they have announced, they have a serious joint mission with real potential to take the country forward.

If the new coalition succeeds, that will resonate far beyond Germany’s borders. We live in an age of crisis: new social fractures, the pandemic, the climate emergency, technological and economic disruption, harsh new geopolitical realities. No one school of ideological thought has a monopoly on the answers to these challenges; no one political philosophical tradition has a unique claim to the mantle of progressivism. A new “social-ecological-liberal” politics, if successfully pioneered in Germany, will stand as a powerful example of how to navigate these realities.

After all, the different philosophies need each other. Social democracy depends on a dynamic private sector, the virtues of liberalism, for shared prosperity. A strong social-liberal economy must also value the non-material riches – clean air, climate security, quality of life, civil liberties – associated with the green political tradition. Environmentalism in turn needs the liberal spirit that will create the clean new technologies needed to stop climate change. For their part, liberalism and ecology both have an indispensable partner in social democracy: neither a fluid market economy nor ambitious environmental action can succeed in societies torn between rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, winners and losers.

It is hard to imagine our democratic societies rising to the challenges of the coming decades without an ingenious fusion of the cohesion brought by social democracy, the commitment to drastic climate action and a healthier society brought by the green tradition and the innovation and openness brought by liberalism. They reinforce each other, and all three are necessary. That is what makes the political experiment about to take power in Berlin so exciting. It may triumph, it may fail. But either way, the new German petri dish deserves close attention.

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