What a first year: after 82 days, the traffic light coalition’s plans for the future were thwarted by the Russian attack on Ukraine. Since then, Scholz and Co. have been in crisis mode. It crunches, sometimes it cracks, but the alliance is not seriously endangered.
Every birthday deserves gifts. Chancellor Olaf Scholz must have thought that this must also apply to a traffic light coalition. In any case, the SPD politician has a small gift ready for each of his ministers at the regular cabinet meeting on Wednesday to say thank you for a year of cooperation: A bar of chocolate from the Berlin brand “Ampelmann”, with the GDR traffic light man on the Packaging. “I think we’ve done a lot and achieved a lot,” says Scholz in a short speech. That’s why there is now “chocolate with traffic lights”.
The taste of the chancellor’s gift caused laughter in the group: dark. “That describes it quite well,” says Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) spontaneously. The others in the ministerial round that was sworn in a year ago this Thursday should see things similarly. The general anniversary mood in the coalition is bittersweet: it was jerky and sometimes rattling, but somehow we managed to get through it quite well, they say.
The opposition naturally sees things differently. The head of the CSU deputy in the Bundestag, Alexander Dobrindt, gives the traffic light “a smooth 5” after a year. And the voters rate the government rather negatively. According to a YouGov survey commissioned by the German Press Agency, 66 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with the coalition’s work and only 26 percent are satisfied.
What is undisputed, however, is that hardly any other federal government had such a turbulent start as this one. When Scholz and his 16 ministers were sworn in a year ago, the world was different. The traffic light sells itself as a reform government that intends to shape a new style of politics. In the Chancellor’s first government statement in mid-December, the word Aufbruch appears ten times, and he even said progress 31 times.
Scholz does not mention Ukraine at all in the record speaking time of 86 minutes, and Russia only appears once. You will seek the “constructive dialogue” with Moscow. “We in particular must be willing to try to reach an understanding more and more often.”
Ten weeks later, the Chancellor is again at the lectern in the Bundestag to announce the consequences of the Russian attack on Ukraine at a hastily convened special session. “We are experiencing a turning point,” he says, announcing a radical about-face in foreign and defense policy. From now on, weapons will be delivered to a war zone. Breaking a taboo. The Bundeswehr is to be upgraded with 100 billion euros. The speech, which was soon classified as historic, was received with astonishment and respect by the allies, but also by some with a dose of skepticism.
In any case, the coalition agreement is a waste of time for the time being. From now on, the traffic light will rule in crisis mode. Weapons deliveries, energy procurement, fighting inflation – these are the issues that are at stake now.
Crisis management is bumpy. The coalition disagrees on how quickly Ukraine should be supplied with heavy weapons. Ukraine and NATO allies accuse Germany of hesitation. Only with the chancellor’s trip to Kyiv in June did the tide slowly turn. Together with French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, he paved the way for Ukraine’s EU candidacy.
In the meantime, Germany has delivered weapons to the war zone worth almost two billion euros. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praises Germany’s contribution to the defense against Russia instead of constantly complaining about it – even if wishes such as battle tanks or Patriot anti-aircraft batteries are still open. Germany is accused of not going ahead with its support of Ukraine, but of remaining in the convoy of the USA.
Even when it comes to overcoming the energy crisis as a result of the war, things are not going so smoothly. Scholz and his Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) gambled away with the gas levy, which had to be collected again after a short time. In the dispute over the operating times of the nuclear power plants, the FDP and the Greens are fighting so hard that the chancellor has to formally exercise his authority to set guidelines. That was last with Konrad Adenauer (CDU) more than half a century ago.
Where the main line of conflict runs in this coalition is clear from the start: between yellow and green. The Greens, for example, accuse FDP Transport Minister Volker Wissing of doing too little to protect the climate. The FDP takes issue with what they see as a lack of ambition on the part of the Greens when it comes to saving, because more money is now needed for defense and relief for citizens battered by price increases. When it comes to questions of style, the criticism voiced behind the scenes from the ranks of the Greens and FDP is often directed at top politicians in the SPD. Above all, the chancellor’s external communication goes against the grain for many.
Despite the crisis, some important projects from the coalition agreement are being implemented. This includes the minimum wage of 12 euros, the citizen’s allowance, a higher child allowance and an extended housing allowance, measures to promote renewable energies. The Bundestag passed around 100 laws in the first traffic light year.
The successes and failures pay anything but evenly into the accounts of the coalition partners. The bottom line is that the Greens come off best by far. In the YouGov survey, 56 percent of their voters are satisfied with the work of the coalition. Only 48 percent of SPD supporters and only 24 percent of FDP supporters.
Among the cabinet members, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock from the Greens is the big winner of the first traffic light year. She quickly put away her unsuccessful candidacy for chancellor, established a new style of clear addressing in German foreign policy and catapulted herself to the top of the popularity scales. The Greens Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck has had a mixed year, but still comes off quite well in the polls. Chancellor Scholz and FDP leader Christian Lindner are behind them.
Compared to the federal elections, the SPD and FDP have to cope with losses in the polls, only the Greens have gained. This imbalance was also evident in the state elections this year, in which the FDP suffered a series of losses. Many Liberal voters were unfamiliar with the coalition or the image of the party, said FDP Vice Wolfgang Kubicki afterwards. Two weeks before the traffic light anniversary, he demanded discipline from the SPD and the Greens in the “Bild” and put an end to new demands. “If that doesn’t change in the foreseeable future, we have a fundamental problem.”
Nevertheless, this coalition is not immediately endangered. Crises weld together. And there is consensus, even in the opposition, that a serious government crisis is the last thing Germany needs in such a situation.
However, the traffic light magic of the beginning is long gone. The iconic selfie from the time of the coalition negotiations, showing the Greens and FDP negotiators – Habeck, Baerbock, Lindner and Wissing – in a dynamic pose has faded. Today, Linder can hardly believe that it is only twelve months old. “It feels like years. The nested crises overwhelmed everyone with ease,” he recently told Focus.