Even before the new government took office, there was much discussion about the cooperation between Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Economics Minister Robert Habeck. Can this go well, many asked themselves? The first cracks are now becoming apparent.
In the fall of 2018, no one was thinking of a federal traffic light coalition. The FDP and the Greens still had a relationship that was more tense than relaxed. The party leaders Christian Lindner (FDP) and Robert Habeck (Greens) often got down to business. Then the upper liberal accused the upper green in a talk show that he was “creamy”. So somehow incomprehensible, without substance. Whereupon Habeck reacted insulted.
Lindner would no longer say that about his cabinet colleague. When the two stand in front of cameras together, they almost present themselves as pretty much best friends. Then Christian jokes with Robert and the green buddy with the yellow one.
But in reality, the two are pretty much the best competitors. In any case, the Federal Finance Minister and the Federal Minister for Economics and Climate do not exactly form a “dream team”.
Shortly after the general election, things looked very different. At that time, Habeck and Lindner were in seventh selfie heaven and agreed not to let the stronger SPD offer anything. On the contrary: the FDP and the Greens reveled in the new times, in which two “medium-sized parties” together were stronger than the SPD, which was no longer so large. Well, what a beautiful, green-yellow idyll it was.
But the duel quickly erupted between the two: Habeck, who would have loved to be chancellor candidate, wanted to go to the Ministry of Finance. That’s where Lindner went, to the checkout. Since the Greens had already claimed the second most important department for their hapless chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, with the Foreign Ministry, the FDP could, was allowed and wanted to access the finances. Habeck lost out to Lindner and had to make do with the Economics Ministry. However, he incorporated the central theme of the eco-party – climate policy – into his house.
Lindner seemed more powerful than Habeck until the war in Ukraine significantly upgraded the Ministry of Economics, which is also responsible for energy. In addition, Habeck is a gifted communicator. He manages better than any other member of the cabinet to let people share his thoughts, even his concerns and doubts.
“He is the German champion in both-and, he often just keeps talking until there really is something for every taste,” the “SZ” recently characterized the style of the green. Lindner, on the other hand, speaks more plainly, doesn’t try to please everyone, and sometimes offends. His tone is more cutting. He wants to score with arguments, not with political-philosophical rhetoric.
Habeck’s style is very well received. The result: 60 percent of Germans are satisfied with Habeck, “only” 42 percent with Lindner, although that is a top value for an FDP politician. Thanks to Habeck and Foreign Minister Baerbock, the Greens are now well over 20 percent in polls, while the FDP remains below their federal election results.
Sometimes it crunches loudly between Habeck and Lindner. This is – beyond any “beauty contest” – justified in terms of content. Lindner is a convinced market economist, gives the freedom of the individual – individuals as well as companies – priority over state intervention. Its guiding principle is the independent, self-confident citizen.
Habeck, on the other hand, would, if he ruled alone, focus on the citizen he was caring for. Like all Greens, he envisions a caring, regulatory state. The “green state” knows better than the individual what is good for society and its citizens. When in doubt, green politics prefers a bid or ban to a system of incentives.
What works in traffic lights and what doesn’t is actually laid down in the coalition agreement – actually. But nobody could have foreseen the Russian attack on Ukraine in the fall, which is why the state is suddenly faced with new challenges. This illustrates the Greens’ call for an “excess profit tax”. It is intended to prevent companies – especially the mineral oil industry – from benefiting disproportionately from rising energy prices, or that companies in the defense industry can look forward to rising profits.
Habeck wants to levy a special tax on these profits. Lindner, on the other hand, says no, because special profits cannot be precisely defined and because he fears for the competitiveness of innovative German companies. Since the coalition agreement does not contain the word excess profit tax and any kind of tax increase is excluded, Lindner has the better cards here. Habeck had to admit that an excess profit tax is not enforceable in this coalition.
Conversely, Habeck can hardly hide his public delight that part of the “tank discount” initiated by the FDP ends up in the coffers of the petroleum industry. The Economics Minister therefore wants to tighten the laws against abuse of market power. Since Lindner has no choice but to approve.
In any case, there is no shortage of contentious issues between Habeck and Linder. The FDP man mocked himself more than once when his green colleague went on the offensive without a vote: lower VAT on healthy food, a 365-euro annual ticket for everyone or the call for a speed limit of 130. Conversely, Habeck was “not amused” when Lindner suddenly pulled out of the drawer the plans for a European-American free trade agreement (TTIP) that had actually failed under the grand coalition. Even the Americans didn’t want that, was Habeck’s pejorative comment.
The two politicians agree that the burden should be relieved on those on small and medium-sized incomes, but not on the “how”. Habeck pushed ahead with the proposal to finance this by increasing the tax rates for incomes of more than 80,000 euros a year. To do this, the top tax rate would have to rise from 42 to 57 percent. The coalition agreement categorically excludes higher tax rates. Lindner’s counterattack was not long in coming. “That would be a sabotage of the economic recovery,” the Liberal railed.
There is no doubt that it would be beneficial if the economy and finance ministries acted in concert on energy policy. But when it comes to nuclear power, the two ministers and their parties are worlds apart. Lindner wants to “talk non-ideologically about energy supply issues. It’s about affordability and the saving of CO2 emissions.” From Lindner’s point of view, a partial exit from the nuclear phase-out would be a good idea.
That, in turn, is out of the question for Habeck. His reply: “Ideology-free, the topic was examined technically at the beginning of the legislature. It was decided by the relevant ministries and also politically that there will be no way forward in Germany.” “Nuclear power, no thanks!” The Greens are adamant stuck to this principle from their early days.
Habeck and Lindner not only separate many things; they also have one important thing in common. Both have to explain to their own parties and voters that a tripartite alliance – especially in times of the war in Ukraine with all its consequences – forces difficult compromises. When Habeck flies to the natural gas sheikhs in Qatar or defends the 100 billion program for the German armed forces, many a pacifist-leaning eco-fundi feels they are in the wrong movie.
Lindner, on the other hand, finds it difficult to explain to his own clientele that there shouldn’t be a contradiction in driving up the national debt through secondary budgets, and at the same time boasting of being the lord keeper of the seal of the debt brake. So far, Habeck seems to have managed the balancing act between program and practice better than Lindner, if one takes the performance of their parties in the state elections as a benchmark.
Shortly after the general election, Lindner and Habeck, together with Baerbock and the then FDP General Secretary Wissing, proudly announced on Instagram that they were “exploring commonalities and bridges over differences. And even find some.” Almost nine months later, the magic is no longer felt much. One gets the impression that Habeck and Lindner urgently need to start looking for new bridges together.