Made in Germany: the collapse of coalition talks has led to a government gridlock in Europe's biggest economy. Photo: Pixabay.
24 Nov 2017 | Benjamin Wehrmann

Government gridlock - Can Germany still act on climate?

For the first time in its post-war history, Germany struggles to form a stable government coalition two months after voters cast their ballot in September's elections. The so-called Jamaica coalition talks' collapse plunges the country into political uncertainty but falls short of a constitutional crisis. While the acting government under Chancellor Angela Merkel is largely capable of running state affairs as usual, the unparalleled situation is set to be a drag on Germany's role in international climate leadership.

The decision by Germany’s pro-business FDP party to pull out of the exploratory talks for a Jamaica coalition after weeks of negotiations has pushed the country into uncharted political waters. Two months after the September federal elections, and for the first time in its post-war history, there is still no majority government in Germany in sight.

The political stalemate puzzles the German electorate, businesses, and the country’s international partners alike, who all fear that Europe’s largest economy could get stuck in political limbo as the national and international challenges that would urgently need to be addressed by a stable federal government are manifold and profound.

In the fields of climate, energy, and transport policy, Germany must decide when and how it will phase out coal-fired power production, what will happen to diesel cars and internal combustion engines in general, how it will meet its imperilled 2020 climate protection goals, and how much it can contribute to next year’s UN climate conference (COP24) in Poland, which will adopt the final rulebook for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Several aspects of international climate protection still need to be negotiated in the year leading up to the COP24 in Katowice, Elmar Kriegler of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) told the Clean Energy Wire. “The fact that we only have an acting government right now certainly makes this more difficult as it has no mandate to make far-reaching decisions.”

"The sign of a constitutional democracy working well"

The governmental cliffhanger comes at a relatively comfortable point in time: the German economy is booming, social security funds are adequately provided for, and the unemployment rate is at its lowest since the 1990 reunification. Nevertheless, Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to reassure the anxious public that there will be no power vacuum in Berlin despite the coalition quandary.

“We have an acting federal government. Things in Germany are well organised, we can demonstrate stability, and we are also capable of acting”, Merkel said shortly after the Jamaica talks collapsed.

The chancellor’s composed attitude is reflected in an analysis by British weekly The Economist, which says that the current government gridlock is far from sparking a political crisis, but rather is “the sign of a constitutional democracy working well".

If the FDP continues to refrain from reopening talks with Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the environmentalist Green Party, and if the Social Democrats (SPD) do not change their minds on rejecting another grand coalition with the conservatives, two options remain: Germany could either end up with a minority government or call new elections.

[See CLEW's Coalition Watch for updates on the government building process]

Both alternatives are new to modern-day Germany, and for now it remains unclear which path the country will choose. In the meantime, the former grand coalition of the SPD and the CDU/CSU will remain in office as the acting federal government.

New elections would be followed by yet another attempt at coalition building and might take place as late as April 2018, meaning that an administration which already saw itself on the way out might have to stay in office for at least a few more months.

Germany's Basic Law, the Grundgesetz, provides legal guidelines for a difficult government transition period. Photo: Pixabay

From a legal point of view, an acting federal government has the same set of powers and duties as a ‘regular’ government. However, a caretaker government making decisions that have long-term binding effects on its elected successor in terms of staffing or funding would run counter to the code of practice.

The acting government’s status is too unstable to give Germany a leading voice in the ongoing climate negotiations, climate researcher Kriegler says. Since the international emissions reduction targets for 2030 are at risk if the current trends persist, hopes rest with the individual countries to set examples and encourage the international community to do more. “But the acting government’s strength won’t be enough to send signals and motivate other countries to step up their efforts.”

At national level, the acting government’s status is poised to reduce its capacity for action in the short run. Legal amendments require a majority vote in parliament, which the CDU/CSU-SPD still has.

There is also a so-called “legislative emergency option” in Germany’s Basic Law, which allows the federal president to approve the government’s legislative proposals if the Bundesrat, the council of federal states, gives its consent – but its “emergency” connotation makes it a potentially contentious option.

The absence of a new coalition affects more than just the government’s functioning. The technical committees, Germany’s most important parliamentary organs, are also curtailed in the transition period. Delegates have decided not to install the 20-odd committees that deal with policy areas such as the environment, energy, foreign policy, or defence.

In parliamentary committees, party experts deliberate on a given issue before it is brought before the plenary. Currently, however, the Bundestag has only one functioning “super-committee”, which is supposed to assume all the duties that usually fall on small expert circles until a new government has been formed.

Jamaica's coal-exit legacy

This modus operandi will also affect Germany’s progress towards achieving its most important climate and energy challenge - the phase-out of coal-fired power production. “The key question is whether there will be a plan for how it’s going to be conducted”, says Kriegler.

The climate researcher says the country’s approach to exiting coal is not only being watched very closely abroad, but it would also decide whether Germany still has a chance to get anywhere near its 2020 climate target of reducing emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels. So far, it has achieved 28 percent.

“The 2020 targets are definitely more in danger now than they already were before the coalition talks collapsed”, Kriegler says. For him, it is uncertain how majorities on this controversial topic could be formed within the parliament in the short run, given the cumbersome constellation that might persist for several months. “We have roughly three years left until the end of 2020, so a delay of six months without a doubt is going to be a major factor.”

But progress on Germany’s coal exit might still be achieved – as a legacy of the failed ‘Jamaica’ negotiations. The intense cross-party debate on climate during the exploratory talks, focusing on how the country could still reach its climate targets, has led to a compromise on coal power that includes the shutting down of 7GW of coal capacity, backed by a leaked economy ministry paper.

This is less than the 8 to 10 GW demanded by the Greens, but still more than the 3 to 5GW initially proposed by the FDP and the conservatives. The acting SPD Environment Minister, Barbara Hendricks, who at the COP23 in Bonn argued she could not make a decision on behalf of the next government on coal policy, said that the compromise reached in the ‘Jamaica’ talks had a “reasonable dimension”. She might now see herself still in office until the commission tasked with developing a phase-out plan for coal is set up as planned.

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