A New German Model: Hippies and Yuppies of the World, Unite!
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The most exciting consequence of Germany’s parliamentary election so far is a selfie. As soon as the four people in it posted the image on Instagram, it went viral and was, perhaps inevitably, set to soundtracks such as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Why the fuss?
In a narrow sense, the answer is that the selfie could signal a solution to the hardest part of building the next German governing coalition. In a wider sense, that same signal could also echo around the world, because it just might become a model for coping with the climate crisis. Viewed with such optimism, what the selfie really depicts is the potential reconciliation of ecology and economy, state and market, environment and prosperity — in short, the future.
The people in the picture are not household names outside of Germany: Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, the co-leaders of the Greens; and Volker Wissing and Christian Lindner of the pro-business Free Democrats. The occasion was their first informal chat about whether formal coalition negotiations between them would even make sense.
For most of the 41 years since the Greens entered parliament, this kind of chumminess was unthinkable. To the Free Democrats, the Greens were hippies. To the Greens, the Free Democrats were yuppies. If the FDP stood for individual freedom, making money and driving Porsches (Lindner bought his first when he was 19), the Greens stood for the nanny state, correct recycling of glass and paper, and Birkenstocks. They were united in mutual loathing.
In the German political spectrum, this made them niche parties, as distinct from the big-tent “people’s parties” — the Social Democrats on the center-left and the Christian Democrats on the center-right. As such, the FDP and Greens usually played kingmakers to one of the larger camps.
That will be the case again, but with a historic twist. For the first time, both the Free Democrats and the Greens are needed jointly to give either the Social Democrats or the CDU/CSU a majority in parliament.
Moreover, the two niche parties are no longer so niche, nor do the big-tent parties still have such big tents. The SPD and CDU/CSU still took first and second place but are much diminished from their halcyon days. By contrast, the Greens and FDP were easily the most popular parties among younger voters and those voting for the first time (see charts). In time, they could become the next people’s parties.
Hence their new swagger. Realizing that their greatest differences are with each other — as opposed to whichever senior partner will lead the government — they figured they should establish a rapport first. Germans immediately dubbed it the citrus coalition, after their colors — lime for the Greens, and lemon-yellow for the FDP. Eventually they’ll also have to anoint the next chancellor — probably Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats — but that seems almost like an afterthought.
Such collaboration has already been done on the regional level. In Habeck’s home state of Schleswig-Holstein, the Greens and the FDP support a CDU government. In Rhineland-Palatinate, they are part of a Social Democratic one. Both cabinets run smoothly.
At the federal level mixing lemon and lime will be trickier. On the biggest questions, the kingmakers are diametrically opposed. The Greens want to raise taxes, the Free Democrats want to cut them. The Greens want something akin to central planning to make the economy carbon neutral, the FDP wants to let market forces like a high carbon price unleash a green technology revolution. The Greens want to soften Germany’s balanced-budget laws and boost public investment. The FDP wants to shrink debt and encourage private investment.
How they’ll resolve these dilemmas will determine whether the next four years will bring Germany and Europe forward. Both parties will have to make some painful compromises. Fortunately, they’ll also be able to jointly declare victory, because they have more in common than it might seem.
Both are quasi-libertarian when it comes to social norms — relaxed about everything from cannabis to LGBTQ+ and alternative lifestyles generally. Both want to turbo-boost Germany's digital transformation while protecting people’s data privacy. Both are at heart cosmopolitan and want to make Germany a multicultural land of immigrants. Above all, they’re more ready than the other parties to take a stand with democracies such as the U.S. against autocracies such as China and Russia.
Inevitably, there’ll be iffy moments in the coming weeks, as old enmities and biases resurface. For the honchos in both parties, it’ll be a test of leadership to smooth over these cracks. But it’ll be worth it. As Habeck said in a press conference this week: “Hey, Germany, are you still sleeping? Something new can happen. It’s actually a cool situation.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
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