June 24, 2019
Economic reform has torn up the SPD - climate policy does the same for the CDU/CSU
When the fortunes of large parties change, this has almost never to do with the quality of its leaders, and almost always with political shifts in society. It is easy to point fingers at Sigmar Gabriel, Martin Schulz or Andrea Nahles. All three have been above-average political operators. What has killed the SPD has been Schröder’s economic reforms combined with the readiness to enter successive grand coalitions.
The situation for the CDU and CSU is no less alarming. What the Schröder reforms did for the SPD in the last 15 years, climate policy is doing to the CDU right now. The party is torn between its traditional support for industry and the recognition that it needs to become greener. The Greens are now polling at the same level as the CDU/CSU, and even pulled ahead in some polls. CDU/CSU are no longer guaranteed to nominate the next chancellor. This new situation is beginning to have a big impact on the internal debate. The argument this time is not between the two parties, but within the CDU. Angela Merkel and CSU-chief Horst Söder are calling for an end to coal-fired power stations by 2030 - as opposed to the previously agreed target of 2038, also the official recommendation of the coal commission. The commission was a classic stitch-up job to protect the interests of industry, and widely greeted with dismay. This has contributed to the dramatic rise in support for the Greens since February when the results were announced.
The biggest opponents to a policy shift within the CDU are the state premiers of Saxony and North-Rhine Westphalia where production of lignite - or brown coal - is concentrated. They argue that an early exit from coal is not doable. But they premise their definition of realism on continued industrial expansion. It reminds us of the most common argument against electric cars in Germany: it cannot happen because German car makers are simply not ready to mass-produce them. What those who argue in this way have not yet woken up to is that their underlying assumptions about German industrial production are going to be challenged as part of the climate policy as well. What they have not realised yet is that the targets are very easy to achieve - through less production at home.
This issue is going to come to a head before the scheduled 2021 elections. We see no possibility of the grand coalition continuing beyond for reasons of pure arithmetic. The only viable coalition right now is between CDU/CSU and the Greens. Even CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP would not have a majority between them. The CDU would have been prepared for a coalition with the Greens as junior partner - as Merkel was in 2017. With the Greens as equal, let alone senior partner, this is a completely different situation. Climate targets will be to Germany what Brexit is to the UK.