Tensions in Germany’s governing coalition are increasingly hobbling EU decisions, undermining Berlin’s reputation in Europe and harming the bloc’s credibility in everything from green policies to aid for Ukraine.
The most startling example of troublesome German tactics came late last month when the country said it would vote against already agreed EU plans to ban new combustion car engines from 2035 unless exemptions were made for cars that could run on carbon-neutral e-fuels.
The move exposed divisions in Olaf Scholz’s government, an unwieldy coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and liberals. It is the liberal transport minister Volker Wissing who is driving the hard line on cars, to the consternation of the Greens.
But for Germany’s partners it was typical of a coalition that is increasingly seen as Europe’s awkward squad. “Germany’s reputation is really diminishing in Europe — it’s viewed as unpredictable and unreliable,” said one European diplomat in Berlin.
“Coalition tensions are becoming a European problem.” Officials in Berlin say the criticism is unfair. “People in Brussels like to convey the impression that everyone apart from Germany agrees on everything — which is complete nonsense,” said one.
But MPs from Germany’s governing parties are becoming seriously worried about the country’s reputation. “It’s devastating,” said one Social Democrat MP. “We’re just giving away our leverage in Brussels because other countries are thinking: what the hell are the Germans doing now?”
Berlin’s move on combustion engines is just the latest example of an adversarial approach that its partners say is throwing a spanner in the works of EU decision-making. From financial aid for Ukraine to reform of the EU’s debt and deficit rules, allies see the German role in some important dossiers as uncooperative, and occasionally downright disruptive.
One EU diplomat said that in meetings in Brussels, German attaches — and in some cases, even ministers — routinely put forward one position only to change tack minutes later after a telephone call with Berlin. At other meetings German representatives are sometimes not in a position to offer a clear policy line at all, because the coalition in Berlin is still deliberating, other diplomats said.
A leading factor in Germany’s new unruliness is the scratchy relationship between the coalition partners, particularly the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Since Scholz’s three-party coalition was formed in late 2021, the FDP has suffered a string of defeats in regional elections: in two states it was kicked out of government and in two others lost its representation in the local parliament.
The FDP, and its leader, finance minister Christian Lindner, are now coming under growing pressure to arrest the decline by being more assertive in government. “They’re driven by fear of death as a party,” said one cabinet minister. “It doesn’t make you exactly cheerful.” In public, though, ministers insist they are working in perfect harmony, especially after a two-day cabinet retreat at Meseberg, the government’s guest house outside Berlin, which participants said helped to pour oil on troubled waters.
“In technical terms, the coalition works very, very well together,” Robert Habeck, the Green economy minister, said last week. “And as people we all get on really well.”
But in comments that some interpreted as a swipe at the FDP, he added: “As a government [minister] you serve the country first and foremost, not your own milieu, your own party, your own media bubble, your own Twitter followers. The oath of office we’ve sworn means . . . you have to push everything else to one side.”
Resentment is meanwhile growing at Scholz’s seeming inability to shut down coalition disputes and stop them escalating. “He’s just a weak leader,” said one Green MP. “The partners are squabbling all the time and he doesn’t intervene to stop it.”
Irritation with Germany’s incoherence on Europe has been simmering for some time. Lindner was blamed for big delays to the disbursement of billions of euros in EU aid to Ukraine last year, after insisting that it take the form of grants rather than loans. The stand-off created bad blood in Washington, with senior officials in the Biden administration voicing their frustration over how much time Brussels was taking to release the aid.
Lindner has also questioned EU proposals for reforming the bloc’s fiscal rules on public deficit and debt. Brussels presented its plan last November and wants to get legislation through before European elections next year. But Lindner has said he worries the European Commission’s proposal would water down fiscal discipline in the bloc.
Germany also resisted EU moves last year to impose a cap on the price of gas, annoying Italy, which had been lobbying for such an upper ceiling since the start of the Ukraine war. Berlin feared it would cause gas supplies to be redirected from Europe to higher-paying regions.
But German officials had signposted their opposition to the cap for months. In contrast, Wissing’s intervention on the combustion engine issue came as a surprise in Brussels, where it is rare for governments to attempt to block agreed policies so late in the process.
Berlin has sought to play down the furore — and has also rejected suggestions that ministers are divided on the issue. Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said earlier this month that Wissing reflected the “position of the whole government”.
The agreement to ban combustion engines had come with a “request to the commission . . . to submit a proposal on how cars that run on carbon neutral fuels, so-called e-fuels, can be registered after 2035”. Yet it had so far failed to fulfil this condition.
“The commission should act on this — and fast,” Hebestreit said. But there was incredulity in Brussels that Germany would raise objections to a policy that is a crucial plank of the EU’s Green Deal climate law and had already been agreed by the member states, European parliament and commission. “Normally it’s only Hungary that does that,” said the European diplomat.