by Oliver Noyan
When the new German government entered office in 2021, one of its main goals in EU politics was very simple: End the German voting abstentions that had become the norm in the previous government. What we got instead, however, is even worse, and possibly more dangerous.
One defining characteristic of the Merkel era’s EU policy was the so-called “German vote”. As the government often failed to reach a common position on EU matters, Germany was notorious for abstaining from voting.
The “traffic light coalition” of the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the liberal FDP vowed to end this practice which frequently led to Germany being ridiculed by its European partners.
They even enshrined this vow into their coalition agreement, which stipulates that Germany will “pursue an active European policy and have a constructive claim to shape it” and that the government will have a “more stringent coordination” than before.
However, one and a half years later, it becomes obvious that the government not only failed to live up to its pledge but made things even worse. Instead of voting abstention, what we got is a jumble of unpredictability, contradictory communication, and an apparent lack of coordination.
These patterns run through almost every policy field – from genome editing, where the government failed to find any position at all, all the way to fiscal policy, where the Greens and the Liberals communicate mutually incompatible positions.
The German government often tries to justify this jumble by referring to the very nature of the new three-way coalition, which brings together very different parties with often opposing world views, all of them seeking to further their own agenda.
But this uploading of German coalition infighting to the European level could have serious repercussions. While the former “German vote” simply led to an abstention, the new, more chaotic voting pattern could very much change the rules of the game.
And we have already seen that happen.
When Germany suddenly announced that it would abstain from voting on the combustion engine phase-out, it was nothing short of a PR disaster.
Only a few days before the vote, the responsible Green-led ecology ministry insisted that the vote was only a formality and that Germany would stick to its commitments.
The bomb that the liberal transport minister dropped a few days after came as a first: Despite all the agreements, he retracted Germany’s previous commitment and effectively squeezed in a “German vote” in a file that was widely considered to be a done deal.
Regarded as a one-time thing, this has, however, since turned into a precedent. Last week, France followed the German example and similarly blocked a file that was already considered finalised: the EU renewables directive.
The example shows that the “new German vote” has already changed the rules of the game at the EU level.
What was once almost unthinkable seems to become a more widely-used practice. After all, if Germany, which often tries to act from a position of moral high ground, can do these things, why shouldn’t other countries follow suit as well?
*first published in: www.euractiv.com