If Germany and France are the two pillars of European integration, the EU has stormy times ahead. Paris and other major French cities have been roiled by protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, leading to, among other things, the cancellation of a planned state visit by Charles III due to security concerns.
The ongoing cost-of-living crisis that started 14 months ago is now beginning to trickle from the economic realm to the political, and it could turn ugly for those in power. After an unexpected victory for the Farmer-Citizen Movement — only founded in 2019 — in the recent Dutch provincial elections, as well as the troubles in France, Germany could be next on the list.
While the Germans are not known for their proclivity to protest, their signs of discomfort with the current political leadership can no longer be ignored. The only true protest party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is gaining ground in the polls, and even a new party from the Left could have a realistic chance in future elections. There are multiple reasons for this, but one is clearly the priorities set by Olaf Scholz and his coalition partners. Nothing made this more obvious than Sunday’s referendum on tighter climate goals in Berlin.
The Greens’ policies in the capital have motivated the municipal government to get additional power for the pursuit of climate neutrality by 2030. In order to make this ambitious goal legally binding, the people of Berlin would have to give their consent but — alas — they refused to do so. Just 35.8% of eligible voters went to the polls, and only half of those were in favour of more stringent rules in the name of climate change. The referendum failed to achieve the necessary majority for it to be binding by over 200,000 votes, offering a very limp endorsement of the new policy.
As the Swiss newspaper NZZ has pointed out, the German political and media classes focus on issues like these that are of marginal importance for most of the population. And some members of the Government are even cottoning on that they might be somewhat out of touch, with the FDP, the smallest coalition member, attempting U-turns in some areas. For instance, the end of the internal combustion engine — an industry tied closely to over 800,000 jobs and which remains crucial to Germany’s identity as one of the world’s leading car manufacturers — has come under renewed scrutiny, much to the chagrin of other EU members who considered it a done deal.
Simultaneously, Scholz’s Social Democrats are struggling to sustain their image as the party of the working class. Inflation is significantly up, so it was only a matter of time before labour unions re-evaluated their wage demands. Some of the largest unions are demanding an increase of over 10%, with their paymasters only willing to concede half of that.
Unsurprisingly, strikes have begun this week, with public transport and airports at a standstill. The German unions know that the public is less sympathetic to such measures than in France, and at least Macron has the excuse of being a Right-of-centre president facing Left-wing protestors. Germany’s Left-leaning Government is a different matter, and will now have to face down its own unions in one of the largest strikes in decades.
Members of the coalition negotiated for over 18 hours during Sunday and Monday, trying to balance the ambitious goals for climate and energy with economic and political reality. At this point the outcome isn’t clear, but if the referendum in Berlin is an indicator perhaps, for once, reality will win out in Germany.