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‘Now we have to see where viable bridges can be built’ – Interview with Reinhard Bütikofer

The German elections were meant to be last year’s news, but there is still no sign of a new government. In the final months of 2017, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens were in talks, since collapsed, on a possible ‘Jamaica’ coalition (a reference to the parties’ colours: black, yellow and green). Now a Christian Democrat-Social Democrat coalition is on the cards with negotiations ongoing.

In November 2017, we spoke with MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, co-chair of the European Green Party and a member of the Greens’ negotiation team, about the Jamaica talks, the opportunities and risks of a black-yellow-green coalition, the role played by Europe, and how the German party-political landscape has changed over recent years.

Roderick Kefferpütz: It’s been some time since the German elections. Looking back, which issues defined the elections, and which strategies were pursed by the different parties, the Greens in particular?

Reinhard Bütikofer: The election campaign was marked by a clash between a ‘status quo’ camp represented by the CDU/CSU [the Christian Democrats are an alliance made up of the German Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union] and the Social Democrats (SPD), and four very different change-oriented strategies from the FDP, the Left (Die Linke), far-right Alternative für Deutschland AfD, and the Greens. The status quo parties suffered huge losses, but none of the pro-change campaigns was able to make a decisive breakthrough. The result was that the status quo camp was weakened, and it was unclear from which direction change might come.

We Greens had a clear set of priorities in this election campaign, with four cornerstones. The first cornerstone was defined out of the deep need for reform in areas such as energy, climate, agriculture, and mobility. The second stood for a humanitarian and well-ordered approach to migration and refugee policy. The third cornerstone – a really important issue for us – was a fresh momentum for Europe, and for Germany to pursue an ambitious, cooperative Europe policy, rather than one which tries to force the ‘Schäuble doctrine’ onto others. The fourth cornerstone was social responsibility. Our main focus was child poverty, but also the care sector and pensions. It is thanks to this four-pronged approach that we improved our profile during the election campaign.

The SPD had one single message, ‘more social justice’, with which they suffered a historically poor result.

The CDU/CSU’s entire campaign was marked by infighting over whether to copy the AfD’s policy on refugees and immigration. Other than that, their main message was ‘we have the chancellor and we want to keep her’. The CDU showed no major ambition to shape policy, whether economic, European, social or environmental. They suffered massive losses; the CSU even more so.

The FDP claimed to be a ‘new FDP’, with a party chair that brought a new kind of style – all ‘warm and fuzzy’. And they used the fact that they were not in the Bundestag to present themselves as a non-Establishment party. The FDP also made a move to the right, at least partially, and took nationalist-liberal positions on a number of issues.

Last but not least, there was of course the AfD, which gained 13%. The party conducted an election campaign that was, at least in part, openly racist, and its attempts to mobilise anti-democratic, authoritarian sentiments were met with worrying levels of success.

To what extent did Europe play a role in the election campaign? In other election campaigns, in France for example, Europe was really important. Was this also the case in the German federal elections?

Europe could have played a central role if Merkel or Schulz had pushed it forward, but they did not. We tried to make Europe into an issue, and indeed it did come up more often in this election campaign than in the past. I definitely found that there was interest in discussions on Europe. But compared to the French presidential election campaign, Europe was certainly rather under-exposed.

The only realistic coalition that has now emerged is Jamaica, so between the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens. How do the Greens view such a coalition?

Our position is simple. We recognise our responsibility to explore whether it could work. But it can only work for us if, in the course of the negotiations, we manage to make crucial changes that will bring real progress in important policy fields. And here I’m back at the four cornerstones that I described earlier. We are fighting with great determination for a coal phase-out, we are fighting for fundamental changes in transport policy – moving away from the combustion engine – and we are fighting for a different kind of agricultural policy.

But we do not want to be just some kind of ‘eco app’. That is why we made it clear to the other parties that we are not there to undermine the minimum wage, or to change labour laws to the detriment of workers. We want to tackle the big social problems, from child poverty and the care sector to the completely overpriced housing market. In some of these areas, interestingly enough, we have more in common with the CSU than with the FDP.

We also want Germany to have an ambitious, forward-driven Europe policy. We want to strengthen the economic and monetary union, and to shape the European budget in such a way that it allows Europe to address the key challenges. This includes the completion of the banking union and an instrument to provide an appropriate response to asymmetric economic shocks.

And with regard to refugee policy, it is clear to us that we won’t manage to bring the three partners, all of whom stand to the right of us, over to our side. We won’t manage to push through all of our points there, but we won’t give way either. We will not agree to any solution that undermines our humane principles. When our basic constitutional law pledges to protect the family, then it doesn’t just mean a ‘German’ family, but also a family of refugees. Refugees with subsidiary protection in Germany must therefore also be able to bring their families join them.

These are all very important points, but how much progress has been made in these areas?

So far, let’s say that the distances and the gulfs between us have been surveyed. Now we have to see where viable bridges can be built. On certain issues the differences aren’t really so great – science, research and digitalisation, for example. Even foreign policy does not necessarily have to be a major stumbling block, in my opinion. But overall there really hasn’t been enough progress. If we had to go to the Party with our interim result as it stands today, our only recommendation would be to not go ahead with the coalition. Of course we will also have to make compromises. We are very much aware of that from ‘red-green’ times.

Green compromises already seem to be on the table – the coal phase-out and the ban on new combustion engine cars from 2030…

Three different, non-Green German governments committed themselves to climate targets. We are not prepared to abandon these commitments and fall behind. We want our climate targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050 to be met. We will not go back on that. We never said that we would manage to phase out coal in one fell swoop. That is not possible, just like the nuclear phase-out did not happen in one go. It will obviously have to be done step by step. But we have to start taking the steps now if we want our climate targets to be achieved.

As for the 2030 target for the discontinuation of fossil fuel cars, it is clear that we need a framework that will help the German car industry to take ‘paths to innovation’ – and to stick to them. We will certainly see a switch to other technologies. Just look at how other countries, from the UK to China, are positioning themselves. The car industry won’t be able to bypass this transformation – the question is whether auto manufacturers can move quickly enough to benefit from it, or will the two just accompany each other on the way down. The transformation will be unstoppable; the political world will have find a way of dealing with it to ensure that Germany doesn’t end up on crutches, industrial policy-wise.

What would be the narrative for a possible Jamaica coalition? What is the unifying element?

The unifying element? That would be the philosopher’s stone. I think the coalition will be characterised by disputes. A coalition in which the different partners keep hold of their different perspectives. The challenges are so great that we have to come up with something new; all of the partners have to recognise this. The old bloc-based approach to forming a government is not currently feasible at federal level in Germany. The elections have shown this. Now, partners that are entirely incompatible nevertheless have to try and move forward together. It can be possible to identify and implement individual reforms – projects for change – even if your perspectives on other issues are quite different. This means that it will be a coalition of a new kind – if it ever happens.

So we could say that the party political changes that have taken place in many other countries are also now a feature of the German political landscape.

Of course there has been a change. You now have an anti-republican, anti-democratic party sitting in the Bundestag with 13 per cent of the vote, which also has implications for the political differences between the other (democratic) parties. As long as there is no party in parliament that fundamentally challenges democracy and promotes authoritarian politics, you can devote yourself wholeheartedly, even excessively on occasion, to the contradictions and differences within and between the different democratic parties. But in a situation in which there is such a force pushing for authoritarianism, these cannot be taken as absolute. Otherwise you are contributing to the destruction of the system.

To what extent will the current political situation, including the exploratory coalition talks, have an impact on Europe? President Macron comes out with a new political proposal almost every week and Germany is unable to respond.

Macron’s election took place half a year earlier than ours. We will give an answer, and I hope that it will be with our own ambitious proposals. We won’t accept everything, we won’t copy everything he says. We will not be pursuing his proposals for a eurozone budget or a eurozone parliament, absolutely not. But he is right when he talks about the need for a fiscal facility to absorb asymmetric economic shocks. There we have something in common. We certainly recognise this as a great opportunity for European reinvigoration. As Greens, we are strongly in favour of that.

How do you see the chances of a Jamaica coalition? FDP party chair Christian Lindner talks about new elections with some regularity.

Those who keep claiming not to be afraid, may well be afraid after all. If not of new elections, then perhaps of a coalition government. But the FDP cannot just simply get up and leave. It too must face up to its responsibilities.

Where do we go from here? What are the next steps?

 We are now in the last phase of the exploratory talks. The final result of the talks will be available on 16 November, and this will be presented to the Green Party Conference on 25 November. If the Party Conference votes to engage in official coalition talks, we will begin immediately and finish these by mid-December. After that we will have an internal party referendum to decide whether or not to enter into the coalition.

A final and very speculative question, which is generating a lot of interest: Which ministries could the Greens could end up with? What are your thoughts on that?

 I think we will have three ministries. In any case, I’m certain that we will have the environment and energy portfolios.

‘Now we have to see where viable bridges can be built’  – Interview with Reinhard Bütikofer