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‘What we have achieved has to become the benchmark’ – Interview with Reinhard Bütikofer

Germany is hesitant to enter uncharted political territory. The negotiations in December between the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens on a ‘Jamaica’ coalition failed, and the way forward remains uncertain. A range of different options are being brought into play. Currently grand coalition redux seems most likely. Past that the options are minority government, a ‘Kenya’ coalition involving the Christian Democrats, the Social Democracts and the Greens, or even a return to the polls. In December we continued our conversation with Reinhard Bütikofer, European Green Party Co-chair and a member of the Greens’ negotiation team, and find out at first hand why the Jamaica talks failed and where things will go from here.

Roderick Kefferpütz: Jamaica has come to an end before it could even get off the ground. The Liberals (FDP) walked out of the discussions. What was that really about? What actually happened? 

Reinhard Bütikofer: The FDP left because it took fright at its own courage. During the election campaign, the party successfully portrayed itself as the new FDP. An FDP with a slick election campaign and a young leader, which gave the impression that it could be trusted because it didn’t belong to the Establishment. That really worked for them. But if they had made it into government then they would have been forced to abandon that profile – you can’t be in government, you can’t be the finance minister and act like you don’t belong to the Establishment. The switch to a more serious role obviously seemed like too much of a risk. The fact that they didn’t believe they’d be successful in a possible government was also because they were lacking on a content level.

As is traditional for the FDP, the central point for them was tax cuts. In so many other areas – education and digitalisation, for example – they weren’t able to shine quite as brightly as they maybe had hoped.

So content-wise, the FDP had nothing in particular to distinguish itself – no ‘unique selling point’?

They had the solidarity tax cut and, what really was new ground for them, a withdrawal from their traditional pro-European stance. The old FDP was a strongly pro-European party. Those days are over. We are now going to see an FDP which specialises in whipping up popular resentment with the intention of winning over German nationalist voters. It’s not clear, however, how many FDP members actually want to steer this course.

It sounds like the coalition discussions were a sort of reality check for the FDP. How did the Greens experience this departure?

I think it was only during the course of the talks that Christian Linder realised that he would rather not go into government. But he wanted to hide it, hoping that the Christian Democratic Union [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 Greens would fight so much that Jamaica would fail as a result. On the morning of Sunday December 10 the FDP tried to persuade the CDU and the CSU to leave the talks with them, but they did not succeed.

We didn’t make it easy for them to quit. Even at the very end we approached the FDP with a number of compromises. We tried again and again to build bridges. On certain aspects of the European economic and monetary union I tried 40 or 50 different wording proposals. There were enough signals from our side that we would be prepared to meet somewhere in the middle.

And what form did your compromise offers take?

A practical example: the FDP wants to abolish the solidarity tax. It’s worth 20 billion euros per year – almost 80 billion euros over the whole legislature. The entire financial scope of the coalition over these four years, however, was around 55 billion euros. And then the FDP did not just want to get rid of the solidarity tax, but also – as did we – to invest 10 billion euros in digitalisation, increase spending on education and research, and so on. There was a whole series of common endeavours which would have cost a huge amount of money. That just wouldn’t have worked. It’s not possible to totally scrap the solidarity tax while increasing investments and balancing the budget. It just doesn’t add up.

In the end came the proposal to reduce the income from the solidarity tax by 10 or 12 billion euros. At the very end there was even talk of 14 billion euros. That would have meant that 75 per cent of the people who currently pay the solidarity tax would no longer have to, and whatever remained of the tax would then have been dismantled in the next legislature.

And how about migration and refugees? That was the area in which you said that you couldn’t win but also didn’t want to lose.

We were prepared to take some steps towards the CDU on this. We agreed on a text in which the figure of 200,000 was mentioned. So this figure would have been in the text, but not as an upper limit. We would never have gone along with that. On family reunification we didn’t want to give in. The suspension of family reunification for people with subsidiary protection will come to an end in March 2018. If this isn’t extended by a majority in the Bundestag then the previous situation will be restored and those with subsidiary protection will again be able to bring their family members to join them. The CDU tried to extend the suspension by one more year. The moment the CSU started to signal that they were taking us seriously and thought that we might be able to come to some sort of arrangement, Lindner threatened Seehofer that he would attack him from the right. Lindner supported the suspension of family reunification for a further two years.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t think Jamaica will be on the cards again. The FDP slammed the door shut too loudly for that. I also can’t see a black-green minority government happening.

We now have to make sure that everything we managed to achieve during these difficult discussions doesn’t just get swept under the carpet. The Social Democrats should use what we Greens fought hard to achieve and build on it. What we have achieved has to become the benchmark.

And how about Europe? Keep waiting for Germany?

The trials and tribulations of German coalition-building should not lead to a logjam in European politics. We have to prevent that from happening. That’s why we should launch an initiative in the German Bundestag which brings together everyone who is committed to the European project, and tries to provide Macron and Juncker with answers on a range of different European issues. Regardless of whether we have a caretaker government, a minority government, or a grand coalition, we have to make it absolutely clear that Berlin is capable of action. We only have a small time-window. If we wait until we have a new government, it might be too late.

And lastly, we need to get actively involved in society. Many people are disappointed and are looking for a serious player. This isn’t the time for navel-gazing and turning inwards. On the contrary, it’s time for getting out there and trying to build alliances for social change.

‘What we have achieved has to become the benchmark’ – Interview with Reinhard Bütikofer

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