A magic dwells in every platitude

Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 30 November 2021

At the formation of new governments, it has become an element of German political kitsch to quote from Hermann Hesse’s poem ‘Steps.’

Well, at least the famous line, “A magic dwells in every beginning.”

Nonetheless, the talks leading to Germany’s new ‘traffic lights coalition’ were not particularly magical. Its name comes from the colours of its three parties: the red Social Democrats, the yellow Free Democrats, and the green, well, Greens.

New Zealand’s version of this government would be Labour, ACT, and Green. And yes, that would be almost as unlikely as it appeared in Germany. But magic?

The most impressive aspect of the coalition talks was how smoothly they progressed. Or at least how little the public knew about what happened behind closed doors. Unlike previous negotiations, there were few leaks, no public disagreements, no unprofessional behaviour.

The negotiations were also swift. Last time, in 2017, the formation of the government took almost half a year. This time, the parties were done just a few months after the election. Considering the pronounced differences between them, hardly anyone expected a quick result.

These differences have not disappeared, but they have been buried by a monster of a coalition treaty.

The lengths German politicians go to in order to form a coalition government would amaze New Zealand politicians. There were only 1,600 words written on seven sparsely covered pages when Labour and NZ First signed their agreement in 2017.

By contrast, the German coalition document runs over 177 pages with 52,000 words – and mind you, German words are much longer on average. If you are not a native German speaker, good luck making sense of terms like ‘Rohstoffsicherungsstrategie’, ‘Wohnungseigentumsgemeinschaften’ and ‘Gesamtlärmbetrachtung’ (’Commodity Security Strategy’, ‘Condominium Associations’ and ‘Overall Noise Assessment’, since you asked).

There are good reasons for the length of this agreement. The parties are diverse; they do not trust one another, and so every aspect of politics must be covered. It would be a recipe for future political crises to leave more wiggle room than necessary. So best to get on top of it early.

By doing so, political horse-trading can also take place at the beginning. Each side gains something in exchange for swallowing some dead rats. And finally, even if the agreement contains such deceased rodents, the wordiness makes it sound more palatable.

The result is a coalition treaty that sounds vague where it is detailed, and detailed where it is vague.

Take, for example, the passage about promoting home ownership: “We want to enable more people in Germany to live in owner-occupied property. We want to lower the barriers to home ownership by providing equity-replacing loans and support emerging households in the long term, e.g., with repayment subsidies and interest rate reductions.”

The clearest bit here is the goal to increase the home ownership rate. But the rest of that statement is sufficiently unclear in scope, which probably means that not much will follow from it in practice. Maybe a pilot project. We shall see.

Other sections, meanwhile, are so slogan-like that any party could support them. It becomes apparent when trying to imagine anyone saying the opposite.

Take this for example: “We have an appetite for new things and will promote technological, digital, social and sustainable innovation. By improving the framework conditions for higher education, science and research, we want to make the science location more creative and competitive.”

As if anyone would oppose innovation. As if anyone would call for the deterioration of scientific frameworks. As if anyone would want to see less creativity and competitiveness in research.

The entire document reads like this. There are mundane platitudes like: “Democracy thrives on trust in all state institutions and constitutional bodies.” Yes, and motherhood and apple pie.

There are contradictions wrapped in cotton wool, such as: “We want to improve decision-making by using new forms of citizen dialogue, such as citizens’ councils, without abandoning the principle of representation.” Which is, basically, direct democracy without practising it.

And there are minute details like: “We want emergency braking and distance assist systems in commercial vehicles to be prohibited from being switched off.” Let’s hope this will not require a change of the constitution.

Perhaps this coalition agreement does not matter that much in the end. The document mainly shows that politicians of all three parties were able to sit together politely. That they could discuss the multitude of issues facing their country. That they may even agree on a few measures – while diplomatically hiding their disagreement on others.

And crucially, that they were able to do all that without the public taking much notice of it.

If politicians of three parties can do that together, that is reassuring. Because it means that they will be able to repeat the process over the coming four years as required.

When asked what the greatest challenge was facing a politician, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” If anything, the threat of events today is even higher than in Macmillan’s time.

The next four years will be uncharted territory. The pandemic is far from over, especially in Europe. Europe’s refugee crisis has never been solved, as developments along the Polish-Belarusian border demonstrate. In the periphery of Europe, Turkey is economically destabilised and its currency collapsing. One way or another, the US will likely have a new President by (or before) 2024. There is a powder keg of debt and inflation in the world economy, and China’s rise will continue to create geostrategic tensions.

The implications of all these events cannot be fully anticipated. So, it is cute when the coalition agreement announces: “We will work with all stakeholders to reduce food waste on a binding, sector-specific basis.” But the big questions of our time do not lend themselves to be solved in coalition agreements.

The traffic light coalition’s success will thus depend on its managerial competence – and how well it will handle domestic and international crises.

The best thing about the coalition document is that it shows the three parties are able to work together. Though not magical, it is a good start.

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