Right now, Berlin can’t compare with London’s latest political stand-up comedy, bordering on the farcical. I’m not fishing for sympathy, but for a German columnist to compete against a fiercely determined and ultimately victorious lettuce… please! Your level of entertainment is just out of reach.
I thus assume that because you were concentrating on that vegetable with a wig you didn’t hear the sound resonating from the Bundeskanzleramt, a Wumms (something between oomph and kaboom) when the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, finally put his foot down.
“He can actually do this?” was the astonished reaction among the media and the wider public (who had reason to doubt Scholz’s decision-making abilities). Followed by a “But can he actually do this?”, a question only too natural in a country that relies on collegiate coalitions.
It may not have looked like it for the last six weeks but your system, favouring a single party government, makes for rather powerful British prime ministers. I’ve always been amazed at cabinet members entering No 10 and leaving minutes later as ex-cabinet members.
In modern German history there’s never been one ruling party. Currently there are three, and very different ones. A first. So it should not come as a surprise that the chancellor had to remind the other two parties about his calling the tune, the Wumms in this case.
What was surprising was the way Scholz chose to do it: a letter to the cabinet members involved, instructing them what to do, citing his so-called Richtlinienkompetenz (a catchy term for the chancellor’s authority to determine policy guidelines).
This authority should be self-evident, but the parents of our constitution jotted it down in Article 65 anyway, just in case: in principle, cabinet members run their own departments, unless there’s a lack of unity, which is the moment when the chancellor may step in to decide.
Lack of unity is a friendly way to put the massive disagreement between the Greens and the liberal FPD regarding Nuxit, our long-planned exit from nuclear energy. The liberals would like to prolong nuclear life until 2024 (which is the use-by date of our nuclear fuel rods). The Greens religiously state that the last three remaining nuclear power plants must be switched off on New Year’s Eve 2022, with an emergency option to allow two of them to run until the following April. Their party convention had just confirmed the sanctity of Nuxit when, only two days later, they received word from Scholz: all three plants will run until April 15, 2022.
When asked about his Richtlinienkompetenz in the summer, Scholz said: “It is good that I have it. But certainly not in the way of me writing a letter to someone: ‘If you please, minister, do proceed as follows.’”
Only two months after this statement he did exactly that, much to the delight of constitutional experts. Most of them weren’t alive when this ultimate measure for cabinet discipline had been pulled before: in 1956 by Konrad Adenauer, who ordered his ministers to facilitate European integration by all possible means.
Since then this sword of Damocles may have hung over cabinet members, but no chancellor has ever used it again.
Helmut Schmidt was proud to get along without it. Willy Brandt didn’t need it, either. Helmut Kohl, a bulldozer only in physical appearance, was rather sensitive in handling his smaller coalition party – he knew he needed them. Gerhard Schröder, known as “Basta-Kanzler”, did threaten to use his Richtlinienkompetenz. But he never explicitly did.
And Angela Merkel once publicly spoke of it, in an in-fight with her Bavarian sister party, which wanted to shut the borders during the refugee crisis. But again, she didn’t sit down and put it into writing.
For the moment, Scholz’s plan has worked: he is seen as the peacemaker. And the quarrelling parties gladly hide behind his command, knowing a decision had to be taken soon, before the winter.
Germany’s energy problem isn’t solved, though, and will most probably not be solved by April. So it won’t be the last we’ve heard of Nuxit.
And it may not be the last we’ve heard of Richtlinienkompetenz. Scholz, as pointed out by many commentators, has used it in his first year of government already. Given the growing divide between the three coalition parties, he may be tempted to use it again.
The trouble is: if you have to spell out your authority to people, you may not have that much of it after all.