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Germany’s Tenuous Coalition Government Shows Strain

BERLIN — Germany’s coalition government was always an awkward trio of center-left Social Democrats, climate-conscious Greens and pro-business Free Democrats. Yet in the heady days after their election victory in 2021, the parties vowed to stick to a tradition of consensus-driven politics, keeping the drama behind closed doors.

Those doors have now swung open.

In recent days, the parties have engaged in an unusual level of public sniping over a wonkish bill with the seemingly humble aim of reducing fossil fuel emissions from heaters in homes and other buildings.

While the stakes would seem relatively minor, the level of vitriol has been anything but, reflecting a new era in which Germany’s once-staid politics have turned more fractious.

No one is predicting a collapse of the coalition. But the public sparring has raised questions over how Germany will meet commitments to Europe’s climate goals — as well as Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ability to maintain effective stewardship of Europe’s most powerful economy.

“It is critical the federal government demonstrates its ability to act,” said Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier. “Scholz has to show he can safeguard this government.”

For months, European Union officials have bemoaned how German coalition strife had begun to ripple through the bloc — tripping up fossil fuel engine regulations, budget plans and debt policy.

The first signs of tension in the coalition came last summer, during a tug of war between the Greens and Free Democrats over keeping nuclear power plants running past a previously agreed deadline. Then came a clash over European fossil fuel engine legislation.

Now, the divide over climate policy has been further aggravated by the draft law, which aims to ensure that newly installed heating systems run on at least 65 percent renewable energy starting in 2024.

Just a year ago, the mood seemed far different. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed the parties together.

As Europe sought to halt purchases of fossil fuels from Russia, Germany looked uniquely vulnerable: More than 50 percent of its natural gas came from Russia, thanks to a decades-long policy of doubling down on natural gas as a “bridge technology” to carbon neutrality.

But Germany’s coalition confronted the looming energy crisis with far greater success than initially had seemed possible.

The finance minister and head of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, who was usually leery of climate policy, cheered the promotion of renewable energies as “freedom energy.” The economy minister, Robert Habeck, a Green Party leader, became the unlikely face for liquid natural gas terminal construction and the refiring of coal plants.

Now, safely through the worst, the two junior parties in Mr. Scholz’s coalition have gone into attack mode.

In recent days, one conservative politician portrayed Mr. Habeck as an East German Stasi, or secret police officer, spying on people’s homes.

Free Democrat leaders leaned into the conservative caricature of the Greens as the “prohibition party,” calling the bill the “heating prohibition law.”

When the Free Democrats last week blocked the draft law from entering Parliament — despite previously approving it in the cabinet — the Greens described them as dishonest salesmen and an “unreliable and destructive clique.”

Amid the mudslinging, political observers have begun to ask: Where is the chancellor?

“It is no longer just about content,” wrote the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. “It is now about trust within the government. It’s about whether the coalition is still operational after a year and a half. And it’s about the authority of Olaf Scholz.”

For the Greens, Mr. Habeck’s heating bill is key to their plans for reaching German climate targets.

To the Free Democrats, the bill’s restrictions on private households’ choices grates with its belief that technological innovation, not regulation, should shape climate policy. .

“This law makes our people feel insecure, and we need to reassure them,” said Bijan Sjir-Sarai, the secretary general of the Free Democrats. “It is simply a matter of preventing a bad law and achieving a good law. And that, in my view, has to be the goal of politics.”

None of this eases the mood among Germans. Anxious about being left in the cold last winter, come springtime, they have turned their worries to their pocket books and personal choices.

Part of the bill’s challenge may be in the coalition’s failure, or unwillingness, to link the bill to recent painful lessons over German fossil fuel dependencies.

Weaning Germany off Russian gas drained 300 billion euros, about $320 billion, from state coffers last year. Today, Germany has simply swapped its energy dependency from Russia to countries like Norway, the United States or Qatar.

Fear of being temporarily disadvantaged has taken over a more important long-term reality, said Nina Scheer, the spokeswoman for climate and energy politics for the Social Democrats in Parliament.

“This should be a bill about enabling people, not about restrictions,” she said. As climate policies are enacted, fossil fuel prices will rise, she said — and households will face the costs: “It’s a false security to believe that if you keep everything the way it is, that it will be safe. We learned last year what that means.”

The German heating bill would actually only do what other European countries have already done. From Scandinavia to France to Italy, all have laws promoting low-carbon heating systems. Even in Poland, which has clung to coal, installations of heat pumps soared 120 percent last year.

Germany’s buildings are responsible for 15 percent of the country’s overall carbon emissions. Cutting that level is essential if the country hopes to meet its climate targets.

Last year, Germany barely met its goals to reduce emissions nearly 2 percent, and the country’s Environment Agency has warned that more significant reductions are needed in the coming years.

The Greens, supported by climate experts and scientists, argue that changes to personal habits are urgently needed. Yet after successive German governments promoted natural gas heating, making that case is now an uphill battle.

“This is the first time that climate protection is reaching people in their private lives,” said Elisabeth Staudt, a researcher in energy efficiency with Environmental Action Germany, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It is so emotional because it has to do with people’s homes.”

Seeking a way out of the crisis, Mr. Habeck, the economy minister, has suggested possible revisions to his bill and invited coalition partners to negotiate on Tuesday.

But amid the questions over how the coalition can heal its openly displayed wounds, Mr. Scholz has been largely silent. And his Social Democrats can offer only a muted response.

Katja Mast, first secretary of the Social Democrats’ parliamentary fraction, noted that the Greens had also been blocking parts of other bills on road tolls and highways — a potential escalation in the struggle over climate policies.

She urged the parties to come together to pass the needed bills: “With a lot of good will we will achieve this. I am appealing to that good will.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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