Berlin Early May, a sunny day in front of Meseberg Castle, the guest house of the federal government. Olaf Scholz (SPD), Christian Lindner (FDP) and Robert Habeck (Greens) are looking for their places in front of the microphones to report on the cabinet meeting. “Do you always want to be on my left, Christian?” Habeck asks. “It turned out that way,” answers Lindner.
In public, finance and economics ministers like to celebrate being casual. Behind the facade, however, the two politicians have long been fighting hard for their place in the traffic light coalition. Be it the promotion of electric cars or the tank discount, longer running times for nuclear power plants or higher taxes for top earners – there is now hardly an issue on which the two do not carry out a fierce feud. Habeck and Lindner are representative of how rough the sound inside the traffic lights has become.
In Lindner’s ministry, for example, Habeck’s constant “ideas” such as a reduction in VAT, the 365-euro ticket or the excess profit tax annoyed everyone. All of the proposals weakened market forces and jeopardized Lindner’s goal of complying with the debt brake.
In Habeck’s camp, on the other hand, Lindner’s regulatory sloppiness was criticized. His suggestions, such as the tank discount, ended in chaos, which is why Habeck had to clean up the damage that Lindner was doing. “If a not-so-good idea goes badly, you still have to help so that the mess doesn’t get so big,” said Habeck, when he presented his concept for tightening antitrust law, with which he wants to take power from the multinational oil companies .
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Finance and economics ministers traditionally maintain a tense relationship. The only exceptions in the 1960s were Karl Schiller (SPD) and Franz Josef Strauss (CSU), who were christened “Plisch and Plum” after Wilhelm Busch’s cheeky dog couple as anchors of stability in what was then the first grand coalition.
Since then, however, the successors have been more reminiscent of Tom and Jerry. Treasurer Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) once successfully dug the water out of Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, in turn, looked disparagingly at Peter Altmaier’s (CDU) doings.
Because the finance ministers had the upper hand recently, Lindner made it a condition for a traffic light coalition to take over the post. Habeck had to be content with the post of economics minister. But the Ukraine war has shifted the balance of power in the coalition in favor of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Because energy security is now the top priority, Habeck is now the top crisis manager in the country.
The Greens politician is applauded by business for his tough pragmatism and steals the show from Lindner. While Habeck’s pragmatism is reflected in election victories for the Greens, Lindner has been criticized for his pragmatism of running up large debts during the crisis. This also explains why the friction has increased. The most recent of many points of contention is that of the end of the internal combustion engine.
Lindner would like to end the subsidies for the purchase of electric cars immediately – and is thus opposed to Habeck. As the Handelsblatt learned from government circles, the Ministry of Finance is rejecting the planned changes to the funding guideline that the Ministry of Economics submitted to the departmental vote.
There had been a lot of rumbling between the two before. When Lindner suggested resuming talks for a free trade agreement with the USA, Habeck strictly rejected this. When Habeck said that a higher top tax rate was necessary to relieve lower incomes, Lindner had his officials calculate how high the rate would then have to rise as a deterrent warning. When Lindner brought up a longer service life for nuclear power plants, Habeck wanted nothing to do with it.
The current budget negotiations are also anything but smooth, as can be heard. Habeck demands extra billions from Lindner, which he would like to use for climate support programs. But Lindner wants to comply with the debt brake again in 2023. “It’s better to have new elections than new debts,” says the finance minister. “Christian Lindner paid,” said Habeck at a performance in Schwedt.
Lindner and Habeck differ in many respects
Ever since Habeck became leader of the Greens, Lindner and he have been on first name terms. Both stand for a generation of politicians who communicate more directly than, for example, Chancellor Scholz. But that’s what unites the two. Otherwise they are very different in terms of their political socialization, their habitus and their political approach.
This was already evident at the start of the traffic light, when it was still honeymoon. The annual economic report, which is something like the government’s economic creed, was due right at the start of the traffic light. Under the new management, the Ministry of Economics gave the report such a green coat of paint that the Federal Ministry of Finance felt compelled to do too much correction work.
Lindner also sees his role in this. He considers it necessary to tone down the many proposals made by Habeck. The problem for the liberal: he also contributes to Habeck being perceived as pragmatic, which in turn is well received by business representatives.
The finance minister therefore chose a different strategy for the Easter package, Habeck’s major energy policy proposals. He waved the legislative package through the cabinet with reservations. There was also a tactical reason for this: The economy should see what comes out of it if Habeck is available in its pure form.
The Economics Minister downplayed the conflict during a joint appearance, pushing Lindner’s reservation to lack of time. “We just didn’t agree because the objectivity of reality prevented us from doing so, but not because there should now be irreconcilable ideological differences.”
While the dispute over the Easter package has now been resolved, the bucking game with the tank discount should continue. In Habeck’s environment, it is said that Lindner was warned early on that the discount could go wrong. The people at the finance minister emphasize that they wanted to design the discount as a subsidy, but this failed due to resistance from the Greens.
On Tuesday, the two ministers will be able to promote their version to the country’s business representatives. Lindner and Habeck appear at the “Day of Industry” in Berlin. They do not have to agree on their place on the stage: there are four hours between the two speeches.
More: Dispute over the budget: Ministries are demanding an additional almost 100 billion euros from Lindner