German Social Democrats gear up for a climate election campaign

Combining jobs and environmental protection convincingly - no easy task for chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz (SPD). [EPA-EFE | Friedemann Vogel]

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz will lead the German Social Democrats (SPD) into the campaign for federal elections in 2021. Not an easy task for a party that faces strong competition from the Greens for the number two position, behind the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). EURACTIV Germany reports.

About thirteen months remain until the elections in 2021, but the machines in the Willy Brandt building are already warming up. The new party figurehead and first official candidate for chancellor is to be Scholz.

He has already announced that he wants to emerge from the election with at least 20%. According to the Kantar polling institute, the SPD currently has 18%, just ahead of the Greens, who have 16%.

It could be a neck-and-neck race for these two parties next year, and Scholz’s course vis-à-vis the Greens will be decisive.

The former mayor of Hamburg has not yet distinguished himself as a great pioneer of environmental protection. Above all, Scholz stands for one thing: a sober budgetary policy that held on to the so-called ‘black zero’ for a long time and only abandoned it in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

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The underlying ‘but’

Within the SPD, there are often debates on how to bridge the gap between climate and social justice, said Matthias Miersch, deputy chair of the SPD parliamentary group for the environment and nature conservation.

This became clear with the recent scrapping of premiums for combustion cars in the coronavirus stimulus package, which the party surprisingly rejected this time, in a paradigm shift, says Kai Niebert, president of the German Nature Conservation Ring. Last year there was also supposedly fierce internal debate on the climate package, in which the SPD demanded a CO2 tax, but was unable to get its way.

Even in the never-ending negotiations on distance rules for wind turbines, the SPD, which had strictly rejected a minimum distance, could not prevail against the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). In the end, it came down to the half-hearted compromise of an “opt-in solution” for the states.

Matthias Micus, a party researcher at the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research and himself an SPD member, says that the SPD has not yet taken a coherent line on climate policy.

“Unlike the Greens, the SPD’s environmental policy is a concern, but it is an appendix, not its core business. Therefore, it cannot be as consistent on these issues as the Greens,” he told EURACTIV Germany.

He sees an ambivalence in the electorate: Many of the regular voters still come from a high-income middle class. In principle, they think climate protection is important, but at the same time, they fear too much upheaval in the world of work and social decline.

“There is always this underlying ‘but’ that always resonates in the party’s attempt to make green industrial policy,” says Micus.

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Missteps in the GroKo

The continued grand coalition with the CDU/CSU has not exactly helped this ambivalence, Nina Scheer believes. The deputy spokeswoman for the SPD working group on the environment diagnosed “many missteps in GroKo’s climate policy, which were of course also attributed to us.”

The changeover of Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) to a tendering model in the coalition agreement of 2013 was particularly fatal, she said.

“This was a complete misstep. The SPD had brought the EEG on the way and suddenly you had to support a compromise, as a result of which you agreed to the totally absurd quantity limit for renewable energies,” Scheer said in an interview.

She is considered an open critic of the grand coalition. Late last summer, when it became clear that the 2020 climate target would be missed (which is now only possible due to COVID-19), her party should have “pulled the ripcord.”

Preparatory work for red-red-green

The SPD still has one year left in the grand coalition. Scheer wants to finally get to the root of the problem. In other words, she wants to push the expansion of renewable energies to “at least 75% by 2030” by abolishing the maximum expansion limits and greatly simplifying approval procedures for wind farms.

The SPD should also advocate an earlier coal phase-out than 2038, which would be possible under the Coal Phase-out Act. Scheer considers the question of how the SPD should differentiate itself from the Greens in climate policy to be superfluous: “We won’t shift our content just for the sake of differentiation.”

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This substance should be close to the Greens in terms of social, environmental and economic policy. This opens the door to a conceivable red-red-green coalition between the SPD, Greens, and the Left, if there are enough votes for a majority.

Olaf Scholz emphasised once again in his speech on his candidacy that there will be no further grand coalition.

Red-red-green would certainly be a conceivable option, said Micus, but it would need some preparation: “Animosities must be reduced in advance, preferably by defining joint projects.”

One thing that will apply to all parties will be climate protection and strengthening the economy after COVID-19. Then the question of social justice will be of utmost importance, which could be a great opportunity for the SPD.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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