BERLIN — All the parties likely to form Germany’s next government agree the country has a digital problem.
They don’t agree on how to fix it.
At the heart of their differences over efforts to modernize Europe’s largest economy lies a classic, old-fashioned power struggle, the same kind of battle that has held back previous German attempts to accelerate down on the digital superhighway.
The country’s most influential digital policy lawmakers say bureaucratic battles between ministries controlled by different parties hindered efforts to speed up the digitalization of German administration and infrastructure during the last government’s four-year term.
“We’ve seen that next to nothing has been realized because of this turf battle,” said Nicola Beer, general secretary of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
In this year’s “Innovation Indicator,” an international survey by the Fraunhofer Institute and the Center for European Economic Research think tanks, Germany ranked fourth overall — but lagged far behind countries like Finland, Israel, the United Kingdom and Taiwan when it came to its level of digitalization, coming 17th out of 35 industrialized nations.
Nowhere is this weakness more visible than in flawed efforts to expand digital infrastructure outside urban centers, where many small- and medium-sized firms — the backbone of Germany’s economic prosperity — still lack access to high-speed internet.
In parliament’s final session before last month’s general election, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned lawmakers that the country had to keep pace with its global competitors or “end up as a museum of technology.”
“There’s consensus that we cannot go on with completely fragmented competences and responsibilities,” said Konstantin von Notz, the Greens’ spokesman for digital policy.
The consensus ends when it comes to the nitty-gritty of how to tackle the problem.
The most eye-catching disagreement is over whether Germany should have its own dedicated digital ministry, charged with spearheading efforts to get government, businesses and individuals to do more online.
Expect it to be among the most hotly debated issues when Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and their more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), sit down with the FDP and the Greens for coalition negotiations. The four potential partners held their first exploratory talks Wednesday.
“It’s similar to playing miniature golf. If you already need 58 attempts at the first hole, you won’t get anywhere” — Konstantin von Notz
Both the FDP and the CSU support the idea, although they have so far remained vague on what exactly such a ministry would do, with the liberals calling it “a central interface for the decisive issue of our times” in their party manifesto.
The Greens are still undecided, while Merkel instead wants to appoint a high-ranking official inside her chancellery to coordinate digital efforts.
“Such a state minister would essentially act as a coordinator,” said Thomas Jarzombek, the leading digital affairs lawmaker of Merkel’s CDU. “But his weapon is that — when some ministries don’t want to cooperate — he can go to the chancellor who can then call up the relevant minister.”
The latest push to give the German economy a digital boost comes amid years-long efforts by the European Union to jump-start the Continent’s use of tech in the face of competition from other regions, notably the United States and China.
Europe’s economic powerhouse has felt particularly under threat by international competitors from Silicon Valley and elsewhere as their digital projects have often targeted many of Germany’s core industries like the automotive sector.
Germany’s failure to get to grips with digitalization during the last four years can be seen as a classic example of what happens when a policy goal clashes with die-hard power politics.
“At the end of the day, it’s always about who will do it,” said Arne Semsrott of pro-transparency NGO Open Knowledge Foundation Germany, “and less about how to best achieve the things we want to achieve.”
After the last general election in 2013, Merkel ended up leading a “grand coalition” between her CDU/CSU bloc and the Social Democrats (SPD). In their coalition talks, the parties discussed how to coordinate digital efforts, including the idea of appointing a minister of digital affairs, but they eventually split the portfolio among the economy, infrastructure and interior ministries.
The official line was that the decision made sense as those three ministries were responsible for the policy areas most closely linked to digitalization. However, officials privately admit that all three parties in the coalition wanted to have one minister each in charge of digital policy.
In the four years that followed, “it became clear … that splitting the portfolio did not work out,” Lars Klingbeil, the SPD’s leading digital affairs lawmaker, said.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière speaks at the 2015 CeBIT technology fair in Hannover, Germany | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images
On the one hand, the three-party solution ignored the fact that every one of Germany’s 14 ministries was affected by digitalization, he said.
At the same time, the three ministries increasingly worked against — rather than with — each other, as each minister pushed forward their own ideas and initiatives.
“Basically, there was no coordinated strategy. Everyone was just scrabbling around,” said the Greens’ von Notz, who spent the last four years in the opposition. “Everyone found digitalization a sexy topic, Merkel’s government organized an IT summit, but they produced nothing more than warm words.”
For example, it took Germany years before, in 2016, the country finally managed to scrap a liability law that made public hotspot providers responsible for users’ activity. This held Merkel’s last government back from addressing more crucial issues such as broadband expansion or net neutrality, von Notz said.
The FDP’s vehement push for a digital ministry could be motivated by more than just policy concerns, officials in Berlin privately caution.
“It’s similar to playing miniature golf,” he added. “If you already need 58 attempts at the first hole, you won’t get anywhere.”
The FDP’s Beer, whose party failed to enter the Bundestag in 2013 and spent the last four years in the political wilderness, said she doubts whether Merkel’s last government “was always aware of the urgent need for action when it comes to digitalization.”
“Otherwise, we would, for example, not have to discuss the question of a far-reaching extension of glass fibers [for broadband connections] anymore. This is such a basic question of infrastructure, where we lag behind to such an incredible extent,” she said.
“The digital transformation will only work out if we clearly concentrate responsibilities [in one ministry],” Beer said.
The FDP’s Nicola Beer | John Macdougall/AFP via Getty Images
The FDP’s vehement push for a digital ministry could be motivated by more than just policy concerns, officials in Berlin privately caution. Rumors are rife that the liberals, who portrayed themselves as champions of the digital economy in the election campaign, have set their sights on the ministry.
To win support for the idea in conservative ranks despite the chancellor’s objections, they could find an ally in Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, whose former Infrastructure Minister Alexander Dobrindt publicly backed the idea.
That leaves the Greens, the fourth party at the negotiating table, as the ones who could tip the scale.
“We’re open to negotiating [on a ministry],” von Notz said. However, it would be “very difficult to impossible” to move staff from other ministries into such a new organization, he cautioned.
“That’s why I could live very well with [the CDU’s] model, in which a state minister in the chancellery takes up a coordinating function and makes sure — with the weight of the chancellor behind him or her — that a political decision will finally be made quickly.”
Mark Scott contributed reporting.