AIronically, Olaf Scholz is now in a row with Konrad Adenauer. Since the first chancellor of the Federal Republic, no head of government has made his point as clear as Scholz on the nuclear power plants: by letter to his ministers and with explicit reference to his authority to set guidelines. In the dispute over the path to the European Economic Community, Adenauer instructed his ministers in a “directive” in 1956 to “promote the integration of Europe with all possible means” and to “regard this as a policy guideline of the Federal Government and to proceed accordingly”. He also regularly admonished his ministers in the cabinet, deprived them of powers and left no doubt as to who was setting the direction: he was the only one.
That sounds patriarchal to authoritarian by today’s standards, but it is covered by the constitution. According to Article 65 sentence 1 of the Basic Law, the chancellor can decide on fundamental political issues if the cabinet cannot reach an agreement. This can not only affect guidelines, but also individual decisions, “if they are important for the political leadership of the Federal Chancellor”. Or, as Adenauer said in his usual modesty: “I determine the guidelines of politics. And I also decide what political guidelines are.”
After Adenauer, the chancellors were no longer so brash, most of the time they only more or less openly threatened with the “chancellor principle”. No such case has been handed down about Willy Brandt, and even the more hands-on Helmut Schmidt was proud of not having made use of him. And that despite the German Autumn, in which he restricted freedoms more drastically than any other chancellor before him – in a coalition with the FDP of all places. Schmidt’s successor, Gerhard Schröder, never exercised his authority to set guidelines either – or at least not in such a way that it became known. It was enough to occasionally publicly remind his ministers of them, as after September 11, 2001, when Schröder pledged US support in Afghanistan and told the protesting Greens: “What I said is true.”
“Sword of Damocles” Competency for directives
But it was already clear to everyone that the chancellor would have the last word, says Rezzo Schlauch, then the green party leader. “The sword of Damocles of the chancellor’s authority to issue directives constantly hangs over a coalition. You don’t have to say that specifically.” Whether the authority to set guidelines plays a role always depends on the power structure in a government, believes the constitutional lawyer Alexander Thiele: The stronger the chancellor and his party in the coalition, the less he has to explicitly state the chancellor principle make. “Schröder made it very clear to the Greens from the start who was the cook and who was the waiter in the coalition. That was also accepted by the Greens.”
Even Angela Merkel only hinted at using her authority to set guidelines. Once implicitly in 2016, when she allowed criminal investigations against the will of the SPD against the satirist Jan Böhmermann, who had insulted the Turkish President Erdogan in a diatribe. And in June 2018 as a threatening gesture, at the height of the asylum dispute in the Union.