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Example/ background: The EU is currently discussing whether there should be a strict law against the sale of cars with a combustion engine starting in 2035. Volker Wissing (of the FDP party) is the current minister of transport so he would vote for Germany. He made some public statements (here, in German) that he wants to vote against such a law. This represents the position of his party on the matter. However, the FDP is currently governing in a coalition together with the SPD and the Green party. The Green party is very much in favor of this law. I don't know whether there is an official/ public joint position of the entire coalition.

Question: Can Mr Wissing vote the way he wants as he is the minister of transport or does he have to vote the way the coalition agreed internally?

I assume this would be a decision of the current German governing coalition, I don't think the EU has any say here.

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  • To sum up the answers: yes to both.
    – DonQuiKong
    Mar 1, 2023 at 14:50

2 Answers 2

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The general rule is that a minister will abstain in an EU vote if the Cabinet cannot agree on a common position.

The most recent deviation from this rule was back in November 2017, when then-Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt of the CSU voted in favour of a proposal to extend the approval of the herbicide glyphosate, despite his SPD colleague and Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks opposing the proposal. Schmidt was reprimanded by Chancellor Merkel, although not dismissed from his role; as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports:

Angela Merkel has criticized her agriculture minister for saying yes to glyphosate. The fact that Christian Schmidt had the license extension voted on in the EU violated the government's rules of procedure. "That did not correspond to the directives that had been drawn up by the federal government," Merkel told press representatives in Berlin. This also applies to an executive cabinet.

Germany voted in Brussels for an extended license for the weed killer. Schmidt gave instructions to vote yes, although Environment Secretary Barbara Hendricks disagreed. Since the CSU minister and the SPD minister did not agree, Germany should have abstained.

[...]

Almost every day, Germany has to abstain from EU votes because of disagreements between departments, even if it is often "painful" for the ministers concerned, said the Chancellor. Today she spoke to Christian Schmidt about his behavior. She also asked the head of the Chancellery to clearly point out this rule to all departments. She expects nothing like this to happen again. "It's something that must not be repeated." Otherwise "joint work in the federal government is not possible".

Merkel referenced the Rules of Procedure of the Federal Government, which state that disagreements of opinion between ministers should be resolved within Government.

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There is a difference between constitutional law and political reality in Germany:

  • In theory, the cabinet is appointed or dismissed by the President at the suggestion of the Chancellor. The Chancellor also has the right to prescribe the "general course" of government action, called the Richtlinienkompetenz. The Chancellor can request the dismissal of any cabinet member who acts against the wishes of the Chancellor.
  • In practice, almost all Chancellors were elected by a coalition in parliament. Their party does not control an outright majority, and even if it did, the Chancellor may not control the party. The members of parliament, including those nominally supporting the government, have the right to call for a constructive vote of no confidence on short notice.

How those coalition parties cooperate in forming a government is written down in the coaltion contract/treaty, the Koalitionsvertrag. This is a political agreement, not a legal document. It is generally understood that each party will select their own personnel, and that the Chancellor uses the Richtlinienkompetenz in accordance with the Koalitionsvertrag (which also includes conflict resolution mechanisms).

Whenever a cabinet member violates the Koalitionsvertrag, it becomes a political decision of the other parties if they find it expedient to ignore that or to break the coalition.

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