Germany is a federal state with a parliamentary democracy, governed through the Bundestag and State Governments, with representatives elected by the people.
Set up by the 1949 Basic law, German federalism is based on the principles of a vertical separation of powers, shared between the national federal government and the regional Länder governments. Local governments form the lowest administrative level and are part of and subject to their respective Land.
There are 13 Länder territories and three city states (Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen). Länder are divided between two levels. The upper level consists of independent cities (district-free cities; kreisfreie Städte) and districts (or counties; Landkreise). The lower level consists of municipalities and towns (Gemeinden), which are part of a district.
All legislative and administrative responsibilities are assigned to the Länder; including education, regional economic development, culture, public welfare and health, and local government affairs. The federal government is responsible for some superseding matters such as defense, foreign affairs, and customs. There are matters where the federal and Länder governments share powers including climate policy and energy policy. Basic legal provisions are set at the federal level and complemented by individual Länder law. Federal legislation has to be approved by Länder representative via the Bundesrat.
Every four years, the German people elect the members of the Bundestag. Germans vote for their representatives directly through free, equal, and secret elections. Half of the Members of the Bundestag are elected directly from Germany’s 299 constituencies, the other half via party lists in Germany’s sixteen Länder. Therefore, each voter casts two votes. The first vote is to elect their local representatives to the Bundestag. The second vote is cast for a party list which will make up the remaining 598 seats and determine the relative strengths of the parties represented in the Bundestag.
The remaining 598 seats are distributed among the parties that have gained more than five percent of the second votes or at least three constituency seats. Each of these parties is allocated seats in the Bundestag in proportion with the number of votes it has received. To clarify, the number of seats to be allocated to each Länder is calculated, based on the proportion of the German population living there. Then the seats in each Länder are allocated based on the proportion of second votes each party received.
The results of the Bundestag elections determine the relative strengths of the parties in the Bundestag. A government can only be formed by parties that, singly or together with others, have the majority of Members behind them. This is why elections are often followed by coalition negotiations between the parties. The result of the 2021 Federal Election in Germany led to a Coalition Government between the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP who make up a majority of the seats in the Bundestag. This coalition is known as the Ampelkoalition (Traffic Light Coalition) in reference to the colors of the three parties: Red, Green, and Yellow.
Bundestag vs. Bundesrat
Both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat have legislative power. The Bundestag is elected by the people every four years while the Bundesrat is made up of representatives from the governments of the federal states (Länder).
The German Bundestag acts as the parliament and has four functions:
- Forming government
- Control of government and administration
- Decision-making and articulation
The Bundesrat represents the interests of the federal states. Every legislative proposal from the federal government goes first to the Bundesrat who examine the laws in committees and recommends changes. Then, the bill will go to the Bundestag. The legislative resolutions passed by the Bundestag are checked again by the Bundesrat.
In addition to the Bundestag and Bundesrat , there is also the Federal Government, the Federal President and the Federal Constitutional Court.
Federal Chancellor and Government
The executive power lies with The Federal Chancellor, together with the federal ministers, who form the Federal Government and cabinet. Since the 2021 general election, the federal cabinet has consisted of 15 ministers and the Head of the Federal Chancellery in addition to the Federal Chancellor. The federal ministries are the highest federal authorities for the relevant departments.
The Federal Chancellor of Germany is Olaf Scholz.
In terms of protocol, the Federal President is Germany’s most senior representative. This office is held by Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The President of the Bundestag is, in terms of protocol, the second most senior. The proxy for the Federal President is the President of the Bundesrat – an office held on an annual basis in rotation by the minister president of the one of the 16 federal states. The office with the greatest political power is that of the Federal Chancellor. The President of the Federal Constitutional Court is likewise one of the country’s high representatives.
Established in 1951, the Federal Constitutional Court is responsible for carrying out the Basic Law and ensuring legislation is constitutional. In the event of disputes regarding the Basic Law, proceedings may be brought before the Federal Constitutional Court. Its decisions are final and binding on all other state organs.
How are laws made in Germany?
Most legislation in Germany is drafted by the Federal Government, approved by the Bundesrat and then passed by the Bundestag before it is signed into law by the Federal President.
To be adopted by the Bundestag, the law must pass with a majority of the vote.
1. Introducing Bill
The Federal Government, Members of the German Bundestag, and the Bundesrat also have the right to introduce bills in the Bundestag. If the Federal Government wishes to amend or introduce a law, the Federal Chancellor must present the bill to the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat then has a period of six weeks in which to deliver its comments on the bill, to which the government may in turn respond with a written counter-statement. The Federal Chancellor then forwards the bill to the Bundestag with the Bundesrat’s comments.
The same procedure applies when legislative initiatives are introduced by the Bundesrat. Once the majority of the Members of the Bundesrat have voted in favour of a bill, it goes first to the Federal Government, which attaches its comments to it, usually within six weeks, and then forwards it to the Bundestag.
2. Initiatives introduced from the floor of the Bundestag
Draft laws may also be initiated by Members of the German Bundestag and they must be supported by either:
- at least one of the parliamentary groups or;
- at least five percent – at present 31 – of the Members of the German Bundestag.
Bills introduced in this way do not have to be submitted first to the Bundesrat. The government sometimes arranges for particularly urgent bills to be introduced by its parliamentary groups in the Bundestag.
3. Distribution of printed papers
Before a bill can be deliberated on in the Bundestag, it must be transmitted to the President of the German Bundestag, then registered and printed by the Administration to be put on the agenda. As soon as the bill has been placed on the agenda of the plenary, it can be officially introduced into the public forum of the Bundestag.
4. Three readings in the plenary
As a rule, bills are read and debated three times in the plenary of the Bundestag.
During the first reading, a debate is only held when legislative projects are particularly controversial or of special interest to the public therefore, this would need agreement in the Council of Elders or be demanded by one of the parliamentary groups.
The first reading is to designate one or several committees that are to consider the bill and prepare it for its second reading.
One committee is then given overall responsibility for the deliberations on the item. It is therefore responsible for the bill’s passage through Parliament. Other committees can be asked for their opinions on the bill.
5. Legislative work in the committees
The detailed work on legislation takes place in the committees, which are made up of Members from all parliamentary groups. The committee members familiarize themselves with the material, deliberate on it at their meetings and can invite representatives of interest groups and experts to public hearings.
The parliamentary groups can form working groups, in which they examine the issues concerned and define their own positions. Most bills are revised to a greater or lesser extent as a result of collaboration between the governing and opposition parliamentary groups.
Following the conclusion of the deliberations, the committee with overall responsibility for a bill presents the plenary with a report on the course and results of its deliberations. The decision it recommends forms the basis for the second reading that now takes place in the plenary.
6. Debate during the second reading
Before the second reading, all the Members receive the published recommendation for a decision in printed form. The parliamentary groups then debate the contents of the bill during the public second reading.
Following the general debate, all the provisions set out in the bill may be considered individually. As a rule, however, the plenary moves directly to a vote on the bill as a whole.
Any Member of the German Bundestag may table motions for amendments, which are then dealt with immediately in the plenary. If the plenary adopts amendments, the new version of the bill must first be printed and distributed. However, this procedure may be shortened with the consent of two thirds of the Members present. It is then possible for the third reading to begin immediately.
7. Voting during the third reading
Another debate is only held during the third reading if this is requested by a parliamentary group or at least five percent of the Members of the German Bundestag.
Motions for amendments may no longer be tabled by individual Members at this stage. It is now only possible for one of the parliamentary groups or five percent of the Members of the German Bundestag to table such motions.
The final vote is held at the end of the third reading. Once a bill has gained the necessary majority in the plenary of the Bundestag, it is transmitted to the Bundesrat as an act.
8. Consent of the Bundesrat
The Bundesrat may not make amendments to an act adopted by the Bundestag. However, if it does not give its consent to an act, it may demand that the Mediation Committee be convened. The Mediation Committee consists of an equal number of Members of the German Bundestag and members of the Bundesrat.
For some bills, the consent of the Bundesrat is a compulsory requirement. These include, for example, acts that affect the finances and administrative competencies of the Länder.
If the Bundesrat may lodge an objection, the Bundestag may put an act into force even if no agreement has been reached in the Mediation Committee. However, this requires another vote in which the Bundestag passes the bill by an absolute majority.
9. Entry into force
Once a bill has been approved by the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, then it is transmitted to the Federal Chancellor and the competent federal minister, who countersign it.
The Federal President then signs it into law. Should no specific date be mentioned in the act for its entry into force, it automatically becomes effective as of the 14th day following its publication in the Federal Law Gazette.
There are many political parties that make up Germany’s democracies. Parties follow common values and principles, and synchronize their efforts in the political institutions. Here is a breakdown of the parties currently sitting in the Bundestag.
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU)
The Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) form the political alliance of two centre-right, christian-democratic political parties in German known as the Union parties.
The CDU and CSU are two separate parties with separate organizations. However, the CDU is a federal party with members and local affiliations in 15 of the 16 German states while the CSU has members and affiliations only in Bavaria, and since 1972, both parties have agreed to a joint election manifesto for the federal elections. Both parties always gather behind a joint candidate for the chancellorship and together form a parliamentary group in the Bundestag.
Historically, Germany’s most electorally successful party alliance and the most dominant in the postwar era, unifying Germany and leading the government for 47 of those 67 years. The CDU and CSU lean centre-right on the political spectrum, and generally hold more pro-market, social-conservative policy. Currently, the party holds 197 out of the 736 seats in the Bundestag, the second largest behind the SPD, and is the largest opposition party.
Climate has recently became a priority for the CDU/CSU who plan to focus on "efficient market-economy tools" to meet the Paris climate goals. The party had committed to a target of climate neutrality by 2045 through expanding renewable energies.
Social Democrats (SPD)
The Social Democrats (SPD) is one of the oldest parties in Germany and one of the earliest Marxist-influenced parties in the world. It has traditionally been the party of the working classes and the trade unions. It leans left to the center politically and enacts more socially progressive liberal policies. The SPD have a long standing history in Germany, electing influential leaders like Willy Brandt. Currently, the party holds the most seats in the Bundestag with 206 out of 736 seats, and is the party of the current Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. The SPD is one of the three parties, alongside the FDP and the Greens, that form the current coalition government.
Climate Change is of importance to the SPD with prioritization for renewable energy in their party platform. They have committed to transitioning Germany's electricity to come entirely from renewable energies as early as 2040 and want to invest in the development of a hydrogen economy on an industrial scale. They have also committed to ensuring Germany is climate-neutral by 2045.
Alliance 90/The Greens
Commonly known as the Greens, the party was formed after the merger of the The Greens (formed in West Germany in 1980) and Alliance 90 (formed in East Germany in 1990). The party's main goal is mitigating the climate crisis, reducing carbon emissions, and fostering sustainability. However, they also support strong social policies whilst balancing economic and environmental interests. The party is pro-European and is keen on international cooperation. The Greens are participating in coalition governments in each of the German states, excluding Saarland. Currently, the Greens hold 118 seats out of 736 in the Bundestag, making them the third largest party. The Green Party is one of the three parties, alongside the FDP and the SPD, that form the current coalition government.
The Greens have the most ambitious climate platform with the goal to reach 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and climate neutrality in 20 years. As well, the Greens want a complete of phase-out of coal by 2030.
Free Democratic Party (FDP)
Founded after the second world war, the FDP is a centre-right political party that has historically focused on economic liberalization, free markets, and privatization. It has historically supported the minimization of government interference, specifically related to economic policy. However, on social issues, it has leaned more to the left. It holds 92 seats out of 736 in the Bundestag and is the fourth largest party. It currently forms one-third of the coalition government, alongside the SPD and the Greens.
With regards to Climate Change, the FDP believe in utilizing the innovations of industries and organizations within Germany to find solutions. They have emphasized free-trading of emissions and extend the EU ETS system to all sectors. They have not mentioned any focus on climate neutrality.
Commonly referred to as the Left Party, Die Linke is a democratic socialist political party in Germany. The party was founded in 2007 after the merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative. The party holds 39 seats out of 736 in the Bundestag and its parliamentary group is the smallest of six in the Bundestag.
The party has outlined climate change as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and has outlined emissions reductions in its platform. The party strives for 100% renewable energy supply in Germany by 2050, and closure of coal-fired power plants.
Alternative for Germany (AFD):
The AFD is the youngest political party in the German Bundestag, formed in 2013. The party is known for its opposition to the European Union and immigration policies. Currently, the AFD holds 81 seats out of 736 in the Bundestag.
The AFD is the only party in the Bundestag that does not seek to reduce carbon emissions and has taken an interest in exploring nuclear energy options for Germany, rejecting the previous governments decisions to opt out of nuclear power plants.
Relevant Court Cases
Neubauer, et al. v. Germany (2020)
A group of German youth filed a legal challenge in the Federal Constitutional Court to Germany's Federal Climate Protection Act (“Bundesklimaschutzgesetz” or “KSG”) in February 2020. They argued that the KSG's target of reducing GHGs by 55% until 2030 from 1990 levels was insufficient and that the KSG therefore violated their human rights as protected by the Basic Law.
On April 29, 2021, the Federal Constitutional Court published its decision striking down parts of the KSG as incompatible with fundamental rights for failing to set sufficient provisions for emission cuts beyond 2030. The Court ordered the legislature to set clear provisions for reduction targets from 2031 onward by the end of 2022. In response to the decision, the federal lawmakers passed a bill approving an adapted KSG that requires, at a minimum, reduction of 65% in GHGs from 1990 levels by 2030.
In addition to this primer, we have developed lengthier primers on specific topics related to Germany including:
This page was prepared under the Transatlantic Climate Bridge project - which is supported by the German Federal Government. Its contents are the sole responsibility of adelphi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the German Federal Government.