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The Brief — Retreat to attack

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School trips have a kind of magic: Collectively hiding away in a new place, removed from parental influence, can do wonders for group dynamics, weld cool kids and nerds together, and spark moments of unlikely chemistry. The government-level equivalents are no different.

In the magic of cabinet retreats, prime ministers and presidents confide. At the peak of Britain’s Brexit blockade, Theresa May invited her secretaries to Chequers, the prime minister’s countryside residence, to work out the infamous Chequers plan.

The need to “anticipate the risks of the summer” is enough for France’s Elisabeth Borne to hold a cabinet workshop at Hotel Matignon.

Chequers and Matignon are surely no hostels. But the recipe is the same as with school trips, albeit with fewer bunk beds and soggy dinners: shield ministers from nagging stakeholders, create a cosy siege mentality, perhaps even a sprinkle of late-night gossip, and the ministers will start to bond.

Few governments have institutionalised the idea of cabinet retreats as much as Germany’s coalition government has.

The “traffic-light” coalition of SPD, FPD, and the Greens meets every six months for a two-day “workation”. The latest edition is in full swing as of Tuesday morning, held at Meseberg Castle, the government’s official guest house, an hour from Berlin.

German governments have always been fond of the stuffy, middlebrow charm of team-building trips.

Brandt, Schmidt, and Kohl staged happenings at the Chancellor’s bungalow; Schr?der’s progressive coalition experimented with castle retreats whenever the economy was particularly rough.

The Meseberg era started under Angela Merkel, where ministers bonded over “raspberry spirit after midnight”, as Sigmar Gabriel, then economy minister, revealed.

Yet, not only does the current government indulge in cabinet retreats at a previously unseen rate – it is also the one that needs them most. Germany’s first-ever three-way coalition is so prone to infighting that even the tight-lipped chancellor openly demanded “a different tone than the one we witnessed in the past”.

Whenever ministers descend on Meseberg, controversies to be resolved are nigh. In the past, they included Germany’s nuclear power exit, natural gas levies, and the EU’s ban on combustion engines.

Now, a major mood killer, a new child benefit regime, was moved out of the way in time, but the next one is looming: the coalition partners disagree on electricity-price subsidies for energy-intensive industries.

“I don’t want to pre-empt Meseberg,” Finance Minister Christian Lindner, head of the liberal FPD and a staunch opponent of the policy, said when asked about progress on the matter – so the topic is likely to be on the agenda.

Here the school-trip metaphor ends, because, unlike the former, cabinet retreats are supposed to be productive as the government emerges stronger from its recluse, often with a plan to attack. Sometimes a literal one: America’s plan to invade Iraq was allegedly hatched at a post-9/11 retreat at Camp David.

Recently scolded by the Economist as “the sick man of Europe”, Germany’s government wants to use the retreat to polish its economic credentials, a spokesperson said on Friday.

“At Meseberg, the government will work on making Germany a successful, net-zero industrialised country,” they told reporters.

The agenda features guest speakers from Aleph Alpha and SAP who will give talks on AI and data, while the government will discuss the digitalisation of Germany’s administration and cutting red tape.

A growth stimulus package, Lindner’s flagship project, should be passed at the final cabinet meeting. It might even be joined by European-level bureaucracy relief measures and – if the magic is particularly strong – an agreement on energy subsidies.

There is just one caveat: retreat magic never lasts.

“What has happened is a noticeable linking of arms and the joint conviction that we will succeed,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed after the previous Meseberg retreat – only for his coalition to be shaken to the core by a row over a ban on gas-based heating systems afterwards.

And this is where cabinet retreats ultimately converge on school trips again: The newly-acquired spirit rarely survives the encounter with reality, as George W. Bush had to learn through a botched invasion and Theresa May through her failed Chequers plan, which triggered high-profile resignations.

Even if Scholz emerges with a pleasant message on Wednesday, make no mistake: The cool kids are still mean and the next painful maths class is just around the corner.

The Roundup

The European Commission’s proposed mandatory target to incorporate at least 25% of recycled plastics into new cars was met with praise from recyclers and scepticism from carmakers and the plastics industry.

The ban on the abaya in schools, announced by French Education Minister Gabriel Attal, has highlighted the left’s divisions over secularism and its implementation, while the radical left has vowed to take the decision to court.

After the recent Niger coup, EU foreign and defence ministers this week are expected to discuss a strategy to deal with the situation and reassess the bloc’s approach to the Sahel region, according to an internal memo seen by EURACTIV.

The EU’s recently adopted climate legislation was not properly assessed, exceeded Brussels’ authority and now threatens Poland’s economy as well as energy security, legal arguments published by Warsaw on Monday (28 August) contend.

Last but not least, our Transport Brief is back, with the latest weekly roundup of policy news: Italy takes on airlines over ticket prices.

Look out for…

EU institutions are still in summer recess,

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Nathalie Weatherald]



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