Volker Wissing, Germany’s Federal Minister for Digital Affairs and Transport, is certainly no digital native. But as a state minister in Rhineland-Palatinate, the now 52-year-old has already had many brushes with digital issues in business, transport, agriculture and viticulture – from broadband expansion and new data usage options in traffic to data models in the agricultural sector.
The fact that the state level differs significantly from the federal level is something that Wissing has had to learn in his first few months in office. Wissing presents himself as a man of factual politics who thinks little of the usual power play at the federal level. However, it is precisely in factual politics that he currently has to deliver – and the digital strategy is another test for him in this regard.
The FDP, which is repeatedly seen as having digital competence in opinion polls, grasped the issue during coalition negotiations – and no one else was ready to put up a fight. The chancellor himself is no expert in this field, and it was not particularly difficult for him to pass it up. Since taking office, Wissing has shown demonstrative confidence in his ability to tackle the many problems of German digital politics. His experience as a state minister, being close to practical digitization problems, should help.
Manager of grievances
EU issues play a key role in both transport and digital policy. At the end of May, Volker Wissing ventured to the Republica conference in Berlin. It is often its well-informed audience that has embarrassed several top politicians in the past. Wissing did not shine, but he was able to communicate that the topic is close to his heart, and there are positions the liberal party is not willing to give up. For example, on the EU issue of chat control, encryption and net neutrality. Wissing, who often seems somewhat prim, passed the test on the open stage.
But the real test for Wissing is yet to come. Instead of a ministry of progress, Wissing took over a ministry of problems. Whether it’s autobahn bridges, railways, air traffic, energy prices or inland waterways, the ministry’s responsibilities are crumbling all over the place. Wissing himself realized this only after a while. When he took office, he was not aware of how dilapidated many of his new responsibilities actually are.
He diligently works his way into individual areas, if they have personal priority for him – for example when it comes to railroad construction sites and contra-rail signaling. But there is no shortage of problems, and the minister cannot be everywhere at the same time: Managing grievances instead of ministerial organization is the order of the day for the time being.
The reorganization of digital policy, which was supposed to be coordinated in the Chancellor’s Office under Merkel, also turned out to be a huge mess. For months, the new ministers and state secretaries argued about responsibilities and posts. In the end, the result was a more complex construct instead of a leaner one.
Capabilities and responsibilities are hardly in harmony with each other – and Wissing’s house, which is supposed to bind the many actors together, is not a primus inter pares: There are hardly any opportunities to exercise control, each body has a say. And there is little talk of the digital budget originally envisioned in the coalition agreement, which was also supposed to serve as an instrument of control and discipline – even if it were to happen, it would still not be an instrument that Wissing would be allowed to manage.
Mood at Wissing’s ministry on the decline
The minister himself has long since stopped radiating confidence. There are no quick solutions in sight in many areas, but further crises are very much in the cards. And Wissing is not a man of big messages or abstract visions. “Staying close to people’s needs” is one of Wissing’s favorite slogans.
In the discussion about Germany’s 9-euro public transport ticket, for example, which is actually an absurdity from a classical liberal perspective, he found his communicative bridge. The state chairman of the Rhineland-Palatinate FDP quickly highlighted the problem that annoys many citizens: The fragmented nature of individual transport associations with all their incompatibilities. “Addressing structural changes” is another one of his favorite phrases, without specifying exactly what they should look like. The vague apparently seems less dangerous to him in the Berlin cosmos.
Volker Wissing is a modest and sober realist. That is what makes the former minister of viticulture tick. So far, however, his style has borne barely any fruit. The FDP is faring badly in the polls. Wissing’s ministry may discuss problems, but it can’t force solutions.
In transport policy, he has to show consideration for the Greens and the SPD. Even at the draft stage, the digital strategy was criticized from outside as lacking in ambition. Whether in transportation or digital policy, his house also still seems a long way from its claim to be a coalition of progress – the title of the coalition agreement that Wissing helped negotiate as secretary general of the FDP. Falk Steiner