In the picture
The German Chancellor during his speech on the occasion of the Nazi Liberation Day, 8 May 2022 [Pool Chancellery].
The Social Democrat Olaf Scholz has had a difficult debut as German chancellor: the normal period of adaptation of a coalition government of three very disparate political parties - SPD, Greens and FDP - was almost immediately compounded by the war in Ukraine. Elected in large part because of his moderation and because he was perceived as the best guarantee of preserving the stability given to the country by the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, of whom he was Vice Chancellor, Russia's aggression has placed Germany in need of a forcefulness that is putting Scholz and his coalition with ecologists and liberals on test . The chancellor has acted decisively at decisive moments, but at other times he is seen to be struggling to deal with a Russia that Berlin has long been keen to treat as a partner.
Olaf Scholz took over the chancellorship in December 2021 with the not-so-simple task of bringing the 16-year era of Angela Merkel to a close. His predecessor's strong national and international image set the bar high. However, some of the difficulties Scholz faces are inherited, especially energy dependence on Russia.
The desire in Berlin to cooperate with the great Eastern power - Russia provided mainly hydrocarbons and other raw materials and constituted a manufacturing market for Germany - has been a constant since the fall of the USSR, not only for economic reasons but also for historical report reasons. The SPD's attention was less demanding - with a touch of promiscuity in the case of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who holds high positions in the big Russian energy companies, from which he has still not resigned - but Merkel also fostered an understanding, advocating moderation within the European Union in the response to the authoritarian governments of Russia and China. Merkel was manager for the opening of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, even when Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine opposed it, as well as for the construction of the duplicate pipeline, Nord Stream 2, despite Washington's reluctance.
In his election campaign, in the face of warnings from Greens and Liberals not to launch the recently completed North Stream 2, Scholz avoided any threat to Moscow. He hoped that this issue would not be the focus of his mandate, which was in fact geared towards other issues.
Thus, among his main goals, included in the coalition government plan, was to combat climate change and its effects, with the goal goal that by 2030 80% of the energy consumed in Germany should come from renewable sources. On social issues, Scholz proposed building 400,000 new social housing units and raising the minimum wage to twelve euros an hour. The plan also included lowering the voting age from eighteen to sixteen, as well as making it easier for immigrants to obtain German citizenship after five years at residency program and allowing dual citizenship. Another item on the agenda was the legalisation of cannabis. In foreign policy, the new government planned to strengthen the EU and especially the friendship with France and the United States, both close NATO allies.
This relationship with the US and NATO, however, was tested by the worsening crisis in Ukraine. In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, the New York Times even called Scholz the 'invisible chancellor' for his evident lack of action on Russia. According to agreement , the German ambassador in Washington had warned in an internal memo that the US political class was beginning to regard Germany as an unreliable ally. In mid-February, amid Berlin's refusal to send armaments to Ukraine, Scholz's approval among Germans fell to 42 per cent, outstripped by a disapproval rating of 46 per cent (almost twice as high as at the beginning of his term in office).
When he wanted to be more proactive with his 7 February visit to the White House, Scholz was humiliated by Joe Biden's public assurances that North Stream 2 would not come into operation if the invasion took place, while he appeared hesitant (the German authorities had not certificate the pipeline, so it could not yet come into operation, but Berlin did not have a final position). Although Scholz brought the French and Polish presidents together in Berlin on 8 February and travelled to Moscow and Kiev on 14-15 February, it was Emmanuel Macron who took the diplomatic lead in the EU.
Invasion and war
The shock that shook Europe on 24 February - for the first time since the end of the Second World War one European country invaded another on a large scale - galvanised the entire EU, creating a front with the US, the UK and other allies in a joint effort in which Germany also played its part. After a couple of days in which Brussels took centre stage, on Sunday 27 February, in an extraordinary session of the Bundestag, Scholz gave a speech that broke certain German taboos that had been in place since the Second World War.
The chancellor announced that he was earmarking 100 billion euros for the German army this year and pledged to reach 2 per cent of GDP for expense for defence from next year, a demand that was agreed by Merkel in 2014 during the NATO summit in Wales, but which was never achieved. With a view to future energy independence from Russia, she proclaimed the construction of two natural gas terminals in Germany, while her government considered the possibility of halting the planned closure of the last nuclear power plants.
Dependence on Russian hydrocarbons (46 per cent of the gas and 37 per cent of the oil that Germany consumes comes from Russia) has led Berlin to be cautious about extending sanctions against Moscow to this sector, even though maintaining these supplies (Nord Stream 1, for example, is still in operation) financial aid to Putin to finance the war, constituting 'Europe's Achilles heel'. While some German think-tanks have considered it feasible to give up Russian gas, the government has continued to insist that such a move is impossibleat a stroke.
The fact that Poland, which was even more tied to gas coming from Siberia, was able to welcome Gazprom's advertisement at the end of April to cut off supplies to that country (and Bulgaria) without much fuss, thanks to the fact that it had been building alternative connections for some years, once again put Berlin in the spotlight. The comparison caught Scholz at another 'low' moment, after it emerged that Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenski had refused to receive German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Kiev.
Scholz then needed to get back in step with the European vanguard, and authorised the submission of battle tanks to Ukraine, making a radical shift in his policy here subject. This led to the lifting of Kiev's veto on Steinmeier's next visit . The fact that Berlin has been substituting Russian oil purchases (at the beginning of May they accounted for only 12 per cent of German oil purchases) has helped to reinforce Germany's image as partner committed to EU strategy. At his speech on 8 May, the anniversary of the end of World War II, Scholz declared himself convinced that Putin will not win the war.
Despite Merkel's achievements, the procrastination of decisions at some points in her term of office gave rise to the verb 'merkeln'. Who knows whether 'scholzen' will become its synonym or acquire a meaning of its own.