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POLITICS

Scholz marks turbulent first year as German chancellor

A war in his backyard, galloping economic crisis, and unhappy partners at home and abroad -- German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has weathered unprecedented shocks in his first year, while struggling to make a mark on the global stage.

Scholz marks turbulent first year as German chancellor
Scholz gave a speech at the Bundestag on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of his coalition government. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

The ex-finance minister took office on December 8th 2021 promising continuity with the era of Angela Merkel, who ended her 16 years as chancellor a widely respected figure.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced him to rip up Germany’s post-war axioms and chart out new economic, defence and geopolitical directions for the country that prizes — and is valued for — its stability and predictability.

“We never before had a government faced with such a dramatically worsening situation, when it came to foreign and security policy, but also of course energy policy,” political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.

Scholz’s coalition of his Social Democrats and partners Greens and liberals FDP had taken office planning ambitious climate policies and budget restraint.

READ ALSO: German government is pushing ambitious agenda despite turbulent first year 

The designated German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (C), co-leader of the Greens and then designated German Minister for Economy and Climate Robert Habeck (L) and the leader of the Free Democratic FDP party and then designated German Finance Minister Christian Lindner (R) pictured in December 2021 in Berlin after leading members of Germany’s social democratic SPD party, the Greens and the FDP sealed their coalition deal to form a new government. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

But as Moscow dwindled its energy supplies in the wake of the war, Germany has had to halt its planned nuclear exit, restart mothballed coal power stations while burning through a budgetary hole in a scrum for oil and gas to replace Russian supplies.

And in a turning point for a country whose role on the world stage was still affected by memories of World War II, Scholz announced a historic shift on defence, vowing to re-arm Germany with a massive boost in military spending.

“Going by the dramatic events this year, he did pretty well,” said Nils Diederich, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

Turning point

But Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at US think tank the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, warned that losing momentum was a danger, even if the initial response was “impressive”.

In this file photo taken on June 16, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz shake hands after a press conference following their meeting in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

“I think not being able to follow through with defence and security commitments is a concern,” she told AFP.

Not only is Germany trying to replenish its own military stocks, it is facing intense pressure from Ukraine to deliver what it has to help in the fightback against Russia.

The defence spending is high at a time when the treasury is also being pressed to help cushion a price shock fuelled by the energy crisis.

Huge investments are also required for the export giant to manage an economic transformation of reliance on cheap Russian energy or Chinese components to a diversified approach.

And governing in a three-way coalition means resolving each challenge inevitably involves squabbles that could unravel the fragile partnership.

Scholz’s government has managed to implement part of its programme, including raising the minimum wage and reforming unemployment benefits.

But with myriad crises not going away, the chancellor’s popularity ratings have suffered.

A survey by the Insa institute published Sunday in tabloid Bild showed 58 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with Scholz — compared with just 22 percent a year ago — and 64 percent are dissatisfied with his government, up from 36 percent.

emmanuel macron and olaf scholz

In this file photo taken on May 9, 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) and French President Emmanuel Macron make their way inside after inspecting an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) 

‘Going it alone’

As well as disagreements at home, there have been tensions with partners abroad.

European Union allies were upset that Scholz announced a massive 200-billion-euro ($207-billion) energy fund without first consulting them, complaining he should have focused on coming up with EU-wide measures.

Tensions have also arisen in the key relationship between Berlin and Paris over issues ranging from the energy fund to German plans for defence procurement.

Unlike Merkel, who, in her time, was widely respected as the voice to reckon with in Europe, Scholz has so far failed to step into the role on the international stage.

Merkel’s departure “has left a void”, said Eric Maurice, from the Brussels office of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

Scholz is “struggling to make his mark at the European level… He is still trying to find his bearings, he does not have Merkel’s experience.”

In this file photo taken on November 10, 2021 then outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference to present the annual report of the German Council of Economic Experts (Wirtschaftsweise) in Berlin. (Photo by Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

The view Scholz was seeking to “go it alone” was reinforced when he made the first visit to China by a G7 leader since the start of the pandemic in November, accompanied by a delegation of German business leaders.

The chancellor faced accusations he was pursuing the same mercantilist, trade-focused foreign policy of previous German governments, which led to economic ties flourishing with authoritarian Russia, but ultimately left Berlin vulnerable.

As Scholz heads into his second year in the job, many of the open challenges will continue to entangle him.

High energy prices will remain a major problem, particularly for electricity-hungry German manufacturers, said Sudha David-Wilp, Berlin office director of US think tank the German Marshall Fund.

“Ensuring German competitiveness because of the increase in energy costs, particularly for industries like chemicals and steel manufacturing, is the big challenge for Scholz,” she said.

The energy fund “is just a short-term fix. No one knows when energy prices are going to come down to pre-war levels”.

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POLITICS

Ditherer or deal-maker? Jury’s out on Scholz’s tank brinksmanship

Despite accusations of cowardice and dithering, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has stood firm on taking his time to weigh up a decision before finally announcing on Wednesday that Germany would supply Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Ditherer or deal-maker? Jury's out on Scholz's tank brinksmanship

The brinksmanship has won plaudits from some who argue that by holding out, the German leader managed to get the United States to reverse its stance and send Abrams tanks — bringing about a bigger win for Ukraine.

But other analysts warn the weeks of delay may have left a deeper mark on Scholz’s international reputation, while also hurting Kyiv’s chances against Russian troops on the battlefield.

“The SPD chancellor has achieved one of his biggest aims: delivering battle tanks only in step with the Americans,” wrote Die Zeit weekly.

READ ALSO: Fact check: How much help has Germany given Ukraine?

Scholz’s “unusual and risky move… worked”, it added.

Conservative broadsheet Die Welt called it a “coup” for the chancellor. “Scholz has managed to get the US to change course,” it said.

‘Won’t be pushed’

In recent weeks, as allies and Kyiv alike harangued him for tanks, Scholz stressed the need for international coordination and ruled out going it alone on the heavy military equipment.

With an eye on public opinion, Scholz has been careful not to appear to be hawkishly leading the charge when it comes to military supplies to Ukraine.

Fielding questions at the Bundestag following Wednesday’s announcement, Scholz pointedly avoided playing up the powerful Leopards’ capabilities and how they could affect the outcome in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: What difference could Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks make in Ukraine?

Rather, he repeatedly underlined that it was and is “right that we did not let ourselves be pushed into this but that we rely on and also continue on
close cooperation”.

It was perhaps not a coincidence that Scholz’s announcement came after public opinion shifted slightl in favour of sending tanks, with 46 percent for and 41 percent against on January 19.

Directly addressing fears of Germans, who have favoured treading lightly around conflict zones since World War II, Scholz pointedly said he would ensure that any support for Ukraine would be provided “without the risks for our country growing in the wrong direction”.

Asked later on ZDF public television whether his hesitation had led to a “loss of trust” among allies, Scholz rejected the criticism.

“Everyone knows we are making a big contribution, also compared to other countries, in terms of support for Ukraine — not only financially and with humanitarian aid but also with weapons.”

But some analysts said his concern for domestic politics may have cost Ukraine on the frontlines.

‘Embarrassing’

In the meantime, “several months” had been lost in the defence of Ukraine, while Scholz was “more concerned with domestic politics” and an issue he did not see as a “big vote winner”, Chatham House analyst John Lough told AFP.

Fears that moving too rashly would lead to an escalation in the war were exaggerated, too. Even without tank deliveries, “the Russians have escalated anyway”, for example by targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine, Lough said.

Amid the ruckus, particularly with neighbouring Poland accusing Scholz of dithering, analysts point to the damage done to Germany’s reputation.

Bild daily piled on the pressure at home, accusing Scholz of cowardice. But a day later, a high-profile defence ministers’ meeting of Ukraine allies last Friday still failed to break the deadlock on tanks.

The delay was “embarrassing for the German government”, said Lough.

READ ALSO: Germany gives greenlight for Leopard tank deliveries to Ukraine

Olaf Scholz

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) comments on the Russian attack on Ukraine during a press conference at the Chancellery on February 24th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Sudha David-Wilp, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office, said moving in lock-step with the United States gave Scholz the “political cover he needed” to say “yes” to German tank deliveries.

But his short-term win was not “necessarily good for Germany because it has lost a lot of trust” with key partners, David-Wilp said.

The way the tank drama played out “clearly shows that the US needs to play a leadership role in Europe” and its security, while German leadership remained “elusive”, she said.

Yet, for all the apparent damage to Scholz, there might be a winner.

The unexpected US tank commitment means that officials in Ukraine have “all kinds of different kit now”, David-Wilp added.

By Sebastien Ash

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