Olaf Scholz was counting on one crisis, not two. When he took office on December 8, Angela Merkel’s successor at the head of the German government listed the issues he was going to dedicate himself to as the new chancellor: overcome the pandemic, pilot the energy transition, digitize the country once and for all… covid and its consequences for the economy were still the number one concern and challenge for the unprecedented three-way coalition government that the Social Democrat had just sealed – in detail and by contract, as things are done in Germany – with greens and liberals . The Russian invasion of the Ukraine, on February 24, twisted the plans. With the first crisis still kicking, a second one arrived, much more brutal and with an unprecedented transformative capacity for a country that had spent many years, perhaps too many, installed in a comfortable paralysis.
Scholz’s response, which many consider hesitant and insufficient, has sunk his popularity and led to the defeat last month of his party, the social democratic SPD, in their great historical fiefdom of North Rhine-Westphalia.
About to complete six months at the head of the leading European economy, it could be said that Scholz today runs a different Germany from the one Merkel gave him. After decades of a more or less declared disarmament of its Armed Forces, Berlin is preparing to invest massively in its impoverished Army. One of its most entrenched taboos, that of not sending weapons to conflict zones, has fallen thanks in large part to ministers from the former peace-loving Greens party. The energy supply that underpinned the might of German industry is history; no more betting almost everything on cheap gas and oil that came by pipeline directly from Russia. Scholz himself described the effect that the invasion has had as zeitenwendesomething like a turning point in history.
“The war in Ukraine dominates the political scene in Germany, so the first six months can only be judged by the last three, that is, since the conflict began,” says Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies. . Scholz is not being judged for raising the minimum wage to 12 euros an hour, nor for approving multi-million dollar aid packages to counteract the rise in energy. Inflation, which has reached records never seen in 40 years, since long before German reunification (7.4% in April), has middle and low income households on edge. But when Germans are asked in the polls what their main concern is, that is not the most mentioned. Nor climate change, as has happened at other times. It is the war, which they perceive as very close, almost at the gates of Berlin.
The yardstick by which Scholz is measured is the answer to that war. And if, as has happened up to now, the chancellor is hesitant, delays decision-making and gives the impression of not wanting to fulfill what he promises, public opinion reflects this. More than half of Germans believe that his government is not doing enough to help the Ukrainians. And Scholz’s popularity has dropped to the lowest level since he took office. He has also been noticed at the polls. The chancellor’s first major examination, last month’s elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, ended in defeat and the worst historical result for his party, the SPD, in this northwestern state, the most populous in Germany (18 million inhabitants) and which until a few years ago was the great fiefdom of the Social Democrats. A week earlier, in Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD came third for the first time in this federal state bordering Denmark, after the Greens.
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Implement the turn
Scholz’s celebrated speech on February 27 in the Bundestag, which drew applause from his coalition partners – and also from the conservative opposition – marked the beginning of the historic turn that Germany has undertaken. But it is easier to announce a turning point than to put it into practice, as has been seen these weeks. The pace of arms shipments has slowed, according to the German press. The heavy weapons that Scholz agreed to deliver have not yet reached their destination. Criticism rages more than in any other country, despite the fact that Germany is among those that contribute the most financially to support Ukraine and that in reality no ally has yet dared to send modern Western-made tanks to kyiv for fear that the president Vladimir Putin understands it as an attack.
“This government has had to mature, and quickly. The ease and enthusiasm of the first few weeks have been replaced by seriousness and gravitas,” says Daniela Schwarzer, Executive Director for Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. The expert recalls that criticism for not delivering weapons to Ukraine quickly enough has been compounded by “doubts about its real strategy against Russia and its commitment to Ukraine’s ability to protect its sovereignty and its nation.” Scholz usually affirms in her speeches that Russia should not win the war, but she is reluctant to say clearly that Ukraine should, something that has caused suspicion. Although the criticism may be exaggerated, Schwarzer believes that “more must be done”, such as anticipating Ukraine’s military support needs, starting training earlier or fine-tuning the weapons to be delivered.
Loss of international influence
The war has brought about fundamental changes in Germany, but has not strengthened its international role. Quite the contrary. Scholz’s government has lost weight with respect to that of his predecessor Merkel. “The invasion caught Germany by surprise, which has not provided any leadership in the European Union,” says Gros. As the EU tries to intensify its own defense cooperation between member states, Schwarzer believes that Scholz’s government should invest in relations with its central and eastern neighbors, as well as those in the Baltics, “who tend to look more towards the United States and the United Kingdom for the provision of security”.
Communication, the experts agree, has been another of Scholz’s pending issues in these six months. “He has been hesitant, as if he didn’t know what to do. Citizens do not like a leader who thinks a lot and does not act”, says Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier. Mentioning the similarities with former Chancellor Merkel, also heavily criticized for her strategy of waiting and weighing all possible solutions before deciding, Jun is quick to reply: “Never in a crisis situation.” And he gives several examples, from the accident at the Fukushima plant in 2011, which led to the abandonment of nuclear energy, to the restrictions due to the pandemic, through the 2015 migration crisis, in which Merkel “reacted relatively quickly” by opening the borders.
Faced with Scholz’s attitude, the Greens’ ministers Annalena Baerbock (Foreign Affairs) and Robert Habeck (Economy and Climate) have managed to communicate better. That is why his popularity has skyrocketed while the chancellor’s plummeted. “They have been able to explain his policies, even those that go against what was traditionally expected of his party. Scholz, on the other hand, has not been able. We already know that his rhetorical skills are limited,” adds Jun.
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