A bittersweet first year for Germany’s new chancellor

olaf scholz
(Photo: Twitter)
To celebrate his first year in office, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a playful nod to his “traffic light” coalition, a nickname that refers to the constituent parties’ three colors: He passed out chocolates shaped like the “Ampelmann”, the iconic figure on German pedestrian crossing signals.اضافة اعلان

But the flavor he picked for those chocolates was bittersweet.

The choice was symbolic. Scholz’s first 12 months as chancellor have been among the most tumultuous of Germany’s postwar history. It was not what he, or nearly anyone in Europe, had expected.

“Tonight, a difficult year comes to an end,” Scholz acknowledged in the chancellor’s traditional New Year’s Eve speech. “Putin is waging an imperialist war of aggression in the middle of Europe,” Scholz added, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. “This watershed moment is also a tough test for us and our country.”

‘Cohesion and strength’Entering office with a progressive agenda while offering Germans an air of stability similar to that of his predecessor, Angela Merkel, Scholz has instead been thrust into the role of a crisis chancellor. It has transformed what both Germany and Europe anticipated from him, with considerably divergent views of his performance.

In the opinion of many Germans, Scholz’s government so far has been a qualified success under trying circumstances.
Scholz’s leadership has gotten mixed reviews among allies anxious that Europe’s most powerful democracy is turning inward as the continent faces one of its biggest crises in decades
Germany has weaned itself off its dependence on Russian gas, which once accounted for more than 55 percent of its supply. It has built a liquefied natural gas terminal that would normally take years to complete in only 10 months — a coup for a nation fretting over economic stagnation and the possibility of a frigid winter. Two other terminals are due to be completed soon.

“The story of this year, 2022, is not just about war, suffering and sorrow,” Scholz said in the year-end address. It is also, he argued, a test that showed that the European Union and NATO allies could remain united, that Ukraine could withstand Russian attack and that Germany would not collapse without Moscow’s gas.

“That, too, dear fellow citizens, is the story of 2022 for me,” he noted. “It is about cohesion and strength — and yes, also about confidence.”

A turning point?Yet in Europe, where the departure of Merkel after 16 years in power has left many feeling bereft, the growing pains this year of Scholz’s government — almost half of whose ministers had no prior executive experience — are still felt acutely.

Scholz’s leadership has gotten mixed reviews among allies anxious that Europe’s most powerful democracy is turning inward as the continent faces one of its biggest crises in decades with the Russian invasion.

Scholz received widespread praise in February, days after the war in Ukraine began, when he called for a “Zeitenwende”, or “turning point” — a pivot to a more assertive Germany in foreign and military policy. Nearly a year later, however, a clear vision from the chancellor about what that means remains incomplete.

Before this past year, Germans embraced a pacifist ideal when it came to foreign affairs, a reaction to its legacy of violence in World War II.

The Scholz coalition, containing progressive Greens, liberal Free Democrats, and center-left Social Democrats, has started to break that taboo. It has set up a special fund of 100 billion euros, about $106 billion, to revitalize and rearm the military.

And according to the chancellery, Germany is one of the top suppliers of weapons to Ukraine, delivering weapons such as howitzers, portable Stinger missile launchers and Gepard tanklike vehicles. Berlin even gave the new IRIS-T air defense system to Ukraine before receiving its own.

“For our historical legacy, it was outstanding,” said Claudia Major, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs think tank, referring to Germany’s overall progress with the Zeitenwende. “But,” she noted, “the question is: Do you measure what Germany is doing with the past? Or do you measure it based on the challenges ahead?”

She added, “Compared to what we need — to confront China, to stop a revanchist Russia, to enable Ukraine to get its territory back — it’s just not enough.”

Communication issuesPoorer European states say that Berlin has put their economies at a disadvantage by distorting the continent’s common market with a relief package, worth 200 billion euros, to help Germany weather soaring energy and inflation prices. Bogged down by complicated negotiations among the coalition partners, Berlin failed in September to give advance notice to Brussels or Paris of the deal, adding insult to the injury.

And when Scholz made his first trip to Beijing this autumn, he took a delegation of German executives instead of traveling with French President Emmanuel Macron, who had offered to join him. Days earlier, Scholz defied advice from his ministers and approved a deal that gave state-backed Chinese firm Cosco a stake in a terminal at Hamburg port, a key artery of trade in Europe.
“…the question is: Do you measure what Germany is doing with the past? Or do you measure it based on the challenges ahead?”
Such moves have unnerved European allies who fear that Germany has not taken the right lessons on economic dependency from the conflict with Russia and is creating conditions for a similar fallout with China over Taiwan.

Many observers say the biggest problem may simply be Scholz’s communication. Britain, despite providing far less materiel than Germany, has been cheered for its support for Ukraine, largely through better messaging on what it has provided.

Germany’s failure to do the same may reflect anxieties, both inside and outside the chancellery, that its planned progressive agenda — particularly the shift to a carbon-neutral economy — is being forgotten amid the demands of the war in Ukraine.

For months, coalition critics had warned of a winter of discontent or a “hot fall” of protests. But they never materialized. The government managed to keep enough gas in store to keep homes warm, as well as completing the floating liquefied natural gas terminal at record speed.

Those successes, supporters say, provide a foundation for Scholz to take back the narrative and lay out a more inspiring course for the year to come.

That is exactly the direction in which Scholz will try to turn Germans for the start of 2023.

“This is Germany at the beginning of this new year,” he said in his year-end speech. “A strong country. A country that is working with energy and speed on a good, secure future.”

“A country that hangs in there,” he added, “especially in difficult times.”

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