Berlin Cable

Jan 06, 2022

A Chance to Shine

The new German government has made an energetic start in foreign affairs. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ministers have a good chance to shine on the international stage, if they play their part in deterring Russia from another military attack.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks at a news conference following a virtual meeting with Germany's federal state premiers to discuss the country's strategy against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Berlin, Germany December 21, 2021.
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It still takes a microsecond of adjusting to the false cognitive dissonance: The chancellery’s website URL is now, not The weekly e-mail newsletter now carries the “Kalender des Kanzlers” (the German female form “Kanzlerin” gone here, too). And instead of the suave, understated Steffen Seibert, who was Angela Merkel’s number one press officer and a key member of her inner cabinet for 11 of her 16 years in office, it is now another “Steffen”—the enthusiastic, slightly rakish Steffen Hebestreit—who has taken over as spokesperson-in-chief for new Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his “traffic light” coalition government.

Yes, Angela Merkel is gone—in fact, she has practically disappeared without trace, for now, as she had always indicated that she would. But much has remained, above all Germany’s ever-growing list of European and foreign policy challenges. During their first few weeks since taking office, the chancellor and his ministers drawn from Scholz’ center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), have taken first steps that show what the new government sees as its priorities.

As promised and widely advertised, Europe tops the list, above all the Franco-German relationship. Scholz’ first visit was to French President Emmanuel Macron, as has been the established custom. And while Scholz’ reserved, understated, Hanseatic ways are not a natural fit for the always-on, energetic incumbent at the Élysée, it seems already clear that there will be more of a meeting of minds between Berlin and Paris than before should Macron be reelected in April, and possibly earlier.

Old and New Triangles

Scholz so far has rarely missed a chance for stating that a “sovereign Europe” (Copyright E. Macron) is his aim, too. He even mentioned this in his first New Year’s address. While his stop-over at Brussels to meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg were more symbolic, his next destinations—Warsaw and Rome—were more telling.

Even though the antagonism of Poland’s ruling PiS party to Germany and the European Union seems undiminished, the German offer, also made by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, is clear: The door to a revived “Weimar Triangle” of France, Germany, and Poland is wide open. Should the present (or a future) Polish government change tack and give up its obstructionism, there is a co-leadership role for Warsaw within the EU for the taking.

That Scholz also chose to visit Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi so soon was another promising sign of a German government that wants to move things forward in the EU rather than acting as the ultimate consensus manufacturer and seeker of the lowest common denominator, as Merkel did for much of her time in office. The new German-Italian “action plan,” aimed at deepening relations in particular with a view to European policy, may well work as a first step for a German “Südpolitik” (a “southern policy” to complement Ostpolitik which Miguel Otero-Iglesias suggested in the IPQ Summer 2020 issue).

This push shows that Berlin, rather than being miffed about the recent deepened Franco-Italian cooperation, is doing its best to get this triangle working, too. “German angst” about reforming Europe seems to have given way to a can-do attitude. When Macron and Draghi reiterated their long-stated demands for reforming the Stability and Growth Pact in a Financial Times op-ed on December 23, it did not cause the dogmatic, over-frugal stir of the past in Germany. The fact that reforms are needed to get Europe going again is no longer questioned in Berlin, and the coming months will be all about the details of resetting the EU’s and the eurozone’s fiscal framework.

Putin’s Test

Where Scholz has slipped is on Russia policy. Describing the Baltic Sea Nord Stream 2 pipeline as “a private commercial enterprise” somehow unrelated to political considerations after his first European Council meeting in the early hours of December 17 has opened the government to the perception that it is split on how to deal with Moscow in the face of blatant military blackmail by Russia threatening to further invade Ukraine. (Baerbock did not exclude consequences for Nord Stream 2, which needs to be certified by Germany’s Federal Network Agency, a process that may take until the summer.)

The same day, the Russian government published its “ultimatum,” requesting Washington and NATO to provide security guarantees in the form of treaties that would rule out further eastward expansion and create countries with lesser sovereignty that were no longer free to choose to cooperate with or join the transatlantic alliance, instead forming a recognized Russian sphere of influence. President Vladimir Putin, who had Russia’s most important NGO, Memorial, “liquidated” at the same time, wants to complete the return to Russian imperial glory, rubberstamped by a, in his view, dramatically weakened “West.”

Rather than trotting out an obsolete line, Scholz would have done much better to point to the “Washington Declaration,” signed by his predecessor Angela Merkel and US President Joe Biden on July 15, 2021, which states inter alia: “we will resist attempts to create [a world of competing spheres of influence], be it through attempts at territorial annexation, control of digital infrastructure, transnational repression, or weaponized energy flows.” Also, the current attempt to make Russia rejoin the “Normandy format” with France, Germany, and Ukraine is likely doomed. It no longer fits Putin’s grand design.

Now that close alignment with the United States and European partners is the only way of hoping to effectively deter Russia, Scholz has the chance of applying “clear language” in his first face-to-face meeting with Putin, penciled in for January, und delivering the same message Washington and Paris already have delivered: a further military attack on Ukraine would have “severe” economic consequences, including energy relations and their geo-economic application.

An Eye on China

In addition to handling Putin, Scholz also has a chance to shine on the world stage as G7 host. Taking over the G7 presidency roughly three weeks after taking office, the new government had little time to prepare. In Jörg Kukies, state secretary at the chancellery, who not only advises the chancellor on European and economic policy but also acts as principle G7 Sherpa, Scholz has a highly capable “troubleshooter” at his side whose work in his previous post under Scholz at the finance ministry was instrumental for paving the way for the Next Generation EU recovery fund.

Climate policies, including the end of subventions for fossil fuels and supporting poorer countries switching to green energies, will be high on the list of priorities during the presidency. The G7 is also a good framework to help calibrate Berlin’s future China policy. Under the previous British presidency, the G7 had already discussed human rights, supply chains, and technology transfers with China. Initiatives to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will need to be coordinated between the EU, which launched its Global Gateway initiative at the end of 2021, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. It also seems that the Scholz government will continue, and cautiously extend, Germany’s military engagement with the Indo-Pacific, as the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, indicated in a speech in Singapore on December 23.

Getting Europe going, containing Russia’s aggression, and finding new ways of dealing with China, and South and Southeast Asia more generally—Merkel’s heirs have their work cut out. But 2022 provides a great chance to shine on the world stage.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of Internationale Politik Quarterly.

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