A new government took over in Germany in December 2021. Almost immediately, the multicoloured coalition of Social Democrats (SDP, red), Greens (well, green) and liberals (FDP, yellow) was subjected to withering criticism in the media. Germany’s new government started with a radical-sounding left-wing programme. It is quickly morphing into something much more conservative. Meanwhile, the defeated Christian Democrats are trying to reinvent themselves. One of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s best-known phrases is that if people want leadership, he will provide it: ‘Ask me for leadership and I’ll deliver.’ 1www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ampel-koalition-steht-scholz-fuer-abbruch-statt-aufbruch-17723475.html. Germany’s influential centre-right broadsheet Die Welt turned that around and wrote that Germans wanted ‘leadership, but got Scholz’.2www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/plus236272086/Kanzlerschaft-Fuehrung-bestellt-Scholz-bekommen.html.
Then came the war in Ukraine. Reluctantly, but then quite radically, Scholz did deliver leadership. He is turning Merkel’s slumbering, lumbering Germany into a country that wants to be able to fight real wars. A closer look reveals that former US president Donald Trump and the now oppositional Christian Democrats (CDU) have a lot to do with this stunning U-turn in German foreign policy. In the following, let us look at three key areas where the new government must rise to the challenges at hand.
The new government’s Russia policy initially followed that of the former chancellor, Angela Merkel: moralizing statements in public, pragmatism behind the scenes. Annalena Baerbock (Greens), the new foreign minister, announced that she would take a tougher stance against ‘autocratic regimes’. Russia is commonly regarded as such. Yet Berlin initially strengthened rather than weakened Russia by switching off three nuclear reactors, thus making Germany more dependent on Russian gas—even as Russia massed troops at its border with Ukraine.
Scholz declared Russia policy to be a Chefsache, meaning reserved for the boss, himself. His main concern seemed to be Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline set to deliver Russian gas to Germany, circumventing and thus weakening Ukraine. Scholz wanted to hang on to this, despite Russian threats against Ukraine. SPD politicians (though not Scholz himself) openly argued that the government should ‘keep Nord Stream 2 out of the Ukraine conflict’. Keep the gas, in other words, even if Russia attacks Ukraine.
Germany initially tried to solve the problem through old-fashioned realpolitik, pragmatism, rather than moral principles. In January, Baerbock travelled to Kyiv and then to Moscow. Rather than calling Russia an ‘autocratic regime’, she said Germany wanted ‘stable relations’. Although it was not the aspect most media dwelled on, she obtained Moscow’s agreement to return to ‘Normandy Format’ negotiations (Germany and France as mediators, Russia and Ukraine on opposing sides). When she visited Ukraine she even went on a tour of the frontlines, but the Ukrainian president was so annoyed by her pragmatic stance that he reportedly made himself unavailable for a meeting with her, although that meeting had been agreed on earlier. 3www.berliner-zeitung.de/welt-nationen/keller-baerbock-li.210734.
Then Scholz travelled to Kyiv and to Moscow on 15 February, and managed to pull off a solid performance—but one that the Ukrainians hated. On stage with Putin at their press conference, he verbally duelled with the Russian president (‘in Yugoslavia, NATO had to avert a genocide’). But he also got the Ukrainian president to call NATO accession a ‘dream’, meaning something forever unattainable. Russia reacted with signs of de-escalation. At this point, it looked as if Scholz and Baerbock had helped persuade Kyiv to give up on Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO—rather than NATO refusing Ukraine’s accession. According to Robin Alexander, deputy editor of the German daily Die Welt and one of the best-informed experts on German politics, Scholz genuinely believed he had achieved a breakthrough and averted war. 4www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/plus237320439/Die-Verwandlung-des-Olaf-Scholz-Vom-Unsichtbaren-zum-Kanzler-der-die-Welt-ueberraschte.html. Two days later Putin attacked Ukraine.
Scholz immediately cancelled the certification of Nord Stream 2. This had been agreed beforehand with allies. But he did not want to stop buying Russian gas—Germany’s economy depended on it. Instead, together with French and EU experts, he devised a plan to attack Russia’s central bank, effectively depriving it of its foreign currency reserves. Germany’s allies were impressed. This was something new, and efficient. In exchange, they agreed to let Germany continue to buy Putin’s gas. Incidentally, this helped Hungary. The Hungarian government was now able to imitate Germany and retain access to cheap Russian gas.
But when it came to delivering weapons to Ukraine, Scholtz hesitated. Only after Poland’s Prime Minister Morawiecki travelled to Berlin to convince him did Scholz make a radical decision. Not only did he agree to massive German weapons shipments to Ukraine, he also declared that Germany would invest 100 billion euros in building a capable army. This marked the beginning of a new era in Germany. For the first time since the Second World War, Germany wants to be able to fight real wars.
Where did that huge plan come from? It came from someone else. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Defence Minister Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer had concocted this programme, in response to then US President Donald Trump’s demands that Germany should spend more money on defence. Nothing came of it. In other words, Scholz, the Social Democrat, reactivated a Christian Democrat plan to improve the German Army. The impulse for that plan had come from Donald Trump. And the Greens? Scholz did not tell them. They learned of the remilitarization of Germany when Scholz announced it in the Bundestag. After a moment of stunned silence, they applauded.
If there is an area where the Greens really must show that they count for something in the coalition, it is ‘climate policy’, meaning energy policy. Yet they were put in a difficult position almost at once, when the EU Commission announced a decision to label gas and nuclear energy as ‘green’ sources of energy. 5www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/plus236272086/Kanzlerschaft-Fuehrung-bestellt-Scholz-bekommen.html. That means that EU funds can be awarded to the development of gas and nuclear energy in member states. Obviously, the Greens oppose nuclear energy and view gas as a fossil fuel that needs to be burnt to create energy, thus emitting CO2.
This forced Scholz’s SPD to perform some verbal acrobatics. He himself had helped prepare the EU’s decision as finance minister under the Merkel government. Now he needed to repudiate it, in order to help the Greens save face. The solution he found—and which the Greens adopted—was that although the government rejected the view that nuclear energy was ‘green’, it would not take steps against the EU’s decision. As for gas, it was a useful ‘transition’ solution, for a while, on the way to a green economy without any fossil fuels at all.
The fact is that Germany cannot produce enough energy without coal, gas, oil, and nuclear plants. The new government seems to realize that without gas, it will be difficult to keep the economy afloat and homes heated. On top of that came the war in Ukraine. Germany now not only needed gas, but an alternative to Russian gas, and as soon as possible. As a result, there is now talk of returning to more nuclear energy, and to hold on to German coal for yet another few years. Here as well, the war has taught Germany’s left-wing government a lesson: realism trumps idealism.
The most spectacular decision of the new government has been not to make any decision at all regarding obligatory COVID vaccinations. Before he joined the government, Health Minister Kai Lauterbach (SPD) had always insisted that Germany needed mandatory COVID vaccinations. As a minister, he announced that he was preparing to put forward a bill to that effect. Then he thought otherwise. ‘Not yet’, he said. Scholz, who enjoys a reputation for never praising anybody who has worked for him, praised Lauterbach during a cabinet meeting for this change of mind. He probably inspired it. 6www.dw.com/en/european-commission-declares-nuclear-and-gas-to-be-green/a-60614990. Mandatory shots are a politically sensitive subject, in Germany as in many other countries. Best not to fan the flames.
Scholz’s leadership style is that of Angela Merkel
In all three areas mentioned above—Russia, energy, COVID—Scholz’ instinct has been to never express a firm position unless forced to, since firm positions will always be attacked by someone, and need to be defended. It is the tactical formula inherited from Angela Merkel: no ideology, no clear answers. Politics is conducted behind the scenes. For citizens, it is enough to know that all is well; they need not worry about the details.
The war in Ukraine forced Scholz to act against his political nature. He became a leader who introduced a radical change in core policies: newfound love for the military and a forced farewell to climate-change ideology. Citizens liked this sudden change. His popularity had been declining during the run-up to the war in Ukraine, as he was seen as weak and indecisive. Now, although his party only polls at 26 per cent in opinion polls, 46 per cent of Germans are satisfied with his leadership.
A pattern is becoming visible: under left-wing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s social policies became more conservative (lower unemployment benefits). Under CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany moved to the left. Now, under the left-wing government of Olaf Scholz, there is a lurch to the right. If you want a more conservative Germany, apparently, you need the Social Democrats in power.
The future of the CDU
With all this, Scholz needs to watch his back: if the Christian Democrats, who governed Germany for the past sixteen years, manage to get back on their feet again, they will try to approach the FDP and persuade them to team up with them rather than with the Greens and the SPD. FDP leader Christian Lindner has pointedly stated that his party had ‘no interest in becoming estranged from the CDU’, which he continues to regard as a potential partner. 7www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/christian-lindner-warum-der-fdp-chef-hoffnungen-in-friedrich-merz-setzt-a-5a737e49-0724-4d55-839c-cbc8538a4c6e.
So, the question of whether the CDU/CSU can regain popular support, and thus make themselves interesting to the FDP, is of vital importance. There is a ray of hope. Despite at first slipping further in the polls after their electoral defeat in September, the Christian Democrats have recovered somewhat in recent polls. 8www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article236830565/ZDF-Politbarometer-SPD-und-Union-liegen-gleichauf.html. Initially, this was probably due to the perception that Scholz was not tough enough on Putin in the months preceding the invasion of Ukraine. But even in mid-March, three weeks into the war and with Scholz now becoming more popular, the CDU held a slight advantage over the SPD in opinion polls.
But it is an uphill battle. Let us consider for a moment where Germany would stand now if the CDU had won the elections, and its candidate Armin Laschet were the chancellor. I have no doubt there would be no difference at all in the areas described above—Russia, energy, and COVID crisis management. These are the key issues of the day, and it means that the Christian Democrats cannot possibly offer an alternative to Scholz’s policies. In his place, they would be doing the same. After all, his strategy until the war had been a simple continuation of Angela Merkel’s, in both style and content: exactly what Armin Laschet had announced he would do if elected. And Scholz’s U-turn in sanctions and arms shipments to Ukraine is something the CDU had been demanding for weeks, and now fully supports.
The party has elected a new leader, Friedrich Merz, a long-time economic liberal and purported ‘conservative’ rival to Angela Merkel. Can he return the party to power? Any renewal must begin with an analysis of past mistakes. This is what Merz has said about the CDU’s failings: ‘no programme, no strategy’, and in the electoral campaign, for an agonizingly long time, ‘no candidate’. Laschet and the CSU’s leader Markus Söder had fought each other, rather than settling the matter amicably behind the scenes. 9www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article236331501/Friedrich-Merz-rechnet-mit-CDU-Politik-ab-Auf-Klarheit-verzichtet.html.
The party, Merz has said, seems obsessed with a kind of death wish, never adopting a clear stance on any matter, and navigating political waters with a tactical rather than strategic mindset. There is another way to say this: under Merkel, the CDU ‘lost its soul’ and now must redevelop a clear political identity. For many, that means returning to more conservative positions. Merz has been heralded as the man to accomplish this task. There are, however, a number of structural problems.
– Angela Merkel did not stay in power for sixteen years because voters loved the CDU/CSU. They voted for Merkel because she moved the party to the left. When she stepped down, the voters also made a move. They are now where they were before: left of centre. Merz cannot win these voters back by making the party more conservative.
– If the new government goes ahead with plans to reform citizenship rules, 10https://corvinak.hu/en/velemeny/2021/11/30/the-law-that-will-change-germany-forever. that could expand the voter base very quickly by one or even two million new voters who are not ethnically German. These new rules—yet to become law—also apply to Ukrainian refugees, however, and they may be more sympathetic to the CDU, with a culturally Christian mindset.
– There are potential conservative voters that the CDU could aim for: the electorate of the right-wing AfD. They make up about ten per cent of the electorate. But doing so would open up the CDU to attacks from the left for adopting AfD-compatible positions. The CDU under Merkel labelled them as ‘extremist’ for so long that there may well be no way to convince them of the party’s love and respect for them.
– At any rate, Merz has said he is no ‘nostalgic conservative’ but a man with ‘clear positions’ and has said he supports adoption rights for gay couples.
– Then there is the conflict between the CDU and the CSU, whose leader Markus Söder regards himself as the strongest and most talented Christian Democrat on offer. Merz must appease and discipline him.
In sum, there is limited scope for redefining a conservative political identity that is far from AfD talking points, and attractive to the majority of voters who do not regard themselves as conservatives.
There is another problem. Over the years, Angela Merkel sidelined every CDU politician who had the potential to challenge her. Traditionally, top politicians in Germany start their careers as leaders in a federal state, or Bundesland. The CDU must now invest time and effort in building a new political elite in these federal states. There are four regional elections this year. Merz has said that his aim is for the CDU to become the ‘strongest in every one’ of these Länder. The party currently governs or co-governs in three of them. There is a lot at stake if these positions are lost.
At this point, it seems far-fetched to hope for a return to power in four years’ time. If the current coalition does not fall apart, then it will be difficult for the CDU/CSU to offer a convincing alternative.