CAROLINE SMRSTIK, ZURICH
Keep your eye on these figures in the new German government.
Olaf Scholz (SPD), who by all accounts did a credible job as finance minister under Merkel, is the proverbial safe pair of hands. The SPD is happy because they got to pick the Chancellor, but if the “comrades” (as SPD members still refer to themselves) think they’re getting a “my way or the highway” leader like Gerhard Schroeder, they’ll be disappointed. Scholz is a modern social democrat and extremely pragmatic. He doesn’t view politics as a categorical division between left and right, and he tends to approach his brief rationally, without bias. Scholz has already gathered a highly professional staff for his new role, a clever combination of trusted political colleagues from Hamburg and seasoned advisors from the echelons of various ministries.
Scholz was general secretary of the partyIn German political parties, it is customary that party leaders resign that office when they enter
government. when Schroeder was chancellor, so the pair have worked together before. It is certainly no coincidence that Schroeder appeared in German media in the weeks before Christmas touting Scholz’s recently released biography.“Olaf Scholz: Der Weg zur Macht (The Road to Power)” is written by Lars Haider, editor-in-chief of the daily Hamburger Abendblatt. Haider knows Scholz well, having accompanied his political … Continue reading “Scholz is Chancellor now because he wanted it the most,” said Schroeder at a book presentation in Berlin the day after the new government took office. Were the ex-chancellor’s remarks those of a proud mentor, or a reminder that he expected a Scholz-led government to serve the interests of the party—and in particular, Schroeder and his Gazprom-funded retirement package?
Christian Lindner, head of the free-market FDP, took over the Finance Ministry from Scholz. The young, ambitious politician didn’t want to play ball in the previous coalition; Lindner walked his party out of talks with the CDU and the Greens in 2017: “Better not to govern at all than govern wrongly,” he said memorably, forcing a paralytic grand coalition on Angela Merkel during her last years in power. Then, colleagues accused Lindner of being egotistical; now, he has the job he’s always wanted. With Lindner at Finance, the federal purse strings are firmly in the hands of the party known for financial discipline and market rule. How will they get on with the statist SPD and the regulation-happy Greens? Not as badly as you might think. Lindner has stressed that as a minister, he’s not speaking for his party, but for a federal government made up of several parties, one intent on serving the interests of whole country. (Cynical headlines ahead: Lindner bends to keep his powerful dream job.) Perhaps his egotism will do Germany good.
Annalena Baerbock is Germany’s first female foreign minister, though she’s the second Green in this high-profile post. Joschka Fischer went from chinos and sneakers to tailored suits during his time as foreign minister but chafed at then-chancellor Schroeder’s insistence on keeping him on a short leash. Pundits who imagine Scholz and Baerbock will reprise these roles are oversimplifying, not least because the egos involved are more modest. Scholz is clearly willing to let Baerbock lead and grab headlines, but he also picked Jens Plötner, a career diplomat and former political director at the foreign ministry, as his foreign policy advisor. Safe to say Scholz won’t completely stay out of foreign policy; indeed, a chancellor who did that would be neglecting a principal duty.
Robert Habeck, co-head of the Greens with Baerbock, is both Vice Chancellor and “Super Minister” for economic affairs and climate, making him one of the most powerful men in Europe. He is that rare figure: a successful writer who became a politician without meaning to make a career of it. He’s modest, eloquent but normal, and has a northerner’s generous sense of humor. Many were surprised and even disappointed that Habeck wasn’t the Green candidate for chancellor, but Habeck’s support for Baerbock seems natural and unforced. Habeck is placed to keep a close eye on Scholz, his presence a gentle but persistent reminder that the Greens intend to steer this government. Habeck has the all-important task—from his party’s perspective—of piloting Germany to a post-coal future, a task made much harder by Germany’s anti-nuclear animus. At the close of 2021, four nuclear power plants went offline; the final four are scheduled to close at the end of this year. Other European countries—France and the Czech Republic especially—have no intention of following suit. Germany has “agreed to disagree” about the European Commission’s draft proposal to call nuclear power a green energy source, a label that determines investment. Habeck is launching a cross-Germany tour to campaign for expanding wind and solar energy, arguing that two percent of the country’s land should be reserved for wind plants. He has his work cut out for him.
Karl Lauterbach (SPD), Health Minister, physician, and Harvard-schooled epidemiologist, became a household name during the pandemic with his reasoned, scientifically literate opinions. The former head of the Institute of Health Economics and Epidemiology at the University of Cologne is an adjunct at Harvard’s School of Public Health. Elected to the Bundestag in 2005, he’s smart, articulate, trusted, and highly respected. His personal website features the latest coronavirus research studies (in German and English) with his commentary.
Germany has one of the lowest Covid19 vaccine rates in Europe, with only 68.5 percent fully vaccinated when Lauterbach took office. Lauterbach is ready to clamp down on Germany’s vaccine skeptics, who are the usual mix of natural-medicine loons and antisocial conspiracy theorists, with a few neo-Nazis, to boot. Since he announced that he was leaning toward a mandate, rates have risen to 71.5 percent. The German government foots the bill for more than 75 percent of Germany’s health care in its mixed public-private system, so a mandate makes sense both epidemiologically and economically. Legislation on a mandate is expected to come before a vote in March.
Christine Lambrecht (SPD), Defense Minister—and commander in chief of the armed forces in peacetime—is an experienced member of Scholz’s team. She led the Justice Ministry in Merkel’s government, and last May took over the Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. She doesn’t, however, have much experience in national security, perhaps making her a less-than-reassuring pick at a moment of high geopolitical tension. However, she used the occasion of her first foreign trip—to German soldiers on a NATO deployment in Lithuania—to speak emphatically about “credible deterrence” and NATO’s readiness to stand up for its allies. Lithuanians—under assault from China, for allowing Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, and from Russia, for criticizing Moscow’s destabilizing activities in its neighborhood—appreciated Lambrecht’s comments.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner was born and educated in the US, worked as a foreign correspondent in Central and Eastern Europe, and now lives in Switzerland. She is the founder and owner of Smrstik Communications: “Only the name is complicated.”
|↑1||In German political parties, it is customary that party leaders resign that office when they enter|
|↑2||“Olaf Scholz: Der Weg zur Macht (The Road to Power)” is written by Lars Haider, editor-in-chief of the daily Hamburger Abendblatt. Haider knows Scholz well, having accompanied his political career in Hamburg.|