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Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz may not have made his first major speech to parliament, but he is already conveying what to expect from his government.
As a new era dawns in Germany, with Angela Merkel bowing out after 16 years in power, attention has turned to the soft-spoken 63-year-old.The former finance minister will lead a first-of-its-kind coalition government, bringing together the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the environmentalist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats. The arrangement has left the government a bit shrouded in mystery.
“The start of your government is accompanied with curiosity and hope by many,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Scholz’s new Cabinet in a speech Wednesday.
Only a few hours into Scholz’s tenure, here are seven early signs of what’s to come.
No pandemic honeymoon
Scholz has already set a target for his first few weeks on the job: Administer 30 million more coronavirus vaccine doses by Christmas.
The deadline is one of necessity. As a fourth coronavirus wave rolls over the country, the Omicron variant looms and intensive care units risk running out of beds, Germany’s vaccine rate is still too low to achieve herd immunity. Additionally, those who have been vaccinated are now in need of booster shots.
So there’s not much of an option for the government when it comes to choosing its first project from the coalition’s 177-page agreement: It’s all about the pandemic.
Getting tougher on the unvaccinated
The new government will soon make life harder for the unvaccinated, putting Germany in line with big neighboring countries such as France and Italy.
These restrictions are needed, Scholz told reporters Tuesday, to fight the pandemic. That’s a clear signal Scholz isn’t buying the warnings that more restrictions will simply radicalize vaccine skeptics.
“Society is not divided, but rather predominantly of one opinion,” he said.
Minister by popular demand
“Many wanted him,” Scholz said, referencing the hashtag movement — at times trending on German Twitter — #wirwollenKarl, or “we want Karl,” which has been pushing for Karl Lauterbach to become the new health minister.
They got their way.
Lauterbach is a doctor, epidemiologist and ubiquitous defender of strict measures to fight the coronaviruson TV talk shows. His nomination is yet another signpost of the new government’s direction of travel.
As Steinmeier said: “In the acute emergency, it is important not to listen to the loudest but to ensure that the pandemic does not keep us firmly in its grip for another year and that public life can become possible again.”
While Scholz had no say in who his coalition partners picked for the new Cabinet, he demonstrated a strong hand in choosing his own party’s ministers.
His slate of ministers is gender-balanced, but that’s about it. No SPD minister has a migration background, and all are middle-aged. Scholz also eschewed regional balance, usually an important criterion in German politics — there’s only one SPD minister from eastern Germany.
Hire talent, train skills
Only one government minister, the SPD’s Hubertus Heil, kept his job from the last government. Three others will remain while changing ministries, responsibilities and portfolios — even if they haven’t shown a particular closeness to their new area.
In short, it all means team SPD is team Scholz, and their potential mistakes will be his.
Friends will be friends
After only two days in office, Scholz will head for Paris and Brussels on Friday, a first trip that follows through on his repeated pro-Europe message during the campaign.
In his speech Wednesday, Steinmeier advised Scholz that keeping Europe in mind can help keep Germany together, especially during periods of significant change that can overwhelm people.
“Germany is not a remote island … we’re at the center of Europe,”Steinmeier said, arguing that it’s in Germany’s own interest to take into account its neighbors’ interests.
The customary courtesy visit to Germany’s closest friends is also a signal that Scholz doesn’t want to give French President Emmanuel Macron much time to indulge in Merkel nostalgia. Macron appeared ready to move ahead on Wednesday: “À vendredi!” he tweeted, adding the two leaders will “write the next chapter together. For the French, for the Germans, for the Europeans.”
Up for the job
Scholz takes pride in being a father of the EU’s massive coronavirus recovery fund during his last posting as Germany’s finance minister. And on Wednesday, he signaled he will keep Europe and its finances intertwined as chancellor, appointing close aide Jörg Kukies to a dual role covering both economic policy and European affairs.
Kukies — a former Goldman Sachs banker who was Scholz’s Europe adviser at the finance ministry — was also behind the EU’s recovery package, earning considerable credit for helping negotiate the megadeal. Now, he’ll take on aprominent role as a super advisor to Scholz, helping craft the government’s fiscal strategies and preparing Scholz for EU summits and international gatherings like the G7.
It’s a powerful position that sends a message to both EU partners and Scholz’s own foreign and finance ministers: His office will have a big say on all (of the costly) EU affairs.