Olaf Scholz has certainly taken on Angela Merkel’s mantle of “crisis chancellor” if his first year in office is anything to go by.
War broke out on European soil just two months into his time in office, and the ongoing discourse about how much military and financial support the European Union should supply to Ukraine often circles around the bloc’s largest economy.
Germany’s decades-long heavy energy dependence on Russia was broadly exposed and denounced, and Scholz’s rush to find alternatives to Russian gas led to tensions between the coalition parties of the fledgling German government and forced them to partially backtrack on their climate policy goals.
Creeping inflation is threatening the post-pandemic recovery of economies across Europe and the main concern on German voters’ minds is if they will be able to afford to turn on their heating this winter.
An important player in Europe but not dominant
Scholz wants Germany to be an important player in Europe, but no longer a dominant one, experts say.
Lars Haider, editor-in-chief of the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper and author of the biography “Olaf Scholz: The Path to Power” (Olaf Scholz: Der Weg zur Macht), told Euronews that “in essence, Olaf Scholz is driven by the conviction that Europe can only continue to exist in the world in the 21st century if it is united and unified.
“That is also the reason why he is not pushing forward and taking the lead, as is repeatedly demanded. The German chancellor must no longer give the impression that he ultimately decides what happens in Europe and how,” Haider said.
The country once famously dubbed the “reluctant hegemon” by the Economist magazine in 2013 is seemingly stepping back to become a more equal partner under Scholz.
Haider also believes that the tensions between the new chancellor and French President Emmanuel Macron over issues such as the energy crisis and relations with China have been overblown by the media.
“The relations between Germany and France are not as bad as they have been made out. Olaf Scholz definitely knows the value of the Berlin-Paris axis and he also knows that France is Germany’s most important partner, at least within the EU,” he said.
‘Not taking risks or leading on Ukraine’
While Germany has provided Ukraine with ongoing military, provisional and financial support, some believe that Germany has a historical responsibility to take a much greater active — and not just a reactive — role in helping Ukraine fight off the Russian invasion.
The German Chancellor stood side by side with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her trip to Berlin in October 2022 and reiterated his call for international partners to agree to “a Marshall plan” for Ukraine to help it rebuild from the damages of war.
He acknowledged that it would take billions of euros and dollars for years to come.
Dr Stefan Meister, head of the International Order and Democracy Programme at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) said the German decision to increase its dependence on Russian energy even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a “failed policy”.
“It’s a bankruptcy of German Ostpolitik… it has failed, it has not prevented this war,” he said.
Meister acknowledges that Germany has now done “more than is often discussed in terms of weapon supply and financial support” for Ukraine, but that Scholz still has a responsibility to shape the European response more than he has thus far.
“He (Scholz) doesn’t like taking risks. He’s not really taking the lead on Ukraine; neither in domestic politics nor on the European level.
“I think this has weakened the EU and made it even more dependent on US action and reaction,” he said.
“It is not really enough for the situation that Europe is in at the moment, for the biggest economy in Europe to not be leading on key issues related to Ukraine in this war.”
Meister thinks the German – and European – response needs to be more forward-thinking and strategic, rather than just “muddling” reactions to events as they unfold.
“I think we need to prepare ourselves for a longer war in terms of support for Ukraine… So I want to see a financial plan for the survival of Ukraine within let’s say the next two years, in terms of monthly, yearly funding for the Ukrainian budget,” he said.
“I have the impression that we have more discussions about the reconstruction of Ukraine than the immediate needs of Ukraine for the next year.”
Support for Ukraine amongst German citizens remains high, but Scholz will need to keep voters on his side if the expenses of war continue to add up for many more months or years.
Making a difference with climate policy?
Climate change policy remains an important concern for German and European voters, but progress domestically has been hampered as Scholz decided to keep nuclear power plants running longer, burn more coal and find other sources of natural gas as solutions to prevent an energy crisis at home.
It was a bitter pill for the Green Party to swallow.
As Rasmus Andresen, German Green MEP told Euronews, it is now most important that the longer-term goals on climate policy enshrined in their coalition agreement are adhered to.
“I think that Olaf Scholz understands that if he wants to govern with the Greens and he wants to ensure their support then he needs to deliver on the climate targets,” he said.
“It is about putting pressure on him and our coalition partner (Liberal Democrats – FDP) and I think that Germany will be in a much better place when it comes to climate policy in two or three years.”
Andresen is also optimistic about the progress already made on the European level with the weight of the German Green Party at Scholz’s back for the last year.
“Looking at the first year, especially when it comes to the negotiations of the EU Fit For 55 package, you can see the role the German government – the climate ministry and also the foreign ministry – has played in negotiations on the European level.
“You can see a huge difference between what the former government had done and what the new government has done.”
While Scholz’s own climate policy goals may not be ambitious, the Green party will continue to hold him to account in Berlin and Brussels, experts say.
‘Looking for his place at the EU level’
The view from Brussels is also that Scholz was “reluctant to play a leading role” when it came to the joint response to the war in Ukraine, Andresen explains, but he also acknowledges that this is still Scholz’s first year in office and he is “still looking for his space on the European level”.
The ongoing war on the EU’s doorstep needs a better strategy for the medium and longer terms, say experts.
The EU also needs to look to the future on critical issues such as security, climate change policy and immigration, to name a few.
The German Chancellor’s popularity in Germany lags behind his Green Party ministers Annalena Baerbock, and Robert Habeck, according to November’s Forschungsgruppe polls.
Scholz doesn’t want Germany to be the dominant force in Europe, but this reluctance to take charge is being interpreted as a failure to act, many say.