End of an Era: Germany Trades Merkel for a Trio

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Olaf Scholz, the new chancellor of Germany (Image: Inga Kjer/ photothek/Deutscher B on Flickr 

A quiet revolution played out in Germany this fall as Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, prepared to depart the global stage and cede leadership to a triumvirate of strange political bedfellows.

Social Democrat leader Olaf Scholz was sworn in as chancellor this week, capping a 2 ½-month spate of negotiations and gentle arm-twisting over Cabinet appointments. Scholz’ announced governing team merges his left-leaning party with environmentalist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats, portending a shift to more aggressive action to fight climate change and to modernize industry and management of Europe’s biggest economy.

It was a calm, slow-motion transition since Merkel announced in 2018 that she would not seek a fifth term after 16 years as chancellor. She anointed her preferred candidate and handed the reins of the conservative Christian Democratic Union to the governor of Germany’s most populous state, Armin Laschet, who failed to beat Scholz in the Sept. 26 election. 

The cordial handover of power this week drew sharp contrast with the November 2020 U.S. presidential election and unsubstantiated cries of a “stolen” re-election victory from Donald Trump that ignited violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Laschet, the CDU chief who lost to Scholz despite Merkel’s endorsement, praised Germany’s political process ahead of Wednesday’s vote by federal lawmakers formally electing Scholz. 

“Even if we fought for a different result, we can be happy that respect among democrats is so strong in our country,” Laschet tweeted.

Cem Oezdemir, incoming agriculture minister and the first German Cabinet member of Turkish descent, also took to social media to pay tribute to the peaceful transition.

“We can be proud of the great matter-of-factness with which change is taking place in our democracy. To defend it is the task of government, opposition and all of us.” The 55-year-old Greens politician is the son of Turkish immigrants invited to settle in Germany 60 years ago to help with post-war reconstruction.

Merkel congratulated Scholz during her departure speech to chancellery staff, calling the job “an exciting, fulfilling duty, a challenging duty.”

“If you embrace it with joy, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful duties there are to be responsible for this country.” 

Scholz, who served as vice chancellor during Merkel’s final term, returned the compliments and well wishes. “It was a big period during which you were chancellor of this country, and you did big things. There were big crises we had to deal with, some of them weathered together.”

Praise for her role in leading Europe as well as Germany came from some unexpected sources. 

“We were always in contact and tried to find ways out of even the most difficult situations,” Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote in a farewell message on the Kremlin website. “In your years leading the German government, you rightfully earned great authority in Europe and the whole world.”

It was Merkel who convinced fellow European Union leaders to sanction Kremlin officials and their colluding oligarchs after Russian invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula ine 2014 and deployed troops and mercenaries to foment separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.   

Merkel, 67, intensely private for a high-profile world leader, has given no indication what she might do now that she is out of office. She mostly eschewed the government quarters at the Chancellery along the Spree River during her years in office to live in the same Berlin apartment she shared with her husband of 23 years, quantum chemist and Humboldt University professor Joachim Sauer. Also a chemist by training, Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany and entered politics only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of authoritarian rule that led to German reunification two year later.

Merkel remained popular among German voters throughout her tenure for deft handling of crises confronting her country and the European Union. She followed her moral compass in responding to the staggering debt that threatened to take down EU members of the currency union, in taking in the million-strong wave of immigrants spurring far-right anger, and reconfiguring European policies after Britain’s break with the EU — Brexit — that continues to roil trade, transport and employment on the continent.

Scholz and his governing partners inherit arguably the worst of the challenges that confronted Merkel: the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus infections that has forced on-and-off lockdowns inflicting economic damage across the country.

In the spirit of a smooth transition, Merkel and Scholz co-chaired an urgent meeting with Germany’s 16 state governors on the eve of the government handover to identify next steps toward containing the spread of Covid.

Scholz appointed Kurt Lauterbach, a Harvard-educated physician and public health expert, as minister of health. Scholz lamented that Germany’s vaunted public health care system has been struggling throughout the pandemic to stop the spread of Covid infections despite social distancing, masks and vaccine mandates.

The change in government in Berlin heralds an opportunity for the Biden administration to repair damage inflicted on the transatlantic relationship by Trump. The former president put U.S. reliability and allegiance in doubt with his unilateral actions pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and wavering in America’s commitment to NATO. Those retreats from post-war collaboration left European allies, Germany first among them, unsure whether they could trust Washington from one election to the next to stand by its international commitments.

Scholz’ politics dovetail well with Biden’s as both leaders are centrists in parties pushing a more progressive agenda. The new chancellor and Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s first female foreign minister, are expected to take a tougher line with Russia and China than did Merkel.

Baerbock, a charismatic human rights lawyer and London School of Economics graduate, left for Paris on her first foreign trip hours after her appointment to the Cabinet and warned the Kremlin about its massive troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders.

“Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty are not negotiable,” she said Thursday after meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “Russia would pay a high political, and above all, economic price for a renewed violation of Ukrainian statehood. We can only find solutions via the path of diplomacy.”

With her history of human rights activism, Baerbock is expected to confront China’s Communist leadership more forcefully on its repression of protest in Hong Kong, mounting threats against Taiwan and forced labor and detention of a million Muslim Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang.

The Sept. 26 parliamentary vote to succeed Merkel’s government was so fractured that it required a coalition of three political parties to cobble together a majority in the 736-seat Bundestag, the lower house. Scholz’s Social Democrats are partnering with the Greens and pro-business Free Democrats, with the key portfolios of foreign minister going to the Greens and finance minister to the more centrist Free Democrats leader Christian Lindner.

The 16-member Cabinet is evenly split between men and women, another first for Germany’s post-war leadership. Scholz, 63, made a point of naming women to the top posts in security and diplomacy: Baerbock at the Foreign Ministry, Nancy Faeser in charge of police and national security as Interior Ministry chief and Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, who vowed to boost resources to Germany’s effort to meet NATO quotas for military investment.

“Security will lie in the hands of strong women in this government,” Scholz said in announcing the appointments Monday. “Women and men account for half the population each, so women should also get half the power.”

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Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.

1 COMMENT

  1. I so look forward to each of Carol Williams’ columns. The level-headed, fair analysis with which the author approaches each piece is deeply appreciated.

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