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POLITICS

Olaf Scholz: Germany’s staid but steady next chancellor

Often described as austere, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz nonetheless managed to inspire German voters in this year's election with a campaign.

Olaf Scholz at SPD party conference
Olaf Scholz (SPD), Germany's next Chancellor, speaks at a party conference ahead of a vote on the coalition agreement with the SPD, Greens and FPD. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

Scholz, 63, is on the brink of becoming the next German chancellor, replacing Angela Merkel who is leaving the political stage after 16 years.

The Social Democrats (SPD) had begun the election campaign at rock bottom in the polls, with many completely writing off Scholz’s chances of heading the next government — so much so that he doesn’t even have an official biography.

But Scholz managed to stage a stunning upset, beating Merkel’s conservatives by positioning himself as the best candidate to continue her legacy, even adopting her famous “rhombus” hand gesture on a magazine cover.

Unlike his rivals, he also managed not to make embarrassing mistakes during a campaign that drew on his reputation as a quiet workhorse, using the slogan “Scholz will sort it”.

After a shorter than expected bout of post-election coalition haggling, Scholz has managed to cobble together an alliance with the Greens and the liberal FDP.

Once described by Der Spiegel magazine as “the embodiment of boredom in politics”, Scholz has been slowly working his way up the ranks since the 1970s.

Born in the northern city of Osnabrück, he joined the SPD’s youth movement in 1975 and was pictured at various peace demonstrations sporting wool sweaters and an unruly crop of long hair.

READ ALSO: Scholz’s election as German chancellor planned for December 8th

‘Scholzomat’

He became vice-president of the movement in the 1980s but failed to become its leader because he was considered too left-wing, though he later aligned to a more centrist course.

After training as a lawyer and founding his own law firm specialised in labour issues in 1985 — now minus the hair — Scholz was elected to the national parliament in 1998.

During his 2002-2004 stint as the SPD’s general secretary, he earned the nickname “Scholzomat” for his dry yet tireless defence of the  unpopular labour reforms of then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Olaf Scholz
Olaf Scholz sits on the sidelines at the SPD party conference in Berlin on December 6th, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s next government unveils coalition pact

‘Bazooka’ 

As finance minister and vice-chancellor under Merkel from 2018, he also suspended Germany’s cherished constitutional debt brake to unleash a trillion-euro “bazooka” to ward off the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy.

However, he is generally seen as fiscally conservative and has insisted on a return to the no new debt policy by 2023 — a rule included in the coalition deal.

This cautious approach has at times left him marginalised within his own workers’ party, overlooked in a leadership vote in 2019 in favour of two relatively unknown left-wingers.

But the SPD succeeded in uniting behind him as its chancellor candidate in this year’s election campaign.

Scholz lives in Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin with his wife Britta Ernst, also an SPD politician. They have no children.

He saw his fair share of scandals as finance minister, including the Wirecard fraud debacle and allegations that the FIU anti-money laundering authority under his auspices had failed to report potential wrongdoing to the relevant authorities.

But his calm demeanour has helped him weather the turbulent times and found favour with fellow politicians — including FDP leader Christian Lindner, who has described him as a “strong leader”.

“He has the experience and professionalism to lead this country into a good future,” Lindner said.

Merkel, too, has said she will be able to “sleep soundly” with Scholz as her replacement.

By Femke Colborne

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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