OPINION: Scholz won’t revolutionise Germany – but change is welcome after Merkel

Outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz on government duty in Brandenburg in 2018.
Outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz on government duty in Brandenburg back in 2018. Photo: picture alliance / Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka
Germany has officially entered the post-Merkel era with new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Although similar to his predecessor in some ways, Scholz has the potential to be a stronger leader - and embrace change, writes Brian Melican.

“Better the devil you know,” runs the old adage. And when it comes to politics, this is one Germans live by. Having once taken a bet on a charismatic unknown quantity that went apocalyptically wrong, as a country we’ve since opted for stability at every opportunity. That’s why Angela Merkel, like chancellors Kohl and Adenauer before her, remained in power for 16 years. And that’s also why we now have Olaf Scholz as our new Bundeskanzler.

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For while Scholz may be new to the Chancellery, he’s not new to government. In fact, faced with wobbly opponent Armin Laschet, Scholz looked very much the safe pair of hands this September: having been at the Treasury since 2018, he had neither gone on a spending spree nor left the economy to perish during the pandemic.

And his prior record as Mayor of Hamburg is strong: during his seven-year tenure here in the northern German city I call home, he returned the city state’s exchequer to the black, tackled its sub-standard educational performance, and even managed to get its Berlin-airport-style Elbphilharmonie built.

Scholz is aware both of Germans’ desire for continuity and his own reputation for being reliable – or boring even. And his campaign jokingly promoted this image, featuring him doing “Merkel hands” with a clever play on words: Er kann Kanzlerin, which translates literally as “He’s got what it takes to be the next Mrs. Merkel”. That was certainly the intended message. 

The SPD's Olaf Scholz and the CDU's Angela Merkel in the German Bundestag recently.
The SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the CDU’s Angela Merkel in the German Bundestag recently. Scholz will officially become German chancellor on December 9th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

As he continued his Grand Coalition working relationship with Merkel and organised a smooth handover without any bad blood, there’s even a portmanteau doing the rounds: “Scholzel”. Yet, even if they don’t realise it, with Scholz, Germans are getting something really rather different to Merkel. While the two certainly share a pragmatic approach, an unflappable demeanour, and a wry sense of humour, their political philosophies and methods are actually quite contrary. And we can expect to see the differences quite soon.

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Scholz: stronger convictions than Merkel

In terms of political philosophies, Merkel has, since a radical neoliberal manifesto almost cost her electoral victory over Gerhard Schröder in 2005, been a conservative in the truest sense of the word: conserving the status quo has been her priority. It is thus one of the enduring ironies of Merkel’s 16 years in the Chancellery that she has become associated with several far-reaching shifts. They were, however, only executed under duress – and often in contradiction to the conservative policies with which she won elections. After all, nobody voting for Merkel’s CDU in 2005, 2009, or 2013 endorsed manifesto pledges to bin nuclear reactors, can conscription, or welcome a million migrants. 

Indeed, Merkel herself probably had little idea she would enact any of these policies – and likely didn’t want to. Just months before becoming “Mama Merkel” in 2015, she was on television coolly explaining her party’s hard-line stance on migration to a tearful Palestinian-born teenager on the verge of deportation. Or take gay marriage: Merkel herself voted against it in the Bundestag, but accepted the plaudits dealt out to her for modernising the CDU. With Germany’s outgoing Chancellor, it’s always been hard to tell where pragmatism ends and opportunism begins.

READ ALSO: An era ends – How will Germany and the world remember Merkel?

Scholz, on the other hand, is a conviction politician whose pragmatism is always in tension with his dogmatism. Dogmatism? Yes – because once Scholz has become convinced that something is right, it takes a lot to prove to him that it may have been wrong. In the early 2000s under Schröder, for instance, Scholz concluded that the Agenda 2010 policies (notably Hartz IV) were the only way to cure Germany’s economic ills; he then defended them so doggedly that he become known as Scholzomat – “Scholz-o-matic” – for robotically delivering verbatim statements about how Germany had to ‘become more competitive, people had to take more responsibility, cont. p.94.’

Indeed, it has taken him 20 years and countless SPD ballot-box defeats to understand that the party can only get back into power by being at least slightly kinder to society’s disadvantaged – and even now, the coalition agreement, although nominally scrapping Hartz IV sanctions, does not envision a wholesale reform of the system: there will be no steep rises in unemployment benefits, no complete removal of coercive measures, and certainly no universal basic income. The left of the party is unimpressed, but has little choice but to celebrate the small successes and blame the FDP.

READ ALSO: Scholz names Germany’s first gender-equal cabinet

On the positive side, Scholz’ unchanging convictions create the ideal environment for long-term systemic change: it is hard to imagine Scholz, like Angela Merkel, opting to reverse the phase-out of nuclear power in the late 2000s only to re-reverse after Fukushima in 2011. Scholz is no environmentalist, but is convinced that Germany needs to get the green energy transition right – and that this means providing lasting legislative framework and sustained funding to actually get it done.

Green co-leader Robert Habeck, incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and FDP leader Christian Lindner after signing the coalition agreement on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Track record for stronger leadership

This takes us on to the second point where, for all their prima facie similarity, Scholz and Merkel could not be more different. In Hamburg, Scholz became remembered for his uncomplicated relationship to hierarchies, telling the city’s SPD party conference that “if you want leadership from me, you’ll get it”.

Scholz has more class (and more sense) than to openly criticise a predecessor with whom he worked so well, but he has made clear how his approach differs in inaugural interviews over the last week. Talking to Die Zeit about how he intends to tackle the Covid crisis, for example, he underscored his willingness to speak to citizens directly if the situation demanded it – a well-packaged (and wholly justified) barb at how Angela Merkel, having addressed the nation to such effect in March 2020, then retreated into her Zoom bunker for various performative late-night slanging matches with the heads of state.

Both in immediate coronavirus policy and in wider matters of social, economic, and ecological reform over the coming four years, we can expect to see far stronger leadership from Olaf Scholz than with Angela Merkel, but with all of the same unruffled reliability. While I did not agree with all of Scholz’ policies in Hamburg, and have my doubts about how he views some major issues facing us, it’s still a combination that I personally am looking forward to. “Better the Scholzel you know”, says the German in me.


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