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German government’s new term kicks off with Covid talks and diplomacy

With a major meeting on the pandemic and debut appearances in Paris and Brussels, Germany's new Chancellor Olaf Scholz andnhis team hit the ground running on their first day in office Thursday.

Olaf Scholz and Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Chancellor Olaf Scholz receives his formal documentation after he is sworn in by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Bellevue Palace on Wednesday, December 8th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Von Jutrczenka

After a ceremony-laden day marking the handover from Angela Merkel, Scholz is due to sit down with regional leaders of Germany’s 16 states to discuss whether further curbs are needed to stop runaway Covid infections.

With intensive care beds filling up and new variant Omicron adding to fears, Scholz’s coalition of his Social Democrats, the ecologist Greens and the liberal FDP was already dragged into fighting the pandemic before being sworn in.

Underlining the “deadly serious” situation, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had during Wednesday’s investiture ceremony pointedly urged Scholz to “ensure that the pandemic does not keep us firmly in its grip for another year”.

Scholz, 63, has already called for Germany to follow Austria’s example and introduce mandatory jabs, pushed by Germany’s stagnating inoculation rate.

But he may have many more tough decisions to make.

Scholz “stands before a difficult chancellorship”, said the Tagesspiegel daily, noting that the pandemic was not just a epidemiological emergency but also leading to bitter divisions in society.

READ ALSO: Five challenges facing Germany’s new government

“Debates are being conducted in an adamant fashion, camps are being formed that are hardly building any bridges to others,” it said, noting that it “would come down to the chancellor” to resolve the bitter divides.

While staying at home to fight the major fire, Scholz will also be taking his first step onto the world stage, via a virtual Summit for Democracy organised by the United States.

‘Lynchpin’

Scholz is no stranger to the diplomatic circuit, having been state premier of Hamburg when the city played host to the G20 summit and also having served as finance minister in Merkel’s cabinet over the last four years.

While he has pledged continuity, international observers will be closely watching for any shifts in tone given the switch from a conservative led government after 16 years to a centre-left-led alliance.

Scholz will head to Paris on Friday for his first official visit, where he is to meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

He will then travel on to Brussels for talks with EU leaders and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

But ahead of him, his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens was already making her debut appearances in both key European capitals on Thursday.

“Europe is the lynchpin for our foreign policy,” Baerbock said in a statement. “We will not seek to pursue our ideas and interests… at the cost of” Germany’s neighbours, she added.

Baerbock, who is Germany’s first woman foreign minister, has pledged to take a tougher line with authoritarian states like Russia and China after the business-driven pragmatism of Merkel’s era.

Annalena Baerbock
Annalena Baerbock is greeted by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on a trip to Paris on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

And the first signs of friction within the freshly minted government could well arise from here, as Scholz has so far taken a cautious tone on issues such as the US’ diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Even as Baerbock was about to embark on her trips, Scholz appeared to assert his authority over her portfolio.

Asked at a TV interview on Wednesday if Baerbock or he will determine foreign policy, Scholz said that “we will act together as a government – and that starts with the head of government”.

That may appear obvious. But as Spiegel noted, “given the differing views within the coalition, the statement is significant”.

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

By Hui Min Neo

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TRAVEL NEWS

Germany approves €9 public transport ticket for summer

It's official - people in Germany will get cheap public transport for three months this summer after the €9 ticket was approved.

Germany approves €9 public transport ticket for summer

As part of a host of energy relief measures to cushion the cost of living crisis, the German government is offering cheap public transport for the months of June, July and August. 

Monthly tickets will be available at a price of €9 (or €27 for all three months) and they will allow people to use all buses, trains and trams in local and regional transport throughout the country.

So even if people buy the ticket in Munich, they will also be able to use local and regional buses, trains and trams elsewhere in Germany, whether it’s Hamburg or Cologne. 

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

The ticket will not be valid, however, on long-distance transport such as ICE trains or Flixbus.

The offer was put together by the coalition government – made of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the FDP.

The Bundestag voted for the initiative on Thursday, agreeing to give federal states a subsidy of €2.5 billion to fund the project. 

And on Friday, the Bundesrat – the upper house of parliament that represents the states – gave the green light to the ticket, paving the way for it to begin on June 1st. 

States had wanted an extra €1.5 billion funding boost to deal with lost revenue, however it would have been hugely controversial if they had blocked it.

READ ALSO: German states threaten to block the €9 ticket in the Bundesrat

During a debate on Thursday, federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) said the €9 project was “already a success”.

“All of Germany is talking about local public transport,” he said, adding that it is also being viewed with interest abroad. 

READ ALSO: ‘Fantastic’: Your verdict on Germany’s €9 ticket

The Left party (Die Linke) voted in favour of the €9 ticket, but leader Bernd Riexinger said he thought the plan didn’t go far enough. “Three months is simply too little,” he said.

The opposition, however, slammed the move. Christian Democrat Michael Donth called it an “expensive experiment”.

Rail operator Deutsche Bahn will offer the ticket for sale as early as Monday. Local public transport providers across the country are also preparing their ticket machines for the initiative. It will also be available in travel centres.

People with subscriptions to local transport will automatically benefit from the offer. 

In some regions, such as Stuttgart and Freiburg, the ticket is already available for purchase.

READ ALSO: How to get a hold of the €9 ticket in Berlin

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