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POLITICS

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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POLITICS

‘A good thing’ for footballers to express values, says France’s PM

France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne - speaking in Berlin - said that footballers should be allowed to express their values, amid controversy over FIFA's stance against the 'OneLove' armband on the pitch.

'A good thing' for footballers to express values, says France's PM

“There are rules for what happens on the field but I think it’s a good thing for players to be able to express themselves on the values that we obviously completely share, while respecting the rules of the tournament,” said Borne at a press conference in Berlin on Friday.

Germany’s players made headlines before Wednesday’s shock loss to Japan when the team lined up for their pre-match photo with their hands covering their mouths after FIFA’s threat to sanction players wearing the rainbow-themed armband.

Seven European nations, including Germany, had previously planned for their captains to wear the armband, but backed down over FIFA’s warning.

Following Germany’s action, Wales and the Netherlands have since come out to say they would not mirror the protest.

Borne’s visit to Germany was her first since she was named to her post in May.

Following talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the two leaders signed an agreement for “mutual support” on “guaranteeing their energy supplies”.

Concrete measures outlined in the deal include France sending Germany gas supplies as Berlin seeks to make up for gaping holes in deliveries from Russia.

Germany meanwhile would help France “secure its electricity supplies over winter”, according to the document.

France had since 1981 been a net exporter of electricity to its neighbours because of its nuclear plants. But maintenance issues dogging the plants have left France at risk of power cuts in case of an extremely cold winter.

The two leaders also affirmed their countries’ commitment to backing Ukraine “to the end of” its conflict with invaders Russia.

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