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‘Where is Scholz?’: Germany’s new chancellor under fire

Two months into the job, the honeymoon is already over for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with critics accusing him of being "invisible" on the Ukraine crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz attends a meeting at the chancellery
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) attends a meeting at the chancellery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Kay Nietfeld

The hashtag #woistscholz (“Where is Scholz?”) is doing the rounds on Twitter, and some say the famously taciturn politician needs to start speakng up.

Scholz was sworn in as chancellor on December 8 after leading his Social Democrats (SPD) to a sensational election win, ending 16 years in power for Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

But a Forsa survey this week showed the SPD behind Merkel’s CDU-CSU in the polls for the first time since the election — on 23 percent compared with 27 percent for the conservative bloc, which is now the main opposition party.

Scholz himself, feted for winning the September 26th election with a campaign that played on his calm demeanour and meticulous approach, is also seeing his popularity wane.

In a recent survey by public broadcaster ZDF on Germany’s most popular politicians, Scholz found himself lagging behind Merkel — who has retired from politics — and Health Minister Karl Lauterbach.

 ‘Scholzomat’

Scholz, who will fly to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden on Monday, has long been known for his understated style.

He was once dubbed “Scholzomat” for his dry, robotic speeches.

READ ALSO: Olaf Scholz: Germany’s staid but steady next chancellor

Merkel was hardly known for her media presence or rousing speeches, but Scholz “seems to want to surpass her in the art of disappearance”, according to Der Spiegel weekly, which accused him of being “almost invisible, inaudible”.

“The way the chancellor speaks and communicates seems inappropriate,” political scientist Ursula Muench told AFP.

“He is heard and seen very little, and when he does speak, he often does so in riddles and not in a clear and pointed manner as required by the current media world,” she said.

Though Scholz makes a habit of thanking journalists for their questions at press conferences, he often avoids answering the questions directly.

The chancellor may be trying to create an impression of “professionalism and seriousness” in a media environment “where everyone speaks and comments on everything”, according to Münch.

But if concrete results come too slowly or not at all, his “can-do” image — so skilfully harnessed during the election campaign — could be in danger.

“Telling people ‘You can rely on me, I am experienced and I know what I am doing’ is simply not enough in a pandemic or an international crisis,” political scientist Hajo Funke told AFP.

Scholz’s communication style leaves “a lot of room for improvement”, he believes.

‘Communication disaster’

Germany had vaccinated just 75.8 percent of its population against the coronavirus by the end of January, falling short of an 80 percent goal set by Scholz’s government.

Compulsory vaccination, first mooted by Scholz last year with a view to implementation by February or March, has still not been voted on in parliament and is looking an increasingly remote prospect.

Olaf Scholz attends a meeting at the chancellery

Olaf Scholz attends a meeting at the chancellery. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Kay Nietfeld

Meanwhile, numbers of Covid-19 cases have soared to more than 100,000 cases a day, with a shortage of PCR tests adding to the country’s woes.

Europe’s biggest economy has also come under fire for its role in the Ukraine crisis, with some feeling Berlin is being too soft on Moscow.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron, who has had several phone conversations with Vladimir Putin, and Britain’s Boris Johnson, who travelled to Kyiv on Tuesday, Scholz has muddled his response with unclear statements and fluctuating positions.

Germany has also been criticised for its refusal to send weapons to Ukraine, though it did suggest sending 5,000 helmets instead — “a disaster in terms of communication”, according to Münch.

The pro-Russian stance of some Social Democrats, including former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has also done nothing to ease the problem.

By Mathieu Foulkes

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POLITICS

‘Russia must not win this war,’ says Germany’s Scholz

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged once again to stand with Ukraine against Russia - but said Ukraine's bid to join the EU cannot be sped up.

'Russia must not win this war,' says Germany's Scholz

Scholz said the war in Ukraine was the greatest crisis facing the EU in its history, but that solidarity was strong. 

“We are all united by one goal: Russia must not win this war, Ukraine must prevail,” Scholz said in the speech to the Bundestag on Thursday.

Putin thinks he can use bombs to dictate the terms for peace, the SPD politician said. 

“He’s wrong. He was wrong in judging the unity of Ukrainians, and the determination of our alliances. Russia will not dictate peace because the Ukrainians won’t accept it and we won’t accept it.”

Scholz said it was only when Putin understands that he cannot break Ukraine’s defence capability that he would “be prepared to seriously negotiate peace”.

For this, he said, it is important to strengthen Ukraine’s defences. 

Scholz also pledged to help cut Europe free from its reliance on Russian energy. 

The Chancellor welcomed the accession of Finland and Sweden to Nato. “With you at our side, Nato, Europe will become stronger and safer,” he said.

However, Scholz dampened expectations for Ukraine’s quick accession to the EU.

“There are no shortcuts on the way to the EU,” Scholz said, adding that an exception for Ukraine would be unfair to the Western Balkan countries also seeking membership.

“The accession process is not a matter of a few months or years,” he said.

Scholz had in April called for Western Balkan countries’ efforts to join the EU to be accelerated amid a “new era” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last October, EU leaders at a summit in Slovenia only reiterated their “commitment to the enlargement process” in a statement that disappointed the six candidates for EU membership — Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – who had hoped for a concrete timetable.

“For years, they have been undertaking intensive reforms and preparing for accession,” Scholz said on Thursday.

“It is not only a question of our credibility that we keep our promises to them. Today more than ever, their integration is also in our strategic interest,” he said.

The chancellor said he would be attending the EU summit at the end of May “with the clear message that the Western Balkans belong in the European Union”.

Scholz also called for other ways to help Ukraine in the short term, saying the priority was to “concentrate on supporting Ukraine quickly and pragmatically”.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has also said it will take “decades” for a candidate like Ukraine to join the EU, and suggested building a broader political club beyond the bloc that could also include Britain.

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