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POLITICS

Scholz gets stinging defeat in parliament with Covid jab vote

In a tough week for the government, Germany's Olaf Scholz has suffered a stinging defeat in parliament and renewed criticism over his handling of the Ukraine war.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz
German chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) arrives in the Bundestag for a vote on the vaccine mandate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

The German chancellor suffered a painful defeat in parliament on Thursday, with lawmakers voting down a government-backed proposal for mandatory vaccinations for people above 60.

Scholz, who in late November touted compulsory jabs for all adults as the surest way out of the pandemic, had set a goal of introducing the jabs in “late February or early March”.

But the effort has petered out since, as even some members of the liberal FDP, which is part of Scholz’s coalition, are opposed.

After weeks of wrangling to find a formulation that could win a majority, a government-backed proposal for over-60s to get vaccinated was put to the vote on Thursday.

But only 296 lawmakers voted in favour, while 378 parliamentarians cast their ballots against.

The defeat was all the more embarrassing as the proposal was already significantly watered down to include only those above 60, a smaller group than the originally targeted adult population in general.

READ ALSO: German parliament rejects over-60s vaccine mandate

While Covid infections remain high in Germany, the push for jabs in recent weeks has lost momentum as hospitals have been far from overwhelmed.

Germany has also eased most Covid curbs, including lifting a mask requirement in schools and shops, while the public’s attention has also focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Neighbouring Austria’s decision in March to suspend mandatory jabs for all adults further bolstered the case of those opposed to making vaccinations compulsory.

Around 76 percent of Germany’s population has received two doses of the vaccine, and 58.9 percent have also received the booster.

Opponents of mandatory jabs meanwhile cite individuals’ freedom to choose.

Trying to rally MPs to vote for the government-backed proposal, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said that if the Omicron variant remained dominant, 200 to 300 people will continue to die daily in Germany.

“Do we as a society want to accept that?” asked Lauterbach. “That is not what I would call a humane society.”

‘No leadership role’

With the vote in the balance, the chancellor even got Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to ditch a NATO meeting on Ukraine in Brussels to return to Berlin to cast her ballot at the Bundestag, according to German media reports.

The opposition CDU party immediately slammed the move.

“That honestly is a completely unreasonable signal, also to the world because we’re saying: ‘No, Ukraine is not that important. Germany has no leadership role here,” Paul Ziemiak, the party’s former general secretary lashed out.

Scholz, who took over from Angela Merkel following his party’s surprising win at last year’s general elections, has been under pressure at home and abroad for failing to take on a bigger role in the Ukraine crisis.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Bundestag

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky receives a standing ovation after his address to the Bundestag on March 17th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

While he announced a 180-degree turn in Germany’s foreign and defence policies, with huge spending earmarked for the military, critics say his government is not moving fast enough with arming Ukraine or in punishing Russia with tougher sanctions.

With 55 percent of Germany’s gas imports stemming from Russia before Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Berlin has refused to impose a full embargo on Russian energy.

Scholz’s muted response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s direct appeal to him in parliament in mid-March also sparked an outcry.

READ ALSO: 

In an address to the Bundestag then, Zelensky implored Scholz to “tear down this Wall” that he said Russia was building in Europe.

“Give Germany the leadership role that you in Germany deserve,” he pleaded.

But Scholz did not address parliament immediately afterwards, saying only in a brief tweet that “we feel obliged to do everything we can so that diplomacy has a chance and the war can be stopped.”

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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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