Matthew Karnitschnig – Olaf Scholz’s message to Europe: Germany First

While paying lip service to European solidarity, the chancellor blazes his own trail for his country

Cross-posted from Other News

Originally published on Politico

File:Olaf Scholz press conference (2022-02-15).jpg

Photo: Sergey Guneev / Presidential Executive Office of Russia

As twilight envelopes the German capital, Olaf Scholz stands on the balcony of his chancellery, peering into the distance past a turtlenecked Frenchman gesticulating at his side.

What might sound like the blueprint for a clever caricature was in fact an official photograph of Scholz’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Berlin last week, offering an apposite, if unintentional, metaphor for Scholz’s aloof stance towards the rest of Europe.

With Europe reeling from the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Scholz has paid lip service to solidarity, while blazing his own trail for Germany. Whether the issue concerns arms deliveries to Ukraine or how to cushion the impact of surging natural gas prices, Scholz’s approach has been clear: Germany First.

The shift hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Berlin’s plan to establish a €200 billion emergency fund to subsidize lower gas prices triggered a furious response from some European leaders last week. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even accused Scholz of “egotism” and of “destroying” the single market. The concern is that the German subsidies will give the country’s manufacturers an unfair advantage over industry in other EU countries.

“The richest country, the most powerful EU country is trying to use this crisis to gain a competitive advantage for their businesses on the single market. This is not fair, this is not how the single market should work,” Morawiecki said on the sidelines of an informal EU summit in Prague on Friday.

Though the Polish premier has not been a fan of Scholz’s government even at the best of times, he was not alone. Both Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Estonian leader Kaja Kallas sounded similar concerns, though in more diplomatic language, calling for an EU plan to address the problem.

“We have to find a common solution, otherwise countries with more budgetary flexibility will have an advantage over the others,” Kallas said in Prague.

Scholz defended Berlin’s plans, saying other countries in Europe were pursuing similar steps. Though true, none of those programs comes anywhere near to matching the magnitude of the German proposal.

Going it alone

Yet what worries European leaders more than the particulars of Scholz’s gas fund is the growing tendency of the Continent’s largest player to go it alone on key economic and security questions, which they fear will erode European cohesion.

Even as the German chancellor has spoken grandly of how Russia’s war has “breathed new life into the word solidarity” in Europe, Scholz hasn’t been inhaling.

Within hours of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, for example, Scholz responded by announcing a €100 billion Sondervermögen, a special fund aimed not at European security, but Germany’s.

Similarly, his government’s approach to looming gas and electricity shortages this winter has been squarely focused on Germany, rather than Europe.

Last week, Scholz visited Spain, where he pushed for the completion of new gas pipeline from the Iberian Peninsula to northern Europe to compensate for the supply Germany has lost from Russia. Macron has vociferously opposed the plan, which would traverse French territory, arguing that it doesn’t make economic sense. That view is shared by the European Commission, but the German chancellor is pushing ahead anyway, even exploring whether the project could circumvent France altogether.

One could argue with some merit that Scholz was elected to put his country first — if it weren’t for that fact that the chancellor repeatedly cites the European Union as the fulcrum of his political universe.

In late August, Scholz even traveled to Prague with a planeload of reporters to deliver what was billed as a “landmark speech” on Europe at the city’s storied Charles University.

“Many people have rightly called for a stronger, more sovereign and geopolitical European Union in recent years, for a Union that is aware of its place in the history and geography of this continent and acts strongly and cohesively around the world,” Scholz told his audience. “The historic decisions taken in the past months have brought us closer to this goal.”

In recent days, Scholz has gone even further, intoning Germany’s “special responsibility” to lead, as a major power at the center of Europe.

“We take this responsibility very seriously,” he told Spain’s El País in an interview last week.

Not convinced

The rest of Europe — which has learned to focus on Berlin’s actions rather than its rhetoric — isn’t convinced.

While many European capitals want German coordination (and money), they don’t trust Berlin to lead. Germany’s stubborn pursuit of Russian gas and its quixotic, years-long pursuit of “dialogue” with Moscow in the face of President Vladimir Putin’s repeated transgressions (not to mention Scholz’s refusal to offer Ukraine more robust military support) have robbed Berlin of its credibility, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

Czech Premier Petr Fiala sent a clear signal of what he thinks of his German counterpart’s European aspirations by skipping Scholz’s “landmark” Prague speech altogether.

The cool reception Scholz has received in Europe is just one reason he has retreated inward.

The other is that Germans appear just as frustrated with his leadership as the rest of Europe. The coalition between Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and liberal Free Democrats, was at odds for weeks over how to respond to the surge in energy prices and inflation. The €200 billion package agreed on in the end, aimed at both household and businesses, is remarkable both for its size and because it was undertaken without any consideration for how the rest of Europe would respond.

Yet there’s no sign that Scholz is backing down. His Social Democrats are now in third place, 10 percentage points behind the center-right alliance of Christian Democrats, in POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. Backing away from the package would spell political disaster for his coalition.

That suggests that Europe is likely to remain little more than a rhetorical prop for Scholz, who has been in office for less than a year, as he seeks to revive his domestic political fortunes.

As the full economic impact of Russia’s war began to sink in over the summer, Scholz began invoking Liverpool football club’s famous rallying cry — “You’ll never walk alone.”

If only the same could be said for the German chancellor.

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