Olaf Scholz, who has been the longest-serving member of Germany’s governing coalition, on Wednesday became the favorite to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor. Scholz, 55, who will most likely be one of Merkel’s top aides, has served as the head of the German parliament’s finance committee for the past 16 years. He has the obvious advantage of being aligned with Merkel, Germany’s dominant politician for a decade, but the questions remain as to whether he is prepared to take the helm of a Europe-obsessed, anti-capitalist superpower. After all, he has offered mixed messages.
Among the more complex issues that the next German leader will face: Merkel’s insistence that Greece’s economic woes must be resolved in a more structured manner and that there is no place for public-sector socialism in Germany.
That has not always come without political cost. The harsh criticism of the Greeks and the Germans’ frosty relations at the European summit in October 2012. Merkel, frustrated by the bailout efforts and impatient with Greek prime minister Lucas Papademos’s austerity tactics, let her anger come to the fore and warned Greece that debt reductions will have to be achieved in a more controlled fashion. But what struck many, and most especially America, was the looming specter of a civil war as Greece, mired in double-digit unemployment, undermines everything Papademos has done to reform his economy and take the country out of debt.
When German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of putting Paris and Berlin at loggerheads on the question of Greek debt, many thought that could presage diplomatic trouble.
“Over time,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said, “we are facing a greater danger of a growing disagreement between Germany and the United States.”
Scholz has been at the center of the German deliberations on both the Greek economy and the euro’s long-term survival, but although he has criticized Papademos and Schaeuble, he has been careful to avoid saying anything that could alienate the U.S. Such sensitive issues will be a challenge for any new German leader.
Still, Scholz holds an opportunity to temper the harsh criticism of Greece and the debt crisis. In fact, the aftermath of the talks in October 2012 could have been his chance. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, wants Germany to retain its unique post-war role as a model of economic growth, peace and prosperity. With the EU rapidly expanding its collective economic clout and diversifying its markets, that may no longer be possible. A country like Germany can’t hold that lead indefinitely. But the appetite for such a role, in Germany and abroad, is relatively strong.
Scholz may believe that a dose of Greek nationalism and anti-Semitism could serve Germany well. So when he talks about Greek refugees fleeing violence in the civil war to seek asylum in Germany, it is important to remember that about half of the new arrivals are Muslim. At the same time, it is important to recognize that a great number of the refugees fleeing violence in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s also came to Germany.
Does that mean that we should make a distinction? The simple answer is no. The safety of refugees is a principle that should not be an exception.
Scholz has been a consistent supporter of Greece, but he has always supported the German position of maintaining Greece’s right to make its own economic choices. The current Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, a former social democrat minister, has called Scholz a reliable and experienced voice. Both will be important allies for the next German chancellor, both if the new German leader serves out his term and either Scholz or Merkel is elected chancellor in 2017.