Post-Merkel Germany sets new 2022 course at helm of G7

Olaf Scholz's government will take on the global governance club's presidency focused on climate change and Covid-19

Activists portraying themselves as Olaf Scholz, left, and Angela Merkel, right, accuse Germany's government of burning the Earth. AFP

Germany will enter unfamiliar territory in 2022 as it takes on an array of challenges including coronavirus, climate change and the presidency of the G7 without its veteran crisis manager Angela Merkel.

Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Mrs Merkel as chancellor in early December, will have his leadership skills further put to the test by tense relations with Russia and friction within the EU.

He will have to hold together an untried coalition of Social Democrats, liberals and environmentalists with different instincts on fighting the virus and tackling climate change.

With climate action becoming ever more urgent, the Green party leaders in the new government will be under pressure to deliver on their ambitious environmental promises — but with their budget closely guarded by the liberals.

G7 presidency

Germany is taking over the presidency of the G7 from Britain, meaning Mr Scholz will host the leaders of the world’s premier democracies at a high-stakes summit in June.

Mr Scholz brings officials with him from the finance ministry who helped him guide a tax reform through the G20, but some of his cabinet have no national or international governing experience.

“This is a situation seldom seen, that a new government comes in and is immediately to pick up the leadership of a global governance club like the G7,” said Adolf Kloke-Lesch, a former German development official and a co-chairman of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

“With most of the ministers new in their role, there will be a lot of path-finding. All of them realise that this is not a time to wait for next year. You are in charge, and it's a huge opportunity to show what you stand for.”

As one of three EU members in the club, Germany will have to prevent post-Brexit tensions with Britain from clouding the summit as they did last summer. Berlin also plans to use the G7 to promote multilateralism and push for international climate action.

“A G7 presidency can only go so far, so that is only a step in a process. What the G7 should do is to really follow through their own commitments they made at Cop in Glasgow," said Mr Kloke-Lesch.

"Secondly, to make sure that those who have not joined coalitions of the willing at Cop maybe join these coalitions. What I always deem important is that the G7, similar to the G20, have to work on supporting other countries in delivering climate policies."

Mr Scholz has spoken warmly of US President Joe Biden’s agenda of rallying the world’s democracies against increasing threats.

But Mr Kloke-Lesch cautioned against using the G7 an ideological bloc that could drive countries into the camp of adversaries.

“If we try to shape the world along a historic struggle between the West and evil — that is leading to nothing,” he said.

“We should follow a way that helps all countries to move forward with democracy. In the end, that’s also better for promoting democracy, because if you push others into the camp of non-democracies, then you have a problem.”

Angela Merkel attended her last G7 summit in June in Cornwall, England. EPA

Foreign policy

Beyond rallying the G7, Mr Scholz will have to deal with other global problems, such as Russia's military manoeuvres, China's growing might and the future of the Iran nuclear deal.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has signalled a harder line on Moscow and Beijing, but there were early signs of tension when Mr Scholz indicated that he would seek to jointly drive foreign policy from the chancellery.

There was much dissatisfaction during the election campaign over how little the candidates spoke, and were asked, about foreign policy.

In the coalition agreement, “the question of transformation is given much more space and much more weight than the question of foreign and security policy,” said international relations expert Constanze Stelzenmueller.

“The key security policymakers in this government … are all inexperienced in questions of traditional foreign and security policy. I suspect politics has lessons in store for them that will come at them very quickly.”

Climate change

Revamping Germany’s economy to make it carbon-neutral by 2045 is one of the central missions of the new government, with the world looking to Europe's richest country to set an example.

It plans to expand renewable energy, ensure a minimum carbon price and bring forward the end of coal power to as close to 2030 as possible.

Deadlines will start to loom in 2022, when Germany switches off its last nuclear power plants, raising the pressure to find low-carbon alternatives. The final agreement at the Cop26 summit urged countries to strengthen their 2030 climate targets by the end of the coming year.

The main responsibility falls to the Green party and its co-leader Robert Habeck, who is heading up an economy and climate “super-ministry”.

He will have to navigate potential trade-offs, such as a race to build electric vehicles which could lead to job losses in Germany’s flagship car industry.

But with many issues set to be decided at EU or international level, Ms Baerbock, another Green minister, will help drive the government’s approach.

Fridays for Future climate activists throng around Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg as she visits Berlin. EPA

Some contentious decisions, such as an end to petrol car sales, were essentially sidestepped in the coalition agreement by leaving them in the hands of the EU and its Fit for 55 climate agenda.

Mr Scholz’s government “will use the G7 forum, and it will also be a much different player in Brussels for the ongoing EU legislation,” said Arne Jungjohann, a political scientist and former Green party aide.

“You can imagine that if Robert Habeck is there as Germany’s energy minister during the Fit for 55 negotiations, or the questions about the role of natural gas, Germany will take a much more different stance than it used to.”

Mr Jungjohann said potential trade-offs between climate and economy would now be thrashed out within Mr Habeck’s ministry, potentially making action easier.

He said Mr Habeck was considered a pragmatist who might be able to avoid confrontation with the private sector.

“I think German industry is not afraid of an economics minister of the Greens, or in particular of this one,” he said. “Twenty years ago, this would have been unthinkable.”

Coronavirus

The pandemic was a relatively minor topic when the parties began coalition talks, but they took office in the midst of Germany’s most severe outbreak yet.

Mr Scholz brought in an army general to lead a crisis task force in the chancellery and set a target of a million vaccinations per day. MPs are expected to vote in the new year on a nationwide vaccine mandate, a controversial proposal supported by Mr Scholz.

Even before the Omicron variant caused a fresh wave of concern, hospitals were filling up with virus patients in hard-hit regions. But tougher restrictions would go against the FDP’s liberal instincts and risk unpopularity at the start of the new government’s term.

Updated: January 3rd 2022, 11:02 AM