COVID and diplomacy will challenge the German government in 2022 | DW | 01.01.2022

COVID and diplomacy will challenge the German government in 2022 | DW | 01.01.2022


The most important issue facing Germans as 2022 begins is the same as a year ago: the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is one key difference: Back then, the upcoming vaccination campaign still gave hope that the end would soon be in sight.

But one year and well over 100 million vaccine doses later, the number of new infections in Germany is substantially higher than it was at the start of 2021.

In order to get more people to get vaccinated, the government could soon implement a universal vaccine mandate. That would mean politicians across the board would be guilty of breaking a promise, with former Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel, her Social Democrat successor Olaf Scholz and Free Democrat leader Christian Lindner, now finance minister, all previously ruling out such a move.

The measures taken to control the pandemic in Germany have already divided society, in particular into a majority of people who support vaccination and a minority that opposes it.

Ambitious climate plans

The new government of center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) wants to continue the positive momentum when it comes to action on climate change. “Dare more progress” was the title of their coalition agreement, in a nod to former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt’s 1969 motto “Dare more democracy.”

The new government vows to take action to protect the climate through renewable energy sources and preferably a phaseout of coal power earlier than planned — possibly as soon as 2030.

What German voters think of the new government’s plans will determine the outcomes of four state elections coming up in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony. According to recent polls, the resurgence of the Social Democrats after years in decline is expected to continue.

Will the CDU move to the right?

As 2022 begins, the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) are settling into their new role as opposition party and are hoping for a fresh impetus when the new party chairman is officially confirmed in January. Friedrich Merz, 66, won the backing of a majority of the 400,000 party members in December after two failed attempts to take over the post. Merz, the former parliamentary group leader and Merkel’s foe, is a former Blackrock CEO and staunchly conservative. He is expected to steer the CDU to the right. 

When it comes to choosing Germany’s largely ceremonial head of state in February, continuity can be expected. Current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from the SPD, would like to remain in the role. His chances look good — so far nobody else has expressed an interest in taking over, and the current governing parties have a majority in the special assembly made up of members of the Bundestag and representatives from the 16 states that elects the next president.

In terms of foreign policy, 2022 could be Germany’s time to shine, above all during its presidency of the G7 — though “shining” might be the wrong word to use in a time of intensifying crisis. Russian aggression toward Ukraine and China’s new confidence will pose major foreign policy challenges.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Green Party, has signaled she will take a different approach to that of Merkel’s government when it comes to China. She wants to pursue a values-based foreign policy and be more vocal on issues of human rights in totalitarian states.

But political scientist Johannes Varwick from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) predicts Baerbock will “soon feel the constraints of the office and the pressure of realpolitik. I see this especially in the question of whether human rights can really be taken as the ultimate benchmark for foreign policy action,” he said.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems to want to continue the reserved foreign policy approach of his predecessor. “There needs to be cooperation in the world, also with governments that are vastly different to ours,” he told German public broadcaster ZDF after he had taken office in mid-December.

In this context, it will be interesting to see whether the new government will stand alongside US President Joe Biden and be drawn into a stronger confrontation with China.

Henning Hoff from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) said Germany needs to “stop worrying that Germany’s industry has no future without the Chinese market, and adopt a much stronger, more strategic stance and deal with China as a systemic rival.”

On Russia, Hoff suggested using “the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to put pressure on Moscow: to halt the project if there is any aggression toward Ukraine.”

As far as Europe is concerned, the coalition agreement lays out the long-term goal of the EU developing into a “federal European state,” or the so-called United States of Europe. Such high-flying ideas have not been heard in a long time. At the same time, the new government in Berlin is calling for a comparatively liberal asylum and refugee policy, also at the European level, which may prove difficult to achieve.

More EU unity and refugees are “hot potato” issues — that was made clear late last year in two EU countries that hold particular importance for Germany: Poland and France. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), said the new German government’s policies endanger the sovereignty of European countries. 

France traditionally has a close partnership with Germany, but the two countries don’t see eye to eye on some crucial issues. France will hold its presidential election in April, with the main campaign topic being unwanted immigration. President Emmanuel Macron wants to use France’s six-month turn at the EU’s rotating presidency to secure the bloc’s external borders, something that is not a priority for the Berlin coalition. 

Political analyst Hoff considers the “European policy ambitions” of the new German government not only right, but necessary. “If the EU wants to become more sovereign and confident — and it must if it wants to endure — it will not be able to avoid further restructuring,” he said.

But Varwick rejects the goal of a federal European state as unrealistic. “That will quickly come unstuck in the face of European political realities. No one in Europe really wants it,” he said. Instead, he commended the concept of “servant leadership” for Europe that is also to be found in the coalition agreement: “Because that is about using Germany’s power and influence in a way that does not trigger defensive reflexes, but instead opens room to maneuver.”

Following in Merkel’s footsteps

Former Chancellor Merkel had an especially important role on the global diplomatic stage and an absolute leading role in European politics. Will Scholz want to follow in her footsteps — and will he be able to?

Hoff pointed out that Scholz has shown the important leadership qualities of “prudence and a solutions-oriented pragmatism.”

Varwick, meanwhile, believes Scholz “cannot compete with the experience of Angela Merkel.” However, he added, Germany carries great political weight regardless of who is chancellor. Scholz, “with his unpretentious, conciliatory nature, seems a fitting successor to the ‘eternal chancellor,'” he said.

This text has been translated from German.

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.


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