Olaf Scholz’s Germany: reaffirmation of the transatlantic bonds and showdown with the Polish leaders

The threat of Polexit causes disturbance in the force in Brussels and will be one of the first challlenges for forthcoming German chancellor Olaf Scholz (source: screenshot)

Konrad Watrin – former DPA journalist and current professor of history and social sciences, speaks about the various internal and external challenges before the future government of Olaf Scholz

Cross-border Talks

The ongoing German coalition negotiations between the German Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Free Democratic Party are expected to lead to the formation of a government in the first one-two weeks of December 2021. Most likely, it will be led by the leader of the social democrats and former financial minister Olaf Scholz. His party already announced  an ambitious programme for raising the medium salary. But it will face a number of internal and foreign challenges. What is to be expected?

Cross-border Talks invited Konrad Watrin – an experienced journalist and professor, in order to hear a thoughtful and considerate viewpoint. 

The interview with Konrad Watrin took place on 29 October 2021

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hello, everybody! Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks. We are now going to Germany not that late after the German elections. We will discuss the process of official formation of the German government as the German elections are the ones that all Europe is interested in. They can determine not only politics inside Germany, but also influence the directions of European politics. This is why we are making this episode to explain why the Germans vote the way they vote –  and who has the greatest chance to lead the country in the following years. What would be consequences for German neighbours, for Europe and for the world?

Once again, welcome to Cross-border Talks! Don’t forget to subscribe to our channel. And now Vladimir is going to present our guest.

Vladimir Mitev: Our interlocutor today is Konrad Watrin. He’s a former journalist and also a foreign correspondent. He used to be a foreign correspondent in Cairo. His Ph.D. deals with international politics in the Middle East. He also has the career of educator: professor at the university or high school. So he’s very fluent on any social and political matters related to Germany and international relations.

Welcome to the program and let us start first with the current situation! There are ongoing coalition negotiations and they already seem to be acquiring a certain shape. We know who will be the next chancellor and we know the most likely elements of this coalition in terms of parties. What should we know about Olaf Scholz? Which are the other strong persons or politicians? And which are the important policies which will be applied by the expected new government?

Konrad Watrin: These are a lot of questions.

The first most important answer for Europe is that Germans are pretty much aware of how important this government and this election was for the whole of Europe. We can say about Olaf Scholz the same that could be said about Angela Merkel. So not very much would change. Not very much. Except of course, that he’s building the government with different parties than before. The Social Democrats are the same. The Greens are a bit more left wing, but also a bit more conservative to certain degrees and the liberals are in the center. We don’t really quite know where they are because they don’t have very outright programs. They mainly have only one program, which means as little taxation as possible. And that’s it, basically. But still, they are a very important stabilizing factor.

And so what I think of Olaf Scholz?

He won’t change the policy of Angela Merkel very much. What the Germans voted for was security. This is easily explained from German history. We love to see the new faces, but we didn’t really want to have a change. It’s as simple as that. Given the options we had, I think what is going on now is the best solution we could get. To get into the intricacies of domestic policy would take too long, and it’s a very contradictory situation.

Olaf Scholz, in essence, actually, he is a conservative pragmatist. The danger for his government could be that he could cross with his own party very soon, and it will depend on the Greens if they proclaim, if they’d like to follow more radical policies, he’ll have problems. But the major problems will probably derive from his own party. 

I would like to remind you that we once had a chancellor, called Helmut Schmidt. He, in my mind, was the best chancellor Germany had, apart from Konrad Adenauer, who governed immediately after the war. In the end he had Schmidt had to run his government against his own party. And that was the background. At the time of the early 80s was the Soviet rearmament, and his party was more or less pacifist. He was the one who directed even in the news that the United States and the whole West, the whole NATO’s to rearm with new rockets. Otherwise, the Cold War would not have been decided the way it did. And that was maybe the last time, I think in history and in recent history that there was a political lead.

After that we ran into a domestic policy situation in which, well, democratically elected governments try to fulfill the desire of the people. OK, Angela Merkel was fantastic. She was absolutely correct in this regard. Her approach: just listen to the polls and do not go one step further. Otherwise, you could easily lose control of the situation and so don’t risk too much. It’s much too early still to judge about the long reign of Angela Merkel. It depends actually with which foot you get up. Sometimes I get up with my left foot and then say: “Wow, incredible achievement what she did, she held Europe together’. The next day I wake up with my right foot and it says: “Well, there’s so much to be done. And she didn’t even try it. We don’t have an army. We don’t have a stand in the world. We, as Europe are falling apart, et cetera, et cetera, the problems are gigantic and nothing has been solved”. So it’s very difficult to judge that. 

Basically, however, Olaf Scholz would take the same policy in almost any regard. 

The other important figure, Cristian Lindner – the leader of the Liberal Party will certainly be an important one, but we don’t know yet whether he would be able to get the position of financial secretary or whether he’s going to be foreign minister. There are a few speculations, but that’s not very interesting, actually. Probably the leading figure of the coalition partners will be Robert Habeck, who is the co-leader of the Green Party, who tragically was not chosen as the candidate for the chancellorship because if he would have been the candidate of the Green Party and not an Annalena Baerbock, the young woman who is simply much too inexperienced, the Green Party would have got maybe more than 30 percent. He is very shrewd, very intelligent. He’s a journalist and author. He was already minister in Schleswig-Holstein in North Germany. He’s a very pragmatic, very solid, very clear and intelligent green Politician. Probably he’s going to be the next foreign secretary and vice chancellor of the Republic. 

But as I said at the beginning, it is also who is going to be the next in the second row of the Social Democratic Party. And there you have left-wingers, which might cause problems for Olaf Scholz. This is unclear at the moment. You can’t say it.

Malgorzata: You said that a lot of problems were left unsolved after a long reign of Angela Merkel. There’s a lot of things to be done, and I wanted to ask what would be the main challenges of the new government in domestic policy?

The biggest challenge I see is not the climate crisis. It’s important, but it’s a question for the whole world. The most important is the social question. 

We have social problems in Germany and the consumer power of lots of people, young people, pensioners, common workers with little income. Their consumer power is much too little. And for example, we have more and more pensioners who have to work. I’m still working as a teacher, at the age 70 years. I don’t really have to. I also love to teach, but there are quite a few social problems, I think.

In terms of international policy. It’s quite obvious right now we are maybe at the most important moment in Europe. The decision the Polish government takes now in the quarrel with Brussels will be decisive. It could be that it’s in the hands of Poland and Hungary to split up the whole thing to finish the European Union. I mean, this is a really big problem. Behind this problem is, of course, the fact that we have been relying after the turn of 1989 and 1990, and we were extremely lucky to have a political figure like Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. This enabled us to try and to believe that the same path of reconciliation towards Eastern Europe would be possible, the same path we had since the 1950s, especially in the 1960s with Western Europe. It looked pretty good at the beginning. 

If you remember the days of Helmut Kohl and Tadeusz Mazowiecki… It was a wonderful time and we did as much as we could. And it was a matter of heart for Helmut Kohl and his generation. Also for Angela Merkel, it was. But that was a different time now, and this is gone. This is gone now. 

It’s about national interests – and we can see what’s going on between Britain and France, for example, they are already sending out their warships to protect the fishermen. This is an absurdity which we never thought could happen again. It’s something more than 10 years old. I remember that Angela Merkel and that we believed that this process of European integration is irreversible, irrevocable. It wasn’t true, it is. We might reach a final point. 

And if you look at the numbers of people agreeing to going on in all the countries, you have lots of countries in which the consent to this kind of to this kind of European Union, the way it is structured now is less than 50 percent. And even in Germany, I think it’s slightly more than 50 percent. This is not enough. This is simply not enough. And I’m not sure whether it will hold.

What makes me very happy, what makes me personally very happy is to see that thousands and thousands of Polish people, that civil society in Poland seems to be entirely different from the government. The government represents a clear minority. So we still have hope. We don’t have it any more with Hungary. Hungary has gone the Russian way. And the question is whether we shouldn’t let them go. The problem is we can’t. You can’t kick anybody out. So it’s a very complicated thing to change this, this kind of European Union we have now. And of course, there are many more problems.

What seems to be good is that the transatlantic alliance will be reestablished under Biden, although it’s quite different from the way it used to be 10 years ago. But I think that’s common sense. What does not work at all is that Europe finds an answer to the Chinese challenge. This is very, very embarrassing and I’m really ashamed about the reaction of my country towards this situation. It’s the United States alone, almost alone, together with Australia, etc. who are posing a strong stand against this further. China is taking  a clear neocolonialist way, if you look at Africa, for example. We in Europe are still fighting among small nations, which is a ridiculous game. It’s simply ridiculous and we should not afford that.

Now, given all understanding, I mean, it’s easy to understand countries like Poland and Hungary. They have been independent for just 30 years now. And of course, independence means something more to them than it means to us. We in Western Europe and have realized already 50, 60, 70 years ago that we have to give up part of it at least, so that the East Europeans by signing the European treaties and of course, they are afraid of them anyway. I mean, this is a huge topic.

I don’t see how this problem will be solved at the moment. I’m quite pessimistic, but I’m sure that the government of Olaf Scholz and the Greens and the Liberal Party will try everything they can to keep it together, everything they can. The problem is, how far are you willing to accept breaking of treaties and whether you can give in even more to semi-authoritarian governments like Hungary and Poland, as we did already? I think the best German-language newspaper is Neue Zürcher Zeitung (the new Zurich paper). They have already written in the comment that the so-called community of values is pure fiction. I think this is too negative, but we are definitely approaching that point and we have to make a clear stand where we are. It’s absolutely unacceptable for any country in this type of Europe to repress the media, to put judges into jails and to replace judges and the whole law schools with somebody’s buddies, as is happening in Hungary, for example, and all the processes we saw in the last months in Poland and Hungary, it’s absolutely unacceptable.

So if the Polish government doesn’t find an answer to this, I think this will be it and it’s very tragic. They don’t know. They don’t seem to know that they are going the Russian way. One should make it clear to the Polish people. I think most Polish people know that as far as I see from here, if our reports are correct and we have very good, very free and independent media, I think most Polish people know that and they don’t want it.

Malgorzata: I can say that most Polish people are sure that they want to stay in the European Union and that a majority of Polish people also understands that there should be a link between the rule of law and European funds that Europe was supposed to be a community of values and that you can’t be an authoritarian state at the same time stay in the European Union. So indeed, you are right to say that the Polish government and its policies represent only a minority. You also said that Germany needs to make it clear that the Polish government’s behaviour is unacceptable, and Olaf Schulz will probably do everything in Europe  to keep it together. But what precisely can Poland expect from the German government, Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe?

I think the French president Macron has already taken the first step. He could do that because he is in power. We don’t have that. It would take at least another four to five weeks until we will have a government, then Olaf Scholz would do exactly the same. Ask the Polish to get away with this … 

I forgot the precise terms, what happened with this constitutional change in Poland. But Scholz would certainly insist that Poland should reestablish a democratic society and give back freedom to the press and especially to the juridical sphere of society.

Malgorzata: So the Polish government would have to revoke the so-called judicial reforms.

Yes, definitely. Definitely. There is no chance without that. Otherwise, they will force us to say officially:  OK, then we cut the money because that’s the only thing we can do. 

There is nothing more in the present constitution of Europe, which is based on the Treaty of Lisbon. It has to be reformed. This constitution doesn’t work anymore, but that’s another topic. There’s nothing else we can do. You cannot kick anybody out. You actually cannot really leave. I mean, we’ve seen that circus. We spent four years discussing with the British how to leave. The British alone paid more than two billion pounds for this process of holding conferences, leading to nothing, just to expose Brussels to the point of ridiculousness.

If you see what I mean, just discussing once or twice a month about this process of retreat from Europe for the sake of going home to London and telling the people, well, look, the Europeans don’t want this was so childish what was happening. We can’t afford this anymore. There’s so much going on in Asia, Africa, the Chinese are proceeding and penetrating in military terms. I mean, this is neo colonialism at its best. What’s happening there in comparison to this?

We are having childish fights here in Europe among each other, and there are too many people who have forgotten what European history was like. I mean, there was nothing greater. I don’t know any example greater than the process of European integration that started after 1950. There’s hardly anyone who can imagine what the situation between Germany and France was like before. I mean, this was a so-called arch enemyship. Just imagine someone like Mr Erdogan and Mr Ocalan going to the mosque together, holding hands and preaching peace. Just imagine Netanyahu and Mr Abbas doing the same or Mr Assad and his opponents. And this happened in the European case, and it was miraculous. There’s nothing like this in history. And we are about to forfeit this. We are about to forget this now. 

Now, as I said, already, there are the conflicts between the French and the British about the last two hearings in the channel, and they sent their submarines in order to protect the last British fishermen. This is just absurd. This we can’t afford. We have to unite. We have to stay together. Together, we are not only a population of more than 500 million. Together we are the strongest economy of the world. And if we could do this, if we could focus this in a political way, we would be the number one.

This is also a problem for Germany, because that would mean that and this is the problem we could see clearly in the last, let’s say, about 15-20 years. And it was in particular our American friends, but also the French and and all the others who demanded and even Poland…. I remember foreign minister Radek Sikorski who once said: I’m not afraid of Germany anymore. I’m afraid Germany won’t do anything. 

And this is the other side of Angela Merkel, which I mentioned. I’m not sure whether she did enough in order to strengthen and put Europe on its feet, on its real feet. Now we are having problems because we are afraid it’s always the same game. If any German politician gets up too strongly and his sound is a bit too strong. Of course, they immediately come and play with the old Nazi game. And the problem is, it doesn’t work anymore with the population. It doesn’t work anymore. So we should stop these things and try to take a reasonable way and see pretty good chances Olaf Scholz.

Vladimir: You make a very profound and vast analysis on a number of issues. But I would suggest that we keep also following the developments in all these regards and also keep you somehow related to our podcast in the future because we are now making some call a sketch, but there certainly will be a lot of developments. And on this point, I suggest that we enter the discussion now and have all our looks or sight at what Germany will do in the near future.

Malgorzata: Thank you very much for being with us.

Thank you. Malgorzata and Vladimir, for having me.

Malgorzata: And once again, don’t forget to subscribe to Cross-border Talks. We will be following what happens in Germany, what happens in Europe, what is next with Poland and the European Union’s future? I’ll see you again soon. Thank you.

Thank you. 

Photo: Forthcoming chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz (source: YouTube)

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