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5 Things to Know about Germany’s New Leadership

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For more than 15 years, former German chancellor Angela Merkel was a fixture in world politics. She was the first woman chancellor of Germany—known for her rationality, practicality, and iconic Merkel-Raute. Having announced in 2018 that she would not to seek a fifth term as chancellor, Merkel ensured that Germany’s 2021 federal election would usher in a new era of leadership for the country. Last week, politician Olaf Scholz was sworn in as the new chancellor, and a coalition government has been solidified. We asked SIS professor Garret Martin, co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center, to share with us five things to know about Germany’s new leadership.

  1. On December 8, 2021, Olaf Scholz formally took over as chancellor of Germany, effectively marking the end of Angela Merkel’s sixteen years in office. Scholz, a career politician and a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), had most recently served as Merkel’s minister of finance in a coalition government between Christian Democrats and the SPD. Scholz led his party to a plurality of seats in the September 2021 federal election, giving him the opportunity to try to establish a coalition government.

  2. After a little less than two months of negotiation, Scholz’s SDP reached a coalition agreement on November 24 with two other parties, the environmentalist Greens (Alliance 90/The Greens) and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). While coalitions are very normal in Germany, as part of the consensus style of politics, this is the first time these three parties will be working together. This government is nicknamed the traffic-light coalition because of the parties’ traditional colors (red for SPD, yellow for FDP, and green for environmentalists).

  3. Scholz is coming into office in a particularly challenging position. Aside from having very large shoes to fill as Merkel’s successor, he will have to navigate a large coalition with partners at odds over issues such as fighting climate change or fiscal rules in Europe. Moreover, Germany is in the midst of a serious fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with lower vaccination rates than some of its neighbors, while the economy is showing signs of slower recovery than Germany’s Eurozone counterparts.

  4. The international stage will likely present some equally difficult questions for the new government, especially in determining the degree to which Scholz should follow or depart from his predecessor’s foreign policy approach. Annalena Baerbock, the co-leader of the Greens and Germany’s new foreign minister, is calling for a more values-based approach and a tougher line toward Russia and China. But Germany’s economy remains very connected to that of China, raising fears of the costs of a more hawkish line.

  5. Finally, the new government will also have to navigate the internal dynamics of the transatlantic partnership. Scholz, as many of his predecessors had done, went to Paris for his first visit abroad as chancellor. While the coalition is supportive of France’s goal of greater strategic autonomy for Europe, it would not approve of the efforts if those sought greater independence from the United States. Conversely, Scholz is keen to repair ties with the US after the tumultuous Trump years. But the two countries are at odds over several issues, especially the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.