fb-pixel Skip to main content

Germany gets a new government, embarking on post-Merkel era

Annalena Baerbock (left) and Robert Habeck, co-leaders of the Green Party, during a news conference to present the details of the new coalition, in Berlin on Wednesday. Olaf Scholz is set to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor after forging an unprecedented alliance that aims to revamp Europe's largest economy by tackling climate change and promoting digital technologies.Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg

BERLIN — After 16 years under Angela Merkel, German leaders Wednesday announced a new government with a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz — a long-awaited return to power for the center-left, in a coalition that faces immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, the economy, and foreign relations close to home and across the globe.

The coalition will face internal tensions, as well, combining Scholz’s Social Democrats with the progressive Greens and the probusiness Free Democrats. Leaders of all three stepped in front of the cameras Wednesday to announce a 177-page governing deal they had negotiated under strict secrecy since shortly after the Sept. 26 election.

Advertisement



Sharing a stage Wednesday, the party leaders acknowledged their differences but said they had found enough common ground to push forward with plans to beat back the pandemic, increase investment in digital and climate infrastructure, raise the minimum wage, and put Germany on a path to quit coal and expand renewable energy to 80 percent by 2030.

“We are united in a belief in progress and that politics can do good,” Scholz said at a joint news conference. “We are united in the will to make the country better, to move it forward and to keep it together.”

All three parties’ executive bodies or memberships will have to approve the document before Scholz and his new Cabinet can be sworn in. That is expected to take place by the second week of December.

It is the end of an era for a nation and for an entire continent.

For more than a decade, Merkel has been not just chancellor of Germany but also, with her longevity and her steady, straightforward style, the leader, in effect, of Europe. She steered her country — which has Europe’s largest economy by far — and the continent through successive crises, and became an indispensable voice in defense of liberal democracy in the face of far-right movements and rising autocracy in Europe and elsewhere.

Advertisement



Scholz, 63, campaigned as the candidate of continuity.

For three of Merkel’s four terms, his Social Democrats were part of coalitions led by the chancellor’s center-right Christian Democrats, and for the past four years he has been her finance minister. Terse, well-briefed and abstaining from any gesture of triumph, Scholz not only sounded during the campaign like the departing chancellor, he also seemed to embody her aura of stability and calm, to the point of holding his hands together in her signature diamond shape.

“The new government will essentially be one of continuity, not change,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg Bank. “All those who were hoping that this would be the start of something completely different will be disappointed.”

But Scholz, a former mayor of Hamburg, will take office with neither the stature nor the clout of his predecessor. His party won less than 26 percent of the vote, the weakest first-place finish in modern German history, winning by a narrow margin and forcing Scholz to stitch together a potentially fractious coalition.

In one key concession, according to a person close to the coalition talks, the finance ministry will go to the Free Democrats, most likely the party’s leader, Christian Lindner, a fiscal conservative who has ruled out tax increases and could serve as a brake on the new government’s boldest ambitions — especially those of the Greens, who campaigned on revolutionizing the economy to fight global warming.

Advertisement



One of the Greens’ two coleaders, Robert Habeck, will run a new superministry combining the economy and climate, the person said, and the other co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, will be foreign minister, the first woman in Germany to hold that post.

“It’s typical for Germany: It’s change and continuity in one,” Cem Özdemir, a prominent lawmaker for the Greens, said of the coalition treaty.

The new government will have to deal with the surging COVID-19 pandemic, an area where the coalition’s shifting positions have already undermined public confidence. It allowed the federal government’s emergency powers to deal with the pandemic to expire and ruled out another lockdown — until a spike in cases forced an inglorious retreat to tougher measures.

“They don’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation,” said Michael Meyer-Hermann, head of the systems immunology department at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research, who has advised Merkel throughout the pandemic.

On foreign policy, the new government will face the threat of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Belarus’s attempts to create a migrant crisis for its Western neighbors, and pressure from the United States to be more confrontational with China, an increasingly vital trading partner for Germany.

It will also have to address tensions within the European Union over the illiberal drift of Hungary and Poland, member states accused of violating the bloc’s democratic standards and principles, and over questions of closer integration and French calls for a joint defense policy less dependent on US protection. Scholz’s first foreign visit will be to President Emmanuel Macron in France, who faces his own difficult election campaign next year.

Advertisement



The coalition agreement among the three parties lays out in excruciating detail the policies of the new government, one of the traditions of Germany’s postwar, consensus-driven politics. Every government of the reunified Germany and of West Germany before it, dating to 1949, has been a coalition.

Such agreements, although not legally binding, serve as a way to ensure that members are all on the same page, especially when faced with a crisis or unexpected events. They seek to minimize tensions among partners and ensure the stability and durability of their governing alliance.

As for Merkel, she will leave office just a few days short of the modern record for longevity as chancellor, set by her former mentor, Helmut Kohl, who held the office from 1982 to 1998.

There has been steady speculation about Merkel, still relatively young at 67, taking any number of international posts. But she has been characteristically tight-lipped about what lies ahead for her, often saying that she had not even had time to think about it.

When asked this past summer about her retirement plans, she said: “I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will fall shut because I’m tired, then I’ll sleep a little bit, and then we’ll see.”