The last pieces of the coalition puzzle fell into place on Monday, clearing the way for the confirmation of the new German government later this week.
On Monday morning, Olaf Scholz confirmed the SPD ministers in his future cabinet, with Christine Lambrecht being promoted from Justice to the tricky portfolio of Defence. Relative unknown Nancy Faeser has been plucked from state politics in Hessen to head one of the most powerful ministries in the country - the interior minister.
Disappearing from the scene is Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is presumably being punished for the mishandled departure from Afghanistan this summer. Maas’ waning influence within the party has also been seen on pandemic policy. Two weeks ago he categorically ruled out vaccine mandates under the SPD, only for Scholz to publicly support such a measure last week (see below).
Noticeable is the fact that there are no rival ‘big beasts’ whom Scholz has had to accommodate. While Gerhard Schröder had to find room for Oscar Lafontaine, and Merkel needed to give Wolfgang Schäuble a top ministry, the counterweights to Scholz’ power are politicians from the FDP and Greens.
Hardliner for Health
The most feverishly anticipated seat at the new cabinet table was that of health minister, which is normally something of a backwater ministry. A few weeks ago it looked like Karl Lauterbach would be left out in the cold, but the steep rise in Covid cases since then has seen the country’s most famous lockdown advocate come back into favour.
Scholz himself has taken on a notably more radical tone since the Constitutional Court announced last Tuesday that it did not see itself as being responsible for overturning specific lockdown measures.
The Chancellor-to-be responded by saying there were “no red lines anymore” and promised to bring a vote on vaccine mandates before the Bundestag. MdBs will be free to vote according to their conscience, meaning they won’t be given directions by their faction.
Opinions on whether to vote for or against compulsory vaccination are said to divide all the factions (with the likely exception of the AfD).
In the wake of a torch-lit march organized by the Querdenker scene in front of the home of Saxony’s health minister on Friday, politicians expressed outrage at the fascist-style protest targeting an elected official’s home.
In the state of Thuringia - this is a sentence I haven’t used since I lived in Egypt - demonstrations of more than 35 people are currently banned based on public health justifications. Nonetheless, thousands turned out at various demonstrations in the state at the weekend.
Some politicians, such as current interior minister Horst Seehofer, have expressed concern that vaccine mandates could further radicalize the Querdenker movement. Lauterbach and others have said that the government must not let itself be blackmailed by extremists.
Baerbock as foreign minister
On Monday afternoon, the Green party followed the lead of the SPD and Greens by voting for the coalition agreement.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green party’s unsuccessful Chancellor candidate, is to become Foreign Minister in the next government, signalling a more confrontational stance on relations with Russia and China.
German policy under Angela Merkel towards both countries has been marked by silence on human rights issues and the primacy of trade. Baerbock has threatened to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from going into service, while she’s also raised the possibility of a boycott of the Winter Olympics, which are set to be held in China next year.
The coalition agreement meanwhile is explicit in its commitment to democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Chinese don’t seem overly bothered by Baerbock’s new role. An opinion piece in the Global Times (Beijing’s English-language mouthpiece) said that the Chinese would keep calm in the knowledge that Berlin will soon see the need for pragmatic relations with the Asian powerhouse. The article said that China would be prepared to “let the bullets fly for a while” before the Green party “extremists” simmer down.
By the end of this week Angela Merkel will give up her office in the Chancellery. I asked whether there is a difference between the private and public personas of the eternal Chancellor.
Separately, I took a closer look at the Constitutional Court’s lockdown ruling and what it means for the next government’s pandemic policies.
This will be the last Monday newsletter of the year. The birth of my first child is imminent (ie a week overdue) and I’ll be taking the next few weeks off. You’ll hear from me again in the new year.
Wishing you a happy Christmas and Silvester,