EU chiefs vow to work with Scholz for ‘strong Europe’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz poses with his cabinet for a group picture after the first cabinet meeting of the new German government at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 08 December 2021. [EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN]

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council chief Charles Michel congratulated Germany’s new chancellor Olaf Scholz Wednesday (8 December) and vowed to work with him for a stronger EU.

“Congratulations, dear Olaf Scholz on your election and appointment as federal chancellor. I wish you a good start and look forward to further trusting cooperation for a strong Europe,” von der Leyen tweeted in her native German.

The EU chief is a member of outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrat party and served in her cabinet before moving to Brussels, while Scholz hails from the rival Social Democrat party.

Separately Michel, who chairs EU summits and hopes to welcome Scholz to Brussels for a leaders’ meeting next week, tweeted: “Looking forward to working together for a strong and sovereign Europe.”

Michel also thanked Merkel for her “many years of trust and cooperation”.

Scholz became Germany’s ninth chancellor on Wednesday after 16 years with Angela Merkel at the helm, as a new centre-left-led coalition took the wheel of Europe’s top economy.

The former German finance minister and vice-chancellor under the last Merkel government won 395 of the 707 votes cast in the Bundestag lower house, pledging broad “continuity” with the popular Merkel while making Germany greener and fairer.

Asked by parliament speaker Baerbel Bas whether he accepted the election, a beaming Scholz removed his black corona mask to say “yes” and then received bouquets of flowers from MPs.

Scholz was then whisked by motorcade to Berlin’s Bellevue Palace to be officially named Germany’s ninth post-war chancellor by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier before his formal swearing-in back at the Reichstag parliament building.

Germany's new government bets on inaugural trips to help bolster EU's key role

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, sworn in as Germany’s new chancellor on Wednesday (8 December), will already be embarking on a series of inaugural visits across Europe, accompanied by his foreign minister, Green co-leader Annalena Baerbock

The finance minister under Merkel led his Social Democrats to victory in the September 26 election – an outcome considered unthinkable at the start of the year given the party’s then festering divisions and anaemic support.

Scholz, 63, who turned emulating Merkel in style and substance into a winning strategy, has now cobbled together Germany’s first national “traffic light” coalition with the ecologist Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, nicknamed after the parties’ colours.

Their four-year pact sealed late last month is called “Dare for More Progress”, a hat tip to Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt’s 1969 historic pledge to “Dare for More Democracy”.

“We have a chance for a new beginning for Germany,” Scholz told his party at the weekend as it gave its blessing to the coalition agreement with 99% support.

The alliance aims to slash carbon emissions, overhaul decrepit digital infrastructure, modernise citizenship laws, lift the minimum wage and have Germany join a handful of countries worldwide in legalising marijuana.

French President Emmanuel Macron congratulated Scholz, pledging “we will write the next chapter together” while EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said she looked forward to working together for a “strong Europe”.

Vladimir Putin said Russia was offering “constructive ties” with the new government.

Gender balanced

Germany’s incoming foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has pledged a tougher line with authoritarian states such as Russia and China after the business-driven pragmatism of the Merkel years.

Greens co-leader Baerbock is one of eight women in Germany’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

“That corresponds to the society we live in – half of the power belongs to women,” Scholz, who describes himself as a “feminist”, said this week.

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A former medal-winning trampolinist, Annalena Baerbock is no stranger to aiming high. But the 40-year-old’s next leap will be her biggest yet as she becomes Germany’s first woman foreign minister.

Scholz and his team promise stability just as France braces for a bitterly fought presidential election next year and Europe grapples with the enduring aftershocks of Brexit.

However, a vicious fourth COVID wave has already put the incoming coalition to the test.

“We have to make a fresh start while facing down the corona pandemic — those are the circumstances the new government is up against,” Scholz told reporters Tuesday.

More than 103,000 people have died with coronavirus in Germany while new infections have surged since the weather turned cold, filling intensive care units to breaking point.

Scholz has thrown his weight behind making jabs mandatory to get the pandemic under control, as Austria has done, as experts say the worst is still to come for the country’s struggling clinics.

‘Lessons of history’

Merkel, 67, Germany’s first woman chancellor, is retiring from politics after four consecutive terms, the first post-war leader to step aside of her own accord.

Macron tweeted his gratitude to the outgoing leader.

“Thank you, dear Angela, for never forgetting the lessons of history, for having done so much for us, with us, to move Europe forward,” he said.

She leaves big shoes to fill, with large majorities of Germans approving of her leadership, even if her own party, the conservative Christian Democrats, often bridled against her moderate course.

Despite being from a rival party, Scholz tapped into that well of popular support in his bid to succeed her.

Her successor has, however, pledged to tackle the widening gap between rich and poor under Merkel.

The independent Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) said in an analysis of the coalition pact that lower-income Germans and parents stood to gain the most from its policy roadmap.

Meanwhile, Greens supporters are banking on billions flowing toward climate protection and renewable energy, even as the government pledges to return to a no-new-debt rule by 2023.

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