The most important issue facing Germans at the start of 2022 is the same as a year ago: the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is one essential difference: at the time, the upcoming vaccination campaign still gave hope that the end would soon be in sight.
But a year and well over 100 million vaccine doses later, the number of new infections in Germany is significantly higher than it was at the start of 2021.
In order to get more people vaccinated, the government may soon implement a universal vaccination mandate. This would mean that all politicians would be guilty of breaking a promise, with former Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel, her Social Democrat successor Olaf Scholz and Free Democrat leader Christian Lindner, now finance minister, all having previously excluded such a decision.
The measures taken to control the pandemic in Germany have already divided society, notably between a majority of people in favor of vaccination and a minority who oppose it.
Ambitious climate plans
The new government made up of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Liberals (FDP) wants to continue its positive momentum in terms of action against climate change. “Dare more progress” was the title of their coalition agreement, a nod to former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt’s 1969 motto “Dare more democracy”.
The new government is committed to taking action to protect the climate through renewable energy sources and preferably a phase-out of coal power sooner than expected, perhaps as early as 2030.
What German voters think of the new government’s plans will determine the results of the four upcoming regional elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony. According to recent polls, the resurgence of social democrats after years of decline is likely to continue.
Will the CDU veer to the right?
As 2022 begins, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) are settling into their new role as an opposition party and hoping for a boost when the party’s new chairman is officially confirmed in January. Friedrich Merz, 66, won the support of a majority of the party’s 400,000 members in December after two failed attempts to take the post. Merz, the former parliamentary group leader and enemy of Merkel, is a former CEO of Blackrock and staunchly conservative. He is expected to lead the CDU to the right.
When it comes to choosing Germany’s largely ceremonial head of state in February, one can expect continuity. The current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, of the SPD, would like to remain in this function. His chances look good – so far no one else has expressed an interest in taking over, and the current ruling parties have a majority in the special assembly made up of members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 16 states who will elect the next president.
In terms of foreign policy, 2022 could be Germany’s time to shine, especially during its G7 presidency – although “shine” might be the wrong word to use at a time of deepening crisis. Russian aggression towards Ukraine and China’s new confidence will pose major foreign policy challenges.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party has indicated she will take a different approach to China from the Merkel government. She wants to pursue a values-based foreign policy and speak out more on human rights issues in totalitarian states.
But political scientist Johannes Varwick of Martin Luther Halle-Wittenberg University (MLU) predicts that Baerbock “will soon feel the constraints of office and the pressure of realpolitik”. ultimate benchmark for foreign policy action,” he said.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems to want to continue the reserved foreign policy of his predecessor. “There must be cooperation around the world, also with very different governments from ours,” he told the German public broadcaster. ZDF after taking office in mid-December.
Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to see whether the new government will stand with US President Joe Biden and be drawn into a stronger confrontation with China.
Henning Hoff of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) said Germany should “stop worrying that German industry has no future without the Chinese market, and take a much stronger and more strategy and treat China as a systemic rival”.
Regarding Russia, Hoff suggested using “the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to put pressure on Moscow: to stop the project in case of aggression against Ukraine”.
As far as Europe is concerned, the coalition agreement sets out the long-term goal of developing the EU into a “federal European state”, or the so-called United States of Europe. Such high-flying ideas have not been heard for a long time. At the same time, the new government in Berlin is calling for a relatively liberal asylum and refugee policy, also at European level, which may prove difficult to achieve.
More EU unity and refugees are “hot potato” issues – this was made clear at the end of last year in two EU countries that are of particular importance to Germany: Poland and France. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), said the policies of the new German government put the sovereignty of European countries at risk.
France traditionally maintains a close partnership with Germany, but the two countries disagree on some crucial issues. France will hold its presidential election in April, with the main campaign issue being unwanted immigration. President Emmanuel Macron wants to take advantage of France’s six-month tour of the rotating EU presidency securing the bloc’s external borders, which is not a priority for the Berlin coalition.
Political analyst Hoff considers the “European political ambitions” of the new German government not only right, but necessary. “If the EU wants to become more sovereign and confident – and it must if it wants to last – it will not be able to avoid further restructuring,” he said.
But Varwick rejects the goal of a European federal state as unrealistic. “It will quickly come unstuck in the face of European political realities. No one in Europe really wants that,” he said. Instead, he welcomed the concept of “servant leadership” for Europe which is also found in the coalition agreement: “Because it is about using the power and influence of Germany in a way that does not trigger defensive reflexes, but instead opens up room for manoeuvre.”
In the footsteps of Merkel
Former Chancellor Merkel played a particularly important role on the world diplomatic scene and an absolute leading role in European politics. Will Scholz want to follow in his footsteps – and will he be able to?
Hoff pointed out that Scholz showed the important leadership qualities of “prudence and a solution-oriented pragmatism.”
Varwick, meanwhile, believes Scholz “can’t match Angela Merkel’s experience.” However, he added, Germany has great political clout, whoever the Chancellor is. Scholz, “with his unassuming and conciliatory nature, seems a fitting successor to the ‘eternal chancellor,'” he said.
This text has been translated from German.
While You’re Here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what’s happening in German politics and society. You can sign up for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter here, to stay up to date on developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.