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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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Who does Olaf Scholz listen to?

Secondliner phone It’s a washing machine. Lately, however, the sound emanating from the vast concrete and glass cube of the German chancellor’s office has been not a whoosh of efficiency but a dissonant clang. Whether with European neighbours, U.S. allies or partners in Germany’s own three-party coalition, the circle of advisers who have surrounded Olaf Scholz since taking office 16 months ago appears to be fighting Propensity.

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Many of these troubles could have been avoided. When eastern Europeans complained last year that Germany had been slow to support Ukraine, the Chancellery responded generously, but the impression of slowness and delay never faded. Germany has unnecessarily angered its closest ally, France, by repeatedly failing to consult it before taking action. The Biden administration has expressed displeasure with the Scholz team’s stubborn insistence that Germany will only send tanks to Ukraine if the United States does the same. Brussels was outraged after Germany abruptly blocked an environmental bill in March. The Greens, Liberals and Social Democrats within Schulz’s government have been at loggerheads all along. Every few months, he has to pull them into days-long private discussions to restore peace.

The problem is partly the high-profile style of Schultz himself, and partly the rigor of the ship he manages. Compared with his predecessor, Angela Merkel, who tended to be first to meetings and last to leave, spending hours chatting on a wide network in between, the current chancellor prefers his meetings to be short and narrow, and at best Well it’s one-on-one. Unusually for a world leader, Schultz expects an undisturbed dinner at home with his wife every day, followed by a good book and an early bed.

Chief among the guards surrounding the chancellor was Wolfgang Schmidt, a former lawyer who had been Mr Schulz’s right-hand man for 20 years, starting with local politics in their hometown of Hamburg. The eccentric couple were so close — one tall and bearded, the other bald and wiry — that one columnist aptly labeled them “Wolough.”

Mr Schmidt made up for the chancellor’s reticence with equally opposite enthusiasm, work calls and Berlin’s pubs until the wee hours. But Mr Schmidt’s wide-ranging remit – he heads the chancellery’s 600-plus staff and has some oversight of the national intelligence and communications strategy – could make him appear more like a firefighter and sales pitch members, not policy makers.

Others in Mr Scholz’s inner circle include his official spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit; Jörg Kukies, his top economic adviser and key figure in European affairs; Jens Plötner, a smooth former Diplomat, currently serving as his foreign policy adviser. Despite a male-dominated inner circle, Mr. Scholz is known for encouraging his female colleagues. His office manager, Jeanette Schwamberger, an economist who had served in the same role at his Treasury Department, often traveled abroad with her boss. Women head four of the seven departments in the Chancellery. Mr Scholz Names Sarah Ryglewski Social Democrat Congressman, as the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, she is consulted on parliamentary affairs and regional politics. His closest adviser may be his wife, Britta Ernst, who has an equally long career in politics and local government.

Mr Schulz’s chancellor’s office has leaked little. “They formed a turtle around him,” complained one think-tank observer, speculating that the chancellor’s long and unhappy experience as a relative outsider in his own party had taught him to be extra cautious. Another lesson he may have learned was to listen to the voices of the street more than the experts. Asked about US President Joe Biden in a recent interview, Mr Schultz responded categorically that he felt a connection because they both cared so much about the “middle class”. His spokesman, Mr Hebestreit, said his boss preferred opinions to suggestions.

But the tightness of the prime minister’s circle can both impenetrable useful information and create a mob mentality. His deputy, Mr Schmidt, despite pretending to be a good friend of the press, is inclined to accuse journalists of distorting the facts rather than admit that the Chancellery may have miscommunicated or come up with flawed policies. The fact that Schmidt himself wields so much clout could be a problem. Foreign policy advisers have long called for a national security council to bypass the systemic rivalry between the Chancellery and the Foreign Office, an urgent need as Germany is increasingly forced to abandon its traditional wallflower position in geopolitics. A change needs to be made. But talks over where to set up such a commission and who would run it broke down last month. A Foreign Office diplomat murmured, “We can’t have Schmidt setting security policy too.”

The extra focus may also help stave off trouble within the coalition over domestic policy, where tensions are inevitable between the iron-fisted Lib Dem Liberals who run the Treasury and the Greens, who run economic policy. “Merkel has dedicated people whose entire focus is on making sure her coalition partners are happy,” said an official who served the former government. “No wonder Schultz has problems.”

The prime minister’s cronies are more forgiving. Despite the worst regional crisis in decades, Germany’s coalition of nations has grown stronger, not weaker, over the past year, they said. Although Mr Schulz’s triad is by far the most complex in Germany’s national (as opposed to state) government, few believe it will collapse. In public opinion, the chancellor has managed to take center stage, proving time and again that he has a better finger on Germany’s pulse than his critics.

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