G-7: Olaf Scholz, host of the first major summit, tries to prove his mettle

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SCHLOSS ELMAU, Germany — As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosts his first major international summit this weekend, he is a leader with something to prove.

His first six months in office took place during perhaps the most tumultuous period in European history since World War II. And with that came criticism that it just doesn’t measure up.

Scholz has been criticized for taking a hesitant and confused stance as the war unfolds in Ukraine, whose western border is just 800 kilometers from the German capital. And he is being prosecuted by accusations that he is dragging his feet in delivering heavy weapons to the Ukrainians.

As the Group of Seven leaders’ meeting in the Bavarian Alps this weekend draws more attention to Germany’s leadership role – or lack thereof – Scholz and his party loyalists have tried to reverse the disaster of the German public relations.

“Great expectations are placed on our country,” Scholz told the German parliament last week as he defended his government’s record on arms deliveries. “We face this responsibility.”

He spoke as the first heavy weapons delivered by Germany – seven Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers – finally arrived in Ukraine and the Defense Ministry, in an attempt to counter criticism, published a full list actual and planned deliveries.

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But as the war enters a critical new phase, with Ukrainian forces steadily losing ground in the east, including the key city of Severodonetsk last week, there are still calls from within the coalition to Scholz and the European Union at large, that it act with more urgency.

Officials and observers wonder what is holding the Chancellor back. The remnants of the old Ostpolitik of the social democrats, based on detente with Russia? The sometimes painfully slow German bureaucracy? Or is he a chancellor who is both stubborn to stick to his guns and extremely cautious?

Some have compared it to a donkey: when you try to pull it in one direction, it just sinks its heels.

“Understanding Olaf Scholz is a science in itself”, journalist Georg Ismar wrote for the German newspaper Tagesspiegel. Ismar described the chancellor as “bockig”, meaning obstinate or obstinate. He gave the example of the preparation for the invasion of Russia, when Scholz did not let the words “Nord Stream 2” pass on his lips, amid a roar of questions about what he was up to. do about the Russian gas pipeline.

Scholz also refused to answer directly whether he wanted Ukraine to win the war, and for weeks refused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s invitation to Kyiv amid a row over the withdrawal of an invitation. for the German President earlier in the year.

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Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, head of the parliamentary defense committee and member of the Free Democratic Liberals, a junior partner in Scholz’s coalition government, called the slowdown in deliveries a “matter of will”.

Sometimes seemingly exasperated, Scholz says he has overseen historic changes for Germany as it grapples with the ramifications of the Russian invasion. In a speech in February, Scholz declared a Zeitenwende, or turning point in history, announcing a 100 billion euro ($106 billion) injection into defence. He quickly decided to send weapons to Ukraine. But Germany’s actions lagged behind expectations.

“It’s not very nice when you’re traveling around the world and you get the feeling from other countries that they’re thinking, ‘The Germans, they’re not fast enough or they’re not doing enough,'” said Strack-Zimmermann. “I think the world expects us to provide some sort of military leadership.”

Given Germany’s history, such military leadership might once have been considered undesirable. But now, she says, “the world is waiting for Germany.”

Scholz still seems uncomfortable with anything that could be considered a military rant. Instead, he focused on issues such as global food security and economic aid. He called for a Marshall Plan for reconstruction.

With the simple act of delivering arms to a conflict zone already unacceptable to Social Democrats, Scholz wants to be “in the middle of the road”, said Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Not all the way back, not all the way up front.”

But its critics argue that weapons are the most important factor. Jens Plötner, the Chancellor’s top foreign policy adviser, might have given a hint about her reluctance last week at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. He bristled when the press focused on why Berlin was not sending more equipment to Ukraine.

“You can fill many newspaper pages with 20 Marders,” infantry fighting vehicles that would be ready to ship, Plötner said. “But larger articles about what our relationship with Russia will actually look like in the future are a little less frequent. And it’s at least as exciting and relevant a question to discuss and where there could also be a speech public first.

Strack-Zimmermann said she listened with dismay. “There is no more relationship with Russia until Russia changes its policy and probably until Putin is gone,” she said. “Now I understand that there are people around the Chancellor who are old school in thinking that we need to have a relationship with Russia.”

Others argue that the Chancellor is himself part of the old guard struggling to recalibrate his stance on Russia.

“The resounding sentiment within the coalition is that the problem lies at the level of the chancellery: it is the linchpin of the German government’s extremely ineffective response to the crisis,” said Jessica Berlin, guest researcher at the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. “The brakes are at the Chancellery. Germany cannot just float its foreign policy at the tail of the United States and the rest of the NATO alliance without making a decision for itself.

Frustrated lawmakers have strategized to increase pressure on the Chancellor – from motions in the Bundestag to increasing pressure in the press and through foreign partners.

“There are people in parliament who are exhausted,” said a green parliamentarian, who spoke on condition of anonymity to openly criticize the government. “We have a clear request from Parliament to support Ukraine with heavy weapons. The problem is that these deliveries are not made.

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Friedrich Merz, the leader of the opposition, passed a parliamentary motion last week calling on the government to comply with a parliamentary vote in April that backed the delivery of heavy weapons.

“Instead of devoting itself to the humanitarian imperative, to fully support Ukraine against the war of Russian annihilation, Germany is isolating itself with its reluctance to deliver heavy weapons to its NATO and military partners. ‘European Union,’ the motion reads. “In doing so, the Federal Government risks irreparably damaging Germany’s reputation, especially with our neighbors and friends in the East.”

More outspoken language from the chancellery in recent weeks and Scholz’s visit to Ukraine alongside his French, Italian and Romanian counterparts have raised hopes that he may begin to act with more authority, said said a US official. “But part of the problem is the content,” he said. “You can change the way you communicate as much as you want, but it has to be followed by action.”

It feels like Germany is in a different place to its allies when it comes to deliveries. Ukraine’s friends seek to provide weapons that can be of strategic use as the country loses dozens of soldiers every day to Russian bombardment. The government always seems to be trying to calculate whether certain military equipment might provoke Russia more than other types.

In France, Germany’s most important partner in the EU, Scholz’s response to the war in Ukraine has drawn mixed reactions. “France was quite impressed by the historic decisions taken by Germany, particularly in terms of increasing its defense budget, delivering arms to Ukraine and accepting the closure of Nord Stream 2” , said Pierre Morcos, a French researcher at the Washington-based university. Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the days immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Scholz announced a major increase in German defense spending, the French newspaper Le Monde saw a “revolution” in the making. But the tone changed in the following weeks. “Obviously Germany took quite dramatic steps in the conflict,” Morcos said. But the country “does not necessarily play the leading role that we expected”.

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For Scholz, the summit of Schloss Elmau, nestled in the dramatic peaks of the Bavarian Alps, will inevitably bring comparisons to its predecessor. It was the castle where, in 2015, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted the last G-7 summit in Germany. It was the first as a G-7 and not a G-8, as Russian President Vladimir Putin was disinvited due to his initial assault on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

While Merkel’s soft Russia policy has also cast a shadow over her legacy, Europe is suffering from a leadership vacuum, said Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Traditionally, Germany’s role was actually always to bind the different voices together,” she said. But his current policy is “just not decisive enough for most people”.

This sentiment was expressed in Brussels. An EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said the past four months had damaged the country’s position within the bloc.

“Decisions were made late. They were reluctant to sanctions. And in the whole process, they just haven’t been the biggest supporters of helping Ukraine,” the diplomat said.

While there is sympathy that Scholz is new and “finding his way,” the diplomat said, the fact remains “they were one of the most reluctant countries,” they said. .

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Scholz’s influence on EU policy, the diplomat said. Scholz’s recent visit to Kyiv and his support for Ukraine’s EU bid had an impact. “Germany is still Germany,” the diplomat said.

Guinan-Bank reported from Berlin. Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

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