Germans See the Smurf in Olaf Scholz. Putin Might, Too.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Earlier this year, Olaf Scholz, the former finance minister being sworn in today as German chancellor, was sitting in on one of many coronavirus crisis meetings. He was looking inscrutable as he often does, which can come across as smug. He could have been thinking about anything, but a Bavarian colleague reprimanded him for “grinning like a Smurf.”
By something close to national consensus, the label was declared a perfect fit and stuck. In real life, Scholz isn’t blue and doesn’t live in a mushroom house. But many of the Germans I’ve asked swear they see a resemblance. When Spitting Image, the satirical British TV show, launched its “Krauts’ edition,” Scholz was duly cast as a Smurf.
More tellingly, Scholz himself has embraced the joke and has proudly adopted his new persona. He loves the Smurf comparison, he told a German talk show host: “They’re small and cunning and they always win.”
Is this reassuring? Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing troops along the Ukrainian border; NATO fears a full-bore invasion. SARS-CoV-2, including its new omicron variety, is spreading faster than ever in Germany; and the country’s economy is suffering as a result. The list of problems goes on and on. And Germany is happy to enter the Smurf era?
The country’s allies have long decried Germany’s solipsism, its tendency to duck leadership responsibilities in the European Union and NATO — whether financial, economic, diplomatic or military in nature. Notably, Germany spends far less on its army than alliance members have pledged, and it's unclear whether a Scholz government will change that.
His predecessor, Angela Merkel, compensated in part with sheer gravitas. The Smurf chancellor won’t have that. Expectations by allies aren’t high that post-Merkel Germany will finally pull its weight.
Scholz could still surprise us. If so, it’ll be in part thanks to one of his coalition partners, the Greens. Their leaders have adopted a firmer and even confrontational tone in talking about the need to stare down autocracies like Russia and China, and to stand with democracies like the U.S.
One of their leaders, Annalena Baerbock, will be foreign minister. She’s on record for wanting to halt the Nord Stream 2 project, a pipeline that connects Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea and that Putin could use to replace existing gas links through Ukraine. Nord Stream is completed but not operational yet. If Putin does invade Ukraine, nixing this pipeline would be Germany’s best contribution, short of a military response, to sanctioning Russian aggression.
The other partners in the coalition, the pro-business Free Democrats, might go along with that. The problem will be Scholz’s own Social Democrats. By tradition, they’re Russophile, and prefer appeasing rather than confronting Putin. Nord Stream 2 was largely their idea. The previous SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, is chairman of its shareholder committee and besties with Putin.
Scholz’s appointment as defense minister, the other cabinet position that would deal with a Russian attack, is also ambiguous. To general surprise, he named Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat who has been minister of justice and families in the Merkel administration. There’s nothing wrong with her. But she’s never hinted at any knowledge of, or interest in, military or strategic matters.
On the other hot front, the struggle against Covid-19, Scholz’s semaphores are clearer. In another surprise, he’s making Karl Lauterbach health minister. An epidemiologist — he’s taught at the Harvard School of Public Health — Lauterbach has been a very public and hawkish coronavirus pundit. Germans love him or hate him, but more seem to love him, because they waged a Twitter campaign to make Scholz appoint him. Scholz, who’s said not to trust Lauterbach, yielded.
The Free Democrats will have their work cut out in the finance ministry, which goes to the party’s boss, Christian Lindner. In coalition negotiations, he insisted on what might seem to be a logical incongruity: He wants to return to balanced budgets from 2023, but without raising taxes. Speculation is rife about the creative financing schemes he might doctor up, in effect borrowing oodles next year to fill money pots that are then kept formally off the government’s balance sheet.
So there they are, the first cabinet of the Smurf era. They were hoping to dwell on more pleasant things — such as making the German economy green and digital and handing out goodies like a higher minimum wage. The first was important to the Greens, the second to the Free Democrats, the third to the Social Democrats.
Instead, their inauguration is what psychoanalysts call an encounter with The Real. Plague rages at home and war drums are beating in the east. In this story, Putin looks hellbent on playing Gargamel, the wicked wizard who wants to eat and destroy all Smurfs. One should never underestimate Smurfs, of course. But Germany’s new batch may not have much time to rise to the occasion.
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Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
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