Olaf Scholz has been Chancellor for almost a year. Time for a first balance sheet. Scholz tells Focus how he looks at the domestic crises, the war in Ukraine and his coalition.
Olaf Scholz is sitting at his desk. In front of him are folders in yellow, green and blue. It takes a moment before he finally gets up. Before Scholz welcomes the visit, he gives his spokesman a few more files. Here, in the office of the German Federal Chancellor on the seventh floor of the Chancellery, people work. Scholz asks to take a seat. He has 60 minutes – and the team 125 questions. Water and coffee will be served.
349 days as Federal Chancellor are 8376 hours of politics – as of 3 p.m. Mr. Scholz, when was the last time you stared at the wall and pondered the meaning of politics?
That’s a long time ago. Nowadays it is obvious that democratic politics makes sense. It can help to ensure peace in the midst of dangers and bring about the necessary decisions so that our country does not fall into a major economic crisis due to the lack of gas from Russia.
Were there moments in those 8,376 hours when you thought: I’m not the right person for this hell of a job?
What was your greatest achievement this year?
Others may judge that. When I talk to foreign heads of state and government, I often hear that very few believed that we would be able to manage without gas supplies from Russia. They are impressed by how quickly and decisively we have changed course. The sentence is often heard: If a country can do something like this, it’s Germany. Incidentally, I hear the same thing when asked whether we will succeed in making our economy climate-neutral within just 25 years.
What was the most painful lesson?
That war has come back to Europe. The brutal breach of international law by the Russian ruler, who wants to seize his neighbor’s territory, is painful.
On February 27, in the special session of the Bundestag, you coined the term “turning point”. It should become the headline of the year. Were you aware that Sunday how deep and comprehensive this turning point would be?
I deliberately spoke of a turning point because the dramatic break with everything we had known in the previous decades seemed obvious to me. As in previous centuries, when the powers of Europe violently competed for power, Russia is trying to expand its territory by force. War and imperialism are back.
Was the traffic light more red, yellow or green for Germany this year?
It was on green – and it’s good that it’s led by a red chancellor.
How tough was the year on a scale of 1 to 10?
It has been a very trying year for all citizens of this country. However, and we should not forget this, it is even more exhausting for those who are exposed to the brutal bomb terror in Ukraine and who have to fear for their lives and their loved ones. Who have to experience how cities and villages are destroyed. Who have to be afraid of a very cold winter because the gas and electricity supply will be ruthlessly destroyed.
And how hard was your job?
Those were intense months. A year in which it was important to act with determination and prudence. Any wrong or hasty decision could have had dire consequences for our country.
Who was more strenuous: colleague Lindner or colleague Habeck?
Both don’t. I appreciate her very much.
After all, you had to end the nuclear dispute between the two with a word of power in October: Since Konrad Adenauer, no chancellor has invoked the authority to set guidelines …
When the decision could not be reached by consensus, I took matters into my own hands. This is my task.
Did you use the ultimate power word to save the energy supply or to save the coalition?
The decision had to be made, one way or the other.
After you took office in 2011, the abbreviation used in Hamburg City Hall was: OWD, do you know what that stood for?
I read it in newspapers, yes.
It stands for “Olaf wants that”.
Will Olaf allow fracking in Lower Saxony?
Fracking makes little sense here and has been discussed and rejected several times in Germany. Many conservative politicians have repeatedly rejected fracking, and investors have also shown little interest in this business: By the time the gas is pressed out of the deep layers, we will have progressed so far with the expansion of renewable energies that the effort, risk and reward will all come together have a bad relationship.
So rather dependent on others than taking responsibility for yourself?
No, but acting responsibly means not chasing chimeras. Germany will phase out the use of fossil resources by 2045 to protect the climate. We want a future without coal, gas and oil. For the processes in the local industry, this means massive changes that require huge investments.
But gas remains the bridging technology.
Transitional yes. But we want to quickly replace natural gas with the gas of the future: hydrogen. We should focus our efforts on importing hydrogen and producing it here in Germany by electrolysis.
8,376 hours of Chancellorship in 2022 also mean: almost 50 weeks in crisis mode. How many hours is your work week?
It’s one of my personal safeguards not to count them.
Which international meeting did you have the most respect for?
As chancellor, you should take all of these appointments seriously and not be too casual about them. I like to be well prepared.
Don’t you sometimes think on the plane on the way to somewhere: Wouldn’t it be nice if this cup had already passed me by?
no Now is the time to look at the world with an open mind and understand that the G7 countries will lose relative importance in the coming decades. We have to recognize that many emerging countries in Asia, Africa and South America are demanding a political say – not only because of their growing demographics, but also because of their economic weight.
It was therefore important to invite the democratic representatives from these regions of the world to the G7 summit in Elmau. The fact that the world community was able to come to a decision at the G20 summit in Bali, which left Russia very much alone, is precisely due to this commitment. This can only be achieved by speaking to many international partners on an equal footing.
A fairly self-confident image of you emerged in Bali: the world’s powerful are looking at the German chancellor. What were you saying or doing before this moment?
A rocket hit killed two people, it was a very serious situation. We talked about that that morning – it went back and forth.
In the picture, however, there was only the hint to the Federal Chancellor. Is this picture a deliberate symbol that Germany is now a leading power?
Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world and the largest country in the European Union. That is why we have a task to perform – and I am taking on this task as Chancellor of our country.
“Task” sounds modest. What about: leadership?
You have to have an idea of where you want to go, but it’s always geared towards interaction with others. Nobody is alone in the world. This applies to the European Union, where we must ensure that Europe moves forward together in order to remain geopolitically influential. And that applies even more to the world: we need good relations with the countries in Asia, Africa and South America – and at the same time we have to cultivate our transatlantic friendship with the USA and Canada.
Who has the nicest smile on the world stage of the G20?
Mostly the hosts.
Who sits at the bar the longest?
You’re asking the wrong person. To be honest, there was no session at the bar.
… not even for a coke?
That’s possible with one or the other – but the delegations often live far apart in different hotels.
You planted a mangrove in Bali and gave your name to an orchid in Singapore. Did you bring a “Renanthera Olaf Scholz” to Berlin?
The orchid will be forwarded.
Do you bring your wife Britta Ernst anything back from your travels? At least one hotel soap from Beijing?
I often bring my wife something, but no soap.
Who has the stronger handshake: Putin, Xi or Erdogan?
I don’t know, I don’t pay any attention to that.
In February you sat with Putin for four hours at this bizarrely long Corona table. Did Putin greet you in German? And was there at least something to eat in the four hours?
He alternates between German and Russian. My knowledge of Russian is limited to an eight-hour adult education course. And there was something to eat, although I don’t remember the catering at this meeting.
Most of the time you’re on the phone – one hears: gladly for hours. With whom is the silence on the line harder to bear, with Xi or with Putin?
There is no time for silence in these conversations.
Talking all the time?
… and translated, yes.
Was the September call the last you had with Putin?
We haven’t spoken to each other since then.
Then show him the red lines? For example: If nuclear weapons are used, the West will …
In these conversations, it is important to be clear about things. Talking about it doesn’t help anyone. Of course, during the talks, I repeatedly urged Putin to end the war, withdraw his troops, and thus pave the way for peace talks.
Do you think that the war will last more months or years?
The horrors and cruelty of war make it impossible to speculate. Ukraine can count on us to continue providing them with substantial financial, humanitarian and arms support for as long as it is needed.
How will this war end?
Russia must not win this war. That is why it was so important that the international community of states formulated unequivocally with regard to Russia: There must be no use of nuclear weapons!
I agreed on this with Head of State Xi Jinping during my visit to China, and Xi and US President Joe Biden also reaffirmed this a few days later at their meeting in Bali.
But again: how does this war end? With Russia withdrawing to the borders of 2014, i.e. Ukraine minus Crimea, as Henry Kissinger predicted shortly after the war began?
In any case, the war is going very differently for Russia than Moscow had planned. At some point the time has to come when Russia will also be looking for a way out of this fatal situation. The retreat of the troops is central.
Boris Johnson recently claimed that Germany would have welcomed a quick surrender. You have sharply denied it, but have often been criticized in the past for not providing enough support to Ukraine. Will Germany definitely not deliver tanks or planes to Kyiv by the end of the war?
We act in close coordination with our allies. Always. And everyone knows that we are now among those who support Ukraine the most. Incidentally, also with a view to the weapons supplied, especially artillery and air defense: Our self-propelled howitzers and anti-aircraft Gepard anti-aircraft tanks are very effective, and we are the only ones besides the USA and Great Britain who supply multiple rocket launchers.
They are among the most powerful that is used. Add to that the extremely efficient German Iris-T anti-aircraft system, which not even the Bundeswehr has – it can protect a large city from attacks.
Joe Biden calls Vladimir Putin a war criminal – do you agree?
The war in Ukraine violates all rules of international law, and Vladimir Putin is responsible for this war. Incredibly cruel war crimes have been committed there. We will help solve the crimes, identify those responsible and hold them accountable.
In four weeks is Christmas, the festival of peace. Do you see a chance for a truce at least for the holidays?
I don’t know that. The Russian military is currently trying to break the Ukrainian spirit of resistance with heavy rocket attacks, but it is clearly not succeeding. Despite all the terrible destruction. Russia’s hope that a new flight from Ukraine could jeopardize support from European countries has also turned out to be wrong.
But we do not know what conclusions Russia will draw from its failure. Right now you can’t make any reliable predictions.
Why don’t you ask Angela Merkel to act as mediator?
I exchange ideas with my predecessor. But let’s not fool ourselves: there are no communication problems with the Russian ruler. Putin is ruthlessly pursuing goals that we cannot accept.
Wolfgang Schäuble recently said that he does not see Angela Merkel as a great chancellor. Do you see them in a row with Adenauer, Brandt, Kohl?
Angela Merkel can confidently rely on the verdict of the history books.
Mr. Chancellor, in such a dramatic year, our own standards can also shift. How do you switch between world politics and citizen money?
one does it.
Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and her time
A compromise with the Union on citizen income has now been found. But honestly: In the end, wasn’t it all about finally getting rid of the hate concept Hartz IV?
This reform is a milestone in social policy in Germany. It is about helping citizens who have lost their jobs to find a new job. This reform focuses on helping the unskilled long-term unemployed.
And despite the complicated legislative requirements that result from the interaction of the Bundestag with three coalition parties and 16 countries with very different government constellations, I have always been confident that we will push through this reform.
They promised good governance, responsible, solid. But after the tank rebate, billions in the Bundeswehr, various aid packages and gas price caps, Germany’s new debt in 2023 will be significantly higher than expected: According to the latest calculations, Finance Minister Christian Lindner will break the prescribed upper deficit limit of three percent. Are we living too big?
I am convinced, as everyone knows, that we need to be careful with our money. I therefore believe that the debt brake is fundamentally correct. At the same time, the rules of the Basic Law offer the necessary flexibility to act appropriately in a crisis situation. That’s how we did it during the pandemic, and it’s the same today.
In order to cushion the high prices for gas, district heating and electricity for citizens and companies, we have endowed the Economic and Stabilization Fund with 200 billion euros. At the same time, we are working feverishly to bring gas prices down permanently by increasing supply through the construction of LNG terminals on the coast.
The terminals are now almost twice as expensive …
That’s the price.
Doesn’t responsible politics also include saying that we can’t solve all problems with the double-boom bazooka?
Germany has a very powerful economy. We have the strength and skill to do what is necessary. Germany has the lowest level of debt among the G7 countries. Even after this crisis, we will be less indebted than the other G7 countries before the crisis.
Do you know how high the debt of the Federal Republic is in November 2022?
It should be more than 2.4 trillion euros at federal, state and local level.
You always speak quietly, but your political terms are loud: bazooka, turning point, double boom: is that why we sometimes had to wait so long for decisions in year one with Scholz – because you still had to find the right term?
Well, that’s too playful for me now. I always made quick decisions.
With “You’ll never walk alone” you explained your policy with the leitmotif of Liverpool FC. Do you watch the games of the German national team?
I’ve made it my goal, if my schedule allows it, to watch the games of the German team.
Are you going to Qatar if Germany reach the final?
I’ll decide that when the time comes. The DFB has bowed to Fifa’s wishes in the bizarre dispute over the “One Love” bandage. Do you think that’s correct? I was pleased that our footballers wanted to set an example for an open society. And it remains to be said: The players of the German team have found a way to send a clear signal.
… well, the players muzzled themselves. Pretty weak, especially compared to the Iranian team, who refused to sing their national anthem in protest…
… a strong and courageous sign!
If you fly to the final, will you wear the “One Love” armband in the stadium?
All in good time.
We reveal the many dark fates behind Qatar’s World Cup glory.
The world’s largest liquefied gas producer Qatar Energy and the Chinese state-owned company Sinopec signed an agreement this week to export 108 million tons of liquefied gas over 27 years – one of the largest gas supply contracts ever. Why didn’t that work out for Germany?
That’s not true. German companies are in very concrete talks about which I could tell you more than I am going to.
When was the last time you could sleep in?
It is often the case that the deadlines do not allow this. But it’s also not as if I have to get through this time without sleep.
How many people can you call at night and ask for advice? How many are there that you absolutely trust?
First of all, there is my wife. But of course there are also many others – here in the Chancellery and also friends who I always trust.
When was the last time you cried?
I don’t know …
… or regretted? You made some decisions on your own: for example, when you sold a terminal section of the Port of Hamburg to Chinese investors against the advice of six ministries. Is a deal more important than morals?
Almost nothing that has been publicly noted survives a fact check. The port of Hamburg is probably one of the largest ports that are almost completely state-owned. Hamburg is very proud of that.
Negotiations were held on a minority stake in a small terminal – one of many terminals. Incidentally, contrary to what some people claim, there are also European companies that have stakes in Chinese port terminals.
Berlin’s government district is the most pleasant, transparent government district in the world – Beijing is the exact opposite. Does one feel small when meeting the Great Leader Xi Jinping in the Forbidden City?
It was not my first visit to Beijing. And of course: the whole apparatus is in many ways the opposite of Berlin. But I’m not impressed by that.
But the idea that there could be a conflict with China is impressive. Would Germany have the strength to survive a trade war with China?
First of all: Globalization has created prosperity worldwide, and Germany is perhaps the most closely networked economy in the world. With global players and a fantastic medium-sized company. Our economy can only develop its power if it keeps an eye on the entire world market. How important the Chinese market is in this context needs no explanation. At the same time, the goal is not to be dependent on anyone.
An old saying goes: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. That’s why I’m amazed at how dependent some companies have become on individual markets and have completely ignored the risks. For me, that also means becoming more active with regard to raw materials, such as lithium or cobalt. Even when it comes to mining, we can no longer afford to be comfortable.
Mining yes, fracking no?
It’s about diversification, not fracking.
(In the second part, which FOCUS publishes online on Sunday, Scholz talks about very personal issues)