I made it through the airport crush to Berlin at the beginning of last week to see how Germany is faring under Olaf Scholz, Angela Merkel’s tough-minded centre-left successor. Under Merkel, Germany was important because it was the key to EU decision-making, but towards the end of her chancellorship, the country slowed down, there was too little change and, as we now know, Merkel misjudged Vladimir Putin’s revanchist ambitions and thirst for personal glory. In talking to Scholz, I did not get the impression that he has any illusions about whom he is dealing with. He believes Putin had been quietly hatching his invasion plan for at least two years, and that while his original goal of occupying or dominating the whole of Ukraine has been thwarted, he is determined to hold on to everything he can of the country. Scholz has no expectation of an early ceasefire and is determined to support Ukraine for the long haul. Despite his historic Zeitenwende (turning point) speech to Germany’s parliament immediately following the invasion, Scholz understands why he is getting a bad rap in some quarters. There is growing nervousness about Russia’s advance and a belief that more help must be given to tilt the military balance in Ukraine’s favour. Expectations of what Germany can do are running high but the awful truth is that Germany’s armed forces and their equipment have been run down over many years. Scholz’s momentous €100 billion commitment to rebuild Germany’s military is going to happen, but not in time to meet Ukraine’s urgent needs.
There is another current misunderstanding about Germany. In talking to Putin, Scholz is not clinging on to that mixture of German guilt and fantasy that led his predecessors to mollify and indulge Putin. Scholz knows that if Ukraine loses, Putin will be emboldened and Europe will be facing the risk of an even bigger war later on. Germany’s economic and energy relationship with Russia is finished while Putin remains, but as no one in the Kremlin will dare speak truth unto power, Scholz and President Macron believe that only outside leaders can give Putin the reality check he needs. But neither of them, Scholz told me, can proffer settlement terms unacceptable to President Zelensky. Whatever the outcome, a different Germany is going to emerge from this war. The nation that went from panzers to Porsches and peaceniks is waking up to the reality that there are things that have to be fought for. Having lived off imports from Russia and exports to China all these decades, Germany is now understanding the dangers of over-dependence on both. Germany is not undergoing a resurgent nationalism. On the contrary, its leaders want to move forward with Europe as a whole, leaving the era of mercantilism and Merkelism behind.
I first met Scholz 20 years ago when he was general secretary of Germany’s SPD. Having rejected Scholz in favour of leaders on the left, his party had to turn back to him as a more centrist chancellor candidate in last year’s federal election. He subsequently put together a governing coalition of social democrats, liberals and greens. A template for Keir Starmer? In principle, yes, if last week’s by-elections are any guide – and I toasted both parties’ successes while celebrating friends’ 50th wedding anniversary on the Amalfi coast. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a very good chance of wiping out the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority next time, whether Johnson remains leader or not, with no formal pact needed for widespread tactical voting to favour them. What else does Scholz’s success portend for Starmer? An unflashy performer, Scholz was portrayed by Germany’s right-wing media as dull and uninspiring. But voters were attracted to his integrity and levelheadedness. In particular, Scholz framed his appeal not only to metropolitan types who felt he had a ‘modern’ policy approach, but to people who do essential jobs for low pay in the everyday economy and want to receive as much respect as the better educated and higher paid. Voters had already been able to judge Scholz in Merkel’s coalition government, perhaps as British voters will when they learn more about Starmer’s crimebusting leadership of the prosecution service. At the moment, too many voters have no clear idea of who Starmer is. He needs to define himself before his opponents do it for him.
Meet Farmer Mandelson. In 2009, an incredulous Fraser Nelson interviewed me for The Spectator and mocked my post-government desire to adopt a farming life. I write this from my rented home on a Wiltshire farm, with an abundance of sheep, cattle and chickens around me. This does not spell retirement, just knowing when to pass the baton.
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