The pair's weirdly harmonious relationship was on full display in Rome
What is the difference between Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz? That question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer as Mr Scholz prepares to take the reins.
At the G20 summit in Rome last weekend, Merkel appeared alongside Scholz to present him to the world as the next German leader. But what was strange was how in sync the pair were. When Merkel spoke, Scholz nodded approvingly next to her and vice versa. She told journalists that “this has been an opportunity to appear together in bilateral talks” while he stressed he would continue Merkel’s good work internationally.
This behaviour appeared to baffle Boris Johnson in particular. He reportedly asked how the “German transition” worked and called the process a ‘“friendly takeover”. No wonder he was bemused — it’s hard to picture him with Theresa May appearing at an international summit arm in arm, let alone with Keir Starmer shortly after a general election.
Presenting himself as a mini Merkel was part of the strategy that won Scholz the elections in September. As vice chancellor and finance minister in her coalition government, he has been so heavily involved in her government that a ticket of radical reform would hardly have been credible. But Scholz took his impersonation further, even appearing in a series of photographs with his hands forming the iconic Merkel rhombus.
As the two come from rival parties, Scholz’s attempts to mimic Merkel was at times awkward in the build-up to the federal elections. While he was keen to stress how much continuity there would be under him, she was forced to distance herself and show solidarity with her own party candidate, Armin Laschet. In a press conference during the campaign, she stated that there was “a huge difference for the future of Germany between me and him.”
In reality, nobody is entirely sure what exactly divides the two. Both have a reputation as consensus politicians with multilateral instincts and few radical ideas for reform. They approach complex problems at a snail’s pace and prefer to manage crises rather than solve them. Merkel’s “we can do this” as an answer to the refugee crisis of 2015 provided no more concrete solutions than Scholz’s repeated pleas for more “hope”, “optimism” and “trust”.
The chancellor and her deputy have also been pushing for Green investment and for a phasing out of nuclear energy and fossil fuels. Both set a cautious pace on the lifting of Covid restrictions.
It remains to be seen if there is more to Scholz than a Merkel tribute act. The next German chancellor will have to solve a multitude of problems, from a new refugee crisis at the Eastern border to looming energy problems. Germans may crave stability and approve of a harmonious handover of power. But the country also desperately needs leadership. Scholz will have to hold his own once Mutti has retired.