The Chancellor is looking increasingly isolated in Germany
“We will not go it alone,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in defence of his refusal to send heavy weapons to Ukraine. He has drawn international criticism, but less reported has been the increasing domestic pressure. The public, the opposition and even his own coalition partners want Scholz to do more.
It is in fact the German Chancellor who is going it alone. At a press conference this week, Scholz argued that he was already doing as much as “many others who are taking the same course”. But his claim that sending heavy weapons to Ukraine would go against NATO agreements is a weak argument to rely on. The Belgians and the Dutch have already announced that they are sending more heavy weaponry, and talks are underway for Kyiv to receive MQ-9 Reaper armed drones from the US. The UK is set to deliver Stormer armoured vehicles.
While it is entirely possible that the Bundeswehr had been so underfunded that it simply can’t deliver immediately, the truth is that elements within Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD), are simply reluctant to give up their long-standing ties to Russia.
Scholz’s party comrade Ralf Stegner caused outrage in a TV interview on Wednesday when he argued that Ukraine was bound to lose the war anyway. The SPD Minister President of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Manuela Schwesig, has defied calls to resign amid allegations that her support of Nord Stream 2 involved dubious political ties with Russia. Former party leader Sigmar Gabriel visited the disgraced ex-Chancellor Gehrard Schröder on Wednesday without issuing a word of criticism about the latter’s personal friendship with Vladimir Putin and dealings with Russia while in office. The list of pro-Russian politicians in the SPD is long and Scholz has done little to distance himself from them.
If the Chancellor thinks he can ride out the international storm of criticism, he will find it much harder to resist pressure from his own coalition. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of the Free Liberals (FDP), again demanded ‘leadership and clear lines’ from the Chancellor on Twitter yesterday. The Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock seemed to contradict Scholz directly when she said during a visit in Latvia on Wednesday: “Other partners are now supplying armoured vehicles. I would like to make it clear that this is not taboo for us either, even if it sometimes sounds that way in the German debate.”
Open dissent could become very dangerous indeed for Scholz. His party only gained a quarter of votes in the general election last year and had to form an unprecedented three-way coalition with the Greens and the Liberals. The opposition, former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), are tempted to test just how much control Scholz still exercises.
If Opposition leader Friedrich Merz were to table a motion in parliament on whether heavy weapons should be sent to Ukraine, there would likely be Green and Liberal politicians, perhaps even SPD members too, who would support it. If it gained a majority, in clear defiance of the Chancellor’s course, Scholz’s position would become untenable.
Thorsten Frei, who manages the CDU’s parliamentary strategy, has told Der Spiegel that such ‘a motion is one of several possibilities’ as ‘it is paramount that Germany give up its reluctance when it comes to arms shipments’. A recent survey has indicated that the majority of the German public agree with him and would support sending heavy weapons.
The German Chancellor has manoeuvred himself in a situation where it is uncertain whether he speaks for his coalition, let alone the country. It raises the possibility that the new German government could break apart while war rages in Europe.