by Katja Hoyer
Wednesday, 9
February 2022
Explainer
07:46

The German Chancellor won’t say the words ‘Nord Stream 2’

Olaf Scholz refuses to commit to sanctioning Russia
by Katja Hoyer
Credit: Getty

‘If Russia invades…there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2,’ said US President Joe Biden in a press conference this week. Standing next to him, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz was visibly uncomfortable, determined not to say those words himself. Germany would not be dragged out onto the stage of world politics, not even when pushed by its most powerful friend and ally.

As was to be expected, Scholz’s first trip to Washington as German chancellor was dominated by the Ukraine crisis. Both sides were visibly keen to put on a show of unity, for the world and particularly for Moscow. But the deep economic rifts between their nations were laid bare. Though the leaders tried to avoid the topic, the contentious Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was so obviously tiptoed around in the opening remarks that it fell to journalists to bring it up: “will you commit today to pull the plug?”

Scholz was visibly annoyed that he was asked the question repeatedly. When yet another journalist wanted to know if he didn’t think he could win back some trust from allies by naming Nord Stream 2 explicitly as a sanction, he rolled his eyes in exasperation and then looked pleadingly over to Biden who graciously answered on his behalf.

It is feasible that the two men agreed behind closed doors that it would fall to Biden to make the threat of Nord Stream 2 explicit while Scholz remains ‘strategically ambiguous’. But this is hardly going to convince anyone that Germany means business, least of all Vladimir Putin.

Domestic and diplomatic pressure has at last triggered the German chancellor into physical action. After months of inactivity, he has now seen the Presidents of the US, France and Poland, given two major TV interviews and scheduled a meeting with Putin . His foreign Minister Analena Baerbock has also gone back to Ukraine to tour the front lines and be photographed in protective gear, suggesting that the commitment and empathy that the Ukrainians have been demanding from Berlin had been there all along. However, CNN’s Jake Tapper has been told that President Zelensky refused to see her because of the ongoing refusal to name Nord Stream 2 as a sanction despite the sudden visibility of the chancellor.

In fact, Scholz was so keen to get his message across to the US and the world, that he even switched to English at one point during the press conference with Biden and for the interview he gave Tapper on CNN later. But the appearance was yet another display of ‘strategic ambiguity’ — the phrase ‘financial support’ just won’t translate into concrete action, regardless in what language or how often it is said.

Scholz’s first appearance in front of a world audience has made it clear that he does not envision Germany in a geopolitical leadership role. The fourth largest economy of the world is happy to remain a mere ‘strategic partner’, financially supporting decisions made elsewhere. While Scholz confirmed that Britain may use German airspace and that American troops are welcome on German soil, Berlin will not send weapons, allow its weapons to be sent by others or commit to severe economic sanctions against Russia.

Scholz is already coming under heavy fire at home. A new survey has shown that only one in five Germans think Scholz has been a good chancellor so far. By contrast half the population believed he would be when he took office in December. Only 8% believe that he shows strong leadership.

Since Scholz has taken office in December, his low profile and conflict-averse instincts have left Germany rudderless. The leadership change was a chance for the country to emerge from the sluggish indecision of the Merkel era. But as Germany blinked into the glare of a world full of conflict, it decided to put its head back in the sand.

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Michael K
Michael K
4 months ago

Germany depends on Russian gas. They are shutting down their nuclear reactors and coalplants because they want to be perfectly “green” to save the world. So now Russian gas is the only thing that protects them from utter darkness and freezing cold.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
4 months ago
Reply to  Michael K

Closing nuclear reactors today was never going to make the world any greener.
Idiotic decision to close them – then or now.

Last edited 4 months ago by Ian Barton
Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

The decision was based on security issues with the past generation of reactors, it seems. At no point did the public debate consider the possibility of building a new generation of (better performing and safer) reactors.
Sort of like driving a 84 Lada and saying “I will never drive a car again in my life because this one is unsafe and breaks down every three minutes.”

D Glover
D Glover
4 months ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I thought it was a reaction to the Fukushima ‘disaster’. I thought at the time that it was an overreaction since Germany doesn’t suffer earthquakes or tsunamis, and the Japanese event had negligible casualties.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

For sure Fukushima played a role, though actually the ‘Atomausstieg’ predated it by over a decade – under the wise and disinterested leadership of Herrn Schröder.
The CDU was less gung-ho about abandoning Germany’s cleanest, safest and least strategically dependent form of energy. The decommissioning had, in fact, been paused during Merkel’s first term. And as you hinted, the decommissioning was quickly accelerated following Fukushima.
Again, whether it made sense to decommission these old reactors sooner rather than later is beyond my technical competence to say. But what was conspicuously absent was any thoughts of replacing them with safer, newer alternatives.
Entirely coincidentally, Decomissioner-in-Chief Schröder started work for Gazprom virtually the day he left office and has been instrumental in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He can now be seen toasting Vlad with the finest of French champagnes. That’s what happened the last time the SPD occupied the Chancellery.

Matt M
Matt M
4 months ago

Katja Hoyer is fast becoming one of my favourite writers here and at The Spectator. Great insight into German politics without the sneering anti-Brexit/British/US tone that often accompanies this type of report.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago

This article in FAZ yesterday was very good: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/olaf-scholz-bei-joe-biden-bizarres-schauspiel-im-weissen-haus-17788140.html
It basically rips into Scholz and says that the reluctance to be clear about NS2 in Washington was due to sensitivities within his own party – parts of which are very pro-Russian indeed.
So, basically, he outsourced his own party management to Biden, who made the critical statements for him.
Logical in a way – but leadership it was not.
The German political class just don’t want to leave the amniotic sac of the Merkel era and tbh, at this point, it is a little embarrassing to watch.
Side note: Scholz is also under fire for resisting calls to release documents relating to the use of the EU post-corona restructuring fund. This “keep your mouth shut and wait it out” approach is just not cutting the mustard…

J Bryant
J Bryant
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I suspect an underreported aspect of this story is Germany’s distrust of America as an ally. Germany recognizes the political schisms in the US and doesn’t know where America is headed in the future. They also don’t want to take sides between America and China. They’ve become professional fence sitters and I’m not sure the German people can fairly criticize Scholz because they elected him and his hopelessly divided coalition government.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

That distrust extends to Austrians too. There is an awful lot of anti-American bile sprayed around here, which seems a tad ungrateful when America has expended vast amounts of resources to guarantee Europe’s security these last 80 years.

John Hicks
John Hicks
4 months ago

German relations with the Russians must be one of the great mysteries of post war strategy and understanding. That the Russians killed/murdered 76% (German Red Cross figures, 2005) of all the 4.3m German fatalities in that conflict, makes these love/admiration/considerations more puzzling. Hopefully Katja Hoyer’s promised history of the GDR will contain some explanations for this most deadly relationship

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

I wonder what old Bismarck would think of the modern German people.

John Montague
John Montague
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

He would probably forecast some more blood and iron heading their way.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Well, he did say the secret of success in politics was to make a good treaty with Russia, which the government certainly seems to be bearing in mind.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
4 months ago

Following the various western news outlets on this issue it’s making Germany look extremely bad.
I’m interested to understand if Germans realise the very negative western view of Germany and if they just don’t care about it?