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Opinion

Opinion: Germany's 'can't do' chancellor

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has insisted that Germany is "doing everything" possible. And yet the gap between his words and actions suggests otherwise, DW's Cristina Burack writes.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives to make a statement

Germany's spontaneous U-turn on heavy weapons for Ukraine have not been convincing

Earlier this week, I blinked, and something that Olaf Scholz had spent weeks insisting was impossible suddenly became possible. Germany will start delivering anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine.

Like so much of German policy on the war in Ukraine, including the initial decision back in late February to send any weapons at all, the announcement came out of the blue: Just hours before, leading members of Scholz's Social Democratic Party had given interviews saying sending heavy weapons was out of the question. Apparently, they didn't get the memo — or Scholz left them in the dark, as he reportedly did to some of his ministers when he proposed a major budget hike for the Bundeswehr (Germany's armed forces) in the days following the Russian invasion. 

In the leadup to the war and ever since, Germany's default position has been we can't: We can't send weapons to a conflict zone, we can't block Russia from SWIFT, (international payment system), we can't embargo Russian energy, we can't send heavy weapons — the list goes on.

It's true that many of these positions have been (partially) reversed, and while these turnarounds are moves in the right direction, the fact that so many "can't do's" have turned into "can do's" reveals a discrepancy between the chancellor's rhetoric and Germany's feet-dragging actions.

Is Germany really 'doing everything' for Ukraine? 

DW's Cristina Burack

DW's Cristina Burack

Scholz seems to be acting out of pressure rather than conviction. Over the past weeks he's argued that Germany is "doing everything" it can for Ukraine — but is it really? The spontaneous U-turns, where the impossible becomes possible overnight, suggests that "can't" may really be "don't want to" in disguise.

It's not a flattering look for Scholz, nor does it flatter Germany's image among its NATO partners, who have criticized it for its hesitancy and blocking harder sanctions. His behavior may also be affecting public support in Germany: An embargo on Russian energy, supported by the EU parliament and viewed by some policy experts as an effective way to cut off Russian war financing, was backed by 55% of Germans in the early days of the war, but more recent polls have shown support to have cooled to 28%. Scholz and Economy Minister Robert Habeck's media blitz extolling day-in, day-out why it can't be done may have fed that unwillingness.

 A chart showing Olaf Scholz' popularity

There is a lot more that can be done

Admittedly, experts disagree on how much going cold turkey on Russian energy would cripple Russian military might. Yet while Scholz and Habeck have repeatedly painted a near-apocalyptic scenario such a move would cause, many economists argue that the fallout would be far smaller, with economic growth contracting around 2.5-6%. During the pandemic, Germany proved adept at managing a 5% downturn through its short-time work scheme and other policies. In other words, the country could weather an embargo — if it wanted to. 

Even if the government doesn't want to quit the Russian energy habit, there is still so much it can do, and encourage its citizens to do, that can make a palpable difference.

The government should continue to support further direct and expanded transfers of heavy weapons. Germany could cut energy payments to Russia by instituting a 100 km/h (60 mph) highway speed limit, which 70% of the population is for; introducing alternate driving days or even car-free Sundays, as it did during the 1973 oil crisis; mandating home office and incentivize carpooling; instituting lucrative trade-in schemes for smaller, greener vehicles; and bumping up highly reduced public transport schemes planned for summer.

Electricity consumption could be reduced, of which a significant chunk comes from gas; landlords could be subsidized to improve insulation and energy-efficient heating units while regulating the costs that can be passed on to tenants.

And, critically, Germany could push the EU to institute tariffs on gas imports. Germany gets roughly half its gas from Russia. A tariff would make cheap Russian gas far less attractive, thereby cutting its funds while also providing income that could be used to offset economic loss at home. With Germany having paid Russia around €9.1 billion ($9.65 billion) for fossil fuel since the war's start, it's hard to stomach a continued business-as-usual approach that fills Putin's war coffers at the cost of Ukrainian lives.

A chart showing a German survey on a Russian gas and oil embargo

It's time to rally the country

The list of potential actions is long, but at the moment, Germans don't seem keen on making sacrifices. A poll released Thursday showed that only every other German was willing to give things up in daily life to help Ukraine. But public support can shift.

The chancellor must do everything in his power to make changes, communicate their necessity and rally the country behind him, because time is of the essence. He needs to launch a national, all-out campaign for what can be done, rather than what can't. Germany has the tools to do much, much more. The question is does it have the leader.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

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