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Scholz dreams of a larger Europe

Rosalia Romaniec
Rosalia Romaniec
August 30, 2022

The location was carefully chosen: In Prague, the German chancellor presented his ideas for a modern, pragmatic Europe. But the message did not go down well with his eastern neighbors, writes Rosalia Romaniec.

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Olaf Scholz in Prague
Olaf Scholz selected Prague as the location for his keynote speech on Europe's futureImage: Petr David Josek/AP Photo/picture alliance

It was a typical Olaf Scholz speech: the chancellor spoke very calmly, almost emotionlessly. And yet there was a great deal of content: the European Union should become a powerful global player, a top region for business and technology, a large, sovereign, and pragmatic community of values that can defend itself. Who wouldn't agree with that?

Scholz clearly declared his support for further rounds of enlargement. Above all, the states of the Western Balkans, but also Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine should all become members of the European Union, according to Scholz. In the foreseeable future, this could mean 36 EU countries.

Radical reforms for Europe

Scholz did not mince his words as he presented his vision for an open and modern Europe. "Blockades can be overcome, European rules can be changed — if necessary, even in a rush." He thus echoed earlier proposals by French President Emmanuel Macron, proposals that former Chancellor Angela Merkel never took up. This may be late but is nonetheless refreshing.

Scholz called for a gradual departure from unanimity in EU decision-making and a shift toward more pragmatic majority voting. A good and long overdue strategy, one that ensures Europe can function in the future. The institutional heart of the EU — the Commission, and the Parliament — would also have to be thoroughly reformed. Scholz's plan for restructuring Europe is based on modern architecture: "Form follows function." That is German pragmatism at its best.

Rosalia Romaniec
Rosalia Romaniec is the head of DW's current politics sectionImage: DW/B. Geilert

Czech host uninterested in German visions

But in Eastern Europe, this pragmatism is currently not understood, or it is mistrusted. Out of consideration for Eastern European fears of German dominance, Scholz emphasized that his proposals were "not ready-made solutions," but only food for thought that he would like to discuss.

But then the opportunity for a real exchange — a question-and-answer session with students — was canceled at short notice and the chancellor instead joined his Czech counterpart, Petr Fiala, for a one-on-one meeting. Their discussion, however, was not about visions for Europe, but about energy supply in light of the current crisis.

The radical restructuring of the EU, as proposed by Scholz, did not impress his Czech host. Fiala made it clear that the Czech Republic was against expanding majority voting in Europe. But he also admitted he had not actually listened to Scholz's speech at all — reportedly due to "technical difficulties." The admission provided an irritating moment on this day.

Petr Fiala (left) and Olaf Scholz smiling, shaking hands on balcony
Due to technical problems, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (left) could not listen to Olaf Scholz's speechImage: Petr David Josek/AP Photo/picture alliance

That should give Scholz cause to reflect, particularly as he specifically chose Prague as the venue for his keynote speech on Europe — and not just because the Czech Republic currently holds the EU presidency, but also as a deliberate signal toward Eastern Europe. "The center of Europe is turning eastward," he said.

He would not, he said, accept Putin's attack on Europe and promised major reconstruction aid for Ukraine and investment in common European security. Among other proposals, he suggested Germany could take over building up Ukraine's artillery and air defenses. This is not a token gesture, but rather — if it comes to pass — a new turning point.

Scholz lacks a feel for the East

Nevertheless, the chancellor didn't arouse much enthusiasm. There was no applause during his speech and merely subdued clapping at the end. Scholz did not strike the right note. Instead of convincing the Eastern Europeans with constructive compromise proposals from Berlin, he continued to harp on about the rule of law — a touchy subject. Instead of making veiled threats, he should rather be promoting trust. Many in Eastern Europe feel, that Germany's credibility as a reliable partner has been severely tarnished since the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Olaf Scholz continues to lack a feel for Eastern Europe, which would now be more important than ever. The chancellor has a clear vision for a modern EU. But if he can't win over the east, he will be nothing more than a German dreamer.

This article was originally written in German.

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