FOLLOWING a dismal campaign, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) fell to their lowest post-war result in Germany’s general election last September. Early this year they quarrelled over whether to enter another coalition with Angela Merkel. Lefties warned that without a spell in opposition to formulate more distinct policies, the party would be doomed. But the leadership won over members at a vote in March with promises of renewal within government, greater distance from the centre-right, investment increases and, most of all, a “European awakening” beside Emmanuel Macron, the French president.
As the new SPD finance minister and vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz has more power to enact that plan than anyone else. He is widely tipped to be the party’s candidate for chancellor at the next election, which is due to take place in 2021 but may come sooner. Yet talking to The Economist in his office in the finance ministry, the centrist former mayor of Hamburg advances a different strategy.
There are words of reassurance for comrades anxious that he is “Olaf Schäuble” or a new incarnation of Wolfgang Schäuble, his skinflint centre-right predecessor. Mr Scholz distances himself from projections of a flat federal investment rate over the parliament. “We have some investment headroom and we are willing to use it,” he says, hinting that infrastructure, science and defence will be his priorities. On Europe he offers full-throated support for Mr Macron’s notion of “European sovereignty”, a call for common action to improve the resilience of the European social model. More solidarity in the euro zone is needed, he says: “I really underline Macron’s idea that there is no time to waste.”
But he really wants to talk, though rather vaguely, about the bigger picture. That Western workers lack the optimism felt by their counterparts in rising Asian economies helps explain the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit: “Imagine you’re a trucker and proud of your job as a tough man and…you see in the news that in 15-20 years that there may be no more truckers because there will be self-driving trucks.” Winning back such voters will take a rigorous focus not just on “foreign policy, security, defence, Europe” but also everyday matters: “creating jobs and dealing with the problems of modern life…of the 2020s and 2030s.” Deepening the euro zone should not come at the expense of progress on security and migration; Franco-German collaboration should not weaken the EU’s overall cohesion; at home the SPD should pursue a balanced budget, debt reduction and ever-higher employment.
To match such down-to-earth policies, Mr Scholz prescribes a down-to-earth style. He reckons the SPD needs clear, consistent messages rather than “tactical” manoeuvres: “We want to be true-hearted in what we do, but also a pragmatic left-of-centre party that could be elected by many people who are not classical SPD voters.” If this cocktail of reassurance, material progress, non-ideological managerialism and a healthy disregard for identity politics seems familiar it is because it closely resembles Mrs Merkel’s formula. Mr Scholz seems to be styling himself as a reassuring father of the nation, a “Vati” (dad) to the chancellor’s “Mutti” (mum).
That may be a wise strategy. Mrs Merkel’s centre-right alliance has been consumed by infighting over immigration in recent weeks and may well lurch to the right after she steps down, which she is expected to do before the next election. That would help Mr Scholz, who seems to be preparing to occupy her territory by styling himself as the natural heir to her low-key, centrist style of politics.
Germany could do worse than a new chancellor who is able to combine Mrs Merkel’s unflappable maturity with a greater willingness to think ahead to the 2030s. But Mr Scholz still has much to prove. His buzzwords about technological change, his caution about Germany’s debt, his unhurried approach to badly needed investment, the absence of any real “European awakening”—it all sums up not just the positive aspects of the current chancellor but also the negative ones, such as her passivity, her vagueness and her reluctance to risk unsettling reforms. The finance minister’s acolytes reckon he will develop bolder ideas and proposals over the coming years. He had better; there is not much sign of them yet.