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General debate: a lot of Merz, a little Scholz

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The chancellor and the leader of the opposition meet for the first time in the general debate in the Bundestag. One of the two is exhausted, the other determines the pronunciation.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz opens the general debate in the Bundestag. Chancellor Scholz listens carefully. © Bernd von Jutrczenka/​dpa

In his early days as head of government he was responsible Olaf Scholz an unflattering nickname: the invisible chancellor. This reputation even went around internationally: “invisible olaf“.

That changed when the situation in Ukraine came to a head: Scholz was present in Moscow, in Brussels, at the today’s diary. However, his silence was again especially strong when the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke in the Bundestag last week. There he was again, the chancellor speechless: Scholz was there, but he was sitting in front of the government bench. But he said: nothing. Selenskyj’s request for more German aid was not commented on in plenary. And the public was furious.

That was a direct pass for Federico Merz, who – as the leader of the opposition has the right to do – opened the general debate this Wednesday in the Bundestag. In the first direct exchange of blows between the government and the opposition, the leader of the Union parliamentary group made the chancellor’s silence a central part of her speech -and warned Scholz to please direct “visibly and audibly “.

Merz’s name appeared more frequently than Scholz’s.

And actually got Selenskyj – or at least he Bundestag – a response with a delay of almost a week. However, one that the Ukrainian president does not like, but should not particularly surprise him either: Ukraine, of course, can trust Germany, the chancellor replied in his speech. However, there are no plans to involve NATO or tighten sanctions.

Back to Mertz. Until recently, the AfD, as the largest opposition party in the Bundestag at the time, had often turned these debates into poisonous and unpleasant events. Merz’s tone was different: more serious, more pointed, more expert. He shows that he has experience in this position. He had already faced Gerhard Schröder on this stage more than 20 years ago, even then he unerringly found the red-green’s weaknesses.

This time, too, he knew how to prod the government parties in sensitive areas. Which in turn made many in the semaphore factions angry. After his speech, several worked extensively on him. Merz’s name appeared almost more frequently than Scholz’s. The FDP in particular was visibly angry with the CDU leader.

Lindner reacts with a demonstrative frown.

Merz, himself a financial expert, accused the traffic light of incurring large-scale debt: he criticized the planned supplementary and auxiliary budgets for the climate and the military, the new record debts. Finance Minister Lindner at the government bench, who also liked to talk about sound budgets in times of opposition, was visibly uncomfortable. He sometimes reacted with a quizzical look, sometimes with a demonstrative frown.

In his speech, Merz placed special emphasis on those projects for which the traffic light indicates the support of CDU/CSU is dependent. For example, compulsory vaccination, in which the coalition does not agree. Or the planned amendment of the Basic Law to improve the Bundeswehr. For the latter, Merz named six conditions without which his union would not agree. For example, they want to know exactly what purchases are planned for the Bundeswehr and they want to have a permanent say in decisions through an accompanying committee. According to Merz, the Union will not be the “substitute bank” or the “majority pimp” of the semaphore, which Scholz can turn to at will because his coalition is once again divided.

And then, after what seemed like 100 boos and a lot of raised fingers, Scholz arrived. He spoke as we know him: calmly, naturally and soberly. Scholz is not one to set off rhetorical fireworks. The operating temperature in the plenum was noticeably reduced. The Union’s deputy parliamentary leader, Mathias Middelberg, later called it an “almost exhaustive contribution” by the chancellor.

In fact, there was little that was new. of course she could Ukraine “Rely on our help,” Scholz emphasized again. Germany is providing humanitarian and financial aid, supplying defense weapons, and punishing Russia with harsh sanctions that are already having a huge impact.

An important “principle” of his government

At the same time he turned categorically against all those who demand that Germany or the NATO should be further involved in this conflict: no-fly zones, peacekeeping troops – in short: “a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia” – that will not happen, says Scholz, not for the first time. He also wants to continue receiving oil from Russia for the time being: “No one benefits if we endanger our economic substance.” If deliveries stopped immediately, Germany would plunge into a recession. “Sanctions should not affect European states more than Russian leaders.” This is an important “principle” of his government.

Scholz also responded to Merz, to whom he had previously listened carefully. Not explicitly in the six points in detail, but in principle. He thanks everyone, Scholz said, who agrees with the defense budget increase, “including his group, dear Mr. Merz.” You can talk about the exact design. It is “completely fine” if the Union formulates its ideas, he says conciliatory.

Not all speakers that day were so kind to Merz. Several worked in their posts at the head of the CDU. The criticism came mainly from the government camp, but also from the opposition: who was in charge of the foreign ministry and the defense ministry in the last 16 years? The Union! Thus the tenor. “We inherit large mortgages,” said Christian Dürr, leader of the FDP parliamentary group. At that time, Merz seemed to secretly agree with him. As is well known, he was never a big fan of Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel.

Climate change, corona, social justice

The war in Ukraine dominated this first general debate under the responsibility of the semaphore. Scholz addressed other topics, such as climate change to combat, Corona, social justice. At the start of the traffic light, more than 100 days ago, all of this continued to determine the political debate. This Wednesday alone was enough for a quick mention. Scholz briefly addressed the rise in energy prices for heating and mobility: he announced that the burden on citizens should continue to lighten markedly.

Once again, Scholz did not present himself as a speaker who electrified his listeners. But he is also one of the Chancellor’s strengths, from which he has benefited several times in his career: he did not provoke, but rather summarized the consensus of his heterogeneous government alliance and outlined his plans, sometimes clumsily. He praised several ministers by his name (Baerbock, Faeser, Lambrecht, Habeck, Lindner, not: Lauterbach). He sometimes sounded like a half-satisfied boss at a Christmas party.

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