A labor lawyer, a detail-obsessed pragmatist, a lifelong member of the Social Democrats, Olaf Scholz is now set to become the second most powerful politician in Germany.
The mayor of Hamburg since 2011, he is moving to Berlin to become Angela Merkel’s vice-chancellor, and the finance chief of Europe’s biggest economy.
Scholz has a lot on his plate, but initially people will be watching to see how he intends to fills Wolfgang Schäuble’s big shoes. The respected, and sometimes reviled, finance minister in the last coalition was wedded to austerity—and didn’t hesitate to impose it on other eurozone countries.
At home, Schäuble was obsessed with his “black zero,” or balanced budget. Scholz said in an interview with Der Spiegel recently that he wouldn’t abandon his predecessor’s beloved obsession with that. Kai-Uwe Schnapp, a politics professor at the University of Hamburg, says he doesn’t think that Scholz will be a very different to Schäuble as a finance minister.
“The Social Democratic Party in Hamburg is right of the center of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and Scholz is right of the center of the Social Democratic Party in Hamburg—so he is really very much to the middle of the political spectrum,” says Schnapp.
Scholz seemed to hint at a break with Schäuble’s imperious way of doing things, however, saying last month: “We don’t want to dictate to other European countries how they should develop.” He added that “mistakes were surely made in the past.”
“He is a very thrifty person as a politician.” Schnapp says. “There may be a little less stringent looking at money, but nothing that would have all the financial dams burst. Basically, I would say I do not expect major changes in the way this office is being filled.”
While he hasn’t said much about eurozone reforms so far, Scholz is a convinced European, whose appointment is likely to please French president Emmanuel Macron, who’s been patiently waiting since last September for Germany to form a government and begin talking about EU reforms with him.
Not his first rodeo
Scholz (59) was labor minister in Merkel’s first CDU-SPD coalition from 2007 to 2009, where he pushed through major reforms like upping the retirement age to 67. His manner was likened to a vending machine selling politics, and earned him the nickname the “Scholzomat.” He didn’t love the nickname, telling Die Zeit in 2013: “I was selling the message. I had to show a certain relentlessness. There was no room for maneuver.”
Schnapp says that people found Scholz’s incredible capacity for storing information both impressive and slightly robotic. “He was known as a minister who would know all the facts, who’d be incredibly well prepared for every meeting on every issue—people thought ‘this cannot be a person, this must be a machine’ [“Automat” in German].”
Scholz has been a trusted mayor in Hamburg, overall. People respect his commitment to really knowing his stuff and the city has been well-governed during his time. His reputation took a battering, however, at last year’s G20 summit in the city, where anti-capitalist rioters raged around the city, causing major damage and clashing with police.
Schnapp says he made a major strategic mistake as Hamburg mayor by telling people that there would be no problems at the G20: “Had he spoken to his conviction and told people it was going be difficult, it would have been much better for him.”
A January Forsa poll put Scholz in 5th place among the most popular government heads in Germany, with 59% of those surveyed rating his work as positive.
Schapp says “popular” is not the right word for him, as he’s not really an inspiring speaker or a people person. “Everything that’s related to being in the public, he’s fine to do it, and he knows it belongs to the job, but you can very obviously see that’s not his cup of tea.”