When Germany’s three-way “traffic-light” coalition took office last December, its politicians knew they would be busy, but few knew just how many taboos they would shatter in their first 100 days of office.
Instead of marking that anniversary this weekend, Germany's new ministers are scrambling to keep up with Russia's war in Ukraine – and its through-the-looking-glass aftershocks.
The centre-left Social Democratic Party, for instance, is traditionally Germany's disarmament party but is now poised to back the largest military spending programme in post-war history.
Finance minister Christian Lindner of the liberal, free-market Free Democratic Party – normally bastions of small-state fiscal restraint – is planning two multimillion off-balance sheet emergency funds, to bankroll military spending and the fight against inflation costs. On Monday, meanwhile, Green cabinet ministers, who promised "value-based foreign policy", experienced realpolitik hangover over a deal to end Russian gas dependency by cosying up instead to Qatar.
It's a world away from last September, when the SPD's Olaf Scholz won the federal election with a promise of firm leadership but no showbiz: "I'm applying to be chancellor, not circus ringmaster."
Now, like other EU leaders, he finds managing a hellish circus with more rings than the Olympics and Audi combined. The pandemic and climate change – two priorities for Germany's G7 presidency – have been eclipsed by Russia's war on Ukraine. Each week, sometimes even a single day, has offered enough German policy shifts for an entire electoral term.
Finding the balance
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was on hand last month to witness Scholz abandon his softly-softly approach on Russia. After its invasion, the chancellor suspended a major new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany – changing forever a bilateral energy relationship that survived even the chilliest days of the cold war.
Four days later the chancellor upended decades of post-war German restraint with a promise to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons. In a further watershed for German defence policy, he announced a one-off €100 billion military fund and a steady increase in annual spending until Germany meets Nato targets.
The Scholz era is already so epic that the daily newspaper Süddeutsche has compared the new chancellor to Ulysses's Leopold Bloom, experiencing an entire life in a day: "With the difference, of course, that one can only make guesses about what preoccupies, haunts, motivates" Scholz.
Preoccupying the German leader now, say officials, is finding the right balance of prudence and pragmatism commensurate with the grave situation.
“With each bomb,” warned Scholz last week, “Russia is removing itself away further from the international community.”
With every Russian bomb, Germany finds itself adapting – in real time – to house Ukrainian refugees while trying to meet new expectations on the international stage.
After a smooth power transition, Germany’s opposition and media have been open with their respect for the new administration.
Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has won over many doubters by using plain language and concrete examples to bring home the reality of a war no farther from Berlin than the north-south drive from Flensburg to Freiburg.
In a keynote address last Friday she promised her audience a new German security policy to “defend the security of freedom”. In a self-critical nod, she said Berlin would now acknowledge the world – and Russia – as they are now, rather than how Germany wished they were.
“Not everything is suddenly new and different,” she said. “Instead we have to sharpen our gaze towards what is new.”
New, too, are images of her fellow Green minister Robert Habeck, responsible for economics and energy, bowing to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
On Sunday the two struck a deal to import Qatar’s liquefied natural gas , part of a plan to end German dependency on Russian gas. Given Qatar’s human rights record, and Green hopes to move beyond fossil fuels, Habeck officials described this as a “bitter but necessary” deal. Similarly bitter, Mr Habeck acknowledged, is that Germany still needs Russian gas at all. Only for now, he insisted, “and as little as possible”.
“Anyone who has ears should start to listen,” he added, summing up Berlin’s new robust approach to Moscow.