Germany must embrace role as anchor, says president Steinmeier

Country can shake off post-war insecurity and ‘give others courage’, says Social Democrat

New German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier is congratulated by  drag Queen Olivia Jones after the election. Germany’s former foreign minister is in the centre-left Social Democrats party. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

New German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier is congratulated by drag Queen Olivia Jones after the election. Germany’s former foreign minister is in the centre-left Social Democrats party. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

 

Germany’s new president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has urged his country to shake off decades of post-war insecurity and embrace its new role as an “anchor of hope” in a stormy world.

Sunday’s presidential election was a far more significant affair than usual: for Germany’s immediate political future and its role in a world Mr Steinmeier said was “turning off its axis”.

“Is it not wonderful that Germany has, for many in the world, become an anchor of hope?” asked Mr Steinmeier, a 61-year-old Social Democrat (SPD), former foreign minister and, before that, chief of staff to chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

He was elected Germany’s 12th post-war head of state by securing 931 of the 1,253 votes available in the special federal assembly of Bundestag MPs and federal state delegates.

His limited, representative role – and indirect election – are a direct consequence of the political power wielded by the pre-war Reichs president, seen as a contributory factor to the collapse of the Weimar republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Peace after war

With a nod to that dictator’s long shadow, Mr Steinmeier said in his acceptance address: “We give others courage not because everything is good in the country, but because we have shown that it can get better. That peace can come after war.”

The 25-year political veteran is a highly popular figure in Germany, particularly after donating a kidney to save his wife’s life in 2010. Over two terms and seven years as foreign minister Mr Steinmeier was a key diplomat in talks on Iran, Ukraine and Syria.

For German chancellor Angela Merkel, Sunday was a bittersweet moment for two reasons. First, Dr Merkel admitted she was losing a chief diplomat “with a dexterous touch to find solutions” – a skill very much in demand given growing uncertainties over Russia, Turkey and, now, the US.

It was bittersweet moment, too, because her CDU/CSU alliance was forced to back Mr Steinmeier after she failed to find a suitable candidate of her own.

That set in motion a chain of events with still-unfolding consequences for Dr Merkel. Mr Steinmeier handed the keys of the foreign ministry to Sigmar Gabriel, who in turn handed the SPD leadership – and Merkel challenger duties in September’s federal election – to departing European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

Despite having no federal political experience, Mr Schulz’s arrival in Berlin has given his ailing SPD a huge shot in the arm, triggering a surge in membership applications and a six-point jump in polls to within shouting distance of Dr Merkel’s CDU. One poll – for the Bild tabloid – even gave Mr Schulz and the SPD a narrow lead – and this before he presents a policy programme.

Gritted teeth

Despite a re-energised SPD, Dr Merkel’s centre-right CDU and Bavarian CSU alliance struggled last week – through gritted teeth – to back her fourth-term bid, after agreeing to disagree on her still-divisive refugee strategy.

Aware they are heading into election season with that open flank, Dr Merkel’s CDU has vowed to switch from co-habitation to attack mode against its SPD grand coalition partners this morning.

Warming up over the weekend, CDU officials leaked a dossier suggesting Mr Schulz and his closest confidants in Brussels were experts at milking the European Parliament expenses machine.

Meanwhile, CDU finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble rubbished attempts by Mr Schulz to present himself as a political outsider and a breath of fresh air for Berlin.

“He’s not an underdog . . . he sat for years in the European Parliament, lastly as president. If that isn’t establishment, what is?” Dr Schäuble said to Der Spiegel.

The 74-year-old veteran accused Mr Schulz of embracing the divisive “post-factual” rhetoric of US president Donald Trump that overlooked Germany’s economic stability in the Merkel era.

While SPD officials cried foul at the comparison, Mr Trump’s shadow hung over Sunday’s presidential election in Berlin’s Reichstag building. Before voting got underway, parliamentary president Norbert Lammert, without mentioning Mr Trump by name, warned against leaders who “literally walled themselves in and prioritised protectionism over free trade”.

As Mr Steinmeier moves into Bellevue Palace in Berlin, his first meeting with the new White House occupant will be interesting. In his least diplomatic aside, Germany’s new head of state branded the billionaire during the presidential campaign a “hate preacher”.