Daily Briefing

Scholz, Spahn and AKK walk into a bar...

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Vice chancellor Scholz: So close, and yet so far away. Source: DPA

Germany, if you recall, makes a lot of cars, even good ones. That occasionally gets lost in the exhaust fumes of the Dieselgate scandal and the non-stop melodrama surrounding a much cooler car visionary, Elon Musk. As it happens, Mr. Musk, a Silicon Valley drama queen with Twitter habits resembling those of Donald Trump, currently seems at risk of self-destructing. So this might be a good time for a glance at what those Germans are up to.

Quite a bit, it turns out. Tonight, Daimler will unveil the first model in its new family of electric vehicles. The brand is called EQ, and the car is an SUV called EQC. Other EQ babies are to follow later, from small city zippers to big honcho limos. Then, on Sunday, BMW will unwrap its electric sedan, called iNext. And in two weeks, Audi will show off something called e-tron.

All of these cars are, of course, attempts to answer the challenge from Mr. Musk’s Tesla. Audi, cheekily, is even holding its launch in San Francisco, just over a bridge and up a road from Tesla’s plant in Fremont. The German angst is that Daimler, BMW and VW will soon be to cars what Nokia a decade ago was to mobile phones or Kodak to photography.

It remains to be seen whether Tesla – or the Chinese and all the others forging ahead in electric mobility – will quake in fear at beholding these German launches. Teslas are produced on assembly lines custom-built for the electric age. The German cars are put together on assembly lines that have been tweaked; they are still compromises between the old world and the new. The future is definitely electric; it may or may not be German.

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As the Merkel era slowly nears its orderly end, let’s check back in with the various minnows hoping to become big fish and then chancellor. There are three worth keeping an eye on: Olaf Scholz, Jens Spahn and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Because the latter is hard to pronounce even for Germans, we will bow to convention and call her AKK.

Mr. Scholz is, formally, the most senior of the three, as vice chancellor and finance minister. He is also a Social Democrat, which means his probability of ever being chancellor asymptotically approaches zero: The SPD is at 17 percent in the polls and trending down. Above all, he is a really boring person.

But as finance minister, Scholz can still make a lot of waves, as he is currently trying to do. For the first few months in office, he was trying to channel his conservative Christian-Democratic predecessor, Wolfgang Schäuble: counting the tax revenues gushing in so as to dispel widespread suspicions that Social Democrats cannot balance budgets. But just as people started calling him Olaf Schäuble, he tacked hard left. He’s now calling for higher social-security payouts. In an aging society, that’s economically irresponsible. But Scholz is hoping that it will prevent older blue-collar types from drifting to the populist right: “If we want to avoid German Trumps, we must have a reasonable social safety net. Pensions play a key role in that.”

Jens Spahn is something else. (We profiled him in March.) An up-and-coming Christian Democrat, he has been managing simultaneously to dog-whistle to the right wing of his party – with faux campaigns against excessive cosmopolitanism in Berlin cafés and such – and to come across as reassuringly modern and hip. It helps that he is openly gay.

His goal now, as health minister, is to stay in the news cycle without getting mired in boring and thankless healthcare morasses. That’s why he is proposing to flip the default for organ donations in Germany: All people would be potential donors if they die unless they or their family explicitly opt out. To the extent that this change might save lives, it’s sensible. To the extent that it keeps Spahn being talked about, it’s good politics.

Finally, there is AKK, whom we also profiled in March. She is the one to watch most closely because she is Merkel’s preferred choice. Merkel sees a lot of herself in AKK: Both are female, quite religious (Merkel Lutheran, AKK Catholic), a bit lefty on economic issues, sometimes overlooked in their early careers. And both hail from the fringes of Germany’s political geography: Merkel from a corner of the former East Germany, AKK from the southwestern Saarland, which used to be French until 1957. Temperamentally, both are inclined toward incrementalism and soft words rather than bold gestures or inflammatory rhetoric.

AKK has no cabinet position. But she runs the day-to-day business of the Christian Democratic Union. That’s exactly what Merkel was doing when she putsched out Helmut Kohl and Wolfgang Schäuble in 1999 and took over the party. AKK last made headlines during the summer holidays, proposing that Germany might reintroduce some form of conscription – to social service, if not the military sort. Most likely, she was just testing the waters of her base in the CDU. Whenever she, with Merkel’s help, is ready to go prime-time, we will all know it.

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Here is something that is just plain creepy. American spooks are now pretty sure how to explain the strange illnesses reported by Americans in the US embassy in Cuba and a consulate in China. They think that unnamed enemies – go ahead and speculate – have been beaming microwave radiation at them. These waves leave no trace except mysterious headaches or sound booms heard by the victims. Over time, these can lead to serious ailments. How I miss the days of early-Sean-Connery James Bond films when things just honestly and chivalrously exploded.

Andreas Kluth is Handelsblatt Global’s Editor-in-Chief.

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