Meet Olaf Scholz’s shadow foreign minister

Meet Olaf Scholz’s shadow foreign minister
Опубликовано: Friday, 17 February 2023 15:46

Wolfgang Schmidt pulls the strings on all big German government decisions, and sidelines the foreign ministry when necessary.

BERLIN — For Olaf Scholz, it doesn’t really matter who runs the foreign ministry. When the German chancellor wants to shape foreign policy, he just goes next door.

Across the spacious hallway from Scholz’s office on the seventh floor of government headquarters sits Wolfgang Schmidt, the head of the chancellery, the federal minister for special tasks, and Scholz’s closest aide for 20 years.

Despite being largely unknown to the wider public, Schmidt is the most influential official in Berlin. He’s the man to whom German and international politicians go if they really want to shape the chancellor’s policies. He’s also the one pulling the strings on all big government decisions, including on the so-called Zeitenwende — the epochal, head-spinning sea change in German foreign and security policy brought about by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Schmidt “is the most important person after Scholz because the chancellor trusts him so closely, listens to his opinion and entrusts him with so many tasks,” said Markus Töns, a senior lawmaker from the chancellor’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).

When U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Berlin last month to discuss Germany’s reluctance to supply Ukraine with tanks, he went straight to Schmidt. The top Scholz aide is also managing Franco-German relations by talking directly to French President Emmanuel Macron’s top adviser Alexis Kohler. And sometimes Schmidt even receives leaders or vice presidents from smaller allies like Moldova or Colombia in the chancellery, if Scholz is not available.

But where Schmidt, 52, has really made his mark is as a key architect of the Zeitenwende, the first anniversary of which Scholz will mark during his opening speech at the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

Schmidt’s dedication to the policy — which turned Germany, albeit reluctantly, into one of Ukraine’s most essential military supporters — is set out in an op-ed he penned ahead of the event, in which he talks up Germany as “a reliable partner” that “assumes responsibility.”

‘Spirit of trust’

The head of the chancellery doesn’t normally dabble in foreign policy, confining their work to domestic politics and administrative tasks. The fact that Schmidt plays such a key role in foreign policy is a source of controversy amid a fierce spat between Scholz and his actual foreign minister — Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.

“Schmidt wants to concentrate the important foreign policy files in the chancellery,” said Anton Hofreiter, a senior lawmaker from the Greens, who govern in a coalition with Scholz’s SPD and the Free Democrats (FDP). Jürgen Trittin, the Greens’ foreign policy spokesperson, recently accused the head of the chancellery of trying to set up a “shadow foreign ministry.”

Schmidt rejects the criticism as “quite nonsense.”

Speaking to POLITICO over a coffee and a Diet Coke in his office, Schmidt defended his influence on foreign policy decisions, saying that it was his duty as head of the chancellery to bring together the priorities from different ministries and coalition partners, without interfering.

Scholz and Schmidt during the second day of a German federal government cabinet retreat at Schloss Meseberg in May 2022 | Pooled photo by Carstensen/Getty Images

“My job, after all, is also to help ensure that the government as a whole functions smoothly and is in a good position. That includes the chancellery working very closely and in a spirit of trust with all the departments,” Schmidt said.

He stressed that he wanted close cooperation with the foreign ministry because “it is in our common interest that the German government speaks with one voice internationally. Especially in these times, that’s particularly important.”

Schmidt, who oversees a staff of 870 across seven departments in the chancellery, also said that he’s not a micro-manager, which is why most formal foreign policy contacts — such as with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan — are handled by Jens Plötner, the chancellor’s foreign policy adviser, whom Schmidt personally hired for the job.

“Plötner is an incredibly experienced diplomat whom I have known for a long time and hold in high regard,” Schmidt said.

Yet even politicians from his own SPD agree that Schmidt, who also oversees Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence services, is the man who’s calling the shots on the big decisions, in close coordination with the chancellor.

“When you think of all the key decisions of the past year — the Zeitenwende, the €100 billion special fund [for German military armament], the arms deliveries to Ukraine — Schmidt played a central role there,” said Nils Schmid, SPD foreign policy spokesperson.

Niels Annen, an SPD state secretary for development policy who has known Schmidt since their school days in Hamburg, said that the chancellery boss “has been intensively engaged in foreign policy for many years,” including a stint as vice president of the International Union of Socialist Youth in the early 2000s.

“He has made a lot of international contacts and cultivated a lot of networks since that time, and of course, the work of the federal government benefits from that,” Annen said.

Schmidt has faced criticism, however, for rigorously defending and enforcing the chancellor’s more controversial decisions, such as his longtime refusal to send German tanks to Ukraine. This pitted him not only against the Greens but also damaged Germany’s image among allies, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. In one controversial case, Schmidt sought to dismiss the frequent calls for German Leopard tank deliveries by comparing them to the hype about Nazi “wonder weapons” during World War II.

While Berlin ultimately changed course and approved the sending of Leopard tanks, the insistence by Scholz and Schmidt on tying their move to Washington’s decision to send its own tanks led to criticism that Germany subordinated itself to the U.S., and that precious time for Ukraine was lost because Germany could have delivered the tanks much earlier, as Foreign Minister Baerbock had demanded.

Controversially, Baerbock’s ministry was not only completely sidelined on the tanks decision but was also informed about the shift in policy at a very late stage, after other ministries.

The Scholz boys

Schmidt is the head of a largely male group of top advisers around the chancellor, dubbed “the Scholz boys,” which includes EU and financial policy adviser Jörg Kukies, foreign policy adviser Plötner, and chief government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit (Scholz’s bureau chief Jeanette Schwamberger is the only woman in the chancellor’s closest circle).

They all have been working with Scholz since before he became German leader, but the tightest bond is with Schmidt.

The two met in Hamburg in the early 1990s, where Scholz chaired the SPD branch in the Altona neighborhood while Schmidt was working on his law dissertation in the hopes of becoming a judge. Scholz quickly began to like Schmidt, whose long hair at the time he found quite amusing as it reminded him of himself a decade earlier.

When Scholz was appointed SPD secretary-general in 2002, he convinced Schmidt to become his personal adviser. Since then, Schmidt’s career has been advancing in the slipstream of Scholz, who became social affairs minister, then Hamburg mayor, and in 2018 vice chancellor and finance minister, before taking over as chancellor in 2021.

Despite their years of friendship, Scholz and Schmidt are completely different characters.

While the chancellor is often reserved, taciturn and struggles to communicate his decisions, Schmidt is friendly, chatty and charming, and has no problem in explaining why everything his boss does is right. At networking events in the Berlin political bubble, Schmidt can often be found until late at night socializing and discussing, with a beer in his hand or playing table football.

“He’s the kind of guy you would love to go barbecuing with or hang out in a bar,” said one German official who regularly works with Schmidt.

Over the years, Schmidt’s skills as a networker and spin doctor became increasingly vital for Scholz. As the Social Democrat became embroiled in scandals such as the massive “CumEx” tax evasion scheme, or the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg — which was supposed to showcase Scholz’s hometown as a global city but turned into a fiasco amid violent demonstrations — Schmidt came to the rescue. Building on his extensive network of contacts, including many journalists, Schmidt worked day and night to get Scholz out of the firing line.

Politicians who are about to make a talk show appearance discussing a Scholz-critical topic can expect a text message from Schmidt defending the chancellor’s behavior. The same goes for journalists investigating controversies around Scholz, who are fed with information or position papers by Schmidt.

Friend and foe

With his friendly, buddy-like manner, it often seems as if Schmidt is simply trying to win his (or Scholz’s) critics over by, quite literally, embracing them. If that strategy doesn’t work, however, he can be tough as nails when it comes to defending the chancellor’s interests, say people who have clashed with him.

“Scholz doesn’t have to be nice — that’s why he has Schmidt. Scholz doesn’t have to be nasty either — he has Schmidt for that too,” was how German weekly Zeit described his style in 2021.

The chancellery minister ruffled feathers during the protracted tanks debate last year, with five people, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak in public or were concerned about the potential consequences, saying that Schmidt had put pressure on political allies and think tanks to tone down their criticism of Scholz.

On another occasion, Oliver Schröm, an investigative journalist who published a book about Scholz’s involvement in the “Cum Ex” tax evasion scandal, said in an interview last week that Schmidt “intervened against us on all channels,” including by directly reaching out to editors-in-chief of to “discredit us.”

While Schmidt did not want to speak publicly about such criticism, a person familiar with his thinking said he appreciates speaking to those who have a different opinion than him. There have also been regular exchanges with representatives of think tanks in the chancellery since the new government took office, with positive feedback.

Schmid, the SPD’s foreign policy spokesperson, rushed to Schmidt’s defense by saying that “things sometimes can get rough” in internal political discussions but added that “I have never experienced him as someone going over the top. He’s always seeking to build bridges, also with his critics.”

Schmidt is also increasingly taking on a more public profile. He appeared in parliament for the first time last week, explaining and defending the government’s policies in a 90-minute question-and-answer session alongside Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck.

This comes amid growing speculation about whether Schmidt might be seeking a bigger political role in the future, and his name was floated as a potential successor to Christine Lambrecht as defense minister (Scholz ultimately chose Boris Pistorius).

One official working closely with Schmidt said it was unlikely that Scholz would let him move to a different position, given the important role his top aide plays.

But could there be a political life for Schmidt without Scholz?

When asked that question, Schmidt said: “I don’t deal with questions like that. I have my dream job.”

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