(17 May 2022) In Germany's federal system, regional elections have a habit of clustering – generally at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. Certainly, just six months into their roller-coaster ride of a term and with Chancellor Olaf Scholz currently looking somewhat beleaguered, the Berlin 'Traffic Light' coalition would have preferred not to have its popularity examined at three regional elections.
What do state-level ballots really tell us about national politics, though, and how have the major parties come out of the recent elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and North-Rhine Westphalia. Read my analysis for The Local here.
(10 May 2022) Most people know the principle of a false economy: buy something cheap and you have to replace it more often. A classic examples is shoes: expensive footwear lasts longer and so works out to be better value. Still, many people prefer - or have - to buy cheaper shoes.
This, in German, is called "milkmaid maths": eine Milchmädchenrechnung. And as a country, we have, due to the miserliness of our social security system, a problem with false economies on two levels: firstly, we force poorer households to buy everything cheap by keeping them on an absolute pittance; secondly, the exchequer has to plug the gaps with one-off credits and additional payments every time there is a crisis.
In an age of continuous crisis, we would be far better off making our benefits system fit for purpose, as I argue in The Local.
(22 April 2022) As the old saying goes: Jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne - Beginnings are always magical. And Olaf Scholz' first months in office went, on the surface of things, rather well. His adventurous Ampelkoalition was running smoothly and he seemed to be delivering the change he had promised. The high watermark was his Zeitenwende speech radically altering Germany's foreign and defence policy. Uncharacteristically, however, it would seem this speech wrote cheques he is not intending to cash. This, a difficult legacy, and his Merkelian tendency to shroud himself in silence are contributing to a steep fall in popularity, as I explain for The Local.
(12 April 2022) In the end, it all comes down to gas. Germany’s singular historic crime, the Holocaust, was perpetrated primarily in the gas chambers. Many of those murdered in the death camps were deported from what is today the Ukraine; many others never even made it that far, summarily shot like the tens of thousands at Babyn Jar near Kiev in 1941.
Now, eighty years on, civilians have once again been executed in the Kiev suburbs and there may have already been gas attacks further east. While Germany is not the perpetrator this time, it is complicit. And gas, albeit of the less intrinsically perverted kind, is the problem. It’s almost as if history is standing here shouting: “Look, a metaphor!”
It's one that we as a country and our industrial conglomerates - specifically BASF - have chosen to ignore. In The Local, I argue that we need to take action and stop importing gas now, however damaging the potential consequences for our economy. If our famed Vergangenheitsbewältigung is to be more than just gestures and monuments when history comes calling, we have no other choice.
(29 March 2022) It couldn't get more bundesdeutsch than this: the German federal government has abolished most CoVid restrictions but the federal states, who previously pushed for lighter-touch regulation, are mutinying to retain restrictions. In the confusion, most people think restrictions are being lifted - and lifted too soon - when, actually, they're not being lifted at all.
The result is that, as I explain in The Local, we are now in the worst of both worlds. Those few of us who think it is time to ditch restrictions have been palmed off with an alternative legislative reality; meanwhile, the vast majority are now scared sick despite the fact that, objectively, nothing has changed and Germany still retains one of the highest levels of CoVid stringency in Europe.
(16 March 2022) We all like to be proved right every now and then, but I can honestly say that there is no instance to date I would ever rather have been proved wrong on than this one. It would be wonderful if, after at least ten years of thinking that Germany - by buying almost all of its energy from Russia and neglecting its armed forces to a deplorable extent - has made itself horribly vulnerable to blackmail and failed its European allies, it turned out that I had been worrying about nothing. If, as it turned out, talking to Putin until we were blue in the face really *was* the right thing to do...
Here's a recent history I wrote for The Local of why post-war Germany has thus far proven congenitally ill-disposed to military spending - and of how we have already learned the lesson we are currently learning before forgetting it again.
(24 January 2022) If Germany were a bond film, the title would be "From Russia with love" and rogue-ish Roger Moore would look a little less prepossessing than usual in the guise of Gerhard Schröder.
Yes, Germany is - for understandable, but no longer particularly relevant - historical reasons sentimental about its relationship to Russia, And swathes of its elite are beholden to Putin's roubles. It's a toxic mix that has led Berlin to build a quite unconscionable pipeline direct from St. Petersburg to the Pomeranian coast - against the stated interests and repeated requests of our closest allies.
And now, with the Ukraine and the Baltic nations staring down the barrels of Russian tanks, we're in a bit of predicament. Read my explanation of this shocking foreign-policy failure on The Local.
(13 January 2022) In simpler times, it used to
be funny to watch my fellow Germans standing, late at night, at a
set of traffic lights waiting for the little green man while
literally no cars were on the road. Now, of course, we are
responsible for checking each others' vaccination status and
enforcing compliance of busybody rules. And let's just say it's not
bringing out the best in us… Read my plea for showing a little more
politeness when checking CovPass and exercising some discretion
from time to time in The Local.
(15 December 2021) Those of you now joining me in avoiding Twitter to the greatest possible extent may have, over the last couple of days, heard about criticism there of the way Germany's new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock speaks English.
There are two things at play here:
- Twitter is now a bot-ridden dirty-tricks hellhole which has a preference for attacking women, preferably under 50 and preferably on the left of the political spectrum.
- Germans are always nit-picking and back-biting about other Germans' English-language skills.
More on the upsetting nature of today's Twitter and on German linguistic snobbery from me on The Local.
(7 December 2021) I had the considerable honour of translating Marion Van Renterghem's incisive assessment of the increasingly tortured relationship between Britain and France for the New Statesman. In examining the "hatred as cordial as it is mutual" between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, Marion has an enviable eye for small details such as body language which in no way obscures her razor-sharp analysis of the overall political and strategic clash between the two men and the nations they represent. Also, her way of viewing Boris Johnson not just as someone who does, but actually is Brexit uses some of the sharpest tools in French thinking's philosophical and linguistic set.
(7 December 2021) German voters are not risk-takers. As such, CDU Chancellors frequently get re-elected several times (Adenauer, Kohl, and indeed Merkel) and opposition leaders have a tough time getting into office against incumbents with a Kanzlerbonus. In fact, only once in the history of the Federal Republic has an SPD opposition leader beaten a CDU chancellor: Schröder won against Kohl in 1998.
In all other cases (even that of the legendary Willy Brandt), SPD chancellors get into office after having been in a Grand Coalition with the CDU, by looking as boring as the CDU - and by playing down their social-democratic ambitions. That's exactly how Olaf Scholz has become Chancellor.
But make no mistake: although he looks and talks like Merkel, Scholz is no Merkel Mk. II.
(24 November 2021) A certain worldwide sports brand famously uses the slogan "Just do it". Unsurprisingly, it's not the famous German one with the three stripes. "Just doing it" is not how we do things in Germany - not even something as urgently and utterly necessary as vaccinating ourselves against Coronavirus.
That - along with deplorable chauvinism and a health system based on consumer choice - explains why Germany, in the middle of a crippling fourth wave, is still obsessing about which vaccine to use rather than just doing it. Another week, another column from yours truly in The Local on Germany's own particular brand of Covid lunacy.
(18 November 2021) Want Germany's current Covid catastrophe explained in two simple figures of speech? 1. When you've got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. 2. Aus Angst vor dem Tod Selbstmord begehen - or "committing suicide for fear of dying".
After getting lucky last spring, for the rest of last year, Germany kept rates of Coronavirus relatively low thanks to its testing infrastructure and adopting disciplined mask-wearing early. These became our hammers. But, when you've got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Which is why Germany is still trying to test its way out of a deadly fourth wave rather than vaccinate the 30% who have not yet had a jab (ironically, developed and produced in Germany...).
Moreover, much of the unvaccinated population and the political class are in the process of committing suicide for fear of death. Those afraid the vaccine will modify their genes/make them grow a second head are now suffering the lethal effects of Covid. And politicians afraid that forcing people to get vaccinated will cost them votes will lose even more votes from the 70% of us who have had it up to here with living in limbo.
Read more on this from me on The Local.
(04 November 2021) At the end of the month, Germany's federally-mandated coronavirus state of emergency comes to an end. And in my view, "November 25th won’t – and can’t yet – be “Freedom Day”, but it cannot come soon enough." Read my column for The Local on why the thicket of pointless Coronavirus regulations needs trimming - and why it's time for the Bundesländer to stop delegating downwards while blaming upwards and actually start walking the walk.
(21 October 2021) Immediately following the recent Bundestag election, I was not alone in predicting a difficult, perhaps impossible path towards that SPD/Green/FDP Ampel ("traffic light") coalition - despite the fact that it is, in terms both of parliamentary arithmetic and of the democratic imperative to put parties who up their share of the vote into government. (See below, 27th September, for my first take on post-election prospects.)
In the weeks after the election, however, a few things happened which I for one certainly did not see coming. Mainly: although the likes of Söder and Haseloff were taking pot-shots at Laschet from the outset, I expected them to be brazen enough to at least let him try for Jamaica before really opening fire. This alternative option being on the table would have hampered the prospects for Ampel from the outset, offering the FDP an ideologically more alluring prospect; the fact that it melted away so quickly was surprising.
What is more, after the gruelling and eventually fruitless all-night negotiations of 2017, I think I and many others also expected the same kind of drama as in those failed Jamaika coalition talks. Yet the - generationally younger - Ampel negotiators are proving to be more adult and more effective. Read my take for The Local on how Germany is showing the world that it really can do grown-up politics.
(14 October 2021) Ah, who doesn't remember those halcyon days when rents in Germany were so cheap and flats so plentiful that bohemians from across the globe came to Berlin to be able to do their thing…? Those days are certainly long past, that much is sure.
But does that mean that Germany has a housing crisis - or rather: does it have the housing crisis it thinks it does?
In my view, Germany has a housing crisis - of confidence, as fear runs riot and makes extreme solutions look like sensible policy. Read my explanation of this mechanism on The Local.
(02 October 2021) There's a taboo around "the B-word" in the UK these days, so it's good that Annette Dittert, London bureau chief for the German public broadcaster ARD, is willing to call a spade a spade and the "supply chain issues" the result of Brexit.
I had the pleasure of translating for the New Statesman her excellent analysis of the current situation - and of why Labour will not be able to provide strong opposition for as long as it, too, prefers to uphold the myth that this is all the result of "botched Tory Brexit" (and not just: Brexit.).
(27 September 2021) With the shape of Germany's Bundestag arithmetic now more or less set, it's down to the parties to talk coalition options. Unsurprisingly, the CDU (often joking referred to as 'The Association for Electing the Chancellor') is having trouble accepting the fact that it is, for the first time in 16 years, not the largest party in parliament and that it has lost 8% on an already low polling in 2017.
Some in the party are further down the path towards acceptance than others, however. As such, Armin Laschet is trying to beat Olaf Scholz to the Chancellery while major figures in the CDU discreetly pull away. Read my analysis for The Local on how this state affairs played out last night - and what is set to happen over the coming days and weeks.
(24 September 2021) As unpredictable as the polling landscape in Germany has become and as complicated as its electoral system has always been, there are still some things you can count on: like the Elefantenrunde, a post-election pile-in on Sunday night in which party leaders try to push their version of what the results mean.
For some predictions on how that will turn out - as well as a few other outcomes of this Sunday's Bundestagswahl, read me in The Local.
(14 September 2021) Until now, those who wanted to hear me comment on German politics and society at regular-to-irregular intervals would have had to have joined me at the local Eckkneipe. Now, however, they can just go The Local.
My first opinion column for this Europe-wide English-language news website is on the sense of confusion-cum-relief setting in as Germany realises that Chancellor Merkel really will be going soon (and Covid somewhat later).
(01 September 2021) With just a few weeks to go until elections to the German Bundestag, the race is (finally) hotting up. After a stellar start, the Green's novel/novice candidate Annalena Baerbock stumbled badly over minor errors and has been struggling to regain momentum. Meanwhile, the CDU candidate aiming to profit from Merkel's "safe pair of hands" image, Armin Laschet, has proved to be a campaigning butterfingers. All of which leaves Olaf Scholz as last man standing.
Beyond luck and the unforced errors of his competitors, Scholz is benefitting from his decades of experience and excellent strategic mind, as well as his proven ability to make social-democratic policy an electable proposition in fiscally conservative Germany. Raised in Hamburg and mayor of the city from 2011 to 2018, Scholz self-consciously follows in the footsteps of his Nordic SPD predecessor Helmut Schmidt and styles himself as that key Hamburg figure, the true Hanseat.
Jeremy Cliffe's eminently readable piece on "How Olaf Scholz and the SPD could lead Germany’s next government" is the most comprehensive short-format assessment of Scholz at this stage of the campaign available in English - to which I was delighted to be able to contribute reporting on Scholz' Hamburg years.