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JOHN KAMPFNER: Germany is warding off pantomime politics

Floats at Dusseldorf cranival last weekend show a good grasp of Germany's geopolitcial occupations. Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images. - Credit: Getty Images

From Brexit, to Putin, to Trump, to China, Germany faces as many global challenges as anyone, says John Kampfner. Yet it seems more steadfast than most in dealing with them.

Once the battle against Brexit is done and dusted, I am giving myself a new task: to get a particular word into the Oxford English Dictionary as is its word of 2019. Kuddelmuddel. It was used by columnist Dirk Schümer in Die Welt last week to describe Britain’s little local difficulty. It loosely translates as ‘mess up’, ‘f**k up’, ‘hash’. There’s no shortage of words in English, but none has the onomatopoeic brilliance of Kuddelmuddel.

Schümer’s point was a broader one. Brexit, he argued, is a symptom of a wider malaise in Europe. It Is one that affects Germany more than any. I was wondering last week, in the first of what I expect to be many trips to the country over the next six months as I write a new book, why it was so dominating the news coverage. Indeed, on two occasions, just walking down the street, I overheard two separate conversations involving two different groups of Germans talking volubly about that subject.

This isn’t, I hope, classic British transference – imagining your country to be more important than it actually is. Germans are perplexed, saddened – our perpetual whingeing and arrogance were for years the source of growing exasperation.

Yet Brexit matters to Germans because they lose an EU member broadly aligned on economic and security policy. They wonder how a like-minded populace could vote so irrationally. They are amused and appalled by our pantomime politics. Most of all they wonder what is going to happen to the broader European project.

As the country’s great figure of the immediate post-war era, Konrad Adenauer, put it back in 1962: ‘German problems can only be solved under a European roof.’ That roof is leaking all over the place, not just in the UK, but with the rise of right-wing nationalism in Italy, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. Xenophobes are gaining in traction in southern Spain; the Front National in France is never far away and is now donning yellow vests.

All Western democratic states are worrying about the trend. But, according to one of Germany’s top thinkers and political advisers, the problems of populism are threatening to undermine the heart of the modern settlement there. That is a bold statement, and Thomas Bagger, adviser to German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is not taken to hyperbole. Bagger’s thesis, in an article he placed in a high-minded academic journal, Washington Quarterly, just over a month ago is that contemporary Germany’s very purpose is based in European unity and enlightenment values.

Its record has been spectacularly successful. The country defied all the sceptics by creating a constitutional and economic model from the 1950s on that became the envy of the world. Then it carried out the remarkable feat of incorporating an impoverished, statist, dictatorship to its east. What was remarkable about the events following 1989 is not that there were problems – resentments, de-industrialisation, dislocation – but how minor they were in comparison to what could have been. South Koreans have spent years asking the Germans the secret of their success. But it is unlikely to be repeated with such ease.

Now everywhere Germans look, they see problems. Their concerns are not confined to Europe. In Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping they see a troika of leaders intent on undermining liberal democracy, at a time when Angela Merkel is on her way out.

China was the gift that kept on giving. Its burgeoning middle-class provided an ever-expanding market for the export of German cars and other high-end products. Bilateral relations were based around a mercantilist mutual benefit. Yet the process went into reverse in 2016 with the £4 billion take-over of the industrial robotics maker Kuka, the darling of Germany’s ‘industry 4.0’. Last December, its chief executive was replaced, suggesting that the new Chinese owners were consolidating their influence. Suddenly policy makers and business leaders are worrying that China is moving from being a benign export market into a strategic threat. Germany’s famed Mittelstand, its successful medium-sized companies, usually based in high-end engineering, are becoming targets for takeovers or for intellectual property theft. Politicians have started thinking the impossible: that Germany should start becoming more protectionist.

Post-war Germany has had a schizophrenic relationship with Russia, during communism and in the Putin era. Ever since Adenauer, the country knew its relationship lay in the west, in reconciliation with France and (initially at least) dependency on the United States. The siting of Bonn as capital during the Cold War signified a physical and psychological leaning to the west. However, Russia’s presence has always loomed large, from its control of the former East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries to Germany’s eastern border, even to its seizure of the enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly the German city of Königsberg. Then there is the war…

In short, Germany has struggled to get Russia out of its system. ‘Russia understanders’, as they’ve always been dubbed, have always been present in government, more on the centre-left than centre-right, but even in Merkel’s entourage too. The latest fracas is the chancellor’s decision to press ahead with approval of the Russian gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, which takes a northern route, circumventing Ukraine.

This potentially deprives Ukraine of significant revenue and also ties Germany in with Russia even more than before for its energy needs. German officials argue that the inter-dependence works the other way too, tying Russia’s economy ever more firmly into the EU’s, thereby acting as a break on aggressive behaviour. Other Western states are not convinced, particularly the US.

Which brings us to the third great challenge – Trump. With his penchant for dictators, like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, makes no secret of his loathing for Merkel and what he regards as her democratic piety. She returns the disdain and doubles it.

Putting aside the personalities, the fault lines are clear. The US resents, not without reason, Germany’s long-standing disinclination to get involved in military and security matters.

The learning from the Second World War argument is wearing thin. Similarly, Washington accuses Berlin of dirty dealings on trade, by supporting an undervalued currency (the imbalance in the euro in favour of German exports). Tensions over trade, between the US and China, are adding to German fears by encouraging the world to turn towards protectionism, rendering Germany’s export-oriented economy more exposed than others.

At some point this year, or into next, power will transfer between Merkel and the chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. That process has already begun with AKK, as she is known, already presiding over a number of ‘consultations’. How much of Germany’s clout will go with Merkel? That is a question openly discussed. Some of that may be taken by Emmanuel Macron (as long as he overcomes his various gilets jaunes problems).

Domestically, the ruling CDU faces a series of electoral threats, from the European elections in May to a number of votes in the Länder. The party of the centre-left, the SPD, is faring even worse, leaving ever more space for the far-right AfD and the surprisingly successful Greens.

The AfD, which is now represented in the Bundestag and in every state legislature, continues to make hay over immigration. It will continue to do so, such is the nature of the debate across Europe, and yet the real story is not the problems (even though there are many), but how remarkably smooth the process of absorbing one million foreigners has been.

According to some estimates, nearly a half of all Germans have done some form of meaningful volunteering to help the new migrants. In the UK, our government ministers declare crises the moment a few dinghies arrive in Dover.

In any case, Germans know they have no choice if they are to meet the demographic challenge of an ageing population and one of the lowest birth rates.

The test of a country is surely not whether it avoids problems, but how it surmounts them. Germany in 2019 faces no shortage, coming from without and within. But at least it has the body politic to deal with them.

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