I was struck at the end of last year by the cover of The Spectator. The Speccie as it is also known, is a weekly magazine which is coming up towards its 200th anniversary and which splits one half of its content on current affairs and the other on arts and literature. Its arrival on my doormat on Friday morning brings all other activities to a halt. It is in its editorial thinking conservative – with a small “c” rather than with a capital “C” – which generally suits this particular grumpy old man. It’s pre-Christmas issue is a special one and of double size as the magazine isn’t published between Christmas and New Year. Its front cover, always a cartoon, is rarely not brilliant.
So the year end edition had great cartoon featuring world leaders standing together, all depicted as nutcrackers. Think Tchaikovsky. They were Rishi Sunak, Joe Biden, Xi Jinping, Vlad the Invader, Ursula van der Leyen, Young Macron, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ayatollah Khamenei and finally Kim Jung Un. It was very clever but still prompted me to write to the editor and wonder whether the glaring gap of Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholtz not having been included in the group picture was telling us something we know or something we don’t know? Germany’s absence from the world stage on one hand troubles me but on another doesn’t. Please bear with me.
My late Dad who somehow ended up living more than half of his long life in Switzerland, always a somewhat reluctant foreigner, used to tell the joke “What do you do if your Swiss banker jumps out of the window?”, the rhetorical reply to which was “Jump after him for there is surely a pile of money to be made on the way down”. I am currently feeling a little bit the same about Germany, except that the declared motivation for jumping would not be to make money but to save the environment. I in fact have some old friends in the Munich area who have for years and years promised to come to see me here in the UK. There’s always been some excuse, the latest of which – we spoke on Christmas Eve – is that they are trying not to fly anywhere in order to protect the planet. Doh!
But where is Germany? What is becoming of the engine room of Europe?
After years of self-satisfaction – not by any means entirely unjustified – Germans find themselves trapped in the frontline of a geopolitical earthquake and know that if the quake were to lead to a tsunami, they would be the first ones to be hit by the wave. That does not only mean Russia which to Germany is not a simple problem but a proper Gordian knot of an issue. As the engineer of the world, it is also as dependent on China as a buyer as it is of it as a supplier. Not only its size but also its wealth has placed it at the centre of the EU and anybody who can remember the eurozone crisis of 2009 will also recall that it was ultimately the German taxpayer who bailed out the PIIGS, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. I had observed as far back as the 1980s that the EEC was run on the basis of two leading and equal partners. France took the decisions and Germany footed the bill.
In latter years, the central character was of course Angela “Mutti” Merkel and there is no doubt that if the Speccie’s title page had been drawn a couple of years ago, she would have been right up there in the middle of the picture.
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Although I have always been highly critical of the structural weaknesses, endemic self-satisfactions and embedded corruption of the EU, I was not at heart a Brexiteer. When the vote to leave was announced, I took the democratic route, accepted that a majority had chosen to leave the Union and opted to support the departure process. It was obvious that Brussels had totally screwed up its handling of David Cameron in December 2015 and that in itself justified leaving. Many amongst the reluctant leavers, myself included, had assumed that Germany would lead the divorce negotiations and that a pretty grown-up outcome was to be expected. Wrong. On the diplomatic stage, even when the entire EU was supposed to be at the table, Germany pulled about the same weight as Luxembourg. Actually, it was less that that as the then President of the Council of Ministers was none other than Jean Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg PM.
Germany has for longer than I care to remember done brilliantly at leading from behind. The recent mini-scandal over the New Year’s message of its defence minister is no more than symptomatic of the inverse relationship between its economic and its political standing. And now we have the very public mess concerning the deserted village of Lützerath. Lützerath stands in the way of an expanding surface coal mine in the state of North Rhine Westphalia and it is about to be obliterated. Not forgetting that the Green political movement has its roots in Germany and that the party is a senior partner in the Scholtz coalition government, there should be no surprise that there is violent protest against the continued extraction of notably filthy brown coal or, to give it its proper name, lignite.
In a sop to the Greens and in the aftermath of Fukushima, Mutti Merkel had decreed the end to nuclear power. Her “Energiewende” was, however, predicated on the endless supply of cheap Russian gas. Whether she intentionally or carelessly misread Moscow in general and Putin in particular will be for history to decide. The fact that Germany is not a tiger, not even a paper one, but more of a brachiosaurus is, to some extent at least, of Merkel’s making. At what point in post-WW2 politics Germany missed the inflection point to rise to its feet is nigh-on impossible to determine. Hamstrung by “Ostpolitik” and by the desire to reunite, Bonn placated one Russian leader after another. After reunification and with the capital having moved back to Berlin, efforts became even greater. Easy to snigger at today, although living for 35 years with Russian tanks lined up on one’s border does shape one’s thinking.
It has been argued that because Germany has no post-industrial future, it will frantically hang on to being an industrial powerhouse for as long as it can. It has, of course, done bloody well at it. If “making things” is central to the economy, then WFH is not an option. And if one’s industries, whether heavy, medium or light, are dependent on huge quantities of energy, then compromises have to be made. It was Heinrich Heine – I do keep coming back to him – who in 1844 and exiled in Paris wrote: “In public they preached water, in secret they drank wine”. By rights open-cast lignite mining should have gone long before nuclear but it didn’t and now, under pressure form its allies to liberate itself from its dependency on Russian energy, it is doing what it has to, albeit that this is in stark contrast to the moral high ground it has occupied since green ceased to be a colour and became a creed.
Germany’s ambivalence towards the disparity between its economic and its political standing is understandable but is it excusable? As I noted above, if you had spent 35 years with the Red Army at your borders whilst you were staring down the barrel of its gun, you might find yourself thinking and acting in a similar way which somehow elegantly brings us to the subject of Brexit and the Northern Ireland conundrum.
When there was no threat to the Eastern borders, scrapping with the Western neighbour – that’s Brexit Britain – was easy. But the EU in general and Germany in particular have no need for conflict on two fronts so that finding a working solution to the problems besetting the Northern Ireland protocol has become a quiet and unmentioned priority. That the Withdrawal Agreement was always going to require adjustments once implementation problems surfaced – which they were always going to – was clear. What was not was who would be the first to blink? The emerging threat from the East has made defusing Northern Ireland not only a priority but a necessity and by all accounts the first steps in breaking the logjam are in the process of being taken. Maybe, and with the right motivation, a path can be found without anybody ending up in the dog bowl with a broken necklace.
It appears that for the first time since the Withdrawal Agreement was signed, warts and all, negotiators are focusing on the solution rather than the problem. And I’d venture to argue that Germany’s geopolitical impotence has done more to help than to hinder. It has put the spat in context, has made throwing oneself on the floor and drumming one’s heels look as childish as it is and has made removing removable hurdles essential. It has highlighted that the UK and the EU remain allies and are not the enemies they had played at being until a real enemy reared its ugly head.
David “Call me Dave” Cameron was laughed off the stage when he went to Brussels late 2015, looking for a variant of the dreaded and much derided “Two Speed Europe” model. Although Britain’s re-joining the EU is not an option, I now feel more optimistic that the need to compromise, especially on the part of the Union, when it comes to softening the borders between the UK and the EU, might be beginning to take root.
Britain is in a funk. Everything is going wrong. Public services are perceived to have declined to third world standard – whoever says that has evidently never properly been to the third world – and the economy is up that famed creek. I feel less grim. Resolving Northern Ireland – only baby steps have so far been taken – would be a huge leap forward in intra-European relations and, in my mind, that will be where recovery begins. Boris was great at beating the drum but doing that did nothing more than make a lot of noise. Sunak took a hospital pass. But he is quietly getting on with things and for being steady and competent and giving them nothing to hang him for, the howling media hates him.
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