Series
Germany, 30 years on

Our contributors examine Germany's vexed recent history

Other articles in this series >


November 7, 2019

The contrast between Boris Johnson at his wild-haired extreme and pictures of Angela Merkel looking serious and sensible (i.e. any photograph of the German Chancellor ever taken) represents what so many see as a divide between Bonkers Britain versus Grown-up Germany.

And one can’t blame London liberals for looking longingly to Berlin. Germany is a land where Blairism, Cleggism and Cameronism never went away. German ‘conservatives’ are solidly centrist and staunchly pro-EU; British Tories ever less so. Furthermore, German social democrats are compliant coalition partners to the above; the radically Left-wing Labour Party would never be so docile.

Suggested reading
It wasn't the Berlin Wall that divided Germany

By James Hawes

Mutti Merkel is due to bow out at the next election, but whoever replaces her is bound to be equally dependable. According to Nick Cohen in The Spectator, there could never be a “German Boris Johnson”. Like so many UK liberals, he believes the Germans are sound of mind, while Brexity Britons have lost theirs:

“I do not see how the conservative myth that the English are a pragmatic people, with no time for the wild, utopian ideologies that have stirred continental Europeans, can survive this descent into make-believe.”

Cohen is not alone in this view. For instance, consider the following from AN Wilson in The Telegraph:

“A Europe in which Germany, assisted by Britain, is dominant is one in which we are all better off… Surely to stand alongside this unfolding, benign success story should be Britain’s deepest wish. But no. We apparently prefer to vote Ukip and demonstrate to the world not merely our insularity, but also our stupidity.”

Jeremy Cliffe of the New Statesman, formally Berlin bureau chief for The Economist, also believes that the British need rescuing from themselves:

“Britain’s tragedy is that its public services and civic spaces are horribly run-down but the resulting misery has flowed not into support for German/ Nordic-style Christian- or social-democracy but into support for authoritarian hucksters of left (Corbyn) and right (Brexiteers).”

When British liberals describe themselves as ‘pro-European’, what do they actually mean? Clearly, there’s an awful lot about the nation that they don’t like, but what part of Europe do they want Britain to be more like? Presumably not the struggling South of the Continent nor the somewhat scary East. Probably not riotous France or fissiparous Belgium either. The Nordic countries are widely admired, but you don’t get Scandinavian levels of welfare provision without Scandinavian levels of middle class taxation. That basically leaves Germany and its wingmen, Austria and the Netherlands. When it comes down to it, British Europhilia is basically Germanophilia. Indeed, polling shows that Britain in general is a Germanophile nation.

More from this author
What if Germany's economy toppled?

By Peter Franklin

But the liberal myth of Grown-up Germany needs to be challenged. Yes, there’s a great deal to admire in our neighbour’s post-war history, but the notion that there’s something especially virtuous about the country’s politics or the part it plays in Europe and the wider world does not stand up to scrutiny.

What follows is a top ten of German irresponsibility — proof that Germany is every bit as capable of selfishness and irrationality as any other democratic nation.

 

1. Who lost Britain?

Brexit need never have happened. If David Cameron had come back from the pre-referendum renegotiation with more than a slap-in-the-face, Remain would have won.

An ’emergency brake’ on immigration would have been entirely reasonable — a recognition of the UK’s situation as a English-speaking nation with an open, flexible labour market and a non-contributory social security system. The UK was always going to be a magnet for migrants — and the political consequences of a rapid escalation in the level of EU immigration should have been predictable. It’s not that the UK would have used a brake to close its borders, but it would have restored a much needed sense of control and agency.

However, even the already watered-down British proposal was rejected. That wasn’t Germany’s decision alone, but Angela Merkel, on whom Cameron’s hopes were pinned, could have made all the difference.

Was the problem that the EU establishment, like the UK establishment, simply assumed that Leave would not win? Perhaps, but the deeper issue is an inflexibility at the heart of the European project that fails to see that what suits Germany can become an unbearable imposition on other members.

It is a rigidity that fragilises instead of stabilising Europe.

 

2. The refugee crisis

It may be that the Germans are such sticklers for the rules because they don’t trust their own instincts.

We may think of modern German governance as reassuringly dull, but that overlooks a tendency towards impulsive, but highly consequential, gesture politics. Angela Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis of 2014-15 was a case in point.

To offer desperate people a new home is in many ways an admirable thing to do, but there are good and bad ways of going about it. Resettling more than a million people required a carefully organised process of transporting incomers safely from refugee camps and targeting help to those in greatest need. That would have been better than encouraging hazardous and illegal journeys across multiple borders.

To unilaterally open (and then just as suddenly close) Germany’s borders to so many migrants in such a short space of time — and with a plan summed up by Mutti’s infamous “Wir schaffen das” (we will manage) — helped to de-stabilise politics and a fuel a populist backlash across the Continent. This includes the backlash within Germany itself. The results of elections in Thuringia and other eastern regions show a worrying level of discontent.

 

3. Germany’s nuclear shutdown

Another example of the weird spasms that suddenly seize German policy-makers was the decision to shutdown the country’s existing nuclear reactors. This came in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan — when the 2011 tsunami seriously damaged a nuclear power plant.

Half-a-world away, Germany is not a country known for earthquakes, let alone tsunamis. Nevertheless, the German government decided that it would shut down all of its existing nuclear power capacity by 2022.

While deciding not to build new nuclear power stations is entirely rational, prematurely closing the ones you’ve got already makes no economic or environmental sense — and especially not when your generating system is still burning coal.

 

4. A thousand points of lignite

While Germany’s nuclear phase-out is set for 2022, its coal phase-out is set for 2038 — a completely screwed-up sense of priorities.

Germany is Europe’s biggest producer and burner of coal. And, what’s worse, the greater part of it is lignite or brown coal — just about the filthiest fossil fuel there is. Whole swathes of ancient forest are still being sacrificed to allow the opencast mining of this environmental nightmare. Unsurprisingly, the country is the EU’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, which has the knock-on effect of undermining attempts to get Germany’s eastern neighbours, especially Poland, to clean-up their smokestack industries.

Of course none of these inconvenient truths have stopped outsiders from lavishing praise on the Energiewende (Germany’s unnecessarily expensive subsidy programme for renewable energy) or Angela Merkel from being honoured as as the “Climate Chancellor”.

Meanwhile in Bonkers Britain, the last coal-fired power station should be gone in the next few years and renewables, including offshore wind, have become cost competitive.

 

5. Dieselgate

One might have thought that Germany’s nasty coal-habit would have prompted compensatory behaviour elsewhere. But no other country is more responsible for Europe’s great diesel disaster.

With the support of the German government, German industry pushed dirty diesel engine technology on the rest of Europe. In 2015 the news broke that Volkswagen had falsified emissions tests. Given the deadly consequences of air pollution, the dieselgate scandal is arguably the worst case of corporate malpractice anywhere in the West this century.

Quite rightly, we’re angry about the tax-dodging, data-hoarding activities of big American tech companies. But we’ve been weirdly unmoved by what Germany’s economic giants have done to fill our lungs with particulates.

 

6. A tottering economic model

Still, what goes around comes around. The strategic bet on diesel which served the big German car companies so well for so long is now unravelling.

Despite state support for crop-derived biodiesel (yet another environmental disaster), it is clear that the best way to de-carbonise transport and combat vehicular air pollution is a comprehensive switchover to electric vehicles.

This is the mother of all technological disruptions, placing the densely interlinked supply chains that make up German industry under intense threat from foreign competitors (especially the Chinese). The highly collaborative and specialised nature of German industry, which made it so good at what it did best, is leaving it vulnerable at a time when what is required is adaptability.

Despite Brexit, it is the spluttering German economy that is now the greatest cause for concern in Europe. Who saw that coming?

 

7. Ordo-mercantilism

Ordoliberalism is Germany’s post-war economic philosophy — basically, it means state intervention in the service of an efficient marketplace. In 1999, it took on a new dimension with the creation of the single currency, which is managed from Frankfurt by the European Central Bank.

Replacing the Deutschmark with the Euro locked-in a permanent and unfair price advantage for German exporters, enabling the country to run up huge trade surpluses. This has destabilised other economies, not least because deficits in Germany’s trading partners have been financed by excessive borrowing (as enabled by the distorting effects of the shared currency). The result was the Eurozone crisis which devastated the ‘peripheral’ economies, and especially the Greek economy.

Despite benefiting from enormous and artificial trade advantages, Germany has resisted the fiscal integration that is necessary to offset the imbalances created by monetary integration.

 

8. Germany’s economic backyard

The EU does facilitate some degree of fiscal integration — thanks to its pooled system of farm subsidies (the Common Agricultural Policy) and ‘cohesion’ spending on transport and other infrastructure in the poorer member states. It’s a system that left the UK making a hefty net contribution to the EU budget — a key driver of British euro-scepticism.

Europhiles point out that Germany makes an even bigger net contribution and you don’t hear them complaining. But that’s not surprising — EU spending has disproportionately benefited German industry by improving its links to export markets and suppliers in Eastern Europe (which for geographical and historical reasons is massively more important to the German economy than the British economy).

Indeed, Poland, Hungary and Czechia have been described by Thomas Piketty and colleagues as “foreign owned countries” because of the extent of (especially) German ownership of local industry.

Thus what looks like a big net contribution from Germany is in fact a subsidy for its own direct economic interests, helpfully topped-up by other net contributors like the UK.

 

9. An indefensible defence policy

With such a big economic and political interest in its eastern neighbours, Germany ought to make a significant contribution to their defence. It doesn’t. In fact, Germany with its ramshackle navy and airforce is in poor position to defend itself, let alone anyone else.

Despite having the biggest economy in Europe, comparatively low levels of public debt and regular budgetary surpluses, Germany’s defence spending is persistently and significantly lower than that of the British and French (who are by far the most significant European contributors to NATO).

Also worth noting is that the supposedly insular Brits devote a higher percentage of their GDP to overseas aid than do the supposedly internationalist Germans.

 

10. A pipeline of selfishness

Given their reluctance to contribute positively to Europe’s security, it would be nice if the Germans didn’t go out of their way to undermine it.

But that’s exactly what they did with the Nord Stream project — a gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany via the Baltic seabed.

As such, it bypasses the territory of the countries sandwiched between Russia and Germany. This makes it easier for Russia to exert pressure on the likes of Poland and Ukraine, because it can threaten their gas supplies without interrupting deliveries to lucrative markets in Germany and the rest of western Europe.

Germany and Russia are now close to completing a second Nord Stream pipeline. America, Poland and Ukraine are bitterly opposed, but it’s good for Germany so that’s alright then.

As if extending Russia’s grip isn’t enough, Angela Merkel is also helping the Chinese reach out by refusing to exclude Huawei from Germany’s 5G network. Again, this is in the face of objections from other EU countries and the US.

*

Sometimes you have to wonder whose side Germany is on. Or, rather, you don’t, it’s on its own side and acting in its own immediate interests.

Same as every other country you might say — and you’d be right. It would be easy enough to compile a top ten of British irresponsibility, for example.

But, that’s just my point: the Germans may be no worse than we are, but they’re certainly no better.