By Mathew D. Rose, a freelance writer living in Berlin
Angela Merkel and David Cameron appear to be competing over whose party will be the first to self-destruct. Both seem determined to prove to the denizens of their nations that they are not fit to lead a government. Both have made the same, egregious tactical failure: Their efforts are progressing at such a rapid pace that no one has an opportunity to say enough is enough, before the next incident has gone still further than enough.
While Dodgy Dave is trying to recover from the fallout of a thoroughly botched budget, an economy that seems to be falling apart, at least half his party abandoning him to join the Brexit camp, on top of being personally caught up in the Panama Papers affair, and the losing most of his steel industry, Chancellor Merkel and her government are also giving their best to consternate the German people.
Following a major defeat in recent state elections, Ms Merkel sealed a deal with Turkey’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lavishing him with six billion Euros and loads of goodies and promises, which she would prefer not to keep, such as visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the EU. In return he is to prevent refugees, most of them fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, from reaching the EU. Having authoritarian governments, who have little interest in the niceties of democracy, as a neighbour saves needing to build walls on borders. Many Germans, rather sniffy at all these refugees who ruined their Willkommenskultur extravaganza, simply conveniently ignore this development and pretend that Germany’s open-door refugee policy is still in place.
Then came the satirists. It all began with a political programme, Extra 3, in state television that produced a critical song about Erdogan. The German ambassador in Istanbul was summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry to explain how such a piece deprecating the great leader could appear in German television. The affair was apparently so embarrassing for Ms Merkel’s government that at an ensuing press conference the spokesperson of the German government tried to avoid using the word “summons” with regard to the ambassador’s dressing down, speaking first of a “invitation” then “a serious appointment”.
The Germans loved the song. They might be causing ineffable suffering for hundreds of thousands of war refugees and their leader brown-nosing what German press calls “the half dictator” Erdogan, but weren’t they plucky little democrats demonstrating their love for freedom of the media with their little Erdogan song. Even the German government was posturing, claiming its determination to defend freedom of expression.
This sort of German hypocrisy is the sort of stuff another satirist, Jan Böhmermann, thrives on. During the Greek crisis of 2015, as Germany beat Greece into financial submission, Böhmermann produced brilliant pieces lambasting German policy and the complicity of most Germans, as well as their aggressiveness toward Greek society. Now he did the same with an “abusive poem” (Schmähgedicht). Had this been about Vladimir Putin, Bohmermann would have been the darling of the nation, but its subject was Erdogan. Before he presented his poem in German state television Böhmermann explained to his audience that it violated German law and then read on.
The contents were well and truly insulting and obscene, apposite for a dictator of Erdogan’s standing. It was also highly political. Still, the poem was pulled from the television archives shortly afterwards – that is one of the perks of the state owning television channels – and Böhmermann’s next show was cancelled.
Boehmermann is no fool. He is well aware that there is a German law from the nineteenth century, which explicitly forbids insulting foreign heads of state. Such archaic and authoritarian laws are not unusual in Germany. Many statutes created by the Nazis are still existent. There is one catch however. The German government has to explicitly give permission for charges to be lodged, which puts Ms Merkel and her government under a great deal of pressure following its grand declarations concerning the freedom of the media, should Turkey ask Germany to prosecute Böhmermann. Ms Merkel made one of her increasingly typical gaffes, when she let it be publicly known that she had informed Erdogan that the poem was “intentionally insulting”, thus interfering with the due course of law. Erdogan, thus encouraged by the Chancellor, had his ambassador file a legal complaint.
Ms Merkel’s press spokesman had implied that the German government would reach a decision concerning the issue on Wednesday – that was yesterday. There has been no decision. One can only assume that some sort of solution is being sought to get around this. There may be additional billions on the way to Erdogan. He in the meantime has filed a personal lawsuit against Böhmermann.
In addition to German satirists Ms Merkel has a further problem: her finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Due to the current global trade and finance turbulences German exporters, the driving force of the economy, are starting to feel the heat. Much of the slack is however being taken up by domestic spending.
Due to low interest rates German citizens are complaining that they receive hardly any interest on their savings. For the same reason life insurance policies are providing very low returns. Both of these are having dramatic effects upon retirement plans. The European Central Bank’s policy of negative interest rates is being blamed for the development. That the ECB has gone down the questionable path of negative interest rates is the result of the strict austerity policy dictated by Mr Schäuble and Ms Merkel for Germany and the Eurozone.
This week Mr Schäuble and politicians of Ms Merkel’s Christian Union have accused the ECB’s low interest rates not only of expropriating German savers’ money, but also of aiding the rise of the populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which scored dramatic successes in recent elections, while the Christian Union suffered similarly dramatic losses. Support for Ms Merkel’s party has since continued to slip.
This may simply be typical opportunistic dissimulation of a political party in crisis, but Christian Union politicians have gone a step further and are encouraging Germans to emulate their government and save even more money for retirement to compensate for current shortfalls. The question remains: If exports are stagnating or declining, the government and industry are reducing investment, while consumers stop spending, what is going to drive economic growth?
Forgotten is the fact that Germany is in the midst of a housing bubble, another element driving the economy. Many buyers have seen this as an alternative to investing in equities or keeping cash. This has only been possible thanks to record low mortgage rates. Should these suddenly start to rise again, Mr Schäuble and Ms Merkel may find themselves to blame for the next domestic crisis. Even the otherwise ultra-conservative head of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, has felt the need to intervene against Mr Schäubles rhetoric and defend ECB policy.
So while Mr Schäuble’s financial policy is being steered by rightwing populists and Ms Merkels domestic policy by satirists and Germany is dictating policy for the whole of the EU, one need not wonder about the current state of Europe.