Author, journalist, translator

Oktoberfest revelry reveals the political storm brewing in Bavaria

(28 September 2023) As anyone who has had me on the phone in the last couple of days will have heard, I've been at the Oktoberfest. *croak* In my capacity as regular of around 15 years standing and frequent visitor to Germany's self-proclaimed Promised Land, Bavaria, it's my pleasure to unpick for The Local what is at stakes in the state's upcoming regional elections - due the weekend after this year's bumper 17-day Fest ends and guaranteed to make Munich's lingering collective hangover worse.

Is Germany really the sick man of Europe?

(5 September 2024) It seems I'm now getting to that age where revivals start to concern styles I remember well the first time round: the current trend for cargo trousers and crop-tops in female fashion is straight out of the "Y2G" years, for instance, when I was in my mid-teens. Around that time, Germany was, according to The Economist, 'The Sick Man of Europe', its industry outdated and services sector sclerotic, with low growth and high unemployment as the inevitable consequence.

Back then, this description - Der kranke Mann Europas - sent shockwaves through the country, giving Schröder the political momentum to push through the highly unpopular Hartz IV reforms in an effort to give Germany an economic reboot. From 2005 onwards,  growth duly picked up, unemployment went into rapid decline, and then we weathered the Financial Crisis better than most other major economies. What many see as a correlation may well have been more of a coincidence - how setting up a low-wage sector in an economy dependent on premium exports was responsible for our golden 2010s is beyond my comprehension - but one lesson was learned: when the gloom descends and the vultures start circling, eye-catching reforms can change the economic discourse and improve the mood. In economics, it's often a question of psychology.

Now we have once again been named The Economist's 'Sick Man of Europe' and indeed our economy is in the doldrums. Here's me in The Local on how to deal with this less enjoyably nostalgic part of the current turn-of-the-Millennium revival. Sneak preview: yes, we need an ambitious package of reforms to revivify business confidence and kick-start the economy; no, we don't need fiscal austerity and lower wages.

German impatience: more haste now, less speed later

(24 May 2023) A recent news story about slow-lane check-outs in German supermarkets for the lonely got me musing on German impatience. As anyone who has been shopping here will know, cashiers at the major chain stores scan items so fast over the till that no even the swiftest customer can put them away and pay as fast: the illusion of speed actually leads to slower check-outs, if anything. Then again, our national urge to do things as quickly as possible can, well-applied, have positive effects. Read me on German impatience in The Local.

I became a German citizen to vote, but paying taxes should have been enough

(20 April 2023) Germany is reforming its laws on obtaining citizenship (and on maintaining dual nationality) - and this is good news. Then again, German citizenship requirements are not, even as they stand now, excessively onerous. In my view, the real issue is that most countries - not just Germany - take income tax from immigrants, sometimes for decades, without offering them the right to have their say in how this money is used. Read my unpopular opinion - No taxation without representation! - in The Local.

Germany's ruthless housing market is tough on new tenants - but there are winners

(26 January 2023) In the mid-2000s, one of the most attractive things about Germany was the ease of finding a flat - and the cheap rents that went with it. Germans themselves were (not so) blissfully unaware of how good a deal they had.

Since then, things have changed. New-contract rents in Germany's major cities now equal those of neighbouring countries and good lettings are scarce. Yet this is not, as some think it is, a housing market in crisis. Germany retains admirable rental protections from which existing tenants benefit. Owners and landlords, too, are in a strong position. It's just not that great anymore if you're looking for a flat... Here's my analysis of the German housing market in The Local.

Britain’s democratic rot has continued under Rishi Sunak

(25 January 2023) New year, same old Downing Street lies: and, as ever, it's good to have Annette Dittert on hand to skewer them with such verve. In this column for the New Statesman, she uses the metaphor of the Emperor's new clothes - apt both to sharp-suited Sunak and to her own role pointing out what should be the blindingly obvious! As ever, a pleasure to translate.

Why Germany’s €49 travel ticket is far better than the previous €9 ticket

(15 November 2022) Germany's planned €49 ticket for local and regional public transport is genuinely transformative policy which will make using busses, trams, and trains easier and smoother than ever before while helping hard-pressed citizens as living costs soar - and if we’d never had the ill-thought-out €9 ticket bonanza this summer, it would be hailed as such. As it is, though, this important moment seems like an anti-climax. Read my take on the new ticket for The Local.

Rishi Sunak can’t escape the Tories’ post-truth policies

(14 November 2022) It's been a while since Annette Dittert's last column about British politics in the New Statesman. After all, as bureau chief for ARD in London, she'd had enough to be doing with her day job: Tory Leadership Drama No. 1, death of the Queen, the explosive Truss-Kwarteng Intermezzo, Tory Leadership Drama No. 2... So her examination of Rishi Sunak's current position is a welcome return to the written word - one which, as ever, I had the pleasure of translating.

German government is pushing ambitious agenda despite turbulent first year

(21 October 2022) Confession intime: the photos of me on this website are around 10 years old now. Whenever I mull over possible replacements, I'm shocked by how old I now look. In that, I'm very much like the current German government, whose fresh-faced 2021 look has - after eight months of continuous firefighting - deteriorated into a decidedly washed-out, haggard countenance.

Yet our tri-partite coalition, while no longer particularly photogenic and based on an agreement which Russia's actions have torn up, is doing better than many (including itself) think. With any luck, its participants will remember that and keep the show on the road. Read my thoughts on Germany's government one year in The Local.

Germany’s autumn Covid rules are a giant mess beyond parody

(25 August 2022) If every one of Germany's beloved observers of our national neuroses, from the legendary Loriot right down to today's Jan Böhmermann, were to come together to parody our love of excessive complexity and petty busy-body rules through the medium of Covid legislation, they would probably have trouble coming up with something as absurd as what is proposed from 1st October onwards. Read my take in The Local.

Germany has failed to do its energy ‘homework’ – and faces years of catching up

(05 August 2022) Germany's energy crisis is the result of our decades' long failure to examine our strategic position and take action accordingly. Every government since Schröder's first administration in 1998 - and by extension the German electorate - is complicit, and now we must learn to live with the consequences until we finally sit ourselves down and (as our patronising turn of phrase has it) "do our homework". In The Local, I look at what went wrong, where and how, and ask why we still aren't doing enough to become energy-independent.

The shocking state of German trains exposes the myth about punctuality

(27 July 2022) One of the most widespread stereotypes about Germans is that we are punctual and that our national efficiency means that trains run on time. It also the most likely stereotype to fall victim to reality: when tourists or business travellers actually come to Germany and use our rail network, they are reliably shocked - this year more than ever, as punctuality sinks to all-time lows. Read my rant/two cents on the matter in The Local.

The post-Johnson era is already a nightmare

(19 July 2022) In her latest piece for the New Statesman, Annette Dittert offers a refreshing and bracing look past the current obsessing about Truss/Sunak and into the heart of the matter: a post-truth political environment which many UK media outlets have played a conscious role in shaping. As ever, a pleasure and an honour to translate.

Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

(04 July 2022) So Germany's Covid expert committee has delivered its verdict on the effect of the restrictions imposed at various points over the last two years. As expected, said verdict is Delphic at best - mainly, so the Committee argues, due to a lack of data in Germany. However, a brief comparison with neighbouring countries would be enough for anyone to see that we have gone wrong somewhere: despite comparable (and much reduced) rates of death and infection, we are one of the only countries left in Europe with mandatory restrictions - and are considering re-imposing the ones we dropped in spring. Here's why.

Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

(16 June 2022) It's that time of year again: the sun is out, and so the city streets and country roads of Germany are full with cyclists - and with their most bitter enemy, motorists. There's something particularly poisonous about the car-vs-bike debate here, and The Local asked me to look at why.

Criticising the government isn’t journalistic bias – it goes with the job

(02 June 2022) Rebuilding Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Allies took every precaution to keep autocratic tendencies at bay - including, for instance, decentralising public service broadcasting and introducing a strong professional ethos of independence from government interference. In the north-west of Germany, it was a man named Hugh Greene (who would later go on to become DG of the BBC) who was instrumental in inculcating these professional ethics into what has, today, become NDR/ARD.

I'm sure that he would be delighted to know that, 70 years on, German public service broadcasting has been able to stay true to its mission - and concerned to read Annette Dittert's analysis of how the BBC is being hindered in fulfilling it in the UK. As ever, it was a pleasure and an honour for me to work with Annette as a translator.

Germany’s €9 ticket for summer is just a gimmick, not a solution

(1 June 2022) There are plenty of plaudits going around for Germany's bold experiment to grant access to all local and regional transport for €9 a month in June, July, and August. Comparisons have been made to Vienna's €365 annual travelcard, for instance, and many see it as a quick and expedient way to make public transport more attractive and put money back in the pockets of the squeezed middle.

In my view, however, this fare gimmick will likely achieve the complete opposite. By making crowded busses and trains even more packed  in summer and forcing operators to run at losses for which Federal Government has only vaguely promised to stump up, it could end up making public transport look worse and forcing fares up this autumn while stifling much-needed investment. Here's my take for The Local - along with some suggestions for what could be done better.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

(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.

Why Germany’s energy relief payouts are no fix for inadequate social security

(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.

Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

(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.

How many massacres will it take before Germany turns off Russian gas?

(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.

A baptism of fire for ‘Global Britain’ as Boris Johnson deals with the Ukraine war

(08 April 2022) I've once again had the considerable honour of translating for Annette Dittert, who has turned her sharply analytical eye for British politics to the Government's (lack of a) strategy vis-à-vis the Ukraine and Europe in German political monthly Blätter. Her piece - which I rendered into English - is essential reading for anyone looking for a perspective on the UK position in the conflict from outside the London bubble.

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