Author, journalist, translator

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.

The worst of both worlds – Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no-one

(29 March 2022) It couldn't get more bundesdeutsch than this: the German federal government has abolished most CoVid restrictions but the federal states, who previously pushed for lighter-touch regulation, are mutinying to retain restrictions. In the confusion, most people think restrictions are being lifted - and lifted too soon - when, actually, they're not being lifted at all.

The result is that, as I explain in The Local, we are now in the worst of both worlds. Those few of us who think it is time to ditch restrictions have been palmed off with an alternative legislative reality; meanwhile, the vast majority are now scared sick despite the fact that, objectively, nothing has changed and Germany still retains one of the highest levels of CoVid stringency in Europe.

Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

(16 March 2022) We all like to be proved right every now and then, but I can honestly say that there is no instance to date I would ever rather have been proved wrong on than this one. It would be wonderful if, after at least ten years of thinking that Germany - by buying almost all of its energy from Russia and neglecting its armed forces to a deplorable extent - has made itself horribly vulnerable to blackmail and failed its European allies, it turned out that I had been worrying about nothing. If, as it turned out, talking to Putin until we were blue in the face really *was* the right thing to do...

Here's a recent history I wrote for The Local of why post-war Germany has thus far proven congenitally ill-disposed to military spending - and of how we have already learned the lesson we are currently learning before forgetting it again.

Germany has scuppered Nord Stream 2 but there are questions left to answer

(22 February 2022) So on 22/2/22, Nord Stream 2's number is finally up. It's almost as if Berlin was waiting for a fitting date to at long last do the right thing and cancel this cursed gas pipeline. After all, switching it on would have made Germany entirely dependent on Russian gas and outraged our closest allies, so it should have been cancelled months, preferably years back. In the end, Vladimir Putin's latest aggression was so egregious that it finally broke the project's backing. That it ever got this far, though, represents an abject national failure on the part of Germany, as I explain in The Local

Germany is stuck in Covid Groundhog Day – it’s time to move on

(02 February 2022) It's 29 years to the day since Bill Murray got stuck in time-loop with uproarious consequences - and anyone in Germany who remembers the film and the repetitive radio will have felt a sense of familiarity in switching on Deutschlandfunk. Ja: Und täglich grüßt die Siebentageinzidenz. Read my view on why Germany is stuck in a Covid rut and needs to move on (and why it can't) on The Local.

Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

(24 January 2022) If Germany were a bond film, the title would be "From Russia with love" and rogue-ish Roger Moore would look a little less prepossessing than usual in the guise of Gerhard Schröder.

Yes, Germany is - for understandable, but no longer particularly relevant - historical reasons sentimental about its relationship to Russia, And swathes of its elite are beholden to Putin's roubles. It's a toxic mix that has led Berlin to build a quite unconscionable pipeline direct from St. Petersburg to the Pomeranian coast - against the stated interests and repeated requests of our closest allies.

And now, with the Ukraine and the Baltic nations staring down the barrels of Russian tanks, we're in a bit of predicament. Read my explanation of this shocking foreign-policy failure on The Local.

The pandemic has revealed Germany’s deep obsession with rules and compliance

(13 January 2022) In simpler times, it used to be funny to watch my fellow Germans standing, late at night, at a set of traffic lights waiting for the little green man while literally no cars were on the road. Now, of course, we are responsible for checking each others' vaccination status and enforcing compliance of busybody rules. And let's just say it's not bringing out the best in us… Read my plea for showing a little more politeness when checking CovPass and exercising some discretion from time to time in The Local.

Germans’ love of criticising English skills is an unappealing national habit

(15 December 2021) Those of you now joining me in avoiding Twitter to the greatest possible extent may have, over the last couple of days, heard about criticism there of the way Germany's new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock speaks English.

There are two things at play here:
- Twitter is now a bot-ridden dirty-tricks hellhole which has a preference for attacking women, preferably under 50 and preferably on the left of the political spectrum.
- Germans are always nit-picking and back-biting about other Germans' English-language skills.

More on the upsetting nature of today's Twitter and on German linguistic snobbery from me on The Local.

Ignore his lies: Boris Johnson is leading an assault on British democracy

(13 December 2021) In the first of what will now be her monthly columns for the New Statesman, Annette Dittert offers a sobering account of Britain's current slide into pre-authoritarianism. Drawing on her experience as a correspondent in Poland, Annette directs our gaze past the front-of-house antics of Boris Johnson to the more important backstage goings-on: away from the limelight, the Conservative government is quietly taking an axe to the framework of British democracy.

Boris Johnson's toxic Brexit is poisoning relations with France

(7 December 2021) I had the considerable honour of translating Marion Van Renterghem's incisive assessment of the increasingly tortured relationship between Britain and France for the New Statesman. In examining the "hatred as cordial as it is mutual" between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, Marion has an enviable eye for small details such as body language which in no way obscures her razor-sharp analysis of the overall political and strategic clash between the two men and the nations they represent. Also, her way of viewing Boris Johnson not just as someone who does, but actually is Brexit uses some of the sharpest tools in French thinking's philosophical and linguistic set.

Scholz won’t revolutionise Germany – but change is welcome after Merkel

(7 December 2021) German voters are not risk-takers. As such, CDU Chancellors frequently get re-elected several times (Adenauer, Kohl, and indeed Merkel) and opposition leaders have a tough time getting into office against incumbents with a Kanzlerbonus. In fact, only once in the history of the Federal Republic has an SPD opposition leader beaten a CDU chancellor: Schröder won against Kohl in 1998.

In all other cases (even that of the legendary Willy Brandt), SPD chancellors get into office after having been in a Grand Coalition with the CDU, by looking as boring as the CDU - and by playing down their social-democratic ambitions. That's exactly how Olaf Scholz has become Chancellor.

But make no mistake: although he looks and talks like Merkel, Scholz is no Merkel Mk. II.

Germans’ obsession with Pfizer jab reveals downsides of country’s health system

(24 November 2021) A certain worldwide sports brand famously uses the slogan "Just do it". Unsurprisingly, it's not the famous German one with the three stripes. "Just doing it" is not how we do things in Germany - not even something as urgently and utterly necessary as vaccinating ourselves against Coronavirus.

That - along with deplorable chauvinism and a health system based on consumer choice - explains why Germany, in the middle of a crippling fourth wave, is still obsessing about which vaccine to use rather than just doing it. Another week, another column from yours truly in The Local on Germany's own particular brand of Covid lunacy.

Covid has sent Germany into hysteria again but the remedy is under its nose

(18 November 2021) Want Germany's current Covid catastrophe explained in two simple figures of speech? 1. When you've got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. 2. Aus Angst vor dem Tod Selbstmord begehen - or "committing suicide for fear of dying".

After getting lucky last spring, for the rest of last year, Germany kept rates of Coronavirus relatively low thanks to its testing infrastructure and adopting disciplined mask-wearing early. These became our hammers. But, when you've got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Which is why Germany is still trying to test its way out of a deadly fourth wave rather than vaccinate the 30% who have not yet had a jab (ironically, developed and produced in Germany...).

Moreover, much of the unvaccinated population and the political class are in the process of committing suicide for fear of death. Those afraid the vaccine will modify their genes/make them grow a second head are now suffering the lethal effects of Covid. And politicians afraid that forcing people to get vaccinated will cost them votes will lose even more votes from the 70% of us who have had it up to here with living in limbo.

Read more on this from me on The Local.

After Cop26, the time for law-abiding demonstrations is over

(16 November 2021) Author of "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" Andreas Malm is a controversial figure. After reading his brutally honest assessment of COP26 ("been and gone; we're still on the road to hell"), however, you might find it hard to escape the conclusion that, actually, he is not controversial at all. Read the original (in Swedish) on Aftonbladet or my translation for The New Statesman.

Germany’s bewildering Covid rules show fierce regionalism is alive and well

(04 November 2021) At the end of the month, Germany's federally-mandated coronavirus state of emergency comes to an end. And in my view, "November 25th won’t – and can’t yet – be “Freedom Day”, but it cannot come soon enough." Read my column for The Local on why the thicket of pointless Coronavirus regulations needs trimming - and why it's time for the Bundesländer to stop delegating downwards while blaming upwards and actually start walking the walk.

Germany is showing the world it can do grown-up politics

(21 October 2021) Immediately following the recent Bundestag election, I was not alone in predicting a difficult, perhaps impossible path towards that SPD/Green/FDP Ampel ("traffic light") coalition - despite the fact that it is, in terms both of parliamentary arithmetic and of the democratic imperative to put parties who up their share of the vote into government. (See below, 27th September, for my first take on post-election prospects.)

In the weeks after the election, however, a few things happened which I for one certainly did not see coming. Mainly: although the likes of Söder and Haseloff were taking pot-shots at Laschet from the outset, I expected them to be brazen enough to at least let him try for Jamaica before really opening fire. This alternative option being on the table would have hampered the prospects for Ampel from the outset, offering the FDP an ideologically more alluring prospect; the fact that it melted away so quickly was surprising.

What is more, after the gruelling and eventually fruitless all-night negotiations of 2017, I think I and many others also expected the same kind of drama as in those failed Jamaika coalition talks. Yet the - generationally younger - Ampel negotiators are proving to be more adult and more effective. Read my take for The Local on how Germany is showing the world that it really can do grown-up politics.

Germany’s rent crisis is fuelled by fear and foolish solutions

(14 October 2021) Ah, who doesn't remember those halcyon days when rents in Germany were so cheap and flats so plentiful that bohemians from across the globe came to Berlin to be able to do their thing…? Those days are certainly long past, that much is sure.

But does that mean that Germany has a housing crisis - or rather: does it have the housing crisis it thinks it does?

In my view, Germany has a housing crisis - of confidence, as fear runs riot and makes extreme solutions look like sensible policy. Read my explanation of this mechanism on The Local.

The UK’s “supply chain crisis” demands an opposition with the guts to say the B-word

(02 October 2021) There's a taboo around "the B-word" in the UK these days, so it's good that Annette Dittert, London bureau chief for the German public broadcaster ARD, is willing to call a spade a spade and the "supply chain issues" the result of Brexit.

I had the pleasure of translating for the New Statesman her excellent analysis of the current situation - and of why Labour will not be able to provide strong opposition for as long as it, too, prefers to uphold the myth that this is all the result of "botched Tory Brexit" (and not just: Brexit.).

Who were the real winners and losers of Germany’s race to replace Merkel?

(27 September 2021) With the shape of Germany's Bundestag arithmetic now more or less set, it's down to the parties to talk coalition options. Unsurprisingly, the CDU (often joking referred to as 'The Association for Electing the Chancellor') is having trouble accepting the fact that it is, for the first time in 16 years, not the largest party in parliament and that it has lost 8% on an already low polling in 2017.

Some in the party are further down the path towards acceptance than others, however. As such, Armin Laschet is trying to beat Olaf Scholz to the Chancellery while major figures in the CDU discreetly pull away. Read my analysis for The Local on how this state affairs played out last night - and what is set to happen over the coming days and weeks.

The making of a Hanseat: What Hamburg reveals about Olaf Scholz

(27 September 2021) If you're looking to find out a little more about Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat leader who has just won the German elections, his time as mayor of his home city of Hamburg is a good place to start. For the New Statesman's excellent German election coverage, I examined what Olaf Scholz' record as the head of the federal city state of Hamburg tells us about his politics - and his approach to government. Read the piece here.

Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

(24 September 2021) As unpredictable as the polling landscape in Germany has become and as complicated as its electoral system has always been, there are still some things you can count on: like the Elefantenrunde, a post-election pile-in on Sunday night in which party leaders try to push their version of what the results mean.

For some predictions on how that will turn out - as well as a few other outcomes of this Sunday's Bundestagswahl, read me in The Local.

Germany will have to endure Covid for a while longer, but at least Merkel is going

(14 September 2021) Until now, those who wanted to hear me comment on German politics and society at regular-to-irregular intervals would have had to have joined me at the local Eckkneipe. Now, however, they can just go The Local.

My first opinion column for this Europe-wide English-language news website is on the sense of confusion-cum-relief setting in as Germany realises that Chancellor Merkel really will be going soon (and Covid somewhat later).

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