Author, journalist, translator

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).

How Olaf Scholz and the SPD could lead Germany’s next government

(01 September 2021) With just a few weeks to go until elections to the German Bundestag, the race is (finally) hotting up. After a stellar start, the Green's novel/novice candidate Annalena Baerbock stumbled badly over minor errors and has been struggling to regain momentum. Meanwhile, the CDU candidate aiming to profit from Merkel's "safe pair of hands" image, Armin Laschet, has proved to be a campaigning butterfingers. All of which leaves Olaf Scholz as last man standing.

Beyond luck and the unforced errors of his competitors, Scholz is benefitting from his decades of experience and excellent strategic mind, as well as his proven ability to make social-democratic policy an electable proposition in fiscally conservative Germany. Raised in Hamburg and mayor of the city from 2011 to 2018, Scholz self-consciously follows in the footsteps of his Nordic SPD predecessor Helmut Schmidt and styles himself as that key Hamburg figure, the true Hanseat.

Jeremy Cliffe's eminently readable piece on "How Olaf Scholz and the SPD could lead Germany’s next government" is the most comprehensive short-format assessment of Scholz at this stage of the campaign available in English - to which I was delighted to be able to contribute reporting on Scholz' Hamburg years.

An Ode To Berlin's U-Bahn

(07 June 2021) Several years (emphasis on *several*) after writing An Ode To Berlin's S-Bahn for Slow Travel Berlin, I've finally got round to writing its counterpart: An Ode To Berlin's U-Bahn. Maybe it's something about the lack of travel in general over the last year - either to other cities like Berlin or indeed within cities themselves - that has made researching this such a pleasure. Or maybe it's just the sheer delight of writing for Slow Travel Berlin again. Kudos to Paul for getting it (and forgive the pun) back on the rails...

 

The renewed relevance of the Schleswig-Holstein question

(19 February 2021) I've been thinking for a while now about the centrality of Northern Island in the Brexit question. Often, the complex of issues thrown up on the island of Ireland by the UK leaving the EU is seen as something wholly unique; actually, though, European (and especially German) history has no shortage of territorial disputes involving overlapping cultural and political spheres with the added complexity of nation states and supranational regions thrown in.

One of them is Schleswig-Holstein, just outside Hamburg and remember in London, if at all, today in Lord Palmerston's bon-mot beginning "Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business…" Read my musing on the parallels to Northern for the New Statesman here.

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