Author, journalist, translator

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.

How coronavirus will change city life (NPR/On Point)

(07 May 2020) Following "A tale of three cities", my essay for the New Statesman on the places transformed by pandemics, I had the considerable honour of being invited by WBUR Boston to discuss the history of Marseille, Hamburg, Östersund in the light of the current pandemic. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to share what I learned while researching the piece; Host Meghna Chakrabarti is an inquisitive interlocutor who keeps the discussion moving while giving her guests time to develop ideas and go into detail. Listen here.

A tale of three cities: the places transformed by pandemics (New Statesman)

(20 April 2020) It may seem strange to go in search of emblematic places in a pandemic - whose defining feature is, after all, that its effects are felt everywhere. But that is just what, in his capacity as International Editor of the New Statesman, Jeremy Cliffe asked me to do. The result is "A tale of three cities: the places transformed by pandemics across history".

As it happens, I live in Hamburg, the only city in western Europe affected by the fifth cholera pandemic, and, still a student, spent a few carefree months in Marseille, one of the last European cities to suffer a serious outbreak of the bubonic plague during the horrific slow-motion pandemic which began with the Black Death and ended in the 1700s. The third place I know of with a particular pandemic association is Östersund, Sweden's "capital of the Spanish flu", where the effects of the 1918 pandemic made themselves particularly evident; I wrote at length about that two years ago for Guardian Cities to mark the centenary of what was, at that time, the last major pandemic in human history.


Older news here.