Global News Journal

Beyond the World news headlines

Waiting for Europe’s “appropriate response”

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Will the euro zone finally act decisively?

Investors are hoping for something big from European leaders at the EU summit on Oct. 23 and of the Group of 20 on Nov. 3. But they also know the 17 nations of the euro have a habit of offering delayed, half-hearted rescues that have cost them credibility.

So there’s been a lot of “urging” and “warning” in Brussels lately — politicians and central bankers have all been demanding Europe act as international alarm grows that its sovereign debt problems may drag the world into recession. “Further delays are only aggravating the situation,” said European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet on Tuesday in his last appearance at the European Parliament, before he hands over the post to Mario Draghi on Nov. 1.

A day earlier, Germany’s Deputy Finance Minister, Joerg Asmussen, at the parliament to promote his candidacy to join the ECB‘s board, made his call, saying “cooperation has to be increased,” across the euro members, divided as to who should pay to rescue the heavily indebted nations of southern Europe. “I want to see a solution for debt sustainability for Greece,” Asmussen said. So do so many others, especially Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who in Brussels on Thursday said it was a “crucial element to make the necessary decisions concerning Greece.”

The European Roundtable of Industrialists, a business lobby of multinationals ranging from French car maker Renault to Spain’s Telefonica, has also come through Brussels to make its point. The group’s head, Leif Johansson, who is also chairman of Swedish phone maker Ericsson, warned that if European leaders fail to act, businesses could see a repeat of the liquidity freeze that followed the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Berlin Wall, 1961-1989, R.I.P

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There is something a bit bizarre, yet fascinating, about the way Berlin and the local media mark the anniversaries of the Berlin Wall’s construction on Aug. 13, 1961 and the anniversaries of its collapse on Nov. 9, 1989.

There are many of the same things each time: sombre speeches, fancy ceremonies, countless thousands of stories in the print and TV media and a general consensus that A) the Wall was a horrible thing B) the Communists who built it were loathsome liars C) its collapse was a  glorious moment in German history and D) its memory should serve as a global symbol of  the yearning for freedom.
Yet like Berlin itself, which has gone through what are probably the most dynamic changes of any big city in Europe in the last two decades, elements of the commemorations have been shifting over the years and the city’s view of the wall has also been transformed.  Incredibly enough, some Germans now miss the Wall – a few diehards both east and west who feel their standing of living has gone down since 1989 want it back the most (about 10 percent, according to a recent poll) . But many others, especially those too young to remember it, lament that there is so little left of it to see and feel.
Indeed, almost all of the Wall is gone. Yet 10 million tourists still come to Berlin each year looking for it. “Where’s the Wall?” is probably one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors. The answer – unfortunate or fortunate, depending on your point of view – is that there’s almost nothing left.
It was all torn down in a rush to obliterate the hated barrier in late 1989 and early 1990.  Only a few small segments were saved – one 80 metre-long section, for instance, behind the Finance Ministry that was saved thanks to one Greens politician who declared it to under “Denkmalschutz” – a listed monument. That enraged many Berliners at the time.
Despite the lack of Berlin Wall to look at and touch, a thriving cottage industry has grown up at some of the places where it once stood. You can get a “DDR” stamp in your passport if you want from a menacing looking soldier in an authentic East German border guard uniform (who appreciates tips) at Checkpoint Charlie or have your picture taken with others wearing Russian army uniforms. You can buy Wall souvenirs at many of the points where the Wall once stood.
Some leaders such as Mayor Klaus Wowereit now admit it might have been a mistake, from today’s point of view, to so hastily tear  down all but a few tiny bits of the Wall in 1989. “There’s a general complaint that the demolition of the Wall was a bit too extensive,” he told me recently. “That’s understandable from today’s point of view and it would probably have been better for tourists if more of it could have been preserved. But at the time we were all just so happy to see the Wall gone.”

What’s really behind Merkel’s nuclear U-turn?

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(German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises a more rapid shift to renewable energy sources during a speech in the Bundestag lower house of parliament on March 17)

(German Chancellor Angela Merkel promises a more rapid shift to renewable energy sources during a speech in the Bundestag lower house of parliament on March 17)

The consensus view in Germany is that Angela Merkel’s abrupt reversal on nuclear energy after Fukushima was a transparent ploy to shore up support in an important state election in Baden-Wuerttemberg. If indeed that was her intention (she denies any political motive) then she miscalculated horribly. Her party was ousted from government in B-W on Sunday after running the prosperous southern region for 58 straight years. But what if Merkel was really thinking longer-term — ie beyond the state vote to the next federal election in 2013? After the Japan catastrophe she may well have realised that her chances of getting elected to a third term were next-to-nil if she didn’t pivot quickly on nuclear. There are two good reasons why that is probably a safe assumption. First is the extent of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany. A recent poll for Stern magazine showed nearly two in three Germans would like to see the country’s 17 nuclear power plants shut down within 5 years.  The nuclear issue was the decisive factor in the B-W election. And you can bet it will play an important role in the next national vote — even if it is 2-1/2 years away. The second reason why the reversal looks like a good strategic decision from a political point of view is the dire state of Merkel’s junior partner in government — the Free Democrats. It was the strength of the FDP which vaulted her to a second term in September 2009. But now it looks like their weakness could be her undoing in 2013.  Merkel probably needs the FDP to score at least 10 percent in the next vote to give her a chance of renewing her “black-yellow” coalition. Right now the FDP is hovering at a meagre 5 percent and it is difficult to see how they double that anytime soon. The nuclear shift widens Merkel’s options in one fell swoop. Suddenly the issue that made a coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Greens unthinkable at the federal level has vanished. Her party set a precedent by hooking up with the Greens in the city-state of Hamburg in 2008. Now she has more than two years to lay the foundations for a similar partnership in Berlin. By then voters may see Merkel’s nuclear U-turn in a different light. And only then will it be truly clear if it was a huge political mistake, as the Baden-Wuerttemberg vote suggests, or a prescient strategic coup.

Germany’s king of the ‘Sommerloch’ silly season

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PORTUGAL/The Germans have a lovely word to describe the slow news period during the summer doldrums — Sommerloch  (“summer hole” or “silly season). It’s the time in July and August when the main newsmakers in Berlin disappear to holiday retreats in the Alps, to the North Sea island of Sylt or the Baltic Shore. It’s also the time when the second-tier politicians — eager to fill the void — know that it can be relatively easy to get into the headlines with a bit of cunning, good fortune and good timing.
 
Rainer Bruederle is not normally someone many Germans pay a lot of attention to. The Economy Minister from the pro-business Free Democrats party, junior coalition partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right government, does not have a lot of clout and few of his ideas have ever gone beyond the proposal stage. Bruederle,  65, has been called one of the most ineffective ministers since Merkel’s centre-right government took power nine months ago.

But now — with the big cats out of town — Bruederele has turned into mighty mouse. He has played the German media like a fiddle, floating one trial balloon after another with a near daily deluge of newspaper interviews. With little else to write about, German correspondents are filling their columns with Bruederle.
 
“Koenig des Sommerlochs” (King of the summer hole) was the headline in Stern magzine’s website on Monday after a fresh batch of Bruederle proposals over the weekend. “No one has jumped into the Sommerloch with as much vigour as Bruederle,” wrote Hans Peter Schuetz of Stern magazine. “But, let’s be honest about this, Bruederle is helping journalists like me get through the Sommerloch.”
 
Like with most Sommerloch proposals, Bruederle’s will likely not get anywhere close to becoming law. And Bruederle knows that. He also knows his ideas will only cause tensions in the ruling coalition anger Merkel and almost everyone else in her Christian Democrats — and many of her deputies have already rejected his suggestions. But he also knows the publicity could help him raise his profile a bit.
 
Bruederle first said the government should scrap its 2009 promise for a guaranteed minimum pension level, an idea widely picked up in the German media for a few hours one day last week. It was summarily rejected by Merkel’s party. Yet that didn’t stop Bruederle. A few days later, in another newspaper interview, he suggested relaxing rules to allow more foreigners into Germany to counter a looming labour shortage of skilled labour, comments that filled airwaves for a few more glorious hours.
 
GERMANY/And then Bruederle criticised Merkel’s party, the coalition partners, for not having enough enthusiasm about reforms — just a few weeks after party leaders had promised to stop that very same sort of sniping that had sent the government plunging to record low levels in opinion polls. On Monday, Bruederle was at it again with a new banking proposal.
 
“Bruederle is doing his best to fill the Sommerloch,” wrote Sascha Raabe in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper.  But he attacked Bruederle as a “colourless minister with an addiction to headlines”.  He pointed out, for instance, that Bruederle’s ideas on cutting pensions actually contradicted the position of his own ministry, which views the steady pension levels as an important pillar of economic growth. “If Bruederle had only read the position of his own ministry instead of frightening millions of pensioners,” Raabe wrote. “Maybe it’s time for Bruederle to retire himself.”

Merkel in trouble, gambles with new ‘swing vote’ spokesman

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Angela Merkel has come up with a risky – but intriguing – choice for one of the most-talked-about and closely GERMANY/scrutinised jobs in Germany:  her spokesman.
The German chancellor is not normally known for rolling the dice with her decisions. Cautious to a fault, Merkel tends to seek consensus and the “safe road” with just about every decision she makes – whether that angers France when she first drags her feet on whether to push ahead aggressively with economic stimulus measures during the 2008 crisis or annoys Greece in early 2010 when it badly needed cash or at least strong words of support.

But Merkel has suddenly picked a complete outsider to try explain her government’s policies, an eye-raising choice of that may come back to haunt her.  German government spokesmen have an incredibly high public profile and appear in public almost daily explaining what Merkel and her ministers are trying to do. She will surely be hoping “Seibert’s smile will help get rid of Merkel’s woes” as Bild newspaper wrote

Angela Merkel’s “read my lips” moment

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    Angela Merkel has already abandoned plans to pursue billions of euros in tax cuts next year — the central policy pledge of her 2009 election campaign and main plank of her 7-month-old coalition agreement with the Free Democrats.

    But now her uneasy government looks ready to go one step further and raise value-added tax on certain products which benefit from a reduced rate to help it consolidate the budget.

EU squabbles feed market frenzy

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Jose Manuel Barroso

Jose Manuel Barroso

  The European Union can rarely have been more in need of a
show of unity than now, as it tries to convince financial
markets it can handle the euro zone’s debt crisis.

    Hardly a day goes by without a European leader underlining
the need to act together, but hardly a day passes without signs of
differences among them that undermine the impression of unity.

Who do you call to speak to Europe?

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Obama on the phone

Obama on the phone

Who do you call when you want to speak to Europe? The question, long attributed to Henry Kissinger, has yet to be answered convincingly by the 27-country European Union.

Six months ago, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a news conference the person to call on foreign policy issues was Catherine Ashton, who had just been chosen as the European Union’s foreign affairs chief.  The “so-called Kissinger issue is now solved”, he said.

Germany: a tale of two foreign ministers

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“Self-confident”, “smart” and “rhetorically brilliant” – just some of the adjectives the media have lavished upon Germany’s favourite politician as he has covered thousands of miles traversing the globe on his country’s behalf since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new centre-right administration took office late last month.

But Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is not in charge of foreign affairs — a position usually associated with voter popularity. He is defence minister.

The two faces of Angela Merkel

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  The German chancellor was described by Forbes last month as the world’s most powerful woman, listing her as 15th overall in its ranking of the World’s Most Powerful people.  Certainly, Merkel has been known to bare her teeth when it comes to castigating others like Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe and she even rebuked Russia’s Vladimir Putin on foreign trips. She did also raise her voice against Pope Benedict, calling on him to make clear the Vatican does not tolerate any denial of the Holocaust.   

 

But at home in Germany, Merkel has been surprisingly timid on many key issues – especially when they involve her conservative Christian Democrats. Her tendency to avoid clear positions has driven her coalition partners mad. Merkel might be a lion when she’s on foreign stages but she tends to be a lamb at home. One of her favourite sayings is: “If you try to beat your head into a wall, the wall will usually win.”

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