Opinion

The Great Debate

The dark flip side of European technocracy

How many countries will Germany need to bail out before it has erased the guilt of the Holocaust? That is the provocative question posed by Thilo Sarrazin, a publicity-hungry maverick whose 2010 book attacking immigration shattered Germany’s political consensus and sold more than 1 million copies. Last week he returned to the scene of the crime with a new book called Why Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro. In a much-quoted passage, he says supporters of eurobonds are driven “by that very German reflex according to which atonement for the holocaust and the world wars will never be complete until we have delivered our entire public interest, and even our money, into European hands.” This title has raced to the top of best-seller lists and sent jittery markets into panic. Sarrazin is a narcissist who is more interested in self-promotion than serious analysis. But his views on Europe – as well as the political class’s reaction to them – tell us a lot about how the euro’s political travails have come about, as well as how they are likely to unfold.

An opinion poll last week provides just the latest proof that Sarrazin has his finger on the national pulse: Over half of Germans think their country has suffered by joining the euro, while 79 percent reject eurobonds as a solution to the crisis. Sarrazin – a former regional politician and Bundesbank governor who was stripped of his official positions because of his views on immigration – is not a man to do things by halves. His book breaks not one but two German taboos by linking Holocaust guilt with questions about the sustainability of the euro. (It is designed to be a refutation of Angela Merkel’s argument that the breakup of the euro would lead to the breakup of the EU.) But although – or rather because – Sarrazin is so good at mirroring public opinion, the German political establishment is falling over itself to bury his arguments: Peer Steinbrueck, the former finance minister (and possible candidate for chancellor), described it as “bullshit”; while the current finance minister, Wolfgang Schaueble, described it as “appalling nonsense.”

The antics of Thilo Sarrazin are a product of the constrained, elitist nature of German politics where – after the experience of National Socialism – many topics are declared outside the realm of political competition. As a result, all mainstream parties are in favor of Europe, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism. The result is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – including the decision to replace the über-popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro. But those who dare cross the threshold of political correctness – as Sarrazin has repeatedly done – tap into a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow.

What is worrying is that Germany’s leaders are now trying to treat foreign politicians who question German orthodoxy the same way they treat their own populists. When I was last in Berlin, I asked one of Merkel’s aides what he thought her greatest achievements during the crisis were. He replied: “We could teach the neocons a thing or two about regime change.” He may have been joking, but the brutal way that Merkel and Sarkozy used markets to topple Berlusconi and Papandreou has been replicated in the treatment of other leaders. First, Angela Merkel tried to dismiss François Hollande – not simply saying she disagreed with his views on the fiscal compact but refusing to meet him during the election campaign (the implication since the election is that it is all right to campaign in French, so long as you govern in German). And now they are trying to turn Alexis Tsirpas – the firebrand leader of the Greek anti-austerity Syriza party – into a non-person. A chorus of European politicians are trying to scare the living daylights out of the Greek people in the hope that the electorate will give a mandate to the mainstream New Democracy party, which had supported the bailout package. My hunch is that this approach is unlikely to deliver a mandate for New Democracy, and even if it succeeds, it could be undesirable. If European leaders want a sustainable deal that keeps Greece in the euro, they would do better to bind parties like Syriza into an agreement than to tie themselves to an ancien régime that has already lost much of its credibility.

One of the ironies of the last few days is that Angela Merkel allegedly asked the Greek prime minister to call a referendum on whether Greece should stay in the euro. Back in December, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy forced George Papandreou out of office for suggesting just such a referendum. At the time, I believed that allowing the political process to unfold might have given Papandreou a mandate for standing by his agreements with the EU. However by suspending the political process and imposing a technocratic government, Merkozy did lasting damage to the legitimacy of formal politics in Greece and has created the conditions for populism to flourish.

from Summit Notebook:

Does Germany need Europe?

Jim O'Neill, the new Goldman Sachs Asset Management chairman who is famous for coining the term BRICs for the world's new emerging economic giants, reckons he knows why Germany might not be rushing to bail out all the euro zone debt that is under pressure. Europe is not as important to Berlin as it was.

Speaking at the Reuters 2011 Investment Outlook Summit being held in London and New York, O'Neill pointed out that in the not very distant future Germany will have more trade with China than it does with France.

"It's a different global environment. That's why maybe Germany (ties)  itself to a rules-based game with the rest of Europe because economically it doesn't mean so much to them now. What goes on in China is more important than what goes on in France and that's puts a different economic (spin) on the situation for the Germans."

from MacroScope:

Will China make the world green?

Workers remove mine slag at an aluminium plant in Zibo, Shandong province December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Joschka Fischer was never one to mince words when he was Germany's foreign minister in the late '90s and early noughts. So it is not overly surprising that he has painted a picture in a new post of a world with only two powers -- the United States and China -- and an ineffective and divided Europe on the sidelines.

More controversial, however, is his view that China will not only grow into the world's most important market over the coming years, but will determine what the world produces and consumes -- and that that will be green.

Fischer, who was leader of  Germany's Green Party, reckons that due to its sheer size and needed GDP growth, China will have to pursue a green economy. Without that, he writes in his Project Syndicate post, China will quickly reach limits to growth with disastrous ecological and, as a result, political consequences.

Islamophobia and a German central banker

How do you reconcile the traditions of many Muslim immigrants with the freedoms and values of 21st century Western Europe?

It’s a question that has led to periodic outbursts of vigorous debate from France to Holland and Switzerland. In Germany, the discussion has been relatively subdued. Until now.

Why? A passage in a book considered so unsettling that its author, Thilo Sarrazin, was forced to resign from the board of Germany’s central bank this month, provides part of the answer.

from The Great Debate UK:

Greece loses a major incentive to stay within EMU

cr_mega_503_JaneFoley-150x150-Jane Foley is research director of Forex.com. The opinions expressed are her own.-

Germany’s Finance Ministry this week denied a report in Le Monde that Germany, France and other countries were working on a package to rescue Greece. It seems that for now the official line from the grandfathers of European Monetary Union is that Greece can sort out its own budget deficit. The official line from the Greek government is much the same; it continues to maintain that it doesn’t need a bailout.

The problem with this is that this lacks credibility. The blowing out of the yield spreads on Greek government bonds over bunds and the price of credit default swaps are evidence of that. In the months after EMU, the 5 year Greek-bund spread was less than 200 bps. This week it was over 400 bps. Unless the impact of bond yields can be contained Greece loses a major incentive to stay within EMU.

from The Great Debate UK:

Getting to grips with the post-Cold War security threat

johnreid -John Reid, formerly the UK Defence Secretary and Home Secretary, is MP for Airdrie and Shotts, and Chairman of the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, was one of history’s truly epochal moments. During what became a revolutionary wave sweeping across the former Eastern Bloc countries, the announcement by the then-East German Government that its citizens could visit West Germany set in train a series of events that led, ultimately, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

Twenty years on, what is most striking to me are the massive, enduring ramifications of the events of November 1989. Only several decades ago, the Cold War meant that the borders of the Eastern Bloc were largely inviolate; extremist religious groups and ethnic tensions were suppressed, there was no internet (at least as we know it today) and travel between East and West was difficult. The two great Glaciers of the Cold War produced a frozen hinterland characterised by immobility.

Today’s world is a vastly different place. When one of the great Glaciers - the former Soviet Union – melted it helped unleash a potential torrent of security problems. We now live in an era characterised by huge mobility and instability, in which issues such as mass migration, international crime and international terrorism have a much higher prominence.

from The Great Debate UK:

German elections too close to call

Erik Kirschbaum- Erik Kirschbaum is a Reuters correspondent in Berlin. -

Has this been dullest German election campaign in decades or the most exciting?  Has the battle for power in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that concludes with Sunday's election been a memorable showdown or a forgettably boring contest?

Many journalists, pundits and voters have complained it's all been a merciless bore compared to the high-octane battles of the past with little action and precious few highlights.

But I would argue that in many ways it has been one of the most interesting campaigns in decades. Why? Because the outcome is so uncertain and there are more different government possibilities that could result from it than at any time in Germany's post-war history.

from The Great Debate UK:

Ghosts of Germany’s communist past return for election

kirschbaum_e- Erik Kirschbaum is a Reuters correspondent in Berlin. -

Will the party that traces its roots to Communist East Germany's SED party that built the Berlin Wall soon be in power in a west German state?

Or is the rise of the far-left "Linke" (Left party) in western Germany to the brink of its first role as a coalition partner in a state government with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) simply a political fact-of-life now so many years after the Wall fell and the two Germanys were reunited?

Will a "red" government in Saarland scare away investors and doom the state, as its conservative state premier Peter Mueller argues in a desperate fight to his job?

from Commentaries:

GM blog lifts hood on power struggle over Opel

cfcd208495d565ef66e7dff9f98764da.jpgIt's not often you get to lift the hood and watch a power struggle going on in the engine room of General Motors. But the vice-president of GM Europe, John Smith, has just provided tantilising details of the arguments over the rival bids for Opel/Vauxhall, the main European arm of the fallen U.S. auto giant. Smith is the chief negotiator on the sale of Opel.

In a blog apparently intended to reassure Opel staff, but accessible to the public, he insisted GM had not specified a preferred bidder. But he made clear his own preference for the bid from Belgian financial investor RHJ International, which is loosely related to U.S. private equity fund Ripplewood, over the offer by Canadian-Austrian car parts maker Magna and its Kremlin-backed Russian partner Sberbank.

Smith's post is entitled "Clearing the Air" and was ostensibly written to clarify GM's intentions and dispel erroneous reports ascribed to interested parties. But his account shows just how poisonous the atmosphere appears to be between GM and Magna, and GM and the German government, which backs Magna's bid. It also suggests that the air is not too clear within GM's top management either.

Germany risks zombie banks

Margaret Doyle– Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

Germany’s politicians seem to have rescued their bad bank. Pushing back the valuation date for toxic assets to before the Lehman collapse has made it more likely that banks will consign their dud investments to the voluntary scheme.

It had looked as if the banks might simply boycott it. However, while the government has scored a political goal, it is no closer to its aim of boosting lending to a credit-starved German economy.
The essence of the scheme is that banks will be able to transfer some 250 billion euros of toxic assets into “eine Bad Bank”. In exchange they receive government-backed paper that they can count towards regulatory capital.

  •