Our regular report from Bern, Switzerland
THIS has been quite a week down here beside the Alps. First we have been consumed by the Crypto spy scandal, at the centre of which is the Swiss global encryption company Crypto AG. The news was extensively covered by Ben Macintyre for the British Times. If you would like to read the Swiss government news service take on it, you can see it here.
The biggest Brexit-relevant news, however, is the row concerning three Swiss Federal Councillors and the Director for Europe who, while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, held a meeting with Ursula von der Leyen and EU officials. The four Swiss now stand accused by the weekly magazine Die Weltwoche of selling out Swiss voters by involving the meddlesome EU directly within the country’s domestic politics. Haven’t British voters seen something rather similar over the last four years?
Die Weltwoche also ran a good article by Alice Weidel, the potential future leader of the Alternative fürDeutschland (AfD) party, pointing out that in the German state of Thuringia (whose politics TCW correspondent Elizabeth Pirsch recently commented on) the left, red and green parties lost the election and the other parties won. Anywhere other than in Merkel’s Germany that would have been a straightforward election result. In Merkel’s own words, it was unforgiveable and another election is required. The sooner there’s an election over the leadership of the CDU – Merkel’s party – the better, says Alice. She is one of the few members of the German Federal Parliament in Berlin who has supported Britain during their debates on Brexit.
Swiss Info offered a very short report on this story, even so, read with caution!
Back to Swiss-EU relations. The EU are pushing the Swiss to accept their offer of a Framework deal. In other words, to be eaten alive commercially and politically. The establishment here will crumple; many already have in the face of pressure from Berlin and Brussels. Ordinary Swiss voters know the Germans are desperate to get their hands on all those solid Swiss francs. They may well throw out the Federal Government’s immigration plan when a vote is taken this May.
For the establishment line, follow this link.
The EU and the Swiss are watching Britain very closely. That’s another question for Boris. How close to Switzerland should we sail if the country is possibly about to be gobbled by the EU?
All of which brings us to Mutti herself.
There is a great deal of comment on the state of Angela Merkel’s CDU party and the need for a leadership election. Who will win the leadership of the CDU is of great importance for our Brexit trade talks with the EU. Because that’s the next German Chancellor. Come the autumn Angela Merkel may well have retired from politics. The British negotiating team and Government, not to mention British business and industry, will have had seven months to prepare for Brexit on WTO terms. The next German leader may not have Mutti’s cunning, patience and stubborn nerves, but will have the same German anxiety to control the eurozone and its satellite economies – that includes the British economy – and to strengthen Germany’s political and economic rule of Europe. A new Chancellor who lacks confidence may well posture as a tough leader and collapse any trade talks. So our negotiation team should be ready to play tough. Seen from here on the Continent, the most effective British message lately was given by Sir Jon Cunliffe, deputy governor of the Bank of England – namely, that withdrawing the Swiss licences to trade in the EU at thirty days notice is hardly indicative of a bloc that believes in monetary stability.
Juliet Samuel has written about meeting one of the CDU candidates who was giving a lecture at the LSE last week.
Eric Gujer of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) has also written an excellent article about Mutti’s plans, or rather what ought to be her plans. Well worth reading, as usual.
Here is my translation of the article:
Epidemics spread insidiously. In Wuhan a doctor treated some patients with severe pneumonia. Neither the authorities nor the public took much notice. That was in early December. Meanwhile, the Chinese doctor has succumbed to the coronavirus, as have more than 1,300 other people. More than 60,000 cases of the disease have been registered worldwide, and there is no end in sight to the pandemic.
The CDU has also become infected with a disease. It started some time after Angela Merkel became chancellor. First the reform plans to continue Agenda 2010 were dropped, then came the nuclear phase-out, the end of compulsory military service, the minimum wage, lavish pension gifts and finally the unlimited admission of migrants. Bit by bit, the CDU abandoned its programme. The party is suffering from the virus of arbitrariness.
The extent of the epidemic was revealed in Thuringia, where the CDU, wedged between two populist parties, no longer knew in and out. In the meantime, it is a political pandemic, and it has long since ceased to be limited to the Christian Democrats.
As long as Merkel determined the fate of the party, she knew how to contain the symptoms with an iron hand and great caution. Since Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer became president of the CDU, nothing has stopped the spread. Meanwhile, the pathogen has mutated.
Arbitrariness in combination with unprofessionalism results in a killer virus. Its most prominent victim is now the party leader herself.
Since her election, Kramp-Karrenbauer has stumbled from one communication span to the next, her apparatus has been so clumsy that the inevitable breakdowns have always turned into a calamity. The debacle in Thuringia was the culmination of a decline for a sympathetic and clever politician, who lacked assertiveness and ruthlessness. So Kramp-Karrenbauer travelled to Erfurt, where she tried to persuade her party friends to vote in new elections and thus commit political suicide. As expected, she failed and made herself a footnote in party history.
Merkel then took over crisis management again, but this only made the malaise worse. The Chancellor forced the Thuringian state party to follow its course and dismantled its East Germany representative because the latter had refused to kowtow. Since then, people in Erfurt have wondered what distinguishes this understanding of politics from the SED (the old East German Communist Party under another name), whose Central Committee gave instructions to the districts.
After all, the woman who had caused the loss of identity with her politics took over the responsibility again. The CDU stands for everything and for the opposite. That went well for a long time, and in Thuringia the bluff was finally blown.
The state party sought power, but did not want to form a proper coalition with either the Left Party or the AfD. When it was already too late, Merkel criticised this Christian Democratic ‘as well as’. In doing so, her Thuringian party friends merely held up the mirror to her: Such vagueness is actually her style, only that she tends to proceed more strategically than the amateurs in Erfurt and the Berlin CDU headquarters.
But Merkel has also lost Fortune. She had the unfortunate idea of enthroning Kramp-Karrenbauer – a party leader, in other words, who did not fight for her place at the top of the party out of her own right, but owed it to protection. ‘AKK’ remained an alibi-chairwoman with borrowed power.
The inner-party opponents only had to wait in the wings, occasionally shoot poisonous arrows at Kramp cart builders and watch until the Chancellor’s creature would topple and thus harm Merkel herself. Now finally three men from North Rhine-Westphalia can step out of cover: Prime Minister Armin Laschet, Health Minister Jens Spahn and Friedrich Merz.
Whoever becomes party leader now secures his candidacy for chancellor. After this dramatic year, in which they have lost a lot of prestige, the Christian Democrats would have to be crazy to leave the candidacy to Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder. This would drastically shift the balance of power between the half-sisters CDU and CSU.
The actual source of infection, and this must be kept in mind time and again, is in Berlin and not in Erfurt. All the parties in the centre suffer from consumption, a disease to death that the Social Democrats have almost succumbed to. But the Union, the Liberals and the green up-and-coming parties are also suffering from it.
The new SPD leadership is demonstrating just how far this emaciation of content has now reached. Before their election, they demanded to leave the Grand Coalition in order to praise themselves as guarantors of the stability of this very coalition in view of the events in Thuringia. Is this still shamelessness or already dilettantism?
The arbitrariness has become all the more apparent since the AfD is forcing the other parties to debate how they stand with extremism 30 years after the fall of the last German dictatorship. The election of the Thuringian Prime Minister triggered a storm of indignation, because it was carried out with the votes of the AfD under its state chairman Björn Höcke, whose ‘wing’ is monitored by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. ‘Fascists’ and ‘Nazis’, it resounded everywhere. The FDP, which had thoughtlessly reached for the office of head of government, saw itself in the role of the moral pariah.
The report on the protection of the constitution lists several extremist associations within the Left Party, all of which operate with the blessing of the party leadership. Germany is a rock-solid democracy and is not slipping into Weimar conditions. But anyone drawing such parallels should be consistent and reject alliances with extremists of any colour.
Weimar went under not only because of the Nazis, but also because of the Communists – whom the ‘Communist Platform’ in the Left Party emulates. Neither Social Democrats nor Greens would then be allowed to form a coalition with the Left Party.
It would be wiser, however, not to jump over every little stick that the populists from left and right hold out. Those who can only define their politics in negation, in dissociation from the radical forces, have actually lost their right to exist.
What do the Union, SPD or Greens still stand for? Does their imagination really exhaust itself in chanting ‘Nazis out’? Or do they at least have an idea how Germany should shape its future apart from the reflexive expansion of the welfare state? Some of them work through the coalition agreement like civil servants who stoically stamp page after page. Others are already practising their ability to govern. To this end, the Greens add anti-Americanism and a commitment to Nato in one sentence.
Diseases are fought with drastic measures such as quarantine. Angela Merkel is no longer able to do this. The transition phase until her planned departure in 2021 is proving to be long and paralysing. She should do her country a favour and ask the Bundestag for a vote of confidence.
If the Social Democrats have backbone instead of just demanding it from others, they refuse to follow the Chancellor and clear the way for new elections. If the Union still has the strongest faction after that, a new Chancellor, who will then also be the CDU leader, can dare to make a new start. If this succeeds, the proportions will quickly be adjusted.
Thuringia will then only be a sideshow, just like after the reunification of Saxony-Anhalt. There, the SPD ruled with the help of the Left Party, on whose hands the blood of the Wall’s dead had barely dried. This was unappetising, yet the breaking of taboos in the province did not change German politics in the long term.