OPINION: Germany will have to endure Covid for a while longer, but at least Merkel is going

Both Angela Merkel and Covid have been around in Germany for seemingly forever. But at least change is on the horizon, even if we don't know what's coming next, writes Brian Melican in Hamburg.

OPINION: Germany will have to endure Covid for a while longer, but at least Merkel is going
Brian Melican is glad to see the back of Merkel. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

It’s another typically grey Hamburg afternoon and I’m sitting at my desk eyeing up my postal vote for the upcoming Bundestagswahl. In recent years, I’ve often dropped my ballot off at the electoral services offices several weeks before polling day. After all, I was always pretty sure of who I wanted to vote for, if not necessarily always sure of precisely how to do that (anyone who thinks Erststimme/Zweitstimme (first and second vote) is complicated should give the five-vote system for the Hamburg local elections a try…). This time round, though, I’m hesitating.

It would appear that I’m not alone. As pollsters, pundits, and publicans (those much underestimated societal barometers) confirm, the mood in Germany this summer has been characterised by a strange blend of stasis and volatility. The stasis can be summed up in two words: Merkel and Corona. Both have been around seemingly forever – and it feels difficult to imagine either ever going away. The volatility comes from the complete uncertainty about what will come after them (and when “after” will be).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: When exactly will Merkel leave office?

Let’s start with Merkel. She had been in office for little over six weeks when I first moved to Hamburg in early 2006. My entire life in Germany to date has taken place under a Merkel chancellorship, as has that of anyone currently turning 16 or younger. Through this feat alone, she has become beloved of many Germans, who of course like nothing more than weighty stability, both in their cars (Mercedes, BMW) and their Chancellors (think Kohl).

In fact, Germans are such suckers for stability that they voted Merkel even after her core campaign message became nothing more ambitious than “Sie kennen mich ja”. This translates as “Well, you know me”, but might be rendered facetiously as “Better the devil you know”.

It’s a paradox we’ve all come to know. Germans dislike almost everything about Merkel’s policies (or lack of them), but have proved unwilling to trust anyone else with the levers of power.

Literally everyone in Germany I know is deeply dissatisfied with something: people who vote for Merkel’s CDU often think they’re too soft on migrants and complain that they haven’t done enough to keep the Autobahn network in shape; people who don’t vote for the CDU are perplexed that it still refuses to recognise that Germany has always run on immigration and think the millions spent on re-tarmacking motorways might be put to better use on crumbling schools and understaffed hospitals.

Chancellor Angela Merkel with conservative chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

If you detect some frustration in me personally here, you’re right: on most issues in public life, from immigration to public investment, the debate has barely moved on since I arrived. Ich kann es nicht mehr hören (I can’t listen to it anymore). The fact that Merkel only really scraped back in in 2017, having lost eight percent vote share (no, most people don’t remember that bit, either), suggests that I may not be as alone as I sometimes feel here.

In any case, I for one am absolutely delighted that Merkel has chosen to release us from this 16-year-limbo.

I know the prospect of her retiring worries some people – not just in Germany, but elsewhere – because “compared to Trump, Johnson et al, she stands for a different style of doing politics”, as the argument goes. That’s certainly true, but declaring her to be the best leader a western democracy in the early twenty-first century could ever have by comparing her to populism’s most mendacious sociopaths betrays, in my view, a worrying lack of ambition. Compare her to a leader with plausible hair and a political programme – like Emmanuel Macron, for instance, or Sanna Marin – and she looks like a tired hack with very little to say for herself.

This spring, even the most dyed-in-the-wall Merkel apologists couldn’t overlook just how much damage an utter lack of convictions can wreak. After going in front of the cameras in March 2020 to do what a chancellor has to do (“It is serious; take it seriously”), Merkel retreated behind a webcam for the rest of the pandemic, sniping at the various state leaders when they didn’t agree with her on coronavirus restrictions and going borderline unconstitutional at several points along the way.

READ ALSO: An era ends – how will Germany and the world remember the Merkel years?

Germany stuck in a Merkel – and Covid rut

Which brings us on to the second cause of the odd feeling of stasis: Corona. Just like with Chancellors, Germans don’t like taking risks with illnesses, either. We have always been a nation of hypochondriacs, and in days gone by, this was advantageous: doctors take ailments seriously and routinely run diagnostics people in other countries have to fight tooth and nail (or be privately insured) for. Yet the virus has brought out the worst in us.

As a country, we are terrified of the virus to the point that we still put on masks to walk three feet to the toilet in a restaurant, but are equally scared of the 1-in-100,000 chance of getting ill with the available vaccines. It’s a bad case of: “Wasch mich, aber mach mich nicht naß!” (wash me but don’t get me wet – similar to ‘having your cake and eating it’) Either way, Germany is doomed to suffer a bad autumn and winter in which we bear higher rates of illness than we would like with less freedom than we would want.

People waiting for a jab at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie on September 3rd. Is Germany ready for political change? Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ulrich Perrey

Nothing, however – not Merkel, not Corona – lasts forever, even though Germans love nothing more than a protracted status quo.

But there you go: that’s the Germany I fell in love with enough to become German back in 2015 (yes, before it was cool/necessary for Brits to do so). And because of that, I at least get to register my discontent at the ballot box in just a couple of weeks’ time. Habitually, I vote Green; in locals, I’ve even gone as far as Die Linke (voting SPD in Hamburg is just like voting CDU). Yet something tells me we might need the FDP in government this time round before they start making us check into our own flats with the cursed LUCA app. Then again, I dislike much of their manifesto and personnel … Tough one. 

So I resort to the Wahl-o-mat. As it turns out, I should be voting for DIE PARTEI. Now, that seems to be taking my instinct to break out of endless Grand Coalitions a little too far. Even back in the UK, I never voted Monster Raving Loony. What is more: the less clear the result, the longer Merkel will have to stay on as caretaker until a government is formed. And so my hesitation continues.

Member comments

  1. I don’t known from whence you originate, but compared to the USA (the UN-united States), Merkel is at worst a competent leader.

  2. This is an incredibly imbalanced piece of student journalism.

    I largely agree that it’s time for Merkel to step down. Like all of us, she has her strengths and her weaknesses, and I agree that her era will not be noted for its economic vision. All of this said, I feel she deserves a lot more respect for what she has achieved. And this comes from someone who would never vote CDU (if i could vote in germany).

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy ‘homework’ – and faces years of catching up

Germany's energy crisis is the result of decades of failing to take action - and now residents face tough times. Brian Melican looks at what went wrong and asks why Germany isn't doing more to become energy independent given the scale of the problem.

OPINION: Germany has failed to do its energy 'homework' - and faces years of catching up

One of the most common figures of speech in German political debate is “doing one’s homework”. “Da hat die Politik mal wieder ihre Hausaufgaben nicht gemacht!” – “Once again, the politicians haven’t done their homework!” – is the usual refrain when something has gone quite predictably awry. Part and parcel of day-to-day politics in Germany, into other cultural spheres, this accusation is considered insufferably patronising. During the Euro crisis of 2012, for instance, the Greeks grew tired of being told, like petulant teenagers, to “go away and do (their) homework”. So it’s hard to begrudge them their audible Schadenfreude now that the self-styled schoolmaster has been caught with a briefcase full of unmarked essays.

While the details of the current energy crisis into which Germany has manoeuvred itself are technically complex – turbines and export permits; prolonging the service life of nuclear reactors or even recommissioning them; adjusting the amount of gas-generated electricity in the grid to varying degrees between north and south – the overall picture is so simple that every schoolchild can understand it: we have been putting off our homework for too long. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage: Five challenges facing Germany right now

Years of inaction 

The assignment was set long ago. Back in the late 1990s, climate change first hit the political agenda and the Kyoto Protocol bound signatories to reduce greenhouse emissions. What’s more, Germany, as a country with few natural resources but a large industrial economy, has long been dependent on in importing astronomical amounts of oil and gas from foreign regimes – an approach whose weaknesses started to become apparent in the Oil Crises of the 1970s. As such, the task was clear – to radically reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – and the student understood the learning objectives: contribute to saving the planet and gain a degree of strategic freedom.

We got off to a good start in 1998 by, for the first time ever, electing the Greens, who promptly proclaimed the Energiewende (green energy transition) and set about creating Europe’s leading solar and wind power industry. Unfortunately, however, the Chancellor they were under was SPD-man Gerhard “Greenhouse gasses? Russian gas!” Schröder and, in the background, industrials were assured that they wouldn’t have to take all the ecological stuff too seriously. 

Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin

Gerhard Schröder hugs Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Alexei Druzhinin

Then, in 2005 we elected Chancellor Merkel – and re-elected her three times on a more or less explicit platform of Keeping Everything The Way It Is. This could only be achieved by continuing to import fossil fuels – an ever increasing proportion of which came, in spite of the many clear and pressing dangers, from Russia – and shrinking our renewables sector so that money could still be lavished on tax breaks for motorists and nobody’s view would be spoiled by wind farms.

Now, the due date for our homework has come around and we have a serious crisis. Things, for the first time ever, can no longer be Kept The Way They Are: public buildings are no longer being heated/cooled, swimming pools are being shut, and monuments are not being lit; those of us on gas heating (i.e. the majority of households in Germany) will soon be paying anything from double to quadruple our current bills.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Everywhere we look, there are shortages: not enough gas means, in anti-wind-power southern Germany, not enough electricity too. Yet sales figures from DIY chain stores show skyrocketing sales of electric heaters; shutting public buildings reduces consumption there, but increases it in people’s homes… Like a schoolboy on Sunday evening counting and re-counting the hours, whichever way we divide our time, there’s not enough of it.

Gas heaters on display in Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning.

Electric heaters are among the many heating devices lining store shelves right now, like these on display in a Hornbach Baumarkt in Fröttmaning Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

What’s astonishing, by the way, is not actually how bad things have got – and how bad they’re looking this autumn and winter – but rather that they aren’t already far worse. This is primarily due to Economics Minister Robert Habeck’s decisive early action and brutally honest communication: as a result, we have been unexpectedly successful in reducing dependency on Russian gas from 55 percent to 35 percent within four months and have, due to various comparatively painless efficiency savings, managed to cut our gas consumption by 14 percent compared to last summer. As such, the Federal Network Agency is now cautiously optimistic that, if this winter is not a particularly cold one, we may just about make it through without having to shut off the gas supply to swathes of our industry or whole cities.

This may sound like a national success story – and if we are indeed successful in maintaining this thin, increasingly wobbly veneer of normality into 2023, there will be a strong temptation to sell it as such, patting ourselves on the back for having been far-sighted enough to switch off the hot water in town halls across the country before it was too late and then allowing ourselves to get distracted. Yet depriving civil servants of warm water to wash their hands during some of the hottest months on record while half of them are on holiday anyway (Why wasn’t this already standard practice?!) does not a green energy transition make. It is the equivalent of writing the last line on that essay just as the bus pulls into the stop opposite the school.

READ ALSO: Cold showers to turning off lights: How German cities are saving energy ahead of winter

Winter is first obstacle of many

Any short-term successes must be put in the context of a mountain of uncompleted tasks in the medium term. Firstly, getting through this winter by the skin of our teeth will mean that gas stocks are even lower next April than they were this year. So we’d better hope that those liquefied natural gas terminals being rush-built on the coast are operational by then, and that Qatar – that oh-so reliable regime thousands of miles away on the Persian Gulf that totally shares all of our values – honours the contracts Robert Habeck managed to grovel us into earlier this year.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany on Wednesday in Wilhelmshaven.

Robert Habeck, Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, takes part in a boat tour for liquefied natural gas imports to Germany earlier in 2022 in Wilhelmshaven. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

We’d also better hope that the Suez Canal, through which tankers filled with the much-needed LNG will need to pass, remains open the whole time and that Russian submarines sneaking their way through the Bosphorus don’t generate “incidents at sea”; then there’s Putin’s air units stationed in Syria… After that, in 2024, we’ll also need to keep a close eye on the US elections: another chunk of the LNG planned to replace Russian gas is from across the Atlantic, and a second Trump Administration would probably be only marginally more reliable a supplier than Putin’s regime.

So despite the flurry of activity this summer and the understandable angst ahead of autumn, it’s not really this winter that we should be worried about. There is, quite simply, a massive disconnect between the monumental scale of action which would be required to make Germany truly energy independent and the diminutive dimensions of what is currently happening.

Right now, we should be making it a legal requirement for landlords to switch heating systems from gas and legislating for state-funded factories to meet the demand this would generate; we should be immediately reactivating some of the thousands of kilometres of freight tracks Deutsche Bahn has dismantled in recent years – and drafting laws to make hauliers use these rail connections. Instead, we are jerry-rigging up LNG terminals and mucking about with flash-in-the-pan €9 tickets while we continue subsidising car-drivers enormous sums to burn petrol. 

Oh, and given that – who could have guessed? – Russia is barely respecting its supply commitments anyway, we should finally do the decent thing and stop importing Russian gas now. Would that add to our dire predicament? Yes. But perhaps, in order for us to start taking our homework seriously, we need to learn a few lessons first.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take for Germany to turn off Russian gas?