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).

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Will Germany’s motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

It's more important than ever that Germany's two distinct tribes - drivers and cyclists - learn to accept each other rather than being stuck in constant road rage, explains Brian Melican.

Will Germany's motorists and cyclists ever learn to live with other?

Another week, another discussion about whether Germany has become too bike-friendly or, on the contrary, is still a country where the car is king – a cruel monarch who, day in, day out exacts a deathly toll on cyclists, pedestrians, and indeed anyone who likes to breathe air. To those of us with a high proportion of Germans in our Twitter feeds, this debate is nothing new; now, thanks to the fact that the populist think-pieces of Bild are now available in English (Who knew?), the long-running ideological slanging match between drivers and riders is now there for all to follow. Oh, joy!

For many who move to Germany, the country appears, at first sight, to be firmly in the grip of cyclists. Especially in the university towns of the flat north such as Münster, Göttingen, or Braunschweig, the sheer number of visible bikes is remarkable, and even in Hamburg and Berlin, there are cycles lanes seemingly everywhere along which a constant stream of ruddy-cheeked individuals plying their pedals, making liberal use of their bells. Coming fresh from London or Paris, the contrast is striking – and you run a not insignificant risk of being mowed down when standing on the wrong bit of the pavement.

Yet to those who move here from Amsterdam or Copenhagen, Germany looks like a place where cyclists are treated as an unwelcome nuisance by traffic planners and as fair game by unscrupulous motorists with a pronounced taste for speed. The very fact that most cycle lanes are on pavements, for instance, strikes them as strange. Surely the best place for bicycles is well away from pedestrians? What is more, the large amounts of the carriageway space taken up by cars – either in motion or stationary – seem jarring coming from countries which have long prioritised cycling over driving in built-up environments.

As ever, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. And, as so often, we Germans have a marked tendency get into endless, cyclical arguments about points of principle and prove unable to learn to live with our contradictions.

READ ALSO: Road rage in Berlin as cyclists clog streets in pandemic

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May.

Cyclists at a demonstration in Düsseldorf in May. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | David Young

Speeders’ paradise and cycling favourite

For Germany is, in traffic terms, contradictory. It is at once Europe’s automobile mecca, with the continent’s largest car industry and famously speed-limit-free Autobahns. It’s also one of Europe’s foremost cycling nations in which families routinely bike miles for weekend recreation and the country that gave the world Standlichtfunktion (rear bike lights which remain on when stationary). It’s home to various premium and mass-market manufacturers, behind only China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands in terms of bicycle production and export.

This becomes clear when comparing the bikes Germans ride to those of our European neighbours. Generalisations being odious, the average UK bicycle is a mountain bike poorly suited, in typical British fashion, to the use its owner is making of it: that’s why London businessmen ride into work with their suits in grubby rucksacks with tell-tale streaks of mud up the back and why they are continually scraping around for batteries to put in clip-on lights which inevitably fall off and smash halfway. French households, if at all, have sleek, spotless racing bikes reserved for sporting use in the evenings and at weekends. Otherwise, city-dwellers use widely-available rental bikes – unless it is raining, too warm, too cold, or too windy, or in any other way preferable to not do so. On the other end of the scale, the Dutch and the Danes have workhorse bikes which can fit everything from small children and large dogs through to IKEA flat-pack furniture.

READ ALSO: German state ministers push for Autobahn speed limit

The average German bike, meanwhile, is an all-in-one mountain-cum-city-bike (“Trekkingrad”) with the attention to practical detail for which the country is famous: fitted dynamo-driven lights as standard, a frame over the back wheel onto which weather-proof saddle bags can be clipped, and mudguards over both wheels; it will have at least 21 gears, the highest of which will enable someone in good physical health to do at least 15mph on flats and, increasingly, an electric motor to help it go even faster. Germans build bikes like they build cars: to get you and your stuff comfortably and speedily from A to B. This, by the way, explains the increasing popularity of the pedelec cargo-bikes at the root of the current controversy: they do more or less all the things a car does.

High standards – whatever the transport mode

And this is the nub of the issue: Germans – whether in cars or on bikes – have high standards when it comes to transportation and are congenitally impatient (see also queuing behaviour and ALDI cashiers). When in our cars, we expect to be able to bomb down pot-hole free roads at a minimum of 30mph (and preferably more) and then immediately find a parking space wherever we end up; any impediment to our right of way is taken as a personal insult; pedestrians must cross at designated points or risk death.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at red light in Germany?

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg.

People drive on the Autobahn in Laichingen in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Puchner

And when on our bicycles, we Germans exhibit exactly the same traits: we expect absolutely obstacle-free cycle paths and bike lanes, ample stands and racks wherever we dismount, and are genuinely angry when anyone – on four, on two wheels, or on foot – gets in our way. To give you an idea of just how exacting we Germans are of each other here: I was once, in the driving Hamburg rain, tailgated all the way down the bike lane along Glacischaussee by a woman who, when we stopped at the lights, told me that my mudguard was “antisocial” (asozial) because it, in her opinion, didn’t go far down enough over my back wheel, meaning that she was getting spray in her face. It simply didn’t occur to her to just ride further back or overtake me.

Unfortunately, of course, there is nowhere near enough space in German cities for both those in cars and those on bicycles to be able to drive and ride exactly the way they would like to at all times – without, that is, getting rid of pedestrians entirely (potentially one thing the two groups might agree on). And so we are stuck with groups of road and pavement users shouting abuse at each other (“Verkehrsrowdy!” – road-hog; “Schleicher!” – slowcoach) rather than learning to show consideration, adapt to sub-optimal conditions, and react to unforeseen circumstances. In my own view, the sooner we ban cars entirely from city centres and reclaim the streets for those of us using healthy, emissions-free transport, the better; in the meantime, however, life is too short to be shouting at each other – and could be even shorter for some of us if we all keep trying to do top speed in the same spaces.