quarta-feira, 27 de julho de 2016

The end of Germany’s golden age

The end of Germany’s golden age

Angela Merkel was great when things were good, but can she lead in darker times?

Konstantin Richter
7/28/16, 5:30 AM CET

BERLIN — A little over a year ago, on a Saturday in June, a large number of ordinary Germans filmed themselves doing ordinary things. They sent their footage to Sönke Wortmann, a well-known director, who cut it down to a 100-minute movie.

Wortmann’s film, called “Germany — Your Self-Portrait,” was released on July 14. It is completely devoid of German angst and it shows families on rollercoaster rides, seniors having breakfast and teenage girls hugging each other for the camera. “Friendship is a big issue in this movie,” Wortmann said in an interview. “Pets. Sports. And cars, of course.”

But while Wortmann set out to make a feel-good film, what he released has the feel of a paean to a Germany that’s on the verge of disappearing. Critics were quick to point out how dated the footage already looks — like archival material from another era.

For the past decade, Germany has been enjoying what will perhaps one day be considered a golden age. The country’s long-ailing economy ticked up in the mid-noughties and weathered the recent crises far better than most. Politically, the nation emerged as Europe’s dominant power. The national football team, playing a thrilling attacking game, improved steadily to win the 2014 World Cup.

And perhaps most importantly, Germany became an attractive place to live. Having grown up in Helmut Kohl’s dour Germany of the 1980s, I can testify that the country has become more liberal, more tolerant, more easygoing.

Today, however, that progress appears to be in doubt. The public mood shifted markedly after hundreds of thousands of refugees entered the country, putting a huge strain on resources and institutions. The right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has surged in the polls, benefiting from widespread fears of mass migration and terrorism. Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the height of her popularity when Wortmann’s movie was filmed, now looks weak and vulnerable.

The economy is showing some signs of frailty, too, with heavyweights Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank in particular trouble. And then came the violence: an ax attack near Würzburg, a mass shooting in Munich, knifings in Reutlingen, a suicide bombing in Ansbach.

In the span of just a few days, this string of heinous assaults has shaken a nation that already seemed on the verge of becoming unhinged. Something good has ended — or so it feels — and we don’t know what’s next.

* * *

Germany’s golden age pretty much coincided with Merkel’s time in office. When she ran for chancellor in 2005, the country was just coming out of a crisis. Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s economic reforms had begun to take effect, but Germans, unaware of the recovery, voted him out anyway. And when the economy took off, it was Merkel who reaped the benefits.

Today, many worry the good times are coming to an end. Buttressed by its strong manufacturing base, Germany emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crisis. And while other members of the European Union were rocked by the euro crisis — blaming German-led austerity for their woes — the country’s exporting industry kept rolling, profiting, among other things, from a weakening currency. But how sustainable is this? With much of the world in turmoil, an economy so dependent on exports must eventually suffer.

And then there’s demographics. In France and Britain, an aging population is cause for concern; in Germany, it’s a time bomb. The U.N. has predicted that by 2030 only half of the country’s citizens will be working. Merkel thought she had a fix. When she opened the borders to refugees it was a humanitarian gesture, sure, but it was also an effort to rejuvenate the workforce.

Merkel thought Germans would understand. They didn’t. The long-term benefits of mass migration may, in a best-case scenario, indeed outweigh the short-term difficulties. But many in the country — especially older and more conservative voters — only saw the downside. “We can manage,” Merkel told them, and millions answered in unison, “No, we can’t.”

For the AfD, Merkel’s decision was a lifeline. Founded in 2013 by a group of Euroskeptics, the party had seemed to be in decline. Its members are a pretty angry bunch, some of them because Germany traded the Deutsche Mark for the euro, others because they believe that sex education in schools depraves innocent kids. And the one thing that gets all of them going is Merkel’s migration policy.

The party’s leaders aren’t skillful politicians. They lack charisma, and they’ve made many mistakes. But events like those in Würzburg and Ansbach, where attackers were recent refugees, will strengthen their cause, adding evidence to their argument that Merkel’s move has raised the risk of terrorism. An economic downturn would give the party a further boost.

What would happen if a German Donald Trump came along and took control? A couple of years ago, a journalist named Timur Vermes published a novel called “Look Who’s Back,” in which Adolf Hitler returned to contemporary Berlin, becoming first a media celebrity and then a politician. It’s a satirical book, and it gave many of its readers a good laugh. But suddenly, with the establishment in crisis, “Look Who’s Back” seems less like a joke and more like a cautionary tale.

* * *

The relationship between Merkel and the Germans is at its best when the national football team takes to the field during the playoff stage of a major tournament. A player, usually Thomas Müller, scores, and the Germans cheer. And then the camera swerves to show Merkel applauding from the VIP box, and the Germans cheer her too.

At this summer’s European Championships, however, Merkel didn’t show up when the team reached the semifinals. Maybe she knew people would no longer be cheering her. The Germans are confused and disappointed by their chancellor. After shocking her conservative base with her refugee policy, she alienated her newfound fans on the Left with a controversial deal with Turkey. No one knows what she’s thinking anymore, and she’s not talking. The result is obvious in her approval ratings.

For the Germany portrayed in Wortmann’s movie, Merkel was the perfect leader. As long as her fellow citizens were engrossed in sports, pets and cars, she could steer them safely through minor and major crises. She was good in late-night emergency meetings with other world leaders, able to strike complicated compromises that satisfied the Germans even if they didn’t fully understand the details.

But Merkel has many weaknesses too, and these days they’re on full display. She isn’t gifted rhetorically, and she doesn’t know how to convey her emotions. After these latest attacks, she needs to explain in simple terms what, in her view, happened over the past year. She must tell Germans how she felt last September and how she feels now. She should admit that further attacks are likely, and that she was wrong because she didn’t see them coming. And then she should stake out a new middle ground, arguing that, in spite of the violence, it’s still important to help people in need. That returning to a world with fortified walls is no answer to the threat of terrorism.

But Merkel is not the type to make emotional statements. And that’s unfortunate because Germany is becoming polarized. On one side stand the guilt-ridden advocates of Willkommenskultur, who believe Germans have a moral duty to keep borders open for everyone, and that we only have ourselves to blame when terror strikes. On the other, is the angry far right.

Missing from the debate are all those ordinary Germans who starred in Wortmann’s feel-good project. Someone please tell them it’s their turn to speak. They need to understand that the Germany they’ve lived in — the one that is liberal, tolerant and vibrant — cannot be taken for granted and needs their support.

Konstantin Richter, a German novelist and journalist, is a contributing writer at POLITICO.

Konstantin Richter

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