Trump’s Military Flunky?

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

This week German Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel returned from her three-week vacation in the Italian mountains. Her absence meant she had to miss the famed “Diesel Summit” on 2 August with all of the country’s auto manufacturers, but at least campaigning towards nationwide election happening next 24 September was set to a low simmer while she was away.

She returned still enjoying a healthy lead in the polls over her nearest competitor, former EU Parliament President Martin Schulz. Schulz represents the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, the country’s next-biggest political party after Merkel’s CDU, but also the one that is in the current government with her, as they formed a “Grand Coalition” together after the last election in 2013. That’s always an uncomfortable arrangement – having to cooperate within a government even as your colleagues from the other main party are your main election-rivals – and I’m sure both sides are looking forward to seeing it end after this next election.

From Germany’s northern neighbor, the Danish newspaper Politiken has identified something a little strange in the German campaign:

“Merkel wants to increase NATO funding.” “What’s so strange about that?” you might ask. After all, it’s well-known that Germany’s defense budget has long stood below the 2% of GDP that is prescribed (by 2024) for all NATO member-states; currently the figure is around 1.26%. It’s a rich country, and the economy (including tax-receipts) is now doing very well; indeed, it is the leading country on the European continent, at least politically and financially. No excuse, it would seem, not to hit that funding target.

But here you might forget who has been loudly demanding that Germany raise its defense-spending*: Donald Trump. And, already, Donald Trump is someone you don’t want to be associated with in the eyes of the German electorate.

Well, when you’re behind in the polls you’ll go with anything halfway-plausible that you can think of, right? Sure enough, Schulz and other leading SPD officials are now attacking Merkel for her stated intention to raise the country’s military spending, should she be re-confirmed in office (for the third time in a row) in the election. This sort of thing even comes from Germany’s current Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD):

For me, this means that Germany is subordinating itself to the American President. Up until recently I never believed that this was possible.

See what I mean about the awkwardness of Grand Coalitions? This is the person with whom Merkel still has to work closely – for another few weeks, at least – to formulate and carry out the country’s foreign policy.

Now admittedly, the military has always been a sore point in German politics, say, in the past seven decades or so. For example, it took the longest time even to overturn the law that once forbade German armed forces from being deployed outside the country. And we all know why that is, namely due to the rather unbridled use Germany made of its military some seventy-to-eighty years ago.

Still, it’s striking how Trump represents the Kiss of Death in Germany, even when it comes to policies for which you would think there would be general agreement. Here’s an idea: The German auto industry’s lobbying arm should try its best, at whatever cost, to get Trump to start singing the praises of electrically powered cars!

A final note: All of this could become academic. For the precise German election day is Sunday, 24 September, or the day after a widely accepted Internet meme claims the world will come to an end.

*Actually, in most of his statements Trump has made it sound like NATO members are required to pay 2% of their GDP to the US Treasury in exchange for defensive cover from the US military. It actually doesn’t work like that.

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Para. 103: More Bark Than Bite

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Many Germany observers are confused these days by the so-called Böhmermann Affair: Jan Böhmermann has his own show, called Neo Magazin Royale, on the German public television network ZDF, and on March 31 he recited on-air a poem concerning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that was not so nice, including as it did i.a. several references to the President’s alleged sexual practices. Top officials of the Turkish government, including Erdoğan personally, lobbied the German government to press criminal charges against Böhmermann; Angela Merkel herself eventually announced that the German State would indeed give its required go-ahead for a criminal investigation of Böhmermann for insulting a foreign Head of State.

What is going on with Germany? Isn’t it the country which, for some time now, has topped all opinion polls for world-wide admiration. This abridgement of elementary freedom of speech seems to hark back to the bad old Nazi times.

Not really, though; if anything, it harks back to the mid-1950s, when after a decade of Allied occupation Germany was getting back on its feet as an independent Western country. The former Shah of Iran – were he still around – would be glad to remind us of how speech in modern Germany is far from fully free.

Shah
Indeed, that paragraph of German federal law under which Böhmermann might be prosecuted – paragraph 103 StGB, forbidding “the insulting of organs and representatives of foreign States” – was for quite a while known as the Shah-paragraph, so often did the Persian monarch use it in his relations with the Federal Republic.

But first back to 1953, when German criminal law, having been suspended since that country’s defeat in 1945, is being restored – and authorities take care to re-institute paragraph 103, which dates back to Second Reich, that is, to the rule of German Emperors following the country’s unification in 1871. The political system of post-WWII Germany naturally was carefully designed by the occupying powers to try to ensure that such dictatorship as was seen during the Nazi regime could never happen again; for one thing, the peculiar American concept of federalism was introduced, so that the country was broken up into individual states each having rights and powers at their own local level.

But this new Germany was by no means designed to be any sort of liberal paradise with the world’s greatest personal freedoms. People’s memories were still fresh in 1953, only eight years after the Nazis’ gross crimes against humanity had been ended, and Germany was still to some degree a pariah state. There was no room, in other words, for the inevitable satirists and smart-alecks which such a fertile culture would inevitably produce to spoil the German government’s attempts to get back into the world’s good graces by ill-conceived, badly timed and just plain rude cross-border insults. Indeed, in 1958 Konrad Adenauer’s government wanted to go even further to prevent that sort of thing, namely to adding a paragraph 103a which would have outlawed the spreading of any sort of denigrating reference concerning the private lives of foreign heads of state or their families – whether true or not.

That extension was rejected by the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s federal parliament. But even in rejection the proposed law had a name: Lex Soraya, or “Soraya’s Law,” after the Persian Empress who was the Shah’s second wife, whom he was busy divorcing.

Nobody Cares; Nobody Really Punished

So the Shah lacked that extra bit of legal machinery to go after critics in Germany who said something insulting about his wives. But paragraph 103 gave him plenty of leeway to file charges against those insulting him personally, and he did so in three instances, the first in 1958. The same stricture applied, of course, against insults directed at other countries’ representatives, but the interesting point in this taz.de article is rather how the very prospect of such a foreign head of state complaining often caused the German police to move in ahead of the game and start confiscating materials and even arresting people being rude to foreign political figures, as they did in the case of insulting materials directed at such figures as then-Chinese President Li Peng, against the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, against Pope Benedict XVI and against visiting American Presidents Ronald Reagen and George W. Bush.

In all of those latter cases the police then had to back off and apologize because one key element required to prosecute such acts – namely, an official complaint coming from the “insulted” party – was not forthcoming. Thus we see that it has really mainly been the Shah who has actively taken advantage of this paragraph 103 during its post-War history. It is also important to note that the harshest punishment that ever resulted was “low-level fines” collected from editors at a Cologne newspaper (after a three-year trial) which published a disrespectful set of cartoons about the Shah in the 1960s.

Now the Turkish government is seeking legal redress as well. (Vice President Numan Kurtulmus has even publicly characterized Böhmermann’s poem as a “crime against humanity.”) That fact has caused many to worry that President Erdoğan, buoyed by how dependent Chancellor Merkel is upon him regarding the refugee situation, is deliberately using these insults directed against him to force her to turn Germany into something it has not been since 1945. Such concerns are misplaced, however, for a Bad and a Good Reason:

  • The Bad Reason: Paragraph 103 has been there as part of German federal law since that law was resurrected in the mid-1950s, so it’s nothing new; and
  • The Good Reason: Over-enthusiastic policing aside (which has always eventually been called back), it seems clear that the modern German legal system does have a good understanding of, and sympathy for, the right of freedom of speech, as we can see from the minor penalties courts have issued even when Paragraph 103 cases have managed to go all the way to trial and judgment.

In other words, while for much of its post-War history German diplomacy has operated within a difficult and awkward framework, so that measures such as Paragraph 103 were useful to have when citizens “misbehaved” vis-à-vis foreign potentates, in the final analysis they have amounted to mere window-dressing. When necessary, “action” can be seen to be taken, whereas no one is seriously punished as a result, and nothing (including the German people’s right to express themselves, in particular) fundamentally changes. OK, Jan Böhmermann may now be under police protection, and he has had to cancel the taping of a number of his shows – but he should enjoy his new status as media martyr, history shows he won’t pay much for it, if anything, and it might even enhance his career.

One might well see a parallel here with the “promises” concerning a resurrection of Turkey’s EU membership bid that are part of the recent agreement concerning the refugees – but that would require a separate post.

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German Finances in Cautious Clover

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Here’s some news that I have not seen reported elsewhere, and I really don’t know why:

14JANHaushaltsplus
That’s 12.1 billion, as in euros: it is a surplus, and it is the bottom-line result of the German Federal Government’s budget over 2015. Further:

The reasons for this are the good economic conditions and high level of tax-receipts. For Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) this surplus turned out to be double as much as was expected in November.

No wonder we see Schäuble there leaning on his hands with such a smug look on his face: for him, it’s job well done!

Actually, good economic conditions pretty much automatically mean high tax-receipts, at least for any government which has its act together in the tax-collecting department, which Germany certainly does. But where did those good economic conditions come from? Well, the Germans do what they do well, as everybody knows; among other things, that means a healthy Mittelstand or layer of mid-sized companies (usually privately owned) making all sorts of capital equipment held in such regard by the rest of the world that demand for it is largely price-inelastic (that is, that demand takes little or no hit even if prices rise, e.g. due to currency fluctuations). The result is Germany’s long-standing status as the world’s #1 exporter, these days contested only with China.

So there is all that, a set of character traits contrasting sharply with others said to be more typical of other areas of Europe (mainly to the South) now experiencing quite worse economic conditions. Germany also implemented its so-called “Harz Reforms” around ten years ago, consisting of a series of changes to labor market regulation which made it easier to hire and to fire workers, and which resulted in a suppression of German labor costs which made the prices for native manufactures even more competitive internationally. And finally there is the effect of the euro: No matter how much it might be derided there (e.g. as the teuro, from the German word for “expensive”), one thing that is clear is that, by taking away Southern European nations’ ability to devalue their currencies when their own products became too uncompetitive, the euro locked in a high degree of export superiority for goods from the North, and thus flows of money there – and so relative prosperity, and high tax-receipts. (This also can mean – to some extent – that the economic troubles afflicting Europe’s periphery are not these countries’ fault.)

So Where to Spend the Bounty?

That big pot of money is there – billions of euros, twice as big as had been expected – so the question naturally arises: What to do with it? Ideally, having accumulated in German Federal coffers, the money would be spent in such a way to recycle it back to the other EU states from which it largely came, in such a way to share the wealth and the prosperity a bit more broadly around the European continent. This could be something as simple as an accelerated raising of German workers’ wages, so that they spend more and some of that more they spend are goods and/or services from elsewhere in the EU.

That’s not what is going to happen, though. Rather, according to this piece, much of the money will go to the obvious need: Wir schaffen das!, i.e. “We can do it!” That is, it will be devoted to dealing with the flood of Third World asylum-seekers of which more than 1 million have shown up on Germany’s doorstep through 2015 (with many more expected still to come). The German government largely attends to this problem by sending money to the lower-level Bundesstaat and local governments that actually have to deal with the incoming refugees on the ground. So these elements will get more money. (Not that that will solve the problem; it has become clear recently that considerable political and inter-cultural obstacles also need to be addressed, with solutions that largely cannot only rely upon money.)

There is also another consideration. Successful governing in Germany necessarily means keeping in the back of one’s mind the Biblical tale of Joseph in Egypt, of the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years. German official have to be especially careful with their budgets, considering that an amendment they passed to their Constitution in the recent past mandates that the federal budget deficit be no more than 0.35% of GDP – and that provision comes into effect starting now, in 2016. That means any surplus – no matter how unexpected it may be – to some degree must be husbanded with a view for any bad times ahead (although that same amendment permits greater deficits than 0.35% of GDP in case of national emergencies, whether economic or natural-disaster in nature).

This mandated caution looks even more reasonable in light of some additional news:

14JANWIrtschaft2
Germany’s economic growth for 2015 is expected to come in at 1.7%. What is more, more-or-less the same rate is expected for calendar 2016. Many would see that as low – especially in comparison to economic growth in developing countries, especially China. It’s pretty much also low in comparison with rates that the US is starting to hit again.

Then again, compared to European standards, 1.7% is pretty good, due to Europe’s (and especially Germany’s) continued graying and population loss, over-regulation and other factors. Further, as this FAZ piece adds, “comparatively few currently have to worry about their jobs: The situation on the labor market is at a historically favorable level.”

Still, in absolute terms you could say 1.7% is low. As we see, Germany has been able to extract from that a very nice federal government budget-surplus. But one must still be cautious.

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Volley-Boondoggle

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

This week sees the qualification rounds, to be held in Berlin, for the volleyball competition that will be part of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games later this year. The German team coach, Vital Heynen (himself of Belgian nationality, as you can perhaps tell by the name), has a lengthy interview in the leading German newspaper Die Welt.

StolzDeutsch
By all accounts, he’s done a good job, and the German team is confident about its chances. Then again, I’m not so interested in volleyball, German or otherwise. I would have passed this bit of news entirely by had it not been for that text-fragment in the tweet: “You Germans are not proud of Germany!”

Yes, the quote comes from Heynen. What would cause him to say something like that? Here is the wider context from the interview:

The problem of Germany is that it is no sports-country, it has no sports-culture. Hamburg’s decision to not apply for the [Olympic] Games [of 2024] hit me right in the heart. I cannot understand it. The Olympic motto for 2012 was “Proud of Germany”; I’m telling you now, you are not proud of Germany, when you have a country of which one really could be proud.

(That 2012 motto must have been in connection with Leipzig’s application to host those particular summer games. Leipzig got nowhere in the bidding, which of course was won by London, for whose Games the motto was “Inspire a Generation.”)

No “sports-country”; no “sports-culture.” Because the German taxpayer has picked up a new reluctance even to bid for the right to host Olympic games!

Heynen may think that his position gives him a privileged platform to comment on German athletic affairs generally, but he is likely wrong. The citizens of Hamburg voted last September to withdraw their bid, but those of Boston had done the same thing just two months earlier.

Indeed, is staging the Olympic Games – whether summer or winter – something any reasonably democratically run polity is going to want to undertake from here on out? It’s an awful big drain on public monies, all for a bit over a month of concentrated world-attention – and then the long hangover of an expensive collection of white-elephant athletics buildings for which permanent alternative uses are hard to find. The 2004 Games certainly gave Greece a good shove down the path of public insolvency, while there has already been and will certainly continue to be widespread dissatisfaction in Brazil over all the public money spent on this year’s Summer Games, especially given the recent sharp downturn in Brazil’s economic fortunes – and given the strong whiff of public corruption whose revelation has accompanied that downturn.

Clearly, staging the Olympics is a project not for democratic localities but rather for the undemocratic variety, where there is no public accountability for the vast sums of public money required. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – the most expensive in history, by far – clearly had as their main function being a conduit for Putin to divert government money to his friends and supporters. The 2008 Peking Games, for all we know, fulfilled a similar function, as will surely the 2022 Winter Games, also to be held in that world-renowned center for winter sports, Beijing.

Of course, even if the democratic world sensibly starts to leave hosting the Olympics to the autocrats, that still means condemning a series of national populations to misappropriation of their tax monies. Far better to harken back to the Games’ original spirit, to the very name Olympics, and start hosting the Games (at least the Summer version) permanently in their spiritual country of origin, namely Greece, in Athens. There is a good collections of purpose-built buildings still there just dying to be properly used again.

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Hardly A New Drang Nach Osten

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

This ain’t 1941. This is actually good news!

zolnierz
“German soldiers go into Ukraine.” But not to stay: they’ll be in the western part for around 11 days starting July 20, near the major city of Lviv, participating in NATO maneuvers called Rapid Trident, associated with the separate Sea Breeze exercise coming in off the Black Sea.

This is good news as the token it is of German support for Ukraine in its struggle over the eastern provinces which, although now seemingly at a low burn, has hardly yet been resolved. US troops (and ships) will be involved as well in these exercises as well, of course; the Obama administration has so far shown itself willing to go even further in its support for Ukraine than the Europeans, to include training and even selling equipment (although, so far, the latter has remained “non-lethal”).

This German participation has also attracted public Russian attention, as Vice-Premier Dimitri Rogozin inquired on social media whether the Germans were there to tour the sites of their past “military successes.” There we are taken back to 1941, and clearly the Russians aren’t happy about this development. But just let Rogozin vent, or any of his colleagues: they surely still have credit on account from the 20 million+ dead of 70 years ago.

UPDATE: And speaking of 20 million . . . Here’s a new report that the German government is increasing its budget for Bundeswehr maneuvers outside the country by that amount.

Bundeswehr
Note that this is a budgetary supplement applying only for the remainder of this year. In fact, in terms of numbers of troops, slightly fewer German soldiers are going on maneuvers outside their country this year compared to last; further, the really big exercise – named “Trident Juncture” – actually is to take place on the Iberian peninsula from 28 September to 16 October.

Nonetheless, this monetary move is seen to be an explicit sign of resolve towards Russia.

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Get Off-a My Cloud!

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Bitkom is a German IT trade association for small- and medium-sized businesses with an associated website, and that site is reporting something interesting, picked up by the national newsmagazine Stern:

Cloud
Cloud-Dienste: cloud services, with examples listed such as Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud and Dropbox. Turns out they’re not so popular there. A recent Eurostat study put Germany squarely in the middle of the pack of European countries when it comes to their use. While you would expect Germany to be somewhat ahead of the IT-laggards that study identified, such as Poland and Rumania (8 percent of population uses cloud services), it’s strange that country is not nearer the head of the class along with Denmark (44 percent) or Norway (43 percent).

Instead, 21% of German respondents to the Eurostat study reported that some of their data was in the Cloud. And the reason is very clear: “from concern of not being able to make use of regular data-security and data-protection provisions.”

It’s always handy to remember that a healthy chunk of the current German population, somewhere around under a quarter of it, had some experience of living in the old DDR or East Germany, with its intrusive Stasi secret police. Germany is also constantly at the forefront of efforts within the EU to shore up individual privacy protections.

It also has been leading in its agitation resulting from the Snowden revelations of the wide reach into Europe of the American NSA and British GCHQ, especially after reports emerged that Chancellor Merkel’s own mobile telephone had long been tapped. And what do we also find in common concerning those named cloud-data services that Germans are so loathe to take up? That’s right, they are American, run from America and therefore as we know subject to secret demands from the American authorities to give up their secrets, violate their customers’ confidentiality, whenever those US authorities deem that they need to do so.

The Stern article is too polite to mention the US, as is the lengthier Bitkom piece (where you can see the full table of country results). But it is clear the fears on the part of US high-tech concerns that their overseas market-share will suffer because of a loss of confidence brought about by the ruthless worldwide surveillance from the Anglo-Saxon authorities are by no means unfounded.

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Drops the Other Electoral Schuh

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

A coming high point in European Union affairs is the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for the period 22-25 May, which will be for all 751 seats. They were made more exciting (if you find them exciting at all in the first place) by an extraordinary intervention a few weeks ago by the German Federal Constitutional Court, which struck down the 3% threshold that had been required of individual political parties for gaining representation in the European Parliament at all.

The reason that this made those upcoming EP elections a bit more exciting is that it means that the way is open now for representatives from all sorts of wacky parties to take their seats there come June, although be forewarned that these parties are more likely to be “wacky” as in “unsavory” – like the German neo-Nazi NPD, for example, and also quite likely indeed to be ideologically opposed to the very institution into which they are gaining admission – rather than as in “loony.” (There is no European equivalent to the UK’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party that I am aware of, for example.)

Nonetheless, five of the judges on that German Federal Court (out of eight) concluded that there was no more need for any such electoral threshold to “preserve the European Parliament’s ability to function.” Fine, then, but the legislatures of a handful of other EU member-states do still retain this sort of electoral threshold – in particular, Germany itself, with a 5% hurdle to gain representation in the Bundestag!

Inevitably, then, this has come along:

Prozenthurd
Yes, it’s Die Linke, or “The Left” which is the German political party now calling on that domestic electoral hurdle to be abolished. That’s the party representing the left-over of the old SED, i.e. the “unity” party which dominated the former German “Democratic” Republic (East Germany) in a far from democratic manner.

Let’s remember why that 5% barrier was inserted into Germany’s post-WWII federal constitution in the first place: because the constitution of the Weimar Republic before Hitler did not have any such rule, and it was the proliferation of pissant political parties in the Reichstag that made the State almost ungovernable and paved the way to power for the Nazis.

Indeed – and as you would expect – representatives of the more mainstream parties on the current German political scene reacted distinctly unenthusiastically to that suggestion from head of Die Linke. The deputy chairman of the governing coalition’s Bundestag faction, Thomas Strobl, for instance: “In the 65 years since this German republic was established, this clause has given us stability and predictability.”

The German President, Joachim Gauck, however, has indicated a willingness to see a debate on the point. What’s more, maybe “predictability” is not necessarily the characteristic you would most want to associate with any legislative body that is supposed to be accountable to the people through elections.

At bottom, though, we are left with a simple logical inconsistency. Could those five federal justices voting to abolish the EP’s 3% electoral hurdle please explain why that same calculus should not also apply to the Bundestag’s 5% hurdle? One suspects that the only answer they would be able to come up with is that the European Parliament is so much less important – has so much less real power – than the Bundestag that it is quite alright to maintain the former as a convenient hobby-horse for all of one’s best, and most idealistic, democratic intentions.

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If It Ain’t Broke . . .

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

That’s right, repeat after me: If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it! Yet that is what it looks like the EU Commission is ready to do to the apprenticeship system in Germany and Austria known as duale Ausbildung or “double education.” Here are a couple of alarmed tweets arising from the German media.

Ausbildung_Welt

Ausbildung_Newsticker
Duale Ausbildung basically embodies the principles that make this sort of training a much-envied example for the rest of the world. Intended for young people who by temperament or lower test scores do not intend to go on to university, it initiates them into advanced technical skills and the sort of (often high-paying) jobs in industry that those can bring through a dual regime of theoretical instruction in a school classroom combined with on-the-job training at a firm that has taken on that person as an apprentice.

This system is certainly no secret, and has been studied on-the-spot by legions of scholars – and of politicians, including some from America, most of whom have thereafter pined after the prospect of bringing the same sort of regime home to address shortcomings in technical training and in employment prospects there. (more…)

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Stranger in a Strange Teutonic Land

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

As is the case in all democratic societies, it is healthy for top government officials occasionally to get out and mingle among their constituents. That’s why Spanish government spokeswoman María Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría Antón recently was in Germany, as El Huffington Post reports.

HuffPoES_Santamaria

In Germany?! Why sure: unemployment in Spain itself has gotten to be so bad that legions of Spaniards – those with true initiative, who in past centuries would have headed over to the Western Hemisphere – have moved to Germany to find places for themselves in the much better economic situation there. Brace yourself for the tide of funny stories sure to come as these two very different cultures collide – most expat Spaniards, for example, won’t even yet have an appetite at the outrageously early (for them) hours when they will find Germans sitting down to their evening meal.

Further, there are the two rather different languages. For what it’s worth, new Bayern München coach Pep Guardiola has seemingly dealt with that problem rather well (video here of his first Munich press conference), although I hasten to add that his own move there was hardly prompted by the same economic concerns.

In any case, we had the rather telegenic Ms. Santamaría there in Germany, where she was a guest on the popular morning TV show Morgenmagazine. The unstated question behind her appearance there must have been “So many Spaniards are here! What are you going to do about it?”

Turns out that much of what the Spanish government is trying to do about it actually involves Germany. On the show she expressed her admiration for that country’s apprentice-based youth training system and her government’s intention to adopt something similar. More concretely, Spain and Germany recently agreed to have 5,000 students from the former be trained within that system in the latter country.

But then the inevitable follow-up: Aren’t you afraid that most of those 5,000 will then simply stay in Germany after their training? Her response: “What we want is to create employment in Spain so that young people can freely decide whether they want to work in Germany or in Spain.” Well, indeed: let’s hope that Spain can make enough progress on the employment front to give itself at least even odds as the home country versus some other country when it comes time for young people to decide where their future lies!

But no worries. Ms. Santamaría further announced on behalf of her government an upcoming “program of reforms such as have never been seen in democratic history” to fix the national labor market and solve the problem. Spaniards now settling in Germany are also finding out how much less the natives are prone to hyperbole.

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Tough Going for Anti-Euro Party

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Zounds! When you finally get a bunch of people willing to stick their heads above the political parapet, why do people become so intent on shooting them down?

Anti-Euro-Partei: Alternative für Deutschland gerät in Turbulenzen http://t.co/ANI6ig97Dd

@welt

DIE WELT


For there’s a new political party in Germany, as of a week ago last Sunday, the Alternative for Germany. Here’s a taste of their homepage, so you can see what they’re about:

Chose the Alternative!
Enough with this Euro!
The Federal Republic of Germany is stuck in the most difficult crisis in its history. The introduction of the Euro has proved itself to be a fatal mistake, that threatens the prosperity of us all.
The old parties are all crusty and worn-out. They persistently refuse to recognize and correct their mistakes.
Therefore we have founded the ALTERNATIVE FOR GERMANY!

logo-afdWhether you welcome this development I suppose depends on what you think of the euro. At least it testifies to the openness of the German political scene, that a new party can be founded so easily. There are drawbacks to that as well, though, as any political scientist could tell you. Anyway, any party has to receive at least 5% of the vote in any German parliamentary election – state or federal – to get its members into that parliament. Lately it had seemed that the only new political parties being formed were from the Nazi fringe. (more…)

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No More “Dr.” In The House?

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Even for people coming from neighboring countries, moving to Germany involves making some cultural adjustments, and one of the main ones involves name-titles: Germans love them! They include them in their passports, for example; they even include them in raised-letters on their credit cards. Put another way: if your German counterpart has earned one (e.g. Prof., Dr.) you better be darned sure that you use it when addressing that person orally or in writing (until you get close enough to address him/her with “Du,” if ever) – and in writing, for the case of the particularly active academic, you are expected to keep track of them all (e.g. “Dear Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. Schmidt!”).

However, there are inklings that things might be about to change:

EXKLUSIV: „Dr.“ nicht mehr im Pass: Grüne starten Angriff auf Deutschlands Elite http://t.co/w8lctH7wI1

@handelsblatt

Handelsblatt Online


What this is about is that Germany’s Green Party has submitted to the Bundestag a proposed law that would would ban the “Dr.” title from official documents such as the passport and ID card.

Why this now? Well, the “Dr.” title has lost a bit of its luster in Germany lately due to a widely-publicized string of plagiarism scandals. First there was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a politician of Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the CSU, and at one time German Economics Minister (2009) and then Defense Minister (2009-2011). But then someone discovered that he had committed widespread plagiarism in writing his doctoral thesis, and soon he was out of government.

(Hey, this guy’s full name is Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg – the “zu” alone tells you he comes from a noble family. So why did he feel he needed to insist upon adding to all that with a “Dr.” in the first place?!)

That was swiftly followed by more cases of plagiarism in high places. These involved two MEPs from Germany’s Free Democratic (FDP) Party, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (yes, of Greek descent) and Esther Silvana Koch-Mehrin. Both had their doctorates withdrawn; both, however, remain MEPs. When the same plague arrived last year at the doorstep of no less than the Federal Education Minister(!), Annette Schavan, she did – eventually – resign her position.

You could say, then, that “Dr.” is not really all that it used to be, even in Germany. Thus the Green Party initiative, but the article goes on to point out that no less an Establishment figure than current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble suggested the same thing back in 2007, to no success.

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Radiant Desert Megadeal

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Solar power: Sorry, but the US is not tops here, for one thing Congress is still mired in recriminations about the loan guarantees that went to the bankrupt Solyndra. As for the Chinese, they have made rather more progress, to the point of allegedly “dumping” polysilicon solar panels on the US market.

But it’s the Germans who are really into solar. They claim to be the world’s biggest solar market at present. And they have just scored a major coup, as we hear from Die Welt:

Erneuerbare Energien: Saudi-Arabien unterstützt Umsetzung von Desertec http://t.co/93C3FnEs

@welt

DIE WELT


Yes, there’s still a heck of a lot of oil in Saudi Arabia, but there is also quite a lot of sun constantly beating down on its desert sands. And the Saudi authorities are sensible enough to want to do something to exploit that. Well, that’s understating things somewhat: they want to invest $109 billion through 2032, so that by that time they want to be generating 25 gigawatts of power from solar-thermal plants, and a further 16 gigawatts from photovoltaics.

DesertecIt’s a German “civil society initiative” called the Desertec Foundation (site in English) that is about to sign an agreement with the Saudi governement to be in on the ground floor of this effort, by establishing a Saudi company to be called “Desertec Power” whose mandate will be “above all planning, execution, local value-added [Wertschöpfung] and running the installations,” but also the “closely related themes of education, training and employment.”

Apparently Desertec Power will rely mainly on so-called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) technology, which is not photovoltaic but rather uses parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays in salt-water tanks and thereby store the energy, so that it’s available even when the sun goes down – and also can contribute in some way to providing desalinated water, another thing the Saudis prize highly.

You can click through to peruse the photo at the top of the article if you need some idea of what CSP arrays look like. (It’s a picture of them in Spain; they’re not yet in Saudi Arabia, the contract hasn’t even been formally signed!) Here in this post I’ll give you instead the grip-&-grin photo of the two principals in this deal. And just as with a Saudi official you can expect a name along the lines of Ahmed al-Malik (whom we see to the right, in Arab garb), with Germans I’m afraid you sometimes run the risk of silly-sounding names: that’s Dr. Thiemo Gropp to the left. And Thiemo has got the desert-dollars.

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Beware the MOOC Erdrutsch!

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

You have heard of the MOOC, right? That stands for “Massive Open On-line Course,” truly the great Internet innovation of 2012. No less than on-line guru Clay Shirky has suggested that MOOCs – offered through sites such as Coursera, edX, Udacity and others, and surely more on the way – threaten to be to universities what Napster was to music.

For now, though, they simply offer fantastic (and free) on-line higher education opportunities (but beware, the required time commitment is usually considerable). Whether YOU are aware of these or not, rest assured that the Germans now are as well, after an article provocatively entitled Harvard For All appeared first in the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and then, more significantly, on the website of Germany’s leading intellectual weekly, Die Zeit. The lede:

Study for free with the country’s most famous professors: The on-line courses of the US’ elite universities makes that possible. Only who will finance this hoard?

Well, financing for now is somebody else’s problem. This should really set off the landslide (GE: Erdrutsch) of German students into these MOOCs, for their capabilities in English are often excellent. I know that Coursera courses (of which I have taken/am taking a few) routinely attract students in the tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, but I bet this article alone will be responsible for at least a couple thousand more on an ongoing basis. Then again, these MOOCs are explicitly built to scale, so that should not cause any new problems in particular – the course’s discussion forum might just be a bit more crowded with student comment and response.

Also, there have already been some MOOC efforts in Germany. This article mentions an on-line IT course now being taught for the second time by an Institute at the University of Potsdam (seems to be in German) – but also (nota bene!) the course in English on “Ideal City [sic] of the 21st Century” given by the Leuphana Digital School of the Universität Lüneberg – free, of course, unless you want a paper certificate sent to you at the end – that will begin registration in a few days on January 9. Note that taking this course will involve being assigned to a workgroup of about seven fellow-students from all over the world within which you will be expected to collaborate to complete group assignments; if those turn out to be evaluated as the best, so that your team comes in as #1 in the course, you’ll win an expenses-paid trip to Berlin to meet your fellow group members in the flesh!

Finally, Iversity is a Berlin-based start-up (subsidized by German government funding, yet its site and most of its courses are in English) making a beginning in this MOOC space while also branching out to research groups and conferences.

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Does Turkey Need Air Defence Help?

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Here, let me ask you this (answers and/or commentary as usual welcome at the €S e-mail address): Does Turkey currently face a military threat across the Syrian border? At least through the air?

Those are the important questions now before the German parliament, or Bundestag:

Luftabwehr für Türkei: Patriots-Debatte zwischen Skepsis und Fremdscham http://t.co/RSZflivE

@BMOnline

Berliner Morgenpost


Or rather: they are supposed to be before the Bundestag, as we learn in the Berliner Morgenpost article. Rather incredibly, though, it actually seems that the German government was ready to deploy Patriot anti-aircraft missile units to Turkey just on its own authority.

But Homey don’t play that, as opposition politicians are now reminding the German public. Indeed, as a spokesman for the opposition Socialist Party (SPD), Rainer Arnold, maintained in a separate newspaper interview, the German “Supreme Court” (Bundesverfassungsgericht) has made it clear in its decisions that such a deployment outside the country must be approved by the Bundestag.

If you ask Arnold’s boss, the SPD’s faction-leader in the Bundestag, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, it’s not clear-cut that Turkey lies under any threat. And his Green Party counterpart, Jürgen Trittin, will be glad to tell you – you don’t need to ask – that in fact a UN mandate (presumably from the Security Council) is also necessary for such a deployment. (That’s his own opinion, though, not that of the Bundesverfassungsgericht.)

On the other hand, the article also says that Turkey had asked for – or was very close to asking for – NATO assistance of that kind, so that this can easily be viewed as a case of providing solidarity to another NATO ally. That’s certainly the line that the governing coalition has taken up; some leading spokespersons profess to be ashamed that there is even any doubt that Germany is willing to come help.

Then again – is there really a threat? German deployments outside Germany for decades (after the mega-deployment known as WWII) never happened at all, but in any event are very sensitive matters domestically – and the latest one that is just winding down, to Afghanistan, did little to inspire confidence. Anyway, the nature of the Turkish situation is not decided in Berlin, yet, and so neither is the whole issue of Patriot deployment.

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Secrets of German Success

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

If you examine the phenomenon closely, there’s a curious aspect to the current European economic crisis, whose most outstanding (but not sole) manifestation is the sovereign debt crisis. I mean looking beyond the threat to the common European currency, to where you see a marked imbalance in economic fortunes. Things are bad – very bad – in Spain, especially in Greece, but in Southern Europe (and Ireland) in general, but then things are rather good in Germany and its own ring of associated economies, the Dutch and the Austrian, but also the Polish (and Slovak) and to a lesser degree the Czech.

Why is that? Hermann Simon is a German, and also Chairman of the Board at the consulting firm Simon Kucher & Partners, and he put forth his ideas in a substantial article that appeared in Germany’s newspaper-of-record, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a few weeks ago. Actually, his piece is but an hors-d’oeuvre to the ideas he sets out in his new book – in German only.

The one-phrase summary for Germany’s success – and that book’s title – is “Hidden Champions.” Germany is overwhelming dependent, not on its domestic demand, but on its exports. The business establishment there is very good at that game. But it’s not large firms which are responsible – Simon mentions that even France has more companies in the Fortune Global 500 than Germany – but rather the smaller firms (famously known as the Mittelstand) that do killer export business even though most people have never heard of them – the Hidden Champions. Of the 2,734 names on the list Simon compiles of them, fully 1,307 are German (and many of the rest are Austrian or Swiss).

How do they do it? Simon conveniently (unluckily?) lists thirteen reasons: (more…)

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Schengen R.I.P.?

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Free movement of goods; free movement of ideas; free movement of money; free movement of people: these all used to be points of pride for the European Union, milestone-accomplishments as it succeeded in bridging national differences to create unprecedented levels of cooperation between European states. And along with that, unprecedented levels of trust; all of those freedoms required each participant state to have confidence that the others would not let them down and cause them to regret such openness.

Now “freedom of movement” once again seems to be under peril, as can be seen in today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung exclusive article Berlin and Paris want to bring back border controls. This is all about the EU’s Schengen Agreement, begun in 1985 and expanded since then to include most, if not all, member-states in a regime where travellers are not checked at “internal” EU borders between member-states but, on the other hand, “external” borders between member-states and non-member-states are policed ever more carefully, since someone getting past those then has free access to other states party to the Agreement.

Or at least those external borders are supposed to be carefully policed. In reality, doubts have arisen as to whether this really is the case, particularly when it comes to asylum-seekers making their way from North Africa across the Mediterranean, usually to Italy. When the pressure got turned up last year due to the Libyan civil war and many thousands more attempted this boat trip than usual, French confidence that the Italians were performing their proper border-control duties disappeared, to the point that border controls were reimposed for a few days on those countries’ “internal” common EU border – in violation of the Schengen agreement, of course. Denmark last year also chose unilaterally to reimpose controls on its border with Germany for a while. (more…)

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Back to the Future

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

In case you didn’t notice, Germany lost its President a month ago. Don’t worry, it was no great tragedy. After initial resistance – including trying to intimidate the editor-in-chief of Germany’s most-sold newspaper into withholding a particularly damning news-article – Christian Wulff finally decided he needed to resign after embarrassing revelations finally emerged concerning a loan for a house he had received in the past, and denied receiving, from a prominent businessman. So not tragic – just sleazy, certainly in light of the standards the Germans usually like to uphold post-1945, and thus also rather embarrassing. It’s little wonder your local German ambassador/Goethe Institute/German expat down the street was less than keen to draw this news to your attention.

Naturally, now they need to pick another one, and in Germany that is done indirectly, by a one-time body (the Bundesversammlung) composed of all the members of the lower house of parliament (the Bundestag) plus an equal number of state delegates, totalling 1,244 people in all. But Chancellor Angela Merkel moved fast to gain approval from almost all the main parties for Wulff’s main opponent the last time, Joachim Gauck, to become the new president. So he’s a shoo-in for that, although the German Left Party (Die Linke) has obstinately put forward its own candidate anyway, Beate Klarsfeld.

And with all that, Germany finds itself thrust backward into the 20th century, in the opinion of Stern writer Lutz Kinkel:

Gauck und Klarsfeld: Willkommen im 20. Jahrhundert!: Die Wahl des Bundespräsidenten setzt uns in eine… http://t.co/330BzfeP

@sternde

stern.de


Look at the candidates, Kinkel says. Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor, gained fame as a dissident in the former Communist East Germany. When the Wall fell, he was appointed as the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi archives, or at least what was left after the Stasi had done their best to destroy them as the DDR fell. In Germany his last name has even been elevated to the status of “KIeenex” or “Hoover”: to “Gauck” someone is to go see whether he/she might have a file kept on them by the Stasi, and if so, what it says.

Then there is Beate Klarsfeld. A journalist, she has spent most of her adult life (along with her husband) hunting down ex-Nazis, such as Klaus Barbie, Maurice Papon, and others. At times her anti-Nazis efforts have perhaps gone too far – if you define “too far” as being sent to jail – including her most (in)famous incident in 1969 when she slapped the current West German Chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, because of his history of working for/in the Nazi Party during the Second World War (and, again, that was not the only time she has been jailed).

Look at them! Both are admirable, driven people – but what “made” them was fighting the old wars of the 20th century, the struggle against the Nazis, the struggle against Communist dictatorship! Haven’t we finally moved on from that, Kinkel asks? On the other hand, did not Christian Wulff seem just perfect for this new era? Big business; bribery; bling-bling; Bundespräsident – surely that’s what we’re all about following the financial crash/scandals of the last few years. After all, a President must reflect his people – just take a look across the Rhine to France!

Even if Kinkel’s analysis is borne out, at least Germany is not being propelled too far back into the twentieth century. A little of that may do no harm; a lot, not so much, historically speaking.

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Pocketbook Integration

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The beginning of the year coming up, 2012, offers a rather bittersweet anniversary. Do you remember? It was from midnight on 1 January 2002, literally as fireworks still lit up urban skies, that euro banknotes first issued from ATM machines inside the 12 original Eurozone members, and that banks and merchants first returned eurocoins in change, all of those with a national emblem reflecting where they had been minted on one side.

No prize for guessing why any commemoration of this 10-year milestone is lacking so far in the press – everywhere I look, really. For 2012 promises to be a difficult year for European national finances, and therefore for the euro; to many, an exit from the Eurozone of one or several states is likely, and from that possibly even the common currency’s “collapse” (although I think that, no matter what, there will be a rump core of states – Germany, Netherlands, Finland, etc. – still using it for quite a while).

But enough of this depressing talk! We have all read and heard quite enough of it, at least before the onset of the holiday season (when the bureaucrats and bank officials in charge left their desks for a while).* Let’s rather follow the Luxembourg lead and consider the euro from a different perspective:

http://t.co/eNBpc2Z7 Dix ans de l’euro Pas vraiment de mixité dans les porte-monnaie http://t.co/b3mtHfyx

@luxembourg_news

news luxembourg


That perspective is “integration,” always a hot European topic: to what degree are the various European peoples mixing with each other and getting along while they do so? Except that here, in this essential piece from the French-language Luxembourg paper L’essentiel (no byline), the subject is rather the degree to which all the various eurocoins are mixing with each other in people’s pockets. The lede:

Ten years after the arrival of the euro, the coins which sport a national symbol on one face are not yet totally mixed in European wallets.

(more…)

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Time-Out for the German Worker

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Let’s now get away from Dominique Strauss-Kahn – hopefully for quite a while! – and turn our attention to serious matters, like, say, saving the euro. One big roadblock to doing that is the increasing refusal by the electorates of solid, solvent, predominantly Northern European EU member-states to pledge more money to bail out Greece. “Why should we do that,” Germans ask for example, “when those lazy Greeks all get to retire at age 55?”

Now Patrick Saint-Paul of the French newspaper Le Figaro, possibly acting out of some sense of Mediterranean solidarity, offers a riposte that the Greeks can use: Germans go to sleep on the job! Or at least they soon might do so: the article discusses a recent proposal by a high official of the DGB (Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund, one of the country’s biggest unions) that all German workers should have the right to a “siesta” on the job, i.e. a period in the early afternoon to just go take a nap.

Of course, the suggestion is being offered not as a concession to labor but rather as a clever way to enable them to be even more productive. “A siesta reduces the risk of heart-attack and allows one to resume work full of energy,” states Annelie Buntenbach of the DGB’s governing board. Then there’s this from the inevitable expert-professor, this time one specializing in “psychological biology”: “A rest at noon permits one to make up for a period of weak productivity and occurs just at the point where chances of an accident are at their highest.”

Anyway, Saint-Paul goes on to mention that, although everyone thinks Germans work harder than Greeks, that isn’t necessarily true: OECD statistics purport to show that the former work only 1,390 hours per year and the latter 2,119. But that might just be a difference without any true distinction.

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German Big Brother Is Curious

Monday, May 9th, 2011

So let me ask, dear reader: What’s your highest level of education attained? What sort of dwelling do you live in? What’s your yearly income?

Most likely you’re not going to answer, and I understand that. (But for those of you with a burning desire to share, there’s always our Facebook fanpage for commentary and discussion – stick that info right on our wall!) With all respect, I’m not even really interested. But many of those among you who are German citizens will soon have to answer such questions in the upcoming Volkszählung or census.

Es ist Volkszählung – und keinen interessiert’s. Liegt es an der “Generation Facebook? Berlin-Kommentar: http://bit.ly/lraaOD #zensus2011less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


That’s the taz’s Rolf Lautenschläger who rings the bell loudly to remind his fellow citizens of their upcoming data-provision duties in his editorial We are glassy.

But check out his first sentence (it’s also in the tweet): “There’s a census – and no one is interested.” What – Germans are refusing to obey and fill in the forms? That’s rather hard to believe, especially when you consider that this is the first census in the Federal Republic since 1987, meaning among other things that the whole added territory and inhabitants of the former East Germany have still not yet been properly tabulated! (What’s more, not everyone has to participate in this year’s census, unlike e.g. American practice – it’s property-owners and residents of community-owned property only.)

In fact, there were apparently protests and non-cooperation even against that 1987 census, according to Lautenschläger, but that’s reasonable if you stop a bit and think about it. It’s that infamous bit of German history, of say about 70 years ago – not to mention a feature of everyday East German life called the Stasi – that can understandably raise people’s hackles about the government getting its Leviathan hands on too much private information.

In a way, the reluctance people are already showing to cooperate with this 2011 census is related to that. You may wonder, Lautenschläger writes, why anyone can have objections considering how keen people are to neglect their privacy on such Internet mainstays as Facebook, LinkedIn, and their ilk. (That notion is the inspiration for his piece’s title: “We are glassy,” i.e. it’s easy to see through us to find out what you want.)

But the point is really the opposite. Leave Facebook, etc. to the side – there, we take on voluntarily the privacy risks that we want and that we (think that) we understand. On the other hand, Sony recently perpetrated only the latest in a series of catastrophic breaches of what were supposed to be secured personal data, and there have been some similar home-grown German catastrophes as well (e.g. with Lidl, a supermarket chain, and Deutsche Bahn, where management misused personal data in its fight with unions). Apparently then, Germans-in-the-know are hardly ready to put their confidence in their government’s data-protection abilities. What’s more, they’re likely correct in their suspicions – the former East Germany be damned (and uncounted)!

UPDATE: And you thought I was just being cynical! Check this, again from Die Tageszeitung although not from our friend Herr Lautenschläger:

Der Staat betont, beim #Zensus11 seien Daten bestens geschützt. Online ist nun die erste Sicherheitslücke aufgetaucht http://bit.ly/lWKLcPless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


Translated: “The State emphasizes that Census 2011 data is optimally protected. [However] on-line the first security-holes have appeared,” as freelance (white-hat) experts have gotten to work putting the data defenses to the test. A fake census input-form has even popped up, to which phishing victims can be unknowingly diverted, featuring extra questions not in the original re: sexual preferences! #censusfail, one would have to remark; try again, try better.

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Reluctant Winter Olympians (2018)

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Yes, as if you don’t have enough to worry about these days . . . but the decision-process is now starting to get in gear for who will get to host the 2018 Winter Olympics! We’re reminded of this by Evi Simeoni with her article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, brought out on the occasion of the recent deadline for submission of official “bid-books” from candidate cities to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Understandably, Ms. Simeoni is particularly interested in Munich’s bid for the honor, which was delivered to Lausanne in person (because that’s simply what you do) earlier this week along with the documents of competitors Annecy (France) and Pyeongchang (South Korea). What follows from this point is inspections by the IOC’s Evaluation Committee to each site (to happen 1-3 March for the Bavarians), followed by formal presentations at the Lausanne headquarters on 18-19 May and the announcement of the decision at an IOC meeting in Durban, South Africa, on 6 July. (more…)

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David (Bus) v. Goliath (Train)

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

I recently covered here the Deutsche Bundesbahn’s troubles this year with operating their trains satisfactorily in extreme-ish weather, both hot and cold. But – How could I forget? – there has always been a bigger problem with the German trains, one that shows its ugly face year-round: they’re damned expensive! Now, anyone familiar at all with transportation and/or public-sector economics will have already known about this, whether s/he has ever travelled on the Bundesbahn or not, for this is an affliction shared by most public monopoly transportation systems requiring substantial prior capital investment (therefore also e.g. for city public transport systems): since it’s generally messy and often even politically unpopular to play the Grinch and show any resistance to escalating wage-demands from unions representing the labor required to keep these systems running, the costs and therefore ticket-prices inevitably rise higher than the rate of inflation. For myself, then, as much as I otherwise like the German trains, I tend to only travel on them as a result of some special offer and/or early booking which offers considerable savings. (more…)

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Opel: The Drama That Will Not Die

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

What is to become of General Motors’ European subsidiary? The European auto-market is overcrowded with suppliers, that’s clear; Opel needs a guarantee of money, from someone, in order to stay on its feet financially and be able to compete. Yet the source from which the company thought it could gain the guarantee it needed – the German government – has been growing cool to the idea in light of the many new demands on its money from elsewhere (e.g. Greece). Long-time readers will know that I’ve been covering Opel’s recent travails more-or-less consistently; you can update yourself on the situation from my last blogpost on the subject here.

But now firm decisions are finally being made in this matter by the German authorities – or at least are seeming to be made. For those interested, and with the required German language skills, the ongoing saga can even be followed fairly closely on the @Deutschland_ Twitter-feed. I know: it’s that sort of thing that you are glad to leave for me to do instead, and I’m pleased to oblige. (One caveat: @Deutschland_ only follows material from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.) But for now, let’s go “over the jump” to this blogpost’s full article, since a couple of tweets from that @Deutschland_ feed need to make an appearance. (more…)

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German Medical Care Shrinks in Financial Crisis

Monday, May 24th, 2010

The word came in earlier this morning on the @Deutschland_ Twitter-feed that I follow for EuroSavant purposes (it’s only in German):

Studie: Wirtschaftskrise beschleunigt Krankenhaussterben: Schlechte Nachricht für Patienten: Weil Länder und Kommu… http://bit.ly/bRSpH3less than a minute ago via twitterfeed


The tweet refers to an interesting article in Der Spiegel, Economic crisis accelerates dying-out of hospitals, and normally is something I would gladly re-tweet.* But then I realized that, when it comes to news about any European country’s health system, I owe my readers a bit more than that in view of the couple of posts I wrote on that subject in the recent past, especially one on the same German system that astute readers will have perceived as particularly heavy in its irony. (more…)

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Unopinionated Pirates

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

One key factor affecting the entire ongoing Eurocrisis was known to cognoscenti as “NRW” – short for Nordrhein-Westfalen, the German state whose local elections on May 9 did much to influence both the nature and timing of Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel’s response to the grave threat to the euro and even the EU arising from the Greek financial problems. That is well and good, but those same NRW elections at the same time had another rather different significance for a separate voting bloc, one not necessarily so interested in the mere potential for collapse of the common European currency. These citizens are overwhelmingly young and male; they usually converse in Java and C++ as easily as in their native German; and they vote for the German Pirate Party, whose disappointing results in that same ballot saw its share of the overall vote drop to 1.5% from the full 2% share it had enjoyed during last Fall’s nationwide election.

You might recall that this political organization, like all the off-shoots of the original Pirate Party in Sweden, takes for its purpose advocacy mainly for Internet-related issues such as copyright reform, digital civil rights, and the prevention of Internet censorship. Philip Kuhn of Die Welt recently sat down with party leader Jens Seipenbusch for a brief interview in the wake of those poor electoral results. (more…)

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“Typical Germans” in Conspiracy?

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Writing in the Walloon (i.e. Belgian-French) business newspaper L’Écho, in a piece somewhat sarcastically entitled The euro, our Savior, Marc Lambrechts makes a brief macroeconomic survey of the current European scene and comes up with a couple paradoxes. It looks like everybody is feeling better now about the business conditions, as surveys carried out within the Eurozone among both businessmen and consumers show. But this might be nothing more than spring-fever; Lambrechts prepares us for the shock that first-quarter 2010 economic reports are going to bring, showing a marked slowing-down then (e.g. German GDP drop of 0.4%) caused mainly by the severe winter weather and the sharp drop in auto-sales from the expiry of all those national “cash-for-clunkers” purchase-subsidy schemes.

Surely recovery will come about eventually, although with regard to Europe generally economists at the OECD are not optimistic about that happening until the second half of this year. One way for Germany to expedite that for itself, though (since the Germans earn so much from exports), is to get the euro to fall in value against the other major world-currencies – a process to which nothing has contributed more lately than the continuing confusion in the financial markets over Greece’s fiscal problems, which German obstinacy and tight-fistedness at the EU level has only prolonged. “A curious paradox,” Lambrechts calls this.

UPDATE: Strangely, the performance-vs.-confidence balance seems to be reversed in the US, as per this article from the New York Times.

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€8 Trouble in Paradise

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Back to Health Care Reform. I know: the battle’s over, the President is now out doing his victory-lap, and even some Republicans think that, now that it passed, it’s here to stay.

But remember, this is above all a weblog with a European bent, so – if it makes you feel better – I can let you know (from an article in Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel) that a certain turbulence is also currently afflicting that model of social(ist) health care provision, the German Krankenkassen. Those are the non-profit, government-supervised insurance companies that cover the vast majority of Germany’s population and are restricted to basing their premiums solely on the insured’s income. (You’re required to have medical insurance coverage there, of course, with very few exceptions, although if you prefer you can buy it from purely-private, for-profit insurers instead.) As the article reports, the public Krankenkassen are now experiencing extraordinary customer-turnover, often in the hundreds-of-thousands. Why? Because the government authorized them in February to charge those they insure up to €8 (= $10.85) more per month in order to shore up their balance-sheets, and some of them took advantage of that.

That’s right: eight euros per month more! Apparently that’s a deal-breaker for many Germans, who in remarkable numbers have proceeded to resign from the Krankenkassen which implemented the measure (known as the Zusatzbeitrag, or “supplementary contribution”) to go join those which did not. It didn’t help that someone made an elementary mistake about how to implement it, in that they made any interested Krankenkasse have to bill customers directly for the extra amount, rather than just letting it be charged as medical insurance premiums normally are as a wage-deduction collected by employers.

Just a word here, then, to let all interested know that it is not always sweetness & light over where citizens need not worry about medical coverage. (Not that there’s any indication that the firms losing customers are in any danger of going bust – like I say, they are state-supported.)

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Child-Abusers of Another Stripe

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

The tales of mistreated youth at these institutions are continuing to multiply. There was sexual abuse coming from those who were supposed to care for them, to be sure. But far more pervasive was the intimidating atmosphere, often accompanied by violence: heads shoved down toilets; beatings; even confinement for extended periods in cells, like common criminals.

I’m not making any of this up, as I will shortly document, at least for those of you who read German. Yet long-time readers of this weblog – Hi Mom! – will remember my fondness for the “false lead,” where impressions about what a given blogpost is about gained from its opening lines turn out to be wildly off-the-mark. Surely I am describing here the Roman Catholic institutions, run by paedophile priests, whose reputations are now being blackened by accusations leveled against their administrators by former inhabitants? Actually, no; taking as my cue a new article by Alan Posener in Die Welt (Brutal daily life in DDR youth institutions), I am referring to the establishments for problem youths set up and run by the former Communist East Germany. (more…)

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Nukes: Eradicate or Modernize?

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Ever hear of the B-61? Sounds like a US warplane, and that’s close but not quite right. Or maybe you’re not interested at all in the B-61, whatever it is – but, to modify the quote attributed to Leon Trotsky, the B-61 could well be very interested in you, at least in the event of nuclear war. For the B-61 is actually the leading thermonuclear bomb in the American arsenal, first designed back in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. And a there was a recent article in Der Spiegel (US Ministry wants to modernize old atomic weapons) about the drive that is now underway on the part of the US Department of Energy (which formally controls all American atomic weapons) and the Department of Defense to spend quite a lot of money to modernize the many B-61s still in stockpile.

Aside from being refreshingly arcane – anybody see any sort of coverage of this at all in the American press? I thought not – how is any of this important? In a couple of ways, actually. First there’s our old friend German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who explicitly campaigned during the last German nationwide election to have the Americans withdraw all of their nuclear warheads from Germany. It’s even a separate policy-point in the coalition agreement that undergirds the current CDU/CSU/FDP federal government in power in Berlin.

Obviously, though, if the Americans are seriously contemplating going forward with B-61 modernization, including for the many such warheads stored in Germany (the exact number is surely classified), then the German Foreign Minister can yell and demand all he wants, but it will remain painfully apparent that he has no say in the matter. Hey, they’re just devices sitting on German soil, each capable of annihilating a major city – but it’s highly unlikely that even Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel herself has any say, either, due to the web of defense agreements governing NATO military installations and US-German relations dating from back when Central Europe was a much more dangerous place.

It’s all something rather alarming to be made aware of, especially if you’re a German citizen, but this still is plainly the main message of this article’s author, Otfried Nassauer, even as he goes on in his article to describe – in what sometimes reads like rather unseemly detail – exactly what the proposed B-61 modernization plans entail. Right now there are five B-61 models, and that’s too unwieldy; those five are to be transformed into just two, namely Model 11 (which already exists and is said to be an atomic “bunker-buster” for tactical use) and Model 12 (brand-new, a multi-use model to take up the roles now covered by all the other models which are to be phased out). Further, in a yet more- explicit sign of the clear intention to keep these weapons in Europe for a long time to come, another aspect of the modernization will involve making sure these bombs are modified so that they can be delivered by the next generation of NATO tactical aircraft, such as the Joint Strike Fighter.

There’s yet another point Nassauer intends to make as well, however. Didn’t President Obama, in his speech to the adoring crowd last April in Prague’s Hradčanské náměstí (Castle Square), speak of his ambition to abolish nuclear weapons entirely? What ever happened to that notion? It’s true that Obama gets the last word in this modernization decision, which he will present in the “Nuclear Posture Review” that his administration is due to deliver to Congress shortly. But – surprise! – no sort of radical move to put aside the proposed modernization entirely is expected. There is too much money at stake, i.e. too many vested interests pushing for it both in DOE and DOD. Indeed, the main point of contention currently is whether the envisioned modernization will end up paving the way for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons or instead just serve as a substitute for that.

But as for the Germans? Forget ’em.

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It’s the End of the World As We Know It – And Your Appeal’s Denied!

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Here’s another obscure blast from the past – the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better-known by its initials (in French) CERN. Do you happen to remember the brief stir of publicity from around two years ago when that institution’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was finally built and could start smashing sub-atomic particles into each other along a 27 kilometer-circumference magnetic track? That fleeting bit of excitement (among those who cared, at least) quickly evaporated when the huge thing didn’t work quite right when they first flipped the proverbial switch, and so had to be repaired.

Don’t worry, though, because the scientists finally got the LHC to function properly late last year. Or rather, if you do need something to worry about, consider the possibility out of theoretical physics that has been looming ever since the LHC finally started operations, and which was also certainly known about before the gigantic thing was even built. When it smashes these sub-atomic particles into each other, you see, one by-product is black holes – small black holes, to be sure, but there has always been some possibility of one or more of them getting bigger and basically swallowing up the whole Earth. (more…)

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