On the campaign trail

In case you missed it, there was a general election last week in Germany. Receiving most of the international media coverage was, understandably, the fact that the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) won just under 13% of the popular vote, making them the third strongest party in the Bundestag and the first far right party in the German parliament since 1945. That, and the global sigh of relief that Angela Merkel, the kind and sensible “Mutti” figure at the head of German politics, nevertheless has won a fourth term in office, remaining a bulwark against the impetuous world leaders who appear to surround her. This is not the forum to give you detailed political analysis of how any of this came to pass; plenty has been written elsewhere.

But what I can say superficially about the election, as an expat, is a word on election posters – by far the most visually striking element of these last few weeks. These posters, promoting both parties and individual candidates, are said to have more impact on popular political opinion than TV ads. When you walk around and see the energy invested in putting them up on literally every lamppost, in defacing them, and in taking them down at the end of the election (a work in slow progress), this seems plausible. There is a practical reason for this: in stark contrast to US elections, there is a strict limit on campaign airtime and campaign spending for all politicians and political parties, which restricts their options. Despite online methods of mobilising voters, the political poster remains a strong and much-used tool. Continue reading

Making a small contribution – refugees in Berlin

One of the biggest grass-roots organizations set up to help refugees in Germany

One of the biggest grass-roots organizations set up to help refugees in Germany

The situation is all over the news, it’s what people are earnestly discussing over dinner, it has moved the country on a national scale – I’m talking about Europe’s migrant crisis and the role Germany is playing.

This is not the time nor place to be political. All I’ll aim to do here is offer a few fleeting observations as an expat in the Hauptstadt (capital) and give a few tips on what you can do to help if you’re so inclined.  Continue reading

Nude bathing and traffic signs: 10 things that didn’t fall with the Wall

Lichtgrenze - East Side Gallery, Berlin

Temporary Lichtgrenze in Berlin to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Wall
PHOTO: Andrea Goldmann

Last Sunday (9th November) Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A momentous occasion movingly marked by temporarily dividing the city again with a 9-mile “Lichtgrenze” made up of illuminated white balloons along the old division, which were then let off into the misty night sky at the same time the first people crossed the border all those years ago. Though the few remaining stretches of the Wall in Berlin are only there for the sake of history and tourism, not all aspects of GDR-life have been so thoroughly dismantled. From politics to bathing habits, what has survived these past 25 years? 

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A Golden Cup

German flagTomorrow one of the most coveted trophies in sport will come to Berlin. Today Germany woke up collectively hungover but with a jubilant smile on its face. Yesterday, just before midnight, the nation erupted into euphoria when the German football team won the World Cup.

Around the world, online and print media is chock full with articles on that extraordinary night: why the Germans won, how they won, what the players’ wives and girlfriends wore, what Rihanna did to celebrate the goal, what type of beer Joachim Löw (the German coach) and Angela Merkel drank when they celebrated together in the hotel. Sitting here in Berlin there can be no other topic to write about today, but as neither football expert nor celebrity gossip connoisseur, I ask myself what relevant and original ideas can I add. The English expat’s view perhaps …

First this – how Germany became England’s favourite. For English fans, Germany would not be the obvious team to support once our own boys failed so miserably to progress beyond the group stages (yet again). Most Germans would not perceive a direct rivalry between the two teams, but most English do. Continue reading

A new government for Christmas

Germany has a new government, and it’s arrived just in time for Christmas. CDU, CSU and SPD will govern under Angela Merkel (CDU) in a Grosse Koalition (Grand Coalition). That Koalitionsvertrag I wrote about in my last post has been approved. The SPD party members have voted it through with a reassuring 75%. After months of wrangling, ministers can now move into their offices, arrange their pot plants and assemble their staffs.

To an outsider, that so many important ministerial positions are filled with SPD politicians is a surprise. Given that Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, CSU, nearly gained enough votes for an absolute majority, you would have thought those two parties would well and truly dominate. Not so. Positions such as Wirtschaft und Energie (Economy and Energy) Auswaertiges (Foreign Minister), Justiz und Verbraucher (Justice and Crime), and Arbeit und Soziales (Work and Social) are in SPD hands.  Continue reading

On the way to a Grand Coalition (election story continued)

As I have written before, Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) won the most votes in Germany’s election on 22nd September. 10 weeks have now passed, and still a new government is yet to be formed. From a British perspective, it seems to be taking a very very long time (the current coalition government in Britain was formed in about 5 days in May 2010). But in Germany, this lengthy process of forming a government is far from surprising.

Having failed to win an absolute majority (they got 41.5% of the vote), it was clear back in September that the CDU (along with their Bavarian sister party, CSU) for the sake of stable government would have to form a coalition with another political party. Coalitions are not unusual in Germany; indeed all governments since 1946 having been formed of two or more parties. Past experience of coalition negotiations (the negotiations for the Grand Coalition in 2005, also under Merkel, lasted two months) and the fact that the CDU’s most obvious (and existing coalition) partner, the right-leaing, economic liberals, the FDP, failed to get the prerequisite proportion of votes to have any politicians in parliament, suggested that this time round talks might take even longer. Continue reading

Without a voting card on Election Day

Yesterday – Election Day. I, as an expat, was merely a bystander. But that did not stop a familiar shiver of emotion running up my spine at the sight of people strolling to the local polling station, peacefully coming together to democratically express their hopes and dreams for their country.

Today – it is clear that Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) have won, though no-one is quite sure as yet how the governing coalition will be formed. On that, there are commentators in abundance and my half-baked comments won’t bring you much. So instead, I’ll mark this rather remarkable day (or not, as some might argue) in German political history by writing about my personal impressions.  Continue reading

A 400-pound gorilla named Germany

Anyone who has followed the evolution of Germany and the European Union for as long as I have may be forgiven for thinking that Germany would always be the EU’s biggest supporter – in more ways than one. But lately, there have been signs that the gradual progression from the old Common Market of the 1960s to the EU and eventually on to a United States of Europe may be a much bumpier road than many once thought.

In the past, German policy regarding the EU reflected Germany’s history and the destruction of Europe caused by Nazi Germany. Along with the rest of Europe, German leaders realized that a unified Europe would help avoid the national conflicts that had so often led to European wars of conquest from ancient times on into the 20th century. In 1952, post-World War II German guilt and common sense led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) by six countries: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. That modest beginning would lead to the “Common Market” (Treaty of Rome, 1958) and the European Community (EC) in 1967. By 1993, only a few years after German reunification, the 12 EC countries formed the more robust European Union (EU). Today the EU has 27 member states with a total population of about 500 million. Continue reading