Every year around this time, Berlin stages one of its many rituals. The German Council of Economic Experts, colloquially known as the “Five Sages” or “Five Wise Men,” presents its annual report to the German government. The chancellor and a few senior ministers pose with the four sage men and one sage woman for a photo. The Experts recite their exhortations to good economic policy. The chancellor and her ministers ignore them. Everybody goes back to business as usual.
So it happened again yesterday. For those who paid attention, the news was not good. The Sages cut their growth forecast quite a bit: to 1.6 percent this year, and 1.5 percent next year. Mainly they blamed external factors (read: Trump and trade). But they’ve long made it clear that they think little of Merkel’s economic policy. They would like a tax cut, for instance, whereas Merkel and her Social Democratic coalition partners are merely tinkering. Ditto on pension policy, and other subjects. Those who made it through the 447 pages of the report recognized a laundry list of reforms the Experts have been demanding for about 13 years — in other words, throughout the entire Merkel era. A damning verdict.
If the preceding update made you drowsy, prepare to be put into deep sleep now, for I must brief you on Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, nicknamed “AKK” or “mini-Merkel.” AKK, as you may recall, is one of the three main contenders to replace Angela Merkel as boss of the Christian Democratic Union when its 1001 delegates vote at a party gathering on December 8th in Hamburg. In that race, AKK has an advantage and a disadvantage: She is seen to have been anointed by Angela Merkel herself as heiress apparent. Merkel 2.0, if you will.
Yesterday, when AKK gave her first substantive speech since Merkel’s surprising announcement last week, she therefore had to do two things. First, she had to explain that she was the candidate of continuity, and that she would not “reverse” the Merkel legacy. Second, she had to explain that she represented a “new era” and a fresh start. Above all, she had to keep a straight face in presenting this Zen koan. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Judging by AKK’s style, in other words, she is already All-Merkel, no longer just mini-Merkel. She talked and talked, and yet I cannot give you a single good quote, a sound bite that could actually mean something in the real world. Here’s one: “How does one make people feel at home in this country?” How, indeed. I was all ears. No answer was revealed. I was reminded of Merkel’s slogan in last year’s election campaign, in which she stood “For a Germany in which we live comfortably and well.”
Meanwhile, AKK’s more clear-cut and polarizing rival, Friedrich Merz, is suddenly under pressure after a curiously timed investigation by prosecutors in Cologne. They’re looking into possible tax fraud that may or may not have been committed by BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, in the years 2007 to 2011. That should have nothing to do with Merz, because he only became the non-executive chairman of BlackRock’s German business in 2016. Except, of course, that it has everything to do with Merz. German lefties already hate capitalists like BlackRock, whom they call “locusts,” and now they’re firing vague Parthian shots about “tax fraud” in every sentence about Merz.
Why this investigation, and why now? And why in North Rhine-Westphalia, which sends by far the largest delegation to the CDU congress, and which is the home of Merz and the third major candidate, Jens Spahn. Who knows? It’s probably just a coincidence that Armin Laschet, yet another Christian Democrat who would love to be party boss but has so far not thrown his hat in the ring, runs the state as governor.
Let’s descend another rung into the netherworld of obscure German politicians and discuss Manfred Weber. You’ve never heard of him, nor have normal people in Germany. He belongs to the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU. But he is neither making trouble for Merkel in Berlin (as CSU boss Horst Seehofer does) nor making trouble in Munich (as governor Markus Söder does). In fact, he is making no trouble at all: He is in the European Parliament. There he leads the European People’s Party, the collection of center-right parties.
Today Weber is up for a vote by the EPP to be anointed its “top candidate” in next spring’s European election. His opponent is Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland, and thus somebody with actual governing experience. The winner stands a good chance of becoming the next president of the European Commission. That job is big time: posing with the G7 and so forth. You’d think Weber has no chance, but he does. He has the support of the CSU and CDU, for a start. Today he will get the vote of Angela Merkel, who as CDU boss (which she still is) will be attending.
You made it. Now go ahead and tune back to the fallout from the US midterms. The stakes are somewhat higher there. Donald Trump has just fired Jeff Sessions, which will probably get Robert Mueller fired as special prosecutor and undermine another institution in the checks-and-balances system of the world’s most powerful country. Sadly, that is outside the remit of Handelsblatt Global.
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