Daily briefing

Amid tensions between eastern and western Europe, Berlin’s bridge over troubled water

"Fort Trump"? Yours for a billion or so. Source: AFP

Yesterday, Poland’s Duda met Trump while Hungary’s Orban met Putin, and the EU wept. There’s a growing divide between western Europe, led by Berlin and Paris, while eastern European leaders like President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Viktor Orban rage rightward. I’m right behind the EU rebuking Budapest and Warsaw for contravening European values, but there’s a risk of driving them further away.

Heiko Maas, the foreign minister, is now reaching out and promising a new “Ostpolitik.” In the past, Berlin has ignored the “Three Seas Initiative,” a forum of 12 countries in central and eastern Europe between the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Sea. But yesterday, Maas went to Bucharest to show Germany isn’t just myopically looking westward, it’s also got eyes for its eastern European neighbors. Against the powerful efforts trying to divide Europe, more will be needed to stem the tide, but at least Mr. Maas has put his finger on the problem.

The EU meanwhile is now investigating whether Germany’s carmakers colluded on Dieselgate. Did BMW, Daimler and VW agree together to cheat on emissions? How far does the rot go? The power of German carmakers to repeatedly bore and shock leaves me inhaling bad air and shaking my head.

Speaking of which, Berlin is all outrage after the promotion of Hans-Georg Maassen. The head of the domestic intelligence service is accused of casting doubt on a video showing persecution in Chemnitz, and also of passing information to the AfD, a party of the populist far right. Now he’s being promoted to state secretary in the interior ministry. It’s a slap in the face for the SPD, who called for his head, and a victory for Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who again gets to irk Chancellor Merkel and keep his man. There are more unhappy consequences, starting with the likely damage to people’s faith in politics. Meanwhile, the cops complain the case has distracted us from real problems including terror, money laundering, extremism and populism. Let’s not forget the fear that the unit keeps ignoring right-wing extremism.

There’s hope out west in Germany’s industrial backyard. The Ruhr area, a former rustbelt, is becoming a homeland for startups who are willing to struggle for cash while fighting the great red-tape challenge. Like Chicago, the cheaper heartland is drawing entrepreneurs who bring a new throb of life to the tumbledown region once famed for its steelworks. The Ruhr, if you don’t know it, is sprawling urban zone of 53 rivaling cities, many with their own dialect, specialties and magic. As I come from Wales, this kind of talk gives me hope that landscapes dotted with overgrown quarries and forgotten mines can find vitality again.

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