Daily Briefing

Merkel's coalition on the brink again

April 14 2016 Berlin Germany L R German Chancellor Angela Merkel CDU Minister President o
Sporting a can-do attitude. Source: Imago/ZUMA Press

From a runner’s point of view, Berlin is “flat and boring,” as I was told by an expert runner this weekend, “but therefore exciting because it’s the best place to set records.” It’s just easier here to run fast, I suppose. In any case, Eliud Kipchoge was running really, really fast yesterday – and broke the world record when he completed the Berlin Marathon in an astonishing 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds, beating the previous record by more than a minute.

Personally, I tend to delegate such strenuous effort (my kids ran in the mini marathon). But I still enjoy pondering these achievements. Kipchoge is an interesting character, a Kenyan who as a child ran to and from school, who trains at high altitudes, and who reads deeply into the classics for inspiration.

And then there is the fascination of his homeland, which is also the ancestral homeland of Homo Sapiens: the Central Rift Valley. Somehow it keeps producing these lithe, light-footed, long-limbed runners. They seem to waft on the balls of their feet rather than pounding their heels, like people who grew up running barefoot rather than on Nikes. Watching the Kenyans leave the rest behind yesterday, I briefly saw flashbacks of our hunter-gatherer forefathers doing a joyous victory lap in the savanna.

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Just around a few corners from the marathoners, at The Charité, Europe’s largest university clinic, Pyotr Verzilov was being treated for what he and his family assume was a deliberate Russian poisoning. Verzilov, a Russian-Canadian, was married to Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the band Pussy Riot. He has long been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Last week he appeared in a Russian court, then abruptly lost his sight and speech and passed out. Ms. Tolokonnikova, who greeted him at the airport in Berlin, told a German newspaper that her ex-husband had been “deliberately poisoned” for either “intimidation or even an assassination attempt.”

There have been rather a lot of these alleged Russian poisonings of late. The fallout continues from the attack in Salisbury, Britain, on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter. Now even neutral little Switzerland is involved. A Swiss laboratory had examined traces of the nerve agent used in Salisbury. In return, it apparently came under attack from Russian espionage. Switzerland has now summoned the Russian ambassador to file an official protest. In some ways, the Kremlin’s methods nowadays are more insidious than they were during the Cold War.

Oh, and did you see the footage of those two thuggish-looking Russian guys captured by British CCTV cameras in Salisbury? They were there just for the tourism. So they say, and Russia confirms. You know, the cathedral and all that.

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Also in Berlin last night, the two German-speaking chancellors met again. In some ways, Angela Merkel and Sebastian Kurz are mirror images in European politics: She welcomed the refugees in 2015; he has been speaking out for closed borders to keep the refugees out. She is in her 13th year in office and her 65th in life; he is in his first in office and his 33rd in life. She looks increasingly weak and washed out; he beams youthful virility and can-do.

But they know they have to get their act together, because Austria currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency and Germany is the biggest member state, and there is an EU summit this week in Salzburg, where it is best to avoid open clashes. So they agreed on the obvious: to push for strengthening Frontex, the EU agency that is supposed to secure the external border of the Schengen Area.

Frontex needs more staff and more powers, including the ability to prevent boats of refugees from disembarking in Africa, Kurz said. This much certainly seems clear: the only way to keep borders open within the Schengen Area is to control the Area’s external perimeter. If the EU can’t do that, bye bye Schengen.

Apropos Angela Merkel looking weak: She barely survived a break-up of her tenuous three-way coalition earlier this summer. At that time, Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, had escalated a pointless fight about migration almost to the point of no return. Now the coalition is at risk again. This time, it is Andrea Nahles and her Social Democrats who have brought it to the brink.

The pretext is the case of Hans-Georg Maassen, the leader of Germany’s domestic espionage agency, which is tasked with protecting the constitution. He has been in hot water since he contradicted Merkel in questioning whether the right-wing riots in Chemnitz had indeed been as shocking as mainstream politicians made them out to be. He is also suspected of being a bit too close to a right-wing populist party, the AfD. Now the Social Democrats demand his ouster as boss of his agency. The CSU’s Seehofer, however, claims to have Maassen’s back.

The decision is slated to be made tomorrow. What a mess this is for Merkel. If she fires Maassen, she will be seen to have caved into the SPD, which makes her look weak. If she does not fire Maassen, she will be seen as bowing to Seehofer and not disciplining a bureaucrat who had contradicted her own judgment. If Maassen stays, moreover, the SPD will have to decide between sacrificing its own credibility and walking out on the coalition. That would probably trigger new elections and an even worse showing for the SPD – and the same parliamentary stalemate that led to this unhappy partnership in the first place.

Even if they don’t split up this week (and I doubt they will), it is hard to see this coalition – and even Merkel as chancellor – lasting for the full term.

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