A pariah state on the Baltic coast | A hard-right knockout | Corona autumn blues | Downfall of the VW Golf

A pariah state on the Baltic coast

When one of the foremost environmentalists in Germany steps in to defend a natural gas project, you know something pretty strange is going on.

Jürgen Trittin, Green party MP and former Environment Minister, demanded this week that Europe “defend itself” against US attempts to thwart the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built to take Russian gas under the Baltic to Germany.

Nord Stream 2 has become a football in a game of Realpolitik between Washington and Moscow, with Berlin caught in the middle.

For Russia, the sister line to Nord Stream 1 will secure further gas exports to western Europe that circumvent Ukraine - an outcome Washington wants to avoid at all costs. Germany, which has committed to stopping coal and nuclear energy production, is desperate for a reliable alternative to renewables.

Only a hundred kilometres of pipeline are still to be laid. But US sanctions brought in last December scared off the Swiss pipe-laying company Allseas. 

At Mukran Port on Germany’s Baltic coast, the enormous steel tubing started to gather dust. Then, in early summer, a vessel pulled into harbour at the end of a voyage that had taken it halfway around the globe. Russia had a last trick up its sleeve. The Akademik Cherskiy, a tiny construction ship, had been repurposed and sent from Russia’s Pacific coast to finish the job.

But the vessel’s movements didn’t pass unnoticed.

The US ratcheted up the pressure again. Three Republican senators sent a letter threatening the Mukran Port with “crushing legal and economic sanctions” if the Akademik Cherskiy carries so much as one section of pipeline out of its harbour.

The sleepy fishing village of Sassnitz, where Mukran port is located, suddenly found itself being treated like a pariah state. Local officials were warned they would have their US assets frozen, as if they were Russian oligarchs. While the prospect of having their US wealth seized is unlikely to mean much, the village will be more concerned by the threat to “destroy the port’s future economic viability.”

Town mayor Frank Kracht is in no mood to cave in though. Calling the letter “the height of audacity,” he says he wants the remaining pipeline to be laid as quickly as possible.

How far will Germany go to stand up for Sassnitz? The Foreign Ministry called the letter “completely outrageous”, but has steered clear of threatening reciprocal sanctions.

For Mr Trittin, the threats are symptomatic of Donald Trump’s bullying “America First” policy. Trittin proposes a radical shift in foreign relations which would see the EU deepen alliances with Japan, Canada and others against Washington and Beijing.

Blaming the clash on Trump is wishful thinking though. The sanctions enjoy bipartisan support in the US Senate, with Democrats and Republicans alike wanting to stop the project. Whatever way the US election goes in November, Berlin - and Sassnitz - will still have a problem on its hands.


Sucker punching above their weight

Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a prominent party member, Andreas Kalbitz, ruptured a colleague’s spleen by giving him a ‘friendly’ jab in the gut. 

The AfD were (before spleen-gate) polling at ten percent - a far cry from fulfilling their ambition of doubling their 12 percent vote share from 2017 at the next election.

The party hasn’t found the right tone during the Corona pandemic and has been pushed out of the spotlight by the governing CDU and SPD. They’ve also been unconvincing in attempts to distance themselves from a string of far-right attacks that have plagued Germany over the past year. Many voters are running back to where they came from - the CDU.

The icing on the melting cake is a power tussle between a moderate and an extremist wing in which Kalblitz is a central figure, but where he has most likely thrown his last punch. The former paratrooper stands accused of lying about his membership of a neo-Nazi group and risks being thrown out of the party.

Out of all people to hospitalise, Kalbitz probably wishes it hadn’t been Dennis Hohloch. Hohloch is acting chairman of the party in Brandenburg, while the chairman himself, Kalblitz, has taken a hiatus awaiting the verdict on his party membership.

Parliamentarian Frank Paseman, a Kalbitz ally, did his best to throw a blanket over the fire by leaking chats to the media in which he explained to party members that a ‘friendly punch to the side’ went wrong as Hohloch had an undiscovered cyst in his spleen. 

How Paseman (who on Wednesday was kicked out of the party over an unrelated incident) had intimate knowledge of Hohloch’s inner organs is unclear. But the rumours were rekindled when Hohloch tweeted from hospital - “no cyst.”

While the AfD are busy slugging it out in the public eye, they are losing sight of the five-year anniversary which embodies their rise from obscure Eurosceptics to the main German opposition. “Wir schaffen das! (We can do it!)“ was Angela Merkel's now famous assertion to the German public in August 2015 that the country would cope with the refugee crisis.

If the AfD can do it - pull themselves out of the hole they have dug for themselves, that is - is a more timely question.


The autumn blues

For weeks now the number of Covid-19 cases has been rising in Germany. Daily reported cases have doubled since the middle of last month, leading the country’s public health body to declare itself “very concerned”.

Disguised in the headline figures are a couple of important qualifiers. 

Firstly, testing has gone up significantly since the middle of last month. Roughly 40 percent more tests take place a week now. Some of this “second wave” can be explained by the fact that Germany is now better at finding positive cases.

Secondly, hospitalizations and intensive care occupancy continue to decline. Significant in this regard is the fact that the average age of someone who tests positive has dropped from 49 to 34, indicating that blanket testing is now picking up the type of young asymptomatic case that would have been missed earlier in the pandemic.

So heading into the autumn there is good news and bad. The virus is still spreading, but its impact is not worsening. Among virologists these conflicting facts are leading to rather different assessments. 

Ulf Dittmer of the Uniklinik in Essen suggests that the flat-lining of serious cases could signal that the virus is mutating into something less harmful. “In evolutionary terms it would make sense: the virus doesn’t want to be stuck deep in the lungs, it wants to be higher up so that it can spread more easily.”

Gérard Krause, head of epidemiology at the Helmholtz Centre, also strikes a cautiously upbeat tone. Germany can cope with a high caseload as long as a buffer is built between the healthy and risk groups, he says. His proposal: focusing efforts on speed testing - tests that give immediate (imperfect) results - at entrances to care homes and hospitals.

Germany’s preeminent corona specialist, Christian Drosten, is rather less optimistic. He worries that the slow spread of the virus before the autumn could “finally overwhelm the local health offices.” He calls for a strategy that focuses primarily on clusters - events where several people are infected at once. One implication would be that school classes would be completely separated from one another to prevent one cluster from starting another.

The good news from Drosten’s assessment? The latest understanding of infectiousness means that quarantine could be reduced to five days. The bad news? He predicts that, if things get really bad, health offices will have to pick their battles. “Everyone needs to accept that, in times of crisis, you can’t stop every infection.”


Generation Golf no more?

In the 1970s Volkswagen was in trouble. CEO Heinrich Nordhoff’s boast that the Beetle model could “never be replaced” had come to look as out of date as Henry Ford’s quip that customers could have cars in any colour they want, so long as it was black. Sales of the world’s most popular car had stalled - it’s air-cooled, rear-engines were hopelessly out of date.

But the first Golf rolled off the production line in 1974 and once again a car from Wolfsburg ruled the roads of Europe. By its second year of production it had already become the continent’s bestseller. It’s a title that it would keep until this summer, as the German automotive industry with Volkswagen at its helm, grew to become the most dominant in the world.

But in June, for the first time in 45 years, the Golf was knocked off its pedestal. 

That the Clio is now number one says more about Volkswagen than Renault - Only 30 percent of Golfs have left the production belt this year due to software problems plaguing the car.

This is a bitter pill for VW to swallow and a data point that will cause concern in Berlin. It’s estimated that VW directly and indirectly is responsible for the paychecks of seven hundred thousand Germans.

If you play around with the Golf, you’re playing around with the jobs of employees!

thundered Bernd Osterloh, the powerful workers representative on Volkswagen’s board, in stark criticism of the attempt to cram the Golf full of technology. 

But if there’s one thing Volkswagen needs to get right, it’s technology. 

In the 1970s it was the oil crisis which drove the shift from Beetle to Golf. Half a century later the environmental crisis is forcing the shift from internal combustion engines to electric ones.

In the scramble to come out on top in a disrupted industry, CEO Herbert Driess has ordered a redesign of the entire fleet in order to generate 40 percent of revenues from electric cars by 2030.

Mr. Driess is hoping that in 2020 history will repeat itself and bring a new Golf moment: Later this year the company will start selling the ID.3, its first purpose built electric car and arguably the only German model that can take up the fight with Tesla in terms of quality, range and price.

But the ID.3 also has software bugs, putting the launch date in peril. It’s a launch that needs to succeed for the company to keep its crown as the world’s largest carmaker and for Germany’s economy to keep its clout.