Sinful sledgers, poisonous needles and precious metals

This newsletter is a four-minute read

Dear Reader,

Firstly, apologies im Vorraus for the morose tone of this first newsletter of the year. Reading the news after two weeks spent with friends and family - time taken up with music, laughter  and games - is a sobering experience. Once again, one enters a world where the human experience is reduced to a series of numbers, charts and indexes. 

The first three news bulletins I read this morning: Niger - hit by a terror attack over the weekend - is number 189 in the UN index on human development; the number of people employed in German dropped by 1.1% in the year 2020; and the UK, where a mutant coronavirus strain is spreading, has seen 57,000 more cases.

Perhaps this affinity for numbers is a particular trait of German journalism - in a country more technocratic than democratic, the apparent certainty provided by Zahlen has a particular appeal. More likely though, it is part of an icy trend among opinion makers and politicians across the western world towards trying to fit all human behaviour into understandable and predictable models. If only the pesky masses wouldn’t keep messing things up by acting so… so human.


Jörg - (Axel will be back later this week)

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1. Lockdown extension imminent

Snow fell across much of the country over the weekend. And the undisciplined public took the opportunity to flood into parks and onto hills to have fun with their children. Car parks in the several mountainous regions were overflowing as families took to the hills to go sledging. Cue lots of tutting by the pious crowd on social media, resulting in local mayors announcing decisive action by blocking off all but emergency entry into their districts. 

With the general public refusing to cower under their sofas for the remainder of the winter - and the number of coronavirus cases only having dropped in recent days because it apparently isn’t that important to count them over Christmas - further measures to instil a bit of discipline in the unruly citizenry seem inevitable.

Germany’s doctor of doom, Karl Lauterbach, has decided that the ineffectiveness of the time-limited lockdowns means only one thing - Germany needs to move into an indefinite lockdown! The models aren’t working? Double down on the models! 

While Mr Lauterbach has received pushback from several imminent infectious disease specialists, the political momentum is clearly on his side. Angela Merkel is meeting with the heads of the German states today and no one is in any doubt about what the result will be - a lockdown Verlängerung until the end of January. The only serious bone of contention - will primary schools and Kitas have to keep their doors closed long after the holidays are over?

2. Vaccine strategy - chaos or political opportunism?

You’ll be glad to hear that the first vaccines were administered in Germany during the Christmas period. The very first person to receive a jab was a 101-year-old care home resident in Saxony-Anhalt. We’re sure she can now look forward to many years of good health. 

To overcome the great diseases of the 20th century we vaccinated young children. Faced with “the greatest public health crisis since the Second World War” we’re inoculating centenarians. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the absurd new world we’ve stumbled into.

Is it surprising in the midst of this moral panic that the more unsavoury politicians in the country have seen an opportunity ripe to exploit? Enter Lars Klingbeil, the most dishonest member of the SPD... and also their party secretary. He has been busy bemoaning “chaos” in the CDU-run Health Ministry’s vaccine strategy, claiming Germany has bought too few doses of the Pfizer vaccine and has taken too long to send them out across the country. 

The CDU retorted on Monday that all decisions on the vaccine roll-out were taken by the “corona cabinet” - a committee attended by all the federal ministers in Mr Klingbeil’s SPD. But Mr Klingbeil never did let the truth get in the way of a good opportunity to jab a poisoned needle into the side of his coalition partner.

3. Merkel rushes through China trade deal

While most Germans were buried deep in that decisive 27th game of Settlers of Catan - the one that would indisputably resolve who is the most cunning trader of iron ore - Frau Merkel was busy fine-tuning a deal that would secure precious metals of another sort - those turned into shiny trinkets in forced labour camps in China’s Xinjiang region.

Finalized during a video conference between Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen and Chinese President Xi Jinping on December 30th, the EU-China investment deal will open a new chapter in Brussels’ relations with Beijing. According to media reports, Merkel was desperate to get the deal over the line before the end of Germany’s six-month presidency of the European Council.

The pact still needs to go through various rounds of ratification, a process which will take at least a year, but it is being read as a clear statement of European strategic independence from the US in its increasingly tense power struggle with Beijing.

While the EU boasts that the deal will give it leverage to stamp out forced labour in China, critics have decried its “awful” geopolitical message at a time when Beijing is stamping out democracy in Hong Kong, agitating on the Indian border and incarcerating journalists.

What the deal undoubtedly does is ensure greater market access for European companies. Given the choice between mercantile politics and rights-based policy, what else would one expect from a Chancellor who has spent her career acting as an ambassador for the German car industry in some of the world’s most powerful dictatorships

Most commentators seem to agree on one thing: the deal is a pretty smart piece of Realpolitik.

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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.