The party is over

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Dear Readers,

We hope you’ve had a pleasant first week of the year. A big thank you to everyone who filled out our survey. If you haven’t done so, it only takes a couple of minutes and can be found here. We promise to try and integrate your suggestions. For example, we can assure the people who responded to the ‘what not to change’ question with the simple word “English” - we’re on your side.

Today we’re talking about German liberals, the end of the second Wirtschaftswunder and the prickly subject of naming weather fronts.

Jörg & Axel

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1. The tipping point…

It might seem like a minor blip, but the 1.1 percent contraction in the number of Germans who are employed, which was reported for 2020, marks a turning point for the German welfare model.

Not even during the financial crisis did the absolute number of Germans in employment decline. This is the first time it has happened since a series of labour market reforms kick-started the German economy in the early 2000s.

Corona is partially to blame but many of the jobs lost in the retail sector will never return and the crisis has just fast-tracked the inevitable - Germany’s population is old and soon enough there will be too few taxpayers to support the part of the population that doesn’t work.

At least in theory there are three levers to pull to counter the trend:

1) The retirement age of 67 needs to go up, something which would simultaneously generate more tax revenue and reduce the number of people in need of support. 2) More women need to work. Germany’s nine percentage point difference between the employment of men and women makes it a European lowlight. 3) The Bundesrepublik must keep its borders open and import skilled workers from other countries to fill the gaps.

Predictably enough, the ink on the employment report was barely dry before the first demands by industry representatives for an increase in the retirement age reached the airwaves followed by booing from the unions.

2. The diversity of the weather

Unless you are an avid watcher of the weather report on TV it might come as a surprise that in Germany, meteorological patterns have names. The right to such names can be bought for a couple of hundred Euros from the Institute for Meteorology.

This year the Helmuts and Antjes have to move over - the low and high fronts Ahmet, Chana, Khuê, and Romani are on their way. In a coup named the Wetterberichtigung (Weather Correction) pulled off by the New German Media Makers - a media group that supports immigrant journalists - the naming rights to 14 of the year’s weather events have been given names that they say are more in-line with Germany’s diverse population.

Alice Weidel, leader of the AfD’s parliamentary faction, thought it was important enough to tweet about and blamed the Media Makers for forgetting “that the low fronts Ahmet & Goran have been moving across Germany since 2015.”

If Ms Weidel and the Media Makers actually watched the weather they would know that in 2020 the lows and highs were already quite diverse. Perhaps they should both focus their energy elsewhere…

3. Wise heads atop the liberal party?

The German liberals have a problem and, curiously, its name is Christian Lindner. 

The 42-year-old leader of the Free Democrats (FDP for short) was once their saviour. At the 2017 election, the party focused all of its campaigning energy on his telegenic face. In a billboard campaign that took a leaf out of Giorgio Armani’s book, Lindner could be seen in sharp suits using a smartphone (they’re a cutting-edge party), thinking deeply, or putting his jacket on. Onlookers who managed to pull their gaze from his eyes learned that “security needs to be better organized than crime” and that “impatience can also be a virtue.”

Vacuous perhaps, but it worked.

The FDP, who suffered the humiliation of failing to make it into the Bundestag in 2013, arrived back in Berlin with a vote share of almost 11 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but the FDP have never been in it to win it. In all federal elections since 1949 (except 2013) they’ve made it into parliament but but rarely with more than a single digit vote share. Their job has always been to be the bespectacled wing man to the CDU or SPD heavyweights.

And therein lies Lindner’s problem. In 2017 he rejected his party’s traditional agnosticism about who it rules with, deciding that he couldn’t bear to sit in the same room as Angela Merkel. Ever since he pulled the rug from under the so-called Jamaica coalition (CDU, Greens and FDP) his party’s popularity has been on a downward slide.

On Wednesday, the FDP held their annual Three Wise Men meeting and once again Linder was all alone. This time the man with a penchant for Selbstinzenierung spoke to party members from an empty theatre in Stuttgart. But while the sole focus on him in 2017 was a strength, it now seems like a weakness. The FDP are hovering just above the five percent mark in polling. If they fail to re-enter the Bundestag again this year only one man will be held responsible.

The slumping polling figures seem a bitter reward for the principled stance Linder has taken during the pandemic. The FDP have castigated the government for the its lethargy in delivering face masks to the elderly and criticized the failure to pay rescue money to shuttered businesses; despite the political risks, they’ve stood against national lockdowns.

The flip side of the party’s focus on individual liberty though has been its promise to cut taxes. Even commentators of a radically liberal bent, like ex-Handelsblatt editor Gabor Steingardt have lamented the tone deafness of such pledges at a time when tech giants are monopolizing huge swathes of the economy while dodging the taxman.

Linder, who loves fast cars, doesn’t exactly have the common touch. And with the Greens now led by the scrumptious Robert Habeck, he can’t even claim to be the best looking leader on the the circuit. On Wednesday he attempted to strike a new figure, a man of humility. But German commentators sensed that his underlying message was left unchanged: “more freedom and fewer taxes.” That isn’t likely to cut it on polling day.

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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. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

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.