Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

Garvan Walshe: Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia

5 Aug

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.

“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.

Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.

Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.

Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.

A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.

Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.

The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.

This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.

Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.

The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.

Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.

The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.

In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.

In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.

In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.

Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.

The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.

Off the football field, Laschet assures the Germans they can continue to pretend to be weak

29 Jun

This afternoon’s football match between England and Germany will be seized on by both sides as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

When German politicians want to avoid controversy, they often talk, in a most expert manner, about football.

But the greatest of those politicians are also capable of talking about politics in such a way as to avoid controversy, or indeed to avoid saying anything at all.

From her earliest years, Angela Merkel mastered the art of giving nothing away about her personal opinions: a skill which was indispensable to her as the child of a Lutheran clergyman in Brandenburg, in what was then East Germany.

Armin Laschet, chosen by the Christian Democrats as their candidate to succeed her as Chancellor, possesses also that skill, albeit developed over a long period under quite different circumstances.

He is from Aachen, on the far western border of Germany, close to Belgium and the Netherlands. While Merkel speaks excellent Russian, he speaks excellent French.

She was Lutheran. He is a devout Roman Catholic, which is normal for a leader of the Christian Democrats. In the words of a penetrating observer from the German Left,

“He’s a nice fellow, but he is not a strategic person. He is not a second Konrad Adenauer. He is not even a Boris Johnson.

“He is part of the Catholic opposition against the Prussians – a very funny opposition of weak, small people who fight with all their humour against the people at the top of society.

“He is a very charming and weak person who is always laughing at himself. People like him but nobody thinks he is a leader.”

The press, fed up with sitting through numerous occasions when Laschet gave them nothing to report, tends to write him off as a bore.

That does not do justice to him. He has a subtle gift for making not having a stand-up row, indeed not making a decision, sound reasonable. His intonation is delightful: he speaks as one might imagine an unresentful friar would speak, at ease with the whole world.

He stands accused of being too friendly towards Russia and China, but professes friendship towards everyone.

At a recent appearance at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, he was asked what he would change in Germany and the European Union’s policy towards Russia, and what his attitude is towards Nord Stream 2, the Baltic pipeline which will bring Russian gas direct to Germany, cutting out Ukraine.

He replied in a mild tone that he would not change anything, for the joint German-French declaration in Minsk offers a good way out of warlike tensions – it has not yet achieved final success, but a big war, a big conflict has been avoided.

As for Nord Stream 2, he recognised that behind this question lay concern about the geostrategic effect on Ukraine – would Ukraine’s energy security be endangered, would it become more dependent on Russia?

No, he insisted in his sweetest tone, it would not be, for the position of the German Government is that the position of Ukraine must not be affected by the pipeline.

Whether any reliance can be placed on that assurance is doubtful, but Laschet behaved as if it settled the matter.

Germany, it was pointed out to him, has despatched a frigate, the Bayern, to the Indo-Pacific region. Will Germany be sending more frigates there?

Laschet raised his hands in a pacific gesture. This, he explained, is just a part of Germany’s relationship with China, for which the European Foreign Ministers have developed “a good formula – China is partner, competitor and rival”.

If German voters wish their next leader to be all things to all men, which it appears that they do, Laschet is their man. He is almost ten points ahead of his nearest rival, the Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, a former trampolinist who is laughably inexperienced, as one can see when she gives straight answers to straight questions.

She is against Nord Stream 2, pro-American, has an economic policy which German business thinks is disastrous, and has recently been found to have doctored her curriculum vitae.

Like most German politicians, Laschet is in favour of “a stronger Europe”, which “must end in treaty changes”, and in “a European Constitution which is close to the people”.

But when it was put to him that this must mean he favours a common European budget and the pooling of European debt, he replied at once, with a smile, that he had been “misunderstood”, and that was not what he meant at all.

With imperturbable good humour, he indicates that he will take care of everything. It is a beguiling prospectus, for a Germany which is determined to go on pretending to be weak.

Adrian Lee: Nord Stream 2. How Russia could turn off half Germany’s gas supply – and so threaten our collective security.

21 Jun

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Some political issues – such as Climate Change, female circumcision and African debt relief – become truly internationalised over the passage of time. Gatherings of world leaders see these subjects set high on the agenda for discussion and the press released closing statements at such events are dominated by worthy platitudes calling for greater global action.

By contrast, other matters with the potential to change the world order draw far less attention. One issue that has largely failed to focus the comment of the media pack is the imminent opening of the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

On the Friday 11th June – ironically, the very day that the G7 leaders arrived in Cornwall – commissioning works to fill the pipeline with gas began. Whilst many have vaguely heard of the controversy, few realise the possible impact of Nord Stream 2 upon the defence of the United Kingdom.

Nord Steam 2 starts at Vyborg in Russia, threads its way through the Baltic Sea, passing Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and terminates in Griefswald, Germany.

Few would dispute that the project represents a triumph of modern engineering. Like its already operational predecessor, Nord Stream 1, this underwater marvel has the capacity to pump approximately 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year from Russia directly into Germany.

Even before the fuel starts pumping down the new line, Germany has already attained the status of the world’s largest user of natural gas, 94 per cent of which has to be imported, and 40 per cent of that total is supplied by Putin’s Russia.

Dependency upon this particular source is likely to increase significantly in the near future, as the so-called “Energiewende” policy announced in 2010 has already terminated most of Germany’s nuclear power, with the remaining six reactors scheduled to be phased out by 2022. When this plan was first trumpeted, the German government was confident that “renewables” would make up for the loss of nuclear power, but alas this has yet to transpire and consequently the wheels of German industry are more dependent on natural gas than ever before. No wonder then that Germany has some of the highest energy prices in the world and that the average German consumer has to pay double the cost of the equally average American.

Nord Stream 2 AG is owned by Gazprom, a Russian state-owned company, and its CEO is one Matthias Warnig, a former intelligence officer in the East German Stasi. The main source of the natural gas for the pipeline can be found in the Yuzhno-Russhoye field, located in Krasnoselkupsky, Tyumen Oblast. When one realises that oil and gas are responsible for more than 60 per cent of Russia’s exports and provide over 30% of the country’s GDP, you can understand why the Kremlin is so enthusiastic about this project. Russia certainly intends to make a lot of money out of wealthy Germany and is therefore not planning to suspend supplies, but should she feel the need to do so in the future, she faces no legal obstacle, as Russia is not a signatory to the 1991 Energy Charter Treaty, that provided safeguards to supply.

Why should Britain be concerned about this Russo-German oil deal? Well, mainly because of the military dimension. Sweden and Poland have voiced grave concerns about the Russian Navy using Nord Stream 2’s presence as a pretence for increased military intelligence gathering and intensified patrolling in the Baltic Sea. However, there is a much greater reason for worry.

NATO has been the cornerstone of the West’s defence for seven decades and, until the end of 1991, the main strategic opponent of NATO was the USSR. Following the collapse of Soviet Communism, the organisation changed its emphasis to the broad founding principle of collective security. In other words, an attack on one member is an attack on all – hence the participation of European NATO members in the Afghanistan theatre after 9/11.

The Russian war with Georgia in 2008, the protracted conflict over the Ukraine since 2014 and the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war refocused NATO’s attention on the increasing threat from the east. The 2016 NATO Summit, held in Warsaw, set the conditions for the establishment of an enhanced “Forward Presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to strengthen the line against Russian forces.

There are currently 900 British military personnel in these states, along with allies from France and Denmark. There can be no doubt that Putin’s Russia is today the main threat to NATO on the European continent.

Since the inception of NATO, the involvement of Germany (originally West Germany) has been pivotal. Prior to 1989, Germany formed the frontline and prospective battlefield in any conflict, contributed an effective military force and provided a permanent base for US and British forces.

During recent decades ,it is arguable that Germany’s attention has turned towards the costly projects of re-building the old GDR territories and pushing for a federal Europe but, geographically, the country provides a vital link with the eastern NATO members in terms of supply. An effective NATO without wholehearted German participation remains unthinkable.

Unfortunately, Germany’s armed forces are currently in a pretty parlous state. Despite the pressure from the Trump Administration, Germany is yet to come close to contributing the two per cent of GDP agreed by all NATO countries in 2006. She only spent 1.2 per cent of GDP in 2019.

No surprise, then, that Germany’s arsenal is so decrepit. The main battle tank, the Leopard 2, entered service in 1979 and, of the 183 that the German state possesses, only 101 are estimated to be operational.

In 2014, it was reported that a significant number of German military aircraft were “unserviceable”. In terms of assault aircraft, Germany possesses 60 aging Tornados and 141 Eurofighters. However, it has been claimed that only half of these are airworthy, and one estimate states that just 12 of the Tornados are currently operational. Recently, Germany has ordered another 38 Eurofighters, but they are hardly likely to make the Russians quake in their flying boots.

By contrast, since 2012, Russian ground forces have received more than 15,500 pieces of weapons systems and equipment, twelve missile regiments have been rearmed with Yars ICBM’s and 10 missile brigades with Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.

Overall, Russian has a million active-duty personnel in its armed forces, 2,300 modern battle tanks, 1,200 new helicopters and assault planes, 50 state of the art surface ships, 28 submarines and a 100 shiny new satellites for communication, command and control. Vladimir Putin spends 4.3 per cent of GDP on the Russian armed forces – in part thanks to the healthy financial contribution made by his trading partner Germany.

Under the circumstances, we are surely entitled to ask whether Germany’s commitment to NATO is likely to remain as wholehearted in the era of Nord Stream 2. Is Germany really going to go out on a limb for, say, the Baltic States and Poland when, at the turn of a tap Russia could cut off over half of her energy supply? Or is Germany gradually going to slide down the road to a slightly more neutralist position in the years ahead – to paraphrase William Hague “In NATO, but not run by NATO.”

One thing is for certain: in the absence of an effective backup plan for energy supply to Germany in the event of conflict with Russia, Angela Merkel’s government has handed Putin the ability to paralyse her country, and potentially the whole of western defence.

Lord Frost’s opening speech to Königswinter Conference, June 17

18 Jun

As delivered, 1330h

It’s conventional at this point at events like these to reflect on the strength of our bilateral relationship.

But I hope that for the UK and Germany that hardly needs doing. The events, the connections, the reality all speak for themselves.

Let me give a few examples.

Germany, which we described as our “essential ally” in the IR, was the only country in the world in 2020 to receive visits from the Prince of Wales, the PM, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor. And we were delighted to have Chancellor Merkel here for the G7 in Cornwall last week, with a very warm and friendly bilateral meeting with our Prime Minister too.

We will have soon a Joint Declaration on Foreign and Security Policy, to complement the existing Joint Defence Vision – and, I hope, with more to follow soon. I agree with Ambassador Michaelis that there is room to make the governmental relationship a bit more structured and we should work on that in the months to come.

There are 1800 cooperation projects between our universities.

We have huge investment in each other’s countries – 1400 British companies in Germany, 2500 German companies in the UK.

And cultural exchanges are equally rich. Neil MacGregor’s role at the Humboldt Forum is well known, as is Hartwig Fischer’s at the British Museum – but there is much more.

I could go on. But there is no need to. The short version is that this is what you would expect between two great European countries. There’s a rich set of contacts at all levels – government, business, broader civil society, and beyond.

And of course KW itself is part of that and has been since the beginning. And let me put in a plug here for not just the main event but for YKW. My own engagement in KW is actually framed, until today, by 2 YKW events – my first involvement, in 1995, in Berlin, and my last, as a speaker at YKW in Frankfurt in 2018, where HansHenning was present, where I fear I shocked some of our German friends, and quite a few Brits too, with my views on Brexit. So I’d like to say thank you and well done Annika Muller De Vries and everyone else who has kept YKW going and to underline my hope that we can keep and intensify the pipeline of people from YKW to KW proper. It’s crucial that KW makes an effort to be representative of all parts of our societies – by generation, by profession, by political views.

I want to say a little more on that last point. This is a UK-Germany event, not an EU one. All the same obviously Brexit has been a matter of huge controversy at KW over the years, even if the 52/48 split in British opinion hasn’t generally been reflected in the perspectives of the British guests!

This isn’t the moment to go over the arguments – they are done. It’s time to look forward and I want to set out how politics now feels here, and why, to help frame our discussions in the next 24 hours.

First, a reflection on the current situation. Our relations with Germany are, I think, good. Our relations with the EU collectively and with the institutions are a bit more bumpy. Obviously no one is happy with that situation.

Indeed I would go further. I think those who campaigned for Brexit wanted and expected genuinely friendly and free-trading relations between the UK and the European Union – and still do. Nothing was further from our thoughts than the current fractious and friction-filled relationship that we seem to have now.

Why is that?

  • Some of the current difficulties are teething troubles.
  • Some of it might relate to what happens when people can’t travel, can’t meet,
    have no real means to discuss things informally or to defuse arguments.

But I fear some of it goes deeper.

  • Some of it stems from lack of trust, for our part from the legacy of what seemed to be attempts to frustrate our referendum result during what seems to us to have been a period of British intellectual and negotiating weakness in 2018 and early 2019, which this government has had to spend a lot of time trying to correct.
  • And finally some also stems from what we see now. We have been surprised by the EU’s willingness to resort quite quickly to threats when problems arise – over vaccines, over fish, over financial services, and indeed over Northern Ireland.
  • I didn’t want to speak about Northern Ireland in any depth, but I do need to respond to Ambassador Michaelis’s comments. We are spending hundreds of millions on operating the Protocol, and that is the source of the problems, so we take no lectures on this. I am afraid the idea that we could take the politics out of Northern Ireland and the Protocol is not exactly realistic. We agreed the Protocol to deal with a very particular and delicate situation, and the best thing our European friends can do is to respect this delicacy and to work with us to find a pragmatic and negotiated solution.

So I want to be clear – we don’t wish for difficult relations, we look for this time to
pass, we will work to make it better – but it takes two.

Second, a reflection on why Brexit matters so much to us. It’s worth saying perhaps to our German friends that there is no longer any serious debate on the subject in Britain. No major political party advocates EU membership, and, while a proportion of the public may still regret Brexit, there is no energy behind a rejoin movement. Overwhelmingly we are now looking forward.

That matters. Those of us who became convinced, publicly or privately, in the years after 2010 of the need to leave the EU did so not because of some obsessional attraction to sovereignty. We did so because we believed EU membership had been detrimental to the UK, had sapped our energy and ability to solve problems for ourselves, and had stopped us making hard choices and clear decisions about how we wanted to run our country.

I think it’s worth making clear that this is not just a Brexit of the right. We’ve seen perhaps the most significant change in British politics for a generation – a profound shift towards Brexit, and the Conservative Party, from parts of the country which have traditionally leaned left.

Some are inclined, even now, to dismiss this as a cry of anger against “being left behind”. That is far too dismissive. What we have seen is a call for the country to be run in a different way, injecting new ideas into the political class, creating alternative possibilities, and crucially, holding politicians to account for different things, against different standards.

The point I want to make is that leaving the EU wasn’t the final goal – it was a doorway, a portal through which we had to pass, the beginning of a journey to national renewal and a repositioning of Britain on the world stage. I think it’s because people sense those possibilities that the mood in Britain is better than many thought it would be.

We think we have made a fairly good start to that renewal process, with a world class vaccination programme and indeed vaccine – as indeed does Germany. The predicted collapse in trade has not happened. We are putting in place a programme of reforms – to subsidy policy, to procurement rules, to agricultural support programmes. We are establishing genuine freeports to encourage investment and rebalancing around the country. We are setting up our own pure scientific research agency, ARIA. On the global stage, we are putting our money where our mouth is on defence, with spending going up to 2.3% of GDP, well above the NATO target. And just this week we agreed our first FTA, with Australia, showing as we always predicted that the ability to tailor agreements to our own needs would mean we could agree them more quickly.

All this is why, for those sitting in our government, it is hard to feel anything other than a profound sense of responsibility to deliver upon the trust bestowed upon us. And if you will forgive me a few personal remarks at this point – it is also why we must be vigilant. We do have a challenge as we take our programme forward as a Conservative Government. It is to respond to the new political configuration here without falling into the trap of statism or the intellectual fallacy that a big state, high levels of public spending, more regulation, and government-determined goals and investment plans can build sustainable economic growth over time. Germany demonstrated this was a false path in the Wirtschaftswunder and I think we could do worse than refresh our knowledge of the Ordoliberal tradition, weakened though it may be in the context of broader European policy-making, as we make our plans.

We must also avoid being too influenced by the current pandemic situation, that Ambassador Michaelis referred to. . The pandemic has ushered in a range of measures literally unprecedented in a free society – indeed for the last year or so we have not really lived in a free society. We now know governments can act decisively when there is a genuine crisis – but we always knew that. I personally don’t want to accept that the levels of state involvement in our lives and in the economy we have seen in the last year are in any way normal. I want to get back to the old normal as soon as we can. To me and to many Brits it is striking that it was in Germany, that has learned to be vigilant about these things, that we saw the first, and still in many ways the strongest, protests against lockdowns. As we emerge from the pandemic, we must not lose our conviction that individual not collective rights are paramount, that living with risk is inevitable, or our belief that free debate and free expression of opinion is the right way forward for a free society.

Of course we 100% do not have all the answers. As I hope I’ve made clear, I personally think we have a lot to learn from Germany. What we do have is the ability to make our own decisions, and yes our own mistakes, but also to correct errors and make changes. That is a crucial advantage in developing good public policy.

So, although we are rebuilding our relationships beyond Europe – and as the Integrated Review showed we are going to be putting lots of effort into that – relationships with Germany, and our other great European friends, remain crucial to us. We recognise we have to manage them not just bilaterally but through the EU institutions – but events like today show that the bilateral remains crucially important.

To conclude – as you may be able to tell I am profoundly optimistic about this country and our future. This is an optimistic government and we believe in the ability of the British people to recover from the setbacks we’ve all faced over the last year and to turn our country into something special. In doing so, we look for friendly collaboration wherever that is possible; with Germany I am confident it is possible; and KW has a huge role in keeping it possible. Thank you.

Leon Mangasarian: Merkeldämmerung. It is past time that the German Chancellor stepped down.

14 May

Dr Leon Mangasarian was an editor and reporter for Bloomberg News, Deutsche-Presse Agentur and United Press International in East Berlin, Bonn, Berlin and Brussels. He received a PhD from the London School of Economics in 1993. He is co-author (with Jan Techau) of a book on German security policy, Führungsmacht Deutschland, and is now a freelance writer living in Potsdam, Germany, and on a farm in southeast Brandenburg state.

All political lives end in failure unless cut off midstream. Angela Merkel proves Enoch Powell’s theorem as her chancellorship staggers to its end after 16 years amid a botched Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

If Merkel had learned one lesson from her mentor, Helmut Kohl, it would have been to get out while the getting was good. He was also tossed out of office after 16 years.

Merkel is departing with no signature achievement. True, she’s dealt with major crises, but her policy responses have at best been fair to middling. Far too often they’ve been flawed, or she simply avoids tough issues.

Germany is failing to get  jabs into people’s arms. Just nine percent of Germans are fully vaccinated, compared with 56 percent in Israel, 35 percent in the US and 27 percent in the UK. Merkel insisted on handing vaccine procurement to the EU and thus to Ursula von der Leyen, a competency-challenged ex-German defense minister co-responsible for wrecking Germany’s Bundeswehr.

Insufficient vaccines is worsened by Germany’s obsession with making sure nobody jumps the queue. Instead of using the nation’s excellent network of general practitioners, the wheel was reinvented by setting up huge vaccination centers. Rationing vaccine by age groups means binning thousands of doses at the end of the day.

This debacle again shows Merkel as the tactician and not a grand strategist. She’s reactive, rather than calculating means to big-picture ends. So notorious is she for dithering that her name has become a new German verb: to “Merkeln” means either to do nothing and avoid making a decision or, when you do, to hide it in gauze and fog.

Merkel’s bad ideas aren’t limited to public health. Here are some of her greatest hits.

Drifting left

Merkel’s fundamental misstep was shoving her once centrist-conservative Christian Democratic Union to the left. The CDU became social democratic, making its conservatives homeless, prompting some to join the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Her 2015 open border migration policy led to the AfD’s resurrection. The Christian Democratic bloc is cratering, with polls putting it at 23 percent, behind the opposition Greens. Under Kohl the Christian Democrats regularly won over 40 percent. In a further act of self-harm, the CDU chose the Merkelist premier of North-Rhine Westphalia, Armin Laschet, as its chancellor candidate for September’s election.

Merkel is a high-tax leader. Among her first acts was raising value-added tax to 19 percent from 16 percent, and income and other tax burdens have shot up under her chancellorship. German tax revenue was 452 billion euros in her first year in office. In 2019 it was 800 billion euros. Germany now has one of the highest overall tax rates in the OECD club of rich nations.

Overregulation

Meanwhile, the Chancellor failed to revamp Germany’s economy. The last major reform was almost 20 years ago under Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat. It was political suicide on his part, but laid the foundation for prosperity.

Today, German business staggers under suffocating bureaucracy. There’s a stunning example near Berlin, where Tesla is building a “Gigafactory” that will create an estimated 40,000 jobs. Construction is almost finished, but German bureaucrats still refuse to issue a building permit. Elon Musk has been warned he’s investing at his own risk and that if the permit is denied he’ll have to tear down the factory. Merkel thinks more bureaucrats as the answer: since 2016 there’s been a 22 percent increase in the number of employees in her chancellery and ministries.*

Importing power

Germany now has Europe’s highest electricity costs. Households and most businesses pay 43 percent above the EU average. Merkel’s botched renewables shift slams consumers with huge bills subsidising wind and solar. Merkel’s other energy move was to panic after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster and move forward the closure of all nuclear plants to 2022. At the same time, she’s speeding up closures of coal-fired power plants.

The result? Germany’s Bundesrechnungshof, which audits government management, warns that Merkelian energy policies risk triggering electricity blackouts. After closing nuclear and coal-fired plants, Germany, on winter days with no sun or wind, will import electricity from France and Poland that’s produced by – you guessed it – nuclear or coal-fired plants.

Russia

Merkel’s other energy/geopolitical debacle is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, running under the Baltic Sea, to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. The pipeline has pissed off Germany’s NATO and EU allies. (Everyone but Merkel knows the Kremlin uses energy as a political weapon.)

The Poles and the Baltics are furious; Ukraine, the current route of Russian pipelines to Europe, is fearful; and both the Trump and now the Biden administrations pledged sanctions on companies building the pipeline.

Merkel insists Nord Stream 2 is just another business deal.

China

China is Merkel’s favorite among global dictatorships. It’s only a slight exaggeration to describe her chancellorship one long kowtow. She regularly visits China to support German exports and investment. Merkel crowned Germany’s EU presidency by ramming through an EU-China investment accord, despite pleas from the incoming Biden administration to wait.

Merkel is wobbly on minority rights, Beijing’s military operations in the South China Sea, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, and threats to Taiwan.

A key part of Germany’s body politic is memory of the Holocaust and Nazi crimes. There are two parts: never forget history, no matter how awful; and “never again,” as in never tolerate even a hint of genocide. Joschka Fischer, then Foreign Minister, evoked this in backing the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo by saying “never again Auschwitz, never again genocide.”

More than anyone in Germany, the Chancellor must personify these tenets. Yet Merkel has stumbled. “Never again” is brushed off over China’s persecution of the Uighurs. Merkel refuses to follow NATO allies the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, which accuse Beijing of genocide.

Turkey

As for history, Merkel made clear her displeasure over a 2016 German parliament resolution describing the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (Germany’s World War I ally) as genocide. Merkel skipped the vote and then, to make sure that Ankara got the message, her spokesman declared the resolution wasn’t legally binding.

Overlooking a century-old genocide is easier than angering the Turkish government she needed to block migrants from Europe. Merkel and the EU paid Turkey billions so Ankara would do the dirty work of closing EU borders.

Digital

Merkel’s failings are striking in her endless harping about “digitalization.” For all Merkel’s talk, inaction is the result. Forget Estonian-style e-Government. Germans rely on fax machines, signatures and humorless officials wielding stamps and well-inked stamp pads. Anyway, e-Government couldn’t work in Germany because it requires a decent mobile phone system. Merkel has failed to plug the massive holes Germany’s network. I’ve had better mobile service in the remotest parts of Scotland or Namibia.

Politicians everywhere reach their “sell-by” date after eight to ten years. Merkel, despite human decency and incorruptibility, has long since reached hers. Every day she remains in office is a lost day for Germany. This year is wasted for lawmaking with elections in September, followed by coalition negotiations that could run into 2022.

Germany desperately needs a member of parliament, like Leopold Amery in the House of Commons in 1940, to stand up and speak the truth:

“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing … In the name of God, go!” 

*Simon Haas, Jonas Hermann and Charlotte Eckstein, “Wuchernder Staat: Deutschlands Regierungsapparat wird grösser und grösser,“ Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 10 April 2021.

Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.

Macron and others played politics with AstraZeneca. The consequences for many EU citizens are fatal.

24 Feb

In January this year, many will remember Emmanuel Macron telling reporters, in no uncertain terms, what he thought about the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Today we think that it is quasi-ineffective for people over 65”, he said, hours before the European Medicines Agency recommended it for adults of all ages. “[T]he early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca”, the French president warned, as well as criticising Britain’s strategy of delaying the second dose of the vaccine to get the first one out quickly – in another act of incredible diplomacy.

Days earlier a German newspaper incorrectly claimed the AstraZeneca jab is only eight per cent effective in the over-65s. While the figure was quickly dismissed, several countries haven’t exactly inspired confidence in AstraZeneca’s efficacy. Germany advised that it should not be given to people aged 65 or above, citing “insufficient data”, and France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have also recommended it only for younger people.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission Chief, even went so far as to accuse the UK of compromising on “safety and efficacy” safeguards in delivering its vaccines. And Clément Beaune, France’s Europe Minister, warned “the British are in an extremely difficult health situation. They are taking many risks in this vaccination campaign.” You don’t have to be a Brexiteer to get the idea: British vaccines = bad. Even John Bell, a medical professor at Oxford University, accused Macron trying to reduce demand for vaccines to cover up the EU’s huge issues with procurement, culminating in its dangerous attempt to control vaccine exports across the Irish border.

So one wonders what the mood is in Brussels now that research has revealed just what a success the much-attacked AstraZeneca vaccine has been. A study in Scotland, where 1.14 million people were vaccinated between December 8 and February 15, showed that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines led to a “very substantial” drop in serious illness across all adult age groups.

Critically, researchers found that by the fourth week after receiving an initial dose of each vaccine, the risk of hospitalisation from Covid-19 reduced by up to 85 per cent (Pfizer) and 94 per cent (AstraZeneca), in a result that will please people who’ve had it – but raise serious questions about the language and policies of EU leaders.

Their actions have fuelled vaccine hesitancy. In Germany, for instance, people have failed to turn up to appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine. As of Friday, only 150,000 out of 1.5 million doses of the vaccine had been used – leaving the country with less than six per cent of its population immunised (compared to 26 per cent for Britain).

There are also reports of hospital workers in France and Belgium demanding that they be given the Pfizer jab instead of AstraZeneca (one nurse in a Flemish hospital even told a publication she would go on strike if offered the latter). Politicians have failed to convey the bigger picture; that everyone is lucky to be offered one vaccine with high efficacy rates (50 per cent protection would have been a good outcome), let alone that several have been developed.

As Ryan Bourne and Jethro Elsden have already written for ConservativeHome, the EU’s difficulties in procuring vaccines is dangerous enough in itself – Bourne estimates the UK has saved around nine thousand lives by choosing its own vaccination programme, and Elsden says the country has gained approximately £100 billion from doing this.

The fact that some EU leaders have added to this chaos by planting doubts about AstraZeneca’s vaccine makes the situation even more alarming. The vulnerable are less protected, and – on a global scale – if we do not get transmission of the virus down, it can mutate and mean that the current vaccines do not work.

Some leaders realise the seriousness of the problem. Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin, has warned that people could be sent to the back of the queue for vaccines if they refuse an AstraZeneca job. “I won’t allow tens of thousands of doses to lie around on our shelves while millions of people across the country are waiting to be immunised”, were his words, and Angela Merkel’s spokesman has pleaded with Germans to take the “safe and highly effective” jab.

It’s a start, but terrible that so much damage has already been done. Some might remember that in November 2020, MPs here debated whether social media companies should be doing more to remove anti-vaccine disinformation. Never could they have imagined it would be Macron spreading some of the most troublesome ideas.

Daniel Hamilton: So we have a new CDU Chairman. Will a CDU-Green coalition follow after Germany’s federal election?

18 Jan

Daniel Hamilton works in international business consultancy and was a Conservative candidate at the 2017 General Election.

In September, Angela Merkel will step down as German Chancellor after sixteen years in office. Regardless of how one may judge her record, Merkel’s influence over the substance of European governance has been immense; from stamping her mark on EU fiscal rules to her open-doors policy during the migrant crisis to her final ascent for the UK’s post-Brexit deal.

The cast of names that have come and gone during her term in office – Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Jacques Chirac, Francois Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, George W.Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump– is without modern compare.

Partly because of constitutional constraints and partly due to post-war caution and conservatism, stability is a feature of German politics.  Since 1982, Germany has had only three Chancellors.  In the same period, the UK has had seven Prime Ministers.  Italy has had twenty-two.

The Große Koalition between the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) has now largely served in office since 2005.  This has effectively resulted in the two main parties adopting a similar, centrist persona, with disagreements tending to focus on tweaks and cadences of policies rather than fundamentals.

This has arguably hurt the SPD most, whose traditional platform, once grounded in patriotic labour unions and cosy accommodations with big businesses, has fractured as Germany has become more ethnically diverse, more start-up friendly and more ecologist in its views.  The party won 41 per cent of the vote in 1998, yet polls around 15 per cent today.

The CDU has its own problems.  Distinct from what “voting Merkel” meant – centrism, no surprises and the social market, with a strong nod to environmentalism – the CDU’s platform has a rather hollow feel.  It is accepted, for sure, that the party stands for the defence of Germany’s social market economy and a punchy approach to German influence at an EU level, yet its pro-immigration stances and seeming intransigence on tax cuts and deregulation have separately irked working class voters and entrepreneurs.

With the CDU and SPD unable to define their appeal effectively, an opportunity exists for other parties to gain ground.

While the hard-left Die Linke and market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) are polling well enough to have a respectable presence in the next convocation of the Budestag, it would be wise to follow the public remarks of Die Grünen, Germany’s Green Party.

Overseas perceptions of the Greens are somewhat outdated and tend to revolve around images of the “68ers” – a radical student movement founded on ending the military draft, opposition to the Vietnam war and the modernisation of a stodgy political system still inhabited by the wartime generation.

Their march to the mainstream has, though, been a long one.

The decision in 1998 of Joschka Fischer, a veteran 68er and the country’s Foreign Minister during the Green coalition with the SPD, to advocate NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia over the Kosovo crisis upended the party’s pacifism-at-all-costs agenda, and led Germany into an overseas conflict for the first time since World War Two.  A Green Minister-President, Winfried Kretschmann, has governed the manufacturing-dominated state of Baden-Württemberg in coalition with the CDU for more than a decade; implementing a pro-business, R&D-friendly agenda that feels more modern than the SPD’s staider rhetoric.

The issue of immigration is as polarising or more so an issue in Germany as in other European countries, yet polling suggests that recent-naturalised Germans and the descendents of the Gastarbeiter generation which moved to the country from Turkey and Yugoslavia in the 60s and 70s lean strongly towards the Greens.  This offers the party another electoral advantage over the SPD.

There is much to dislike – or even, given the party’s more extreme factions, fear – in the Green Party’s platform, but the fact remains that the party appears to be on the verge of stitching together arguably the most electorally-appealing platform in German politics today.

With the CDU on course to win roughly a third of the vote when September’s elections come, the Greens on upward or around 20 per cent of the vote and all other blocks trailing far behind, the prospect of a CDU-Green, Schwarz-Grüne coalition is a distinct possibility.

The election of Armin Laschet as the new Chairman of the CDU on Saturday morning would, on the face of it, appear to represent a “safe” choice for the party.  Coverage of his victory has focussed on his jolly nature, centrist political brand and stewardship of North Rhine-Westphalia, one of Germany’s most important manufacturing hubs.

A debate will take place in Germany during the coming months as to whether Laschet will be the party candidate for Chancellor (he faces a potential contest including the guttural Bavarian Governor, Markus Söder, and the liberal Health Minister, Jens Spahn), yet this is a battle he is likely to win.  The fact he was able to see off the socially-conservative, immigration-sceptic Friedrich Merz and media-friendly Norbert Röttgen to win the top job suggests the party is looking for stability, not revolution.

There is little debate about whether the CDU and its Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union, will win the plurality of votes in September.  With Laschet as their candidate, a Große Koalition with either the rump remainder of the SPD or resurgent Greens would appear to be both mathematically and politically possible.

CDU/CSU voters have proven to be a loyal block, yet their combined 45 per cent vote share in 2013 is a distant memory.  They now poll 35 per cent.  The price of such a fall in support is that no clear path exists for Laschet to pursue a coalition with the CDU’s traditional partners, the liberal FDP.  His only options are on the left.

Given the recent momentum of the Greens, it is not beyond the realms of possibility they could further erode support from the SPD and Die Linke, leading to an electoral percentage showing in the high twenties.  In this scenario, the pressure from both Green insiders and those on the left, battered by sixteen years of losses, for a leftist GroKo may be insatiable.  The price of such a coalition, particularly for Die Linke, would likely be the shelving of Green moderation in favour of a distinctively leftist agenda.

The implications of such a centre-left coalition would be profound – for both the UK and EU.

Notwithstanding recent Coronavirus-related speeding, a coalition of this kind would see the abandonment of the ‘Schwarze Null’ fiscal policy that mandates a balanced budget domestically and higher taxes on personal incomes and business.

For a post-Brexit UK, seeking to steer a path as a low-tax, regulation-light economy, a malcontent leftist coalition in Germany would likely serve as a Trojan Horse in the European Council for policies designed to disadvantage and undermine UK interests.

For all the criticisms of Laschet’s unambitious centrism and the gap that exists between British conservatism and the CDU’s social market economy orthodoxies, the preferred outcome for the UK is clear.