Pay no attention to the social democrat behind the curtain.

Perhaps we’ve been watching the wrong German politician throughout the whole Greece/Eurogroup drama. Usually, the Vice-Chancellor of Germany is one of those posts that comes with a lot more dignity than it does power, like the US vice-presidency in the pre-Cheney days when it wasn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit. It tends to be given out as a decorative title to a junior coalition partner, rather in the way Nick Clegg was given the title of Deputy Prime Minister, something which has even less basis in British constitutional practice.

But Bernd Hüttemann reminded me of something important on Twitter yesterday, as follows.

Sigmar Gabriel, for it is he, is not just vice-chancellor and SPD leader, but also federal minister of economic affairs, and the minister responsible for government-wide coordination of European policy. The ministry gives details of its role here.

It has to ensure that the German government has a common line-to-take towards the European institutions, to keep the Bundestag informed, and to give directions to the German representatives in COREPER 1. That’s the boring-but-important stuff such as Competition, Energy, Agriculture, etc. It also gives directions jointly with the ministry of foreign affairs to German representatives in the more politically glamorous COREPER 2, including the General Affairs council, Justice & Home, and crucially, ECOFIN. It is the government’s authority on European law. Its officials chair most committees on European issues within the German federal government, including the permanent secretaries’ committee on European affairs, which they lead jointly with the foreign ministry.

The foreign minister is, of course, Gabriel’s fellow Social Democrat, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This gives him a lot of agenda-setting power and a lot of access to Angela Merkel. He probably has more executive power than Joschka Fischer did as vice-chancellor and foreign minister. Having a bigger gang behind him, and also a European crisis, means he also has more than FDP leaders Westerwelle or Rösler although they had the same ministry.

This is important. In a sense, even decades after reunification, we still see two Germanies. People on the Left tend to swing between admiration for its social democracy, long tenancies, environmental commitment, demonstrative feminism, cycleways, safe-standing terraces at the football, and the like, and utter exasperation with its commitment to European monetarism, bourgeoisity, inflation dread, and tolerance of Bild Zeitung‘s ravings at the Greeks. People on the Right tend to wish they could have a budget surplus, a Bundesbanky monetary policy, and more public churchiness, except when they’re convinced Germany is a terrible warning of the inevitable doom of the welfare state. It wasn’t that long ago.

Wolfgang Schäuble, of course, personifies the hard-money version of Germany. But Germany doesn’t only have a finance ministry. It also has a ministry of economic affairs that has an eye to industrial priorities and real institutional strength, rather like the brief Department of Economic Affairs Harold Wilson set up in the UK back in the 1960s was meant to be. The DEA was intended pretty much as an anti-Treasury, and I think we can read Gabriel’s role at the moment as something similar – a growth-oriented lobby that would structurally lean towards a lower exchange rate, because it represents mostly export-heavy manufacturers and industrial workers.

In practice, a lower effective exchange rate for Germany means keeping the Euro show on the road, complete with Greece. Either leaving the euro, or kicking out the south, would surely cause the rate to rocket upwards with ruinous consequences for Gabriel’s clients. It’s therefore very significant that the export lobby in German politics has managed to get more influence over Germany’s interface with the European institutions. And here’s the man himself:

This might explain an important feature of the agreement the Eurogroup eventually reached. Greece is said to have “capitulated” by accepting the “November 2012 targets”. However, the agreement specifically doesn’t set any fiscal target for the year 2015, and proposes that we meet again in June to negotiate a new program replacing that of November 2012. Therefore, the targets don’t exist for this year, and those for future years are by the by. Perhaps they will influence the talks in June, but this strikes me as a concession without much substance. A bit like making the FDP leader vice-chancellor. And the talks will be heavily influenced by the boring technical stuff Gabriel’s ministry has most power over.

This might also explain why Schäuble seems quite so grumpy these days. Much of the content of policy reaches German officials in Brussels and elsewhere via Gabriel and Steinmeier’s staffs. In a real sense, he only has full and undivided control when ECOFIN (or the Eurogroup, which isn’t explicitly evoked by the ministry’s text) is meeting at ministerial level, and he is physically present. Which puts an interesting light on the whole row about that nonpaper that was supposedly issued after he left the building…

When he isn’t, his main means of influence is either shouting the odds in the media, or else going via Angela Merkel, who is of course free to support him or not. Merkel’s interests are well served by this. She keeps the options open, and avoids having to explicitly back either lobby. At the same time, it rules out either the two social democrats, or else Schäuble plus one of them, ganging up on her to commit Germany to some policy of their own. I would therefore cautiously discount some of Schäuble’s bluster in front of journalists.

Hamburg

It’s probably worth keeping an eye on German elections at the moment. Hamburg voted today, and the results below will update as more results come in, via Der Tagesspiegel. Basically, the SPD won big but will need a coalition partner, probably the Greens, the FDP and the Left had a respectable showing, the AfD version of the far-Right just, just scraped into a western German parliament for the first time, and the CDU had a nightmare, literally their worst result ever.

Click on “Gewinn/Verlust” for the changes in % terms – the CDU lost 5.9%, the AfD picked up 5.8%. Ouch. But most of all, the Non-Voter Party had a great night, picking up 44.5% of the vote.

On that score, I expect the main effect to be “That’s over with now” rather than “Chase the AfD”.

Their Eyes Were Watching Vlad

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

As part of the German parliament’s debate about the budget and foreign police, Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Die Linke, spoke out forcefully against further sanctions against Russia. He called them “absolutely counterproductive.” He added that they provoked Russian countermeasures and hurt the economy. Rational policy, in his view, would be to lift the sanctions immediately.

Not to be outdone, Sara Wagenknecht, Gysi’s first deputy, said that economic warfare with Russia was damaging and “playing with fire.” She added that NATO maneuvers and EU sanctions were making the implementation of a ceasefire in Ukraine difficult.

Russia and the Russian government are, of course, utterly blameless in all of these events.

Not coincidentally, the party’s history as recounted on its English-language web site begins in 2007. If I had their background as the unreformed heirs to the Kremlin’s stooges, I’d keep it off the web site, too.

It’s not like this was a surprise

Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

That’s from March 1.

Overtaken by events

The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:

By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.

So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.

Kharkiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Zaporizhia: tense standoff
Kramotorsk: buildings occupied
Druzhkivka: buildings occupied
Yenakijeve: buildings occupied
Makiyivka: buildings occupied
Mariupol: buildings occupied
Luhansk: buildings occupied
Donetsk: buildings occupied
Slovyansk: buildings occupied
Mykolaiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Odessa: occupation attempt repulsed
Krasny Lyman: disturbances

The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.

This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of

war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.

This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.

He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Looking back at last month’s guide to revisiting the 1930s, further east:

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.

Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:

But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.

Old habits die hard

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to strip the Russian delegation to that body of its voting privileges for the rest of 2014, as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The overall vote was 145 in favor of revoking the Russians parliamentarians’ votes and 21 against, with 22 abstentions.

The German delegation voted 5-1 to revoke, with Yes votes coming from a Green, two Christian Democrats and two Social Democrats. The sole No vote? From a Left parliamentarian. Because Moscow, I suppose.

Continue reading

untouchable tender mafias

A nice piece on the re-emergent Julia Tymoshenko which gives us a clue as to why Yanukyovich became unsupportable:

Vyacheslav Konovalov, a criminology researcher, explains that “the initial idea behind ‘Dear Friends’ was a transparent system for monitoring public finance in place of the Soviet model. To do so, a system of tenders and a tender chamber were set up. Specially “favored” people with Western degrees were appointed to control the system. Soon enough the initiative produced many thirty year old ministers and deputy ministers, dubbed at the time ‘Kinder Surprises.’” They are an “untouchable tender mafia” presiding over a system where brokers enjoy kickbacks of thirty, fifty, up to seventy percent.

The tenders made it easy for Yulia and her allies to enjoy luxurious lifestyles without actually owning anything on paper. According to court documents, by the end of her trial, the only property they could confiscate from Yulia was a modest apartment in Dnepropetrovsk. But Yulia, as many others political elites in Ukraine spent much of her time in police-protected, luxurious villas.

"Untouchable tender mafia" is such an excellent phrase, even if the sense is just 'contracts'. Amusingly, Y and his people couldnt get her on any of these things because they were too involved  themselves, so they had to semi-fabricate charges against her, which in turn helped the gas queen reinvent herself as a martyr. Anyway, Yanukyovich:

The Yanukovych family has gone even further on a larger, more grotesque scale. According to the PEP Watch anti-corruption center, the net-worth of Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr has gone from 7 to 510 million UAH since 2010. His dacha in Mezhyhirya, showed off to the public on February 22nd, was a rude awakening. Luxury cars, gilded toilets, a lakeside galleon, and a private zoo were found. Acres and acres of tasteless, overpriced junk that cost millions of dollars.

So under Yanukyovich, the system reverted in Mancur Olson style terms from stationary to mobile banditry. He stole with both hands and spent money which had actually passed through his own mucky paws on his absurd country retreat. Apparently he also robbed his own support base blind, which is why backing for him from that sector and from across the general apparatus of state seemed remarkeably soft. The downside of that is that it  allowed fascist street muscle to play an overly prominent part in his ouster. Still, at least the crowds at the Maidan seem to have caught on to Tymoshenko

A quick reconnaissance over German politics

So you might think this blog ought to have written much, much more about the German elections and the coalition process that came after. Mea culpa, but the truth is that it just wasn’t interesting or new and the reasons are well defined here, with the notion of the post-political situation. Germany had an election as post-political as anything you might get in Italy. The biggest row was about the idea of having a compulsory vegetarian day in schools. The opening of talks between the parties is well satirised here as a vacuous media pseudo-event.

Even now, in the coalition process, the SPD has been essentially competing with Angela Merkel to agree with her own policy, by ruling out any European funding for bank resolution that doesn’t come with a troika programme and the concomitant 25% reduction in GDP. Perhaps the only genuinely political moments were the periodic Snowden eruptions (apparently the biggest clown over this, Roland Pofalla, wants to be a cabinet minister. we’ll see).

The original reading of the election was that it was an awe-inspiring triumph for the Right. The evidence of this was that they did well in Bavaria, demonstrating only that a lot of journalists don’t read their own newspapers, and that the CDU had a historically high score. On the other hand, the parties of the Left actually ended up with more seats, through the moderately countermajoritarian voting system and most of all because of the crash of the German liberals, the FDP, who lost all their seats. Merkel had to pick between an unstable rightwing coalition beholden to Bavarian pols who are unelectable in the rest of Germany, which would be vulnerable to the parties of the Left picking off individual centrists, and something else.

The something else is a new version of the grand coalition of 2005, with the CDU and the SPD in government together. This is much more stable, and importantly permits the chancellor to have an independent political role. In a government that has to tack to the hard right to please the rightmost Bavarian MP and then back to the centre, Merkel is a weathervane. In one that’s spread right over the range of German politics it declares to be respectable, she’s the boss.

On the other hand, viewing it from either flank, it’s utterly vacuous. If you don’t like the EU, or even if you don’t like the current macroeconomic settlement of it, there is nothing for you here. It is deeply post-political, in the sense that the SPD and the Greens get to compete for the role of second coalition partner so long as they don’t propose anything new or interesting.

It should also give pause to everyone who likes the idea of breaking up the great social democratic parties. This project is further ahead in Germany than anywhere else, and the result seems to be a Left party that doesn’t achieve much or increase its vote much, a SPD whose main argument is that the Left are all commies and wasn’t it that lot who cooperated with the Nazis in 1932 to kill the Prussian SPD government*, and a Green party that’s not much better on its key issue than everyone else but doesn’t seem to know or care that wage-earners exist as such.

It’s because the SPD and the Left party loathe each other so much, and the Greens are as ECB-minded as anyone, that the numerical majority of the left in the Bundestag is not a political majority and the numerical minority of the Right is a political majority.

SPD members’ experience of grand coalition was basically horrible, and the effort to sell the project to the 470,000 members seems to rely heavily on pompous old men telling the base off. Like so.

In France, the push to the left from Mélénchon is at best like one of those solar sails – it might be just perceptible over 30 years – and at worst immeasurable. And the reality of post-politics is that however many votes SYRIZA or Grillo gets, does anyone really imagine it will matter?

That said, that said, German politics may be post-political but it is not yet post-democratic. The SPD’s biggest outstanding issue in the coalition talks is a €8.50/hour national minimum wage, which is more impressive when you realise that about 40% of German workers (including part-timers) earn less than that. There is a Billiglohnland inside Germany that is rarely discussed. Gesamtmetall is already on board.

This is largely because low wages in Germany are mostly in the non-tradable bits of the economy. IG Metall and Gesamtmetall can agree on this because it’s not their problem. As I often point out, nobody buys a Mercedes because they’re cheap. But if the services workers get a coup de pouvoir d’achat, it ought to provide at least some additional aggregate demand and suck in some imports.

And, after all, it was the FDP’s Lambsdorff paper back in 1982 that introduced neoliberalism to Germany, or rather reintroduced it if you believe the Freiburg school was its originator.

It’s something. It’s not much, but it’s something. Of course, the SPD membership could still vote it down, in which case we get the Right with veggie days.

*well, it was, and I’ve said this to people I know on the extreme left, but it’s depressing to see that Sigmar Gabriel has nothing better to offer as an argument.
**ok, Siggab has worse to offer.
***as a general theme, Steinbruck, then Siggab, what is it with the tiresome Sir Mucho Pomposo types?

Is The Perfect Always And Everywhere The Enemy Of The Good?

Against a backdrop which offers an eerie parallel with events which took place somewhat to the North more than 30 years ago, Catalonia is now threatening to separate from Spain. In so doing the region seems to be putting at risk both the future of the host country and beyond that the outlook for the Euro currency and the process of European unification. Continue reading

Q&A: The Catalan Way explained

Why are Catalans taking part in a human chain this Wednesday? The Catalan newspaper Ara has produced a series of questions and answers in English which should explain everything you want to know about why the human chain is taking place today.

What is the ‘Via Catalana’?





The ‘Via Catalana’ (The Catalan Way) is a political demonstration which will take place this September the 11th. Inspired by the Baltic Way — a human chain formed by up to two million people on August 23 1989 across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — its aim is to create a 400 km long chain which will cross Catalonia from north to south. 400.000 people have signed up to take part in the human chain, although organizers hope that the actual turnout will be at least twice that figure. People will be asked to join hands at exactly 17:14 (15:14 GMT). The chain, which runs along highways, roads and city streets, will come to an end at 18:00 (16:00 GMT). If successful, it will be one of Europe’s largest ever demonstrations, following in the footsteps of last year’s march in Barcelona, when up to 1,5 million people walked through the streets of the capital asking for independence, the country’s most massive rally ever. Continue reading