In a previous Superwahljahr post I said that the Wechselstimmung – the sense that it’s time for a change – Markus Söder felt in Germany might just be an ambiance de fin de régne. The German, or indeed English, phrase has positive, springlike connotations even if you’re on the wrong end of it, a sense of revival and necessary housecleaning. The French, though, implies an atmosphere of sinister intrigue and suddenly unburied secrets. Even if you welcome the prospect of a new reign, the transition is likely to be sordid and dangerous.
This spring has seen the country of the small and medium-sized business’s small and medium-sized political parties hit by a wave of small and medium-sized scandals. Like a good small-town machine-tool manufacturer, this Mittelstand of scandal promises to punch above its weight and deliver more political impact than you’d expect. Scandals are interesting because they obey their own rules; the secrets disclosed are usually not all that secret or that surprising, the impact of the scandal is rarely proportional to its seriousness on any objective test, and there is a critically important distinction between the kind that burns out and the kind that snowballs and brings more skeletons clattering out of their cupboards.
There was the whole business with Azerbaijan, for example. This oil-rich autocracy seems to have celebrated its triumph over Armenia by taking a startlingly close interest in the politics of southern Thüringen, where it has been regularly buying advertising in a CDU MP’s self-published local newspaper. The sums are comically trivial, but an important feature of a good scandal is very often just that. If you think you’re hardened enough to expect that everyone has their price, after all, finding out that it’s €16,000 might be more disturbing rather than less. And as it turned out, Mark Hauptmann wasn’t the only one. Not only were there a whole gaggle of CDU politicians in the pay of Baku, there was a TV station in Berlin, run by none other than Peter Brinkmann, the journalist famous for cajoling the East German information minister Günter Schabowski into accidentally announcing the end of the Berlin Wall. Also, one of them, Karin Schenz, has unexpectedly died on an airliner heading from Cuba back to Germany while under investigation, the sort of thing that will always raise questions. Their Green coalition partners in Stuttgart seem to have noticed or suspected something, as they nicknamed them the Baku-Württemberg party.
(The same Azeri lobbying campaign, incidentally, seems to have recruited the disgraced Liam Fox MP, or “Foks” as his surname is spelled on the cover of the suspiciously large edition of his book they ordered.)
Then there was federal health minister Jens Spahn. Spahn didn’t help himself by going to bizarre legal lengths to conceal the price of the luxurious villa he and his husband the publisher of celebrity magazines bought. Such information is available in the land registry as a matter of routine, but Spahn both tried to lean on the local authority through administrative channels and then threatened Der Tagesspiegel with his lawyers. None of it worked; turns out the seller was later given an important job in the ministry’s gift. Spahn’s husband’s firm, meanwhile, turned out to have sold the ministry a large quantity of masks despite being, you know, a magazine holding company that probably hadn’t sewn them itself – or maybe it did, as most of them never turned up and they’re still arguing about it.
The mask thing just kept on going. A succession of CDU and CSU MPs all seem to have discovered they had masks to sell last spring, and proceeded to push them on the federal government, mostly via Spahn’s ministry. To begin with they were all individual cases and hadn’t made any profit out of it, no, sir. As the story developed there were more of them, the CSU was involved as well as the CDU, and the cases were evidently connected. Not only did they receive fees for their services as lawyers, they got a percentage commission, and the money was paid to a firm controlled by one guy’s children and its Luxembourg bank account. The transfer caused the sender’s bank to raise a suspicious-activity report, which turns out to have brought the whole thing down despite the usual last minute promises to let one’s offices ruhen or literally rest for a while and to give the money to a (suspiciously) local charity. This eventually reached Alfred Sauter, a hugely important CSU figure, who further turned out to have been paid to lobby for a brand of rapid lateral-flow tests with Markus Söder’s office.
Sauter resigned rather than become the first person to be expelled from the CSU parliamentary party, but there was more. His day job outside politics is a law firm he runs with fellow CSU MP Peter Gauweiler, for it is he. Gauweiler managed to trump the mask business by being exposed for accepting €11 million in fees from 91 year old billionaire ice-cream tycoon August von Finck. Von Finck’s grandfather was a co-founder of Allianz and Münchner Re, his dad acquired the German Rothschild bank during the Nazi era in the way you’d expect, and younger von Finck probably made more money from real estate, but I can’t help stressing that his family owns Mövenpick, because the whole idea that European history was bent out of shape by the sinister influence of Big Sundae is too grimly hilarious. At least it’s an improvement on Krupp and Thyssen – butter rather than guns, even if his politics are seriously weird.
What von Finck wanted from him was a constant stream of lawsuits against the European Central Bank, and, well, that’s what he got. If you read this blog through the Eurozone crisis you probably remember Gauweiler as the most intransigent opponent of anything like a transfer union or really any action at all. After all the complicated theorising about the Freiburg school, ordo-liberalism, the importance of returning to the final settlement of trade transactions, well, it was von Finck’s euros or more likely undeclared Swiss francs at work. The same goes for all the arguing about the inner workings of TARGET-2, as it further turns out Gauweiler paid Hans-Werner Sinn for his expert testimony out of the ice-cream money. Hey, and you could read this blog for nothing!
Well, that was fun. But scandal theory tells us something important. It’s all dropping now for a reason. That might be because nobody fears the people involved any more, or nobody expects to get anything from them in exchange for continued silence. It might be because a news story about important people isn’t news if they’re not important people any more. It might be because change is coming, and the question is now what and who that change will be. In that light, the scandal outbreak implies there’s going to be a new government, and plenty of people have it in for Söder. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the von Finck/Söder link described here, as another important question in any scandal is who’s protected and who isn’t.
Meanwhile, the chancellor and the provinces are at daggers drawn having managed – uniquely – to decide on an Easter lockdown and then realize the additional public holiday involved was illegal. Fin de régne, indeed.