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Archives for September 2009

Where is the anger?

Gavin Hewitt | 11:35 UK time, Wednesday, 30 September 2009

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Berlin: On my way out of Berlin I drove past the Victory Column beside the Tiergarten. The election was over but some large posters of Angela Merkel remained.

Some of the posters had been defaced. It wasn't clever or witty graffiti, just some red lines scrawled over Merkel's face. The slash of a pen. I had seen a few other posters in the former East Germany where the Chancellor had been given a moustache, but they were rare. And then it struck me. Where, in the midst of the worst recession since World War II, was the anger?

Back in January I had gone to Paris for a union demonstration. It was colourful, good-natured but ended with the almost ritual confrontation with the riot police, the CRS. The whiff of tear gas drifted down the boulevards. At the time commentators were predicting weeks of rage on the streets of Europe. The cobblestones, however, have largely stayed in place. SPD leaders Franz Muentefering (right) and Peter Struck after 27 Sep 09 election defeat

Across Europe the generation leaving universities and high schools are facing long periods without jobs. And yet, certainly during the recent campaign in Germany, their frustration was missing.

One would have imagined, certainly in the past, that this would have been perfect time for the socialist and centre-left parties. People have been questioning the future of capitalism. The international financial system was reeling. Stories of greed filled the papers. And, yet, so far, the voters have not turned to the left.They did not at the European elections, and in Germany the Social Democrats (SPD) have just posted their worst result in 60 years.

The centre-left has failed to find a script to address the recession. Many of their clothes have been stolen by the centre-right. It was Merkel and Sarkozy who led the charge against the excesses of the "Anglo-Saxon" model of capitalism. Angela Merkel went to the recent G20 summit determined to cap the bankers' bonuses. Furthermore, the right seems to have accepted the "active state". In Germany, Merkel agreed to subsidise workers to keep them in jobs. She was willing to plough in $6.5bn to keep the Opel factories open.
And elsewhere, too, the centre-right has moved into territory that formerly belonged to its opponents. In Britain, David Cameron positioned himself as a "green" leader, concerned with climate change. The National Health Service, he insisted, was safe with him.

While in Germany I discussed some of this with a political analyst. She said the centre-left stands for pumping money into the public sector, but everyone now knows the biggest challenge is how to cut the deficits, in other words, to cut public spending. New jobs are most likely to be created, in the near future, in the private sector.

Furthermore, the centre-left cannot depend on traditional loyalties. Voters who regard themselves as independent are increasing. Ties with the only working class have weakened. The centre-left has been uncomfortable addressing the problem of job cuts while significant immigration from outside the European Union continues.

Some are talking of the end of socialism and its centre-left allies. It certainly is struggling to find a message. It may, however, be premature to write off the left. Politics often goes in cycles, and parties often rebound because of the failings of their opponents.

The Merkel enigma

Gavin Hewitt | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

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merkel595.jpgIt is strange in the aftermath of a campaign, when a candidate has been examined and dissected, that the basic questions are still being asked on the day after. But with victory secure and with a new coalition partner it is being debated in Germany: "Which Merkel will run the country?"

Even though she made the election about herself, about her ability to manage a crisis, she retains a mask. One of the papers here in Germany probed the Merkel mystery and concluded that it is difficult to define her - and that that is the secret to her success.

Back in 2005, she supported radical reforms but then backed away from implementing them as chancellor. At times she positioned herself above the political rough-house. She was the leader who sought compromise, whose basic instinct was caution. She was a centre-right politician who shored up public service pensions, who subsidised short-term working to keep thousands in jobs.

Some in her own party became suspicious and believed she had shed her party skin and had deliberately set herself up as the "mother of the nation". Indeed one of her closest aides told me that within the Chancellery they referred to her as "mummy" - although not to her face.

She was, of course, inhibited by her coalition with the Social Democrats, her natural opponents. Now she is to be wedded to the Free Democrats. They believe in lower taxes, a smaller state with less regulation, where it is easier for companies to hire and fire. At one time they would have been her ideological allies.

So will a more radical Merkel emerge? Probably not. Firstly, although she and the Free Democrats want tax cuts they are hemmed in by the spiralling budget deficit. Secondly, she wants to move away from fiscal stimuli as soon as possible, but she'll want to be certain growth is bedded down before risking strangling the recovery at birth. So her natural ally, caution, may prevent her in the short-term being a more radical chancellor.

She is likely to find the political climate harsher despite her victory. Old politics has returned in a left-right divide. The weakened Social Democrats, without the shackles of coalition, will feel free to attack her. Other leftist parties and some of their union allies will be on guard against any weakening of the safety nets that cushion German workers.

But she has time. The truth is that in the midst of Germany's worst recession since the war, with the greed and excesses of capitalism laid bare, the centre-left made little headway. Cleverly Angela Merkel led the demand, at the recent G20 meeting, for bonuses to be capped. She insisted that the international community could not return to where we were before recession struck. International finance needed closer regulation, she demanded. It was clever politics. She stole the left's clothes. It left them without a script. They have not managed to convince voters that they are better placed to lead the country out of recession and to bring down unemployment, which continues to rise.

So, I suspect Germany will tack to the right but Angela Merkel will remain a pragmatic politician who shies away from confrontation but will fight fiercely for German interests as she has done over the car industry.

Internationally she and her new allies are Atlanticists who will remain close to Washington. Her former coalition partners - the Social Democrats - wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. A newly-elected Angela Merkel will hold the line in support of the 4,200 German troops in Afghanistan while the mood across Europe is souring on the Afghan mission.

After yesterday, Angela Merkel is in a position to re-assert Germany's leading role in Europe.

Merkel's party hails dream result

Gavin Hewitt | 19:50 UK time, Sunday, 27 September 2009

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cdu595a.jpgFrom the moment the first exit polls appeared, the celebrations began at the Christian Democrats' Headquarters in Berlin. Every good result was met with whoops and a clinking of beer glasses. They even managed to offer sausages with "CDU" branded on them!

Angela Merkel's supporters had grown nervous in recent days that they might have to continue their awkward partnership with the Social Democrats.

Soon it sunk in that Germany would have a centre-right government. It was more than many at Mrs Merkel's party headquarters had dared to hope for. One woman told us she thought it would be bad for Germany if the current coalition had continued.

When Angela Merkel arrived she was met with cries of "Angie, Angie". She had made the election about herself and so this was a significant victory for her.

Although this is a shift to the right, Angela Merkel stressed that she wanted to be "the Chancellor of all Germans". Certainly her record in power suggests she will be pragmatic. In 2005 she had talked of radical economic reforms. Now she has the opportunity to reveal where her true instincts lie.

Angela Merkel's new partners are the pro-business Free Democrats. They won't get their way with all their demands but they are tax-cutters, they want to reduce the state, they are reluctant to bail-out companies and they are against generous stimulus packages.

Even if some of their ideas are adopted it will sharpen the political divide in Germany.

But one story tonight is this: at a time when Germans are outraged at the excesses of capitalism, the greed of the bankers and the bonuses they take, they have given the centre-left its worst result in nearly 60 years.

The voters may not like casino capitalism, but they seem to treasure more an efficient crisis-manager, which is how Angela Merkel sold herself.

Merkel's understated triumph

Gavin Hewitt | 17:11 UK time, Sunday, 27 September 2009

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Berlin: On the basis of the first exit polls, this looks like a significant victory for Angela Merkel. Her aim was to form a new centre-right coalition and she may well now be able to govern with the help of the pro-business Free Democrats. However, there is likely to be some horse-trading.

Angela Merkel made herself the centre of the campaign. She was more popular than her party and she played up her skills as a good crisis manager in a time of economic crisis. She sensed that Germans wanted consensus; a solid brand of careful politics.

Some in her own party felt she had been too vague during the campaign. She was reluctant to provide detail about how she would handle the economy in the future. She gambled that Germans liked her quiet managerial style. She spoke plainly - some said she sounded like the mother of the nation - telling voters that "we had been living beyond our means", and that that led to the crisis.

If she manages to form a new coalition with the Free Democrats she may well embrace pro-market reforms, most likely lower taxes. It will be a test of where Angela Merkel's true instincts lie.

At the last election in 2005 she spoke out in favour of radical reform, but backed away. Now she has more room to be bold if she chooses. But the message from the past four years, and this campaign, is that Angela Merkel is a pragmatic leader.

As regards the Social Democrats - Angela Merkel's coalition partner for the past four years - they scored their worst result in almost 60 years of politics.

Lisbon fiercely debated

Gavin Hewitt | 10:48 UK time, Friday, 25 September 2009

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A No to Lisbon campaign poster on a Dublin busDublin: In Ireland, the vote on the Lisbon Treaty has turned into a full-blown political scrap. I sat in on The Last Word, a live radio debate held in the Irish Times building in front of an audience of 70. It was at times passionate, irritating, humorous but, above all, everyone there felt this treaty mattered to the future of Ireland. It was the kind of debate Britain has not had.

The heavy hitters were Michael O'Leary, the feisty boss of Ryanair who supports the treaty, despite his fairly low opinion of Brussels in the past, and Declan Ganley, a businessman who spearheaded the "No" campaign the last time Ireland voted.

The debate had to be briefly delayed for O'Leary's arrival. "He only runs an airline," a voice said. He is a natural salesman, timing arrival for maximum attention. Having shaken as many hands as he could he propped a book with the title 100 reasons to vote 'Yes' to Lisbon 2 against his microphone. He likes humorous one-liners and enjoys politically knifing his opponents, who he reminded the audience were "losers" and who "hadn't created any jobs".

For O'Leary the reason for supporting the treaty is all about the economy. He started off by saying "we now have a bankrupt country". In his view, the vote was "about getting 500,000 people back to work". He said it was important that under the treaty Ireland would keep a commissioner and that it would keep control over direct taxation. With those guarantees he said that "if you care about jobs vote 'Yes'." Then a hint of the reprisals that might flow from Brussels if Ireland voted "No". "Europe," he said, had "a long memory".

Time and again the "No" side denied that this was a vote about jobs and the economy. They know that it is their opponents' strongest card. Declan Ganley wanted to fight on entirely different ground. The fact that Ireland was voting again on essentially the same treaty showed the "contempt that democracy was held in," he said. The treaty, he said, would "trump Irish laws" and "halve our voting weight". It would create an unelected president. In the future the treaty could be changed without a democratic vote.

Time and again the "Yes" side returned to the economy. The Foreign Minister, Micheal Martin, said Americans and other potential investors would interpret a "No" vote as Ireland pulling away from Europe. Companies might not invest. "Which ones?" shouted Ganley - but there was no response. The foreign minister continued by saying that Ireland had marketed itself as the "gateway to Europe". That could now be lost. The "No" side retorted that no companies had turned away from Ireland after the first "No" vote. They insisted that you could reject the Lisbon Treaty and be good Europeans.

The angriest exchange followed Declan Ganley's assertion that this was "the same anti-democratic formula" drawn up by a "European elite". It stung the foreign minister. He angrily denied that there was an elite running Europe. They are elected politicians, he insisted. These were the same people who had lent Ireland 120 billion euros. "They're interested in helping us," he said.

And so it came down to this. The "No" side believe there is something profoundly undemocratic about having to vote a second time on essentially the same treaty and that power is seeping away to institutions in Brussels. The "Yes" side believes Ireland needs Europe to rebuild its economy and it would be a great mistake to alienate the big European players when Ireland is weak. And that is the argument that may well influence the voters. Jobs over fears about sovereignty.

Lisbon hits Dublin streets

Gavin Hewitt | 10:50 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009

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Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen with Yes posterDublin: Arrived in Dublin to sound out how the Irish will vote on the Lisbon Treaty. The plane was full and I briefly wondered whether activists from elsewhere were being drawn into the campaign, until I realised that the big attraction was the 250th anniversary of Guinness.

However you can sense the anxiety seeping out of Brussels, that the Irish might vote "No" again, by the visits to the country. The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, was in Limerick last weekend. He said Ireland's decision would be respected but a "No" vote would be "very negative for all Europe including, of course, Ireland".

On the streets you detect at once that you are in the midst of a rough campaign, with claim and counter-claim. "Yes to jobs," says one poster. "Enough is Enough. Vote 'no'." "Yes keeps Ireland's commissioners," says another poster. Another claims that 1.84 euros would be the minimum wage after Lisbon. "The EU loves control. Vote 'no'," says another. And so it goes on. Arguments played out on the street.

What is apparent this time is that big business is putting muscle and money behind the "Yes" campaign. Michael O'Leary, the head of Ryanair, is taking the fight to the "No" campaign. But so are big international companies like Pfizer and Intel.

Most people seem to agree that the key factor in all this is the economy, which has simply collapsed. The Celtic Tiger is no more. Ministers tell voters that it is the European Central Bank that has provided a lifeline to Ireland's financial system.

I've had a glimpse of just how severe the slump is here. I visited the town of Longford. On the surface it has all the bustle of a typical small Irish town. But just outside I was taken to a recently-built estate. A total of 150 houses were going to be built. Many have been finished and they are up-market. They were expected to sell for 360,000 euros (£325,000). Most were finished a year ago. The only problem is that almost no one has moved in. It is a ghost village. Much of the estate is unfinished. The houses are shells, testimony to the day the money ran out. I am told there are estates like this across Ireland. Quite simply a bubble of speculation burst.

So the argument that may well play best here is that a country in trouble needs Europe. Or rather, must not disappoint powerful friends.

Some of the arguments are passionate on both sides. A "No" vote would mean "we had lost ourselves in the modern world". Or another Irish "No" would represent "a spiritual withdrawal from Europe". Another claimed Ireland was "almost literally being held hostage by 'Yes' supporters".

To me it seems little of the argument is about the treaty itself and its impact on ordinary people, but tomorrow I hope to attend a debate between some of the key players in this drama.

No-frills Merkel woos voters

Gavin Hewitt | 10:25 UK time, Wednesday, 23 September 2009

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Angela Merkel election posterWAGING AM SEE, Germany

There was no energy to the crowd who had gathered beside the lake at Waging am See. They sat at long tables in the autumn sun enjoying a beer and a Currywurst served by young women in Dirndl dresses.

It felt more like a giant cook-out than a political rally. When Angela Merkel arrived the applause was polite. A few posters with Angie printed on them were waved, but unconvincingly. She does not know how to work a crowd. Certainly not in the American way. She moved through the tables with a few waves and a shy, self-effacing smile. She did reach out to those waiting. There is often theatre to politics, but not here.

She stood on the stage impassively, in her trademark trouser suit, waiting for the introductions to pass. At one point she received a text message and put her hand in her left pocket to examine her phone. So many politicians would have fretted over how that gesture might have appeared. She read the text as if she was alone, away from the crowd.CDU rally in Waging am See

The campaign has been attacked for its lack of ideas, for the absence of sharp political debate. Certainly the two main leaders have found it hard to attack each other, having been in government together in a coalition.

With Angela Merkel you sense her quiet managerial-style is also deliberate. She seem to want to suck the energy out of the campaign, to count down the clock. She is vastly more popular than her party. When her critics call her dull, you feel she is secretly pleased. Boring is OK too. Her advisers believe that in a time of recession the German people are drawn to serious, cautious politicians. They do not want grand plans but an efficient crisis manager.

I caught up with Thomas de Maiziere, her Chief of Staff in the Chancellery. "Her charisma is a special one," he told me. "It's quiet, persuasive, full of conscience... A dialogue with the people, not shouting to the people. This is the secret to her success."

There is more to Angela Merkel's appeal than the safe pair of hands, however. I listened closely to her speech. She had notes but never referred to them. Her arguments are simple and direct. For those other leaders who face an election in the near future this seemed to be the Merkel strategy.

1. Appeal to basic, sound, book-keeping virtues. She told the crowd the recession "was caused because the world didn't behave like we did in Germany". Although she didn't say it on this occasion, it reminded me that she had said elsewhere that "the crisis did not take place because we were spending too little but because we were spending too much". You don't hear much from other leaders about debt and savings.

2. Ride the anger towards the bankers. She got her biggest applause when she went after the banks. "Greed won," she told the crowd. "The banks gambled and when they'd thrown everything against the wall they ran to the state to bail them out." She promised to fight at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh to see bonuses capped and tough new rules.

3. Fight for German interests. At one point, in the face of some heckles from German milk producers, she seemed to urge the crowd to buy German food. Certainly, with the rescue of Opel, she is seen as having fought fiercely for German interests. One analyst said to me: "Whatever happened to Europe in this election?" In the past, she said, German politicians wanted to parade as good Europeans. Not this time.

4. Stay flexible. Her critics say she has been vague on unemployment, taxes. It is all deliberate. Her chief of staff told me: "Nobody knows how long the recession will last, how deep unemployment will go... we have to be cautious about what we are going to do."

5. And finally level with the voters. Be straight. As her team told me, "this election all comes down to trust".

So the campaign is built around Angela Merkel the person. Her latest TV commercial has her gazing down from her window at the Chancellery like the mother of the nation. There are a large number of undecided voters, but her strategy is to avoid mistakes in the final days. It helps that she will be at the G20 in Pittsburgh. The big unknown is who she will share power with - the Free Democrats or the Social Democrats?

On the campaign trail she draws large crowds. Not Obama-style audiences that I saw last year, but there may never again be a campaign like that. But 6,000 on a Sunday afternoon with a soft light on the lake. Not bad. I'm told that Gordon Brown said to her recently that he doubted whether in Britain you would ever again get large election crowds. Everything was decided on television.

As Angela Merkel left the stage in Bavaria the speakers belted out Angie by the Rolling Stones. "Angie, you're beautiful. Ain't it time we said goodbye. Angie I still love you. Remember all those nights we cried. All those dreams we held so close, seemed to all go up in smoke." Curious. Maybe it is true, after all, that few people are paying attention.

Despair of 'The Jungle'

Gavin Hewitt | 16:10 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009

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French police speak to detained migrants from the makeshift camp known as The Jungle, near Calais"The Jungle" was a harsh, dangerous encampment from which migrants made their daily attempts to board a truck or train to England.

I visited the shanties of wood and plastic a few weeks ago. Lying a short distance outside Calais, a major European town, the makeshift tents were regarded by many as a long-running scandal.

Mid-afternoon and dozens of mainly Afgan migrants would emerge from the trees to seek medical attention. It was not provided on any official basis but by volunteers, who offered plasters and medicines from the back of a vehicle.

Many of the migrants had scabies from living in the woods. Others needed treatment for cuts and bruises from having tried to clamber aboard the trucks and trains heading north. Others still had been hurt in knife fights. The Jungle could be vicious. Age-old disputes had been carried across continents and grudges could be settled outside Calais with a knife.

Only recently did they have access to a stand-pipe. Each day they trekked across railway tracks to a warehouse near the waterfront to be handed out food.

Among the migrants were young men, some clearly under the age of 16; child-travellers vulnerable to bullying and sexual abuse. Some of their families had saved money to send these teenagers across time-zones seemingly unaware of the risks. Some charity workers were incensed at the failure to provide shelter to these young migrants.

Often there was hostility to the media, particularly television. I did not find this so much with the migrants themselves. They were curious to know about Britain. They were surprised to find I had sometimes visited their home towns like Kandahar or Ghazni. Many were full of hope but suddenly they would break off a conversation. They had seen someone, usually a gang leader or trafficker who feared the presence of reporters.

I often asked them why they wanted to come to Britain. Many regarded the UK as Eldorado. Indeed some relief agencies had tried disabusing them of the British dream. It made no difference. For a key reason for heading to England was that there were established communities already there: Afghans, Somalis, Kurds etc. And that is where they would find work, in the black economy, amongst people who spoke their language and knew their traditions.

Many needed the money to pay off the traffickers who had helped them make the journey. If they failed to find the funds their families back home could be threatened.

And lastly they believed that if they reached the UK they would never be sent home. Most knew, in great detail, how the lawyers could stretch out appeals over years. The French authorities felt the British did not do enough to deter migrants making the journeys.

The tearing down of the Jungle was much advertised and many of the migrants will lie low only to re-emerge later. This latest action can only be a gesture. The EU policy of people claiming asylum at the point of entry into the EU is not working and remains a huge challenge to European countries.

The capital of Europe?

Gavin Hewitt | 09:55 UK time, Tuesday, 22 September 2009

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BRUSSELS: A city that divides. My predecessor had a soft spot for it; others before him could not wait to shake it off, like some minor complaint.

Other colleagues have spoken fondly of three years hanging out with an international crowd, as if on some vast ski slope, where almost everyone is visiting.

Yet, in my first days in Brussels, a magazine admitted that for many the city was "an assignment to be endured".

And I have detected those differences in the reactions to my appointment. Some have seemed genuinely excited on my behalf at the prospect of covering Europe with its variety of stories and intrigues. For others, the very dateline "Brussels" is a stain that can damage a career.

I have, of course, been to Brussels before - but this time, I looked at it with different eyes. Arriving in what they call the European Quarter, you feel you've entered a vast civil service encampment. A bureaucracy spread among 60 buildings - 30,000 bureaucrats, 10,000 lobbyists and several thousand interpreters. There are more ambassadors here, apparently, than there are in Washington DC. All feeding off the deluge of directives and regulations.

The skyline of central Brussels, Belgium, looking north-west across the city. The tower of the Hotel de Ville can be seen in the middle distance, and behind it on the horizon is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Koekelberg Basilica), the fifth largest church in the world. 23/04/2006

I had expected that the Belgians would unreservedly welcome this army, with its recession-proof spending power. Most probably do but here, too, I detected different views.

On my second day in the city, a taxi driver was taking me down Rue Archimede when he exploded with a loud scoff. He pointed at a board outside a restaurant. Several moules dishes were advertised for 25 euros (£22.50). The price outraged him. He assured me that if we crossed the French border we could get moules for nine euros. Lurking behind his observation was a resentment at what he referred to as an elite, immune from the recession. "It's the price we pay for being the 'Capital of Europe'," he said with a weary shrug.

European Flags flutter at the entrance of the European Commission's Berlaymont building at the EU headquarters in BrusselsTherein lies part of an enigma. Brussels may sometimes act like the capital of Europe, but of course it is not. Yet diplomats swarm here and the European Union has its founding fathers. Buildings and streets are named after them: Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gaspiri, Paul-Henri Spaak: names that almost certainly would draw a blank in most British bars. As far as I know, these statesmen have not left behind great rhetoric or writings and yet they set in train - whatever your standpoint - a vast spreading of democracy.

For all that, as I set out as Europe editor, I detect uncertainty. Last year, I covered the Obama campaign. It was marked by its confidence and boldness - by the overpowering sense of the tide of history changing. The sense of purpose in Europe, at first sight, seems less clear.

You feel it in the anxious and oft-repeated enquiry "You do like Brussels?" which I can't ever remember being asked in Washington. No-one any longer speaks of any grand project that might excite and inspire. There is a feeling that, during the recession, Europe did not act from a common position. Nations, as they always have, sought their own solutions. I detect it in the reaction to the small turnout at the European elections. Enthusiasm for enlarging the European Union seems tepid at best.

Shortly, I will travel to Ireland for its referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. There is palpable anxiety in Brussels that the people, given the chance to express an opinion, might reject it again.

So for me it feels an intriguing time to be in Europe. The EU is on the edge of change. It faces vast challenges. How to connect its institutions with the people of 27 countries? The migrants that wait at its doors. A spluttering economy. The young, restless without work. The threat of climate change. The race to save fish stocks. The fragility of energy supplies.

All rich territory for any journalist.

And I hope, once the assignment is done, to find my own answer to the question "What is a European?"

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