We’re back for another edition of our weekly TL:DR summary and analysis of EU and German politics, and we’re glad to have you with us again. This week’s stories include a look at the situation for abortions across different European countries, one man who seized the moment to mend frayed German-Ukrainian relations, and Macron’s upcoming challenges (beyond renaming his party yet again…). Once again, we’re also thrilled to have Dr. Steven E. Sokol as a guest, reminding us that politics move much slower than in the movies, and Anna gives a refreshingly blunt take on a particularly contentious open letter about the war in Ukraine. Happy reading and happy weekend!
FIRST, SOME SOLID INTEL:
Abortion Rights in Europe: Really a Liberal Bastion?
This week has been an emotional whirlwind after the Supreme Court leak, also here in Europe. Reading a lot of the private- and media reactions, many pro-choice individuals held up Europe as a shining example of progressiveness, a bastion of women’s rights and liberal (in the American sense of the word) thinking. But is it really like that?
On a supranational meta-level level, Europe is generally pro-choice. For example, last Summer the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution that proclaimed the safe access to abortion as a human right. Some conservative politicians disagreed, but ultimately the vote was not a close one. However, the power really lies with the Member States.
Let’s start with the image of Europe that most outsiders have come to expect: 75 percent of Swedes support the right to abort a pregnancy, in France you can terminate a pregnancy at home after an online consultation, and Denmark allows abortions even after the first trimester for socioeconomic reasons (among others). Heading down the sliding scale of progressiveness: countries like Belgium, Italy, and Slovakia have mandatory waiting periods in place between a consultation and the procedure, meant to let the gravity of the decision sink in for anywhere between two and seven days. Poland, meanwhile, is an incredibly interesting case: the first country in Europe to legalize abortions in 1932 in cases when health and life are at risk, those remain the only instances in which a termination of pregnancy is legal. Two more examples: currently in Hungary, funding for hospitals is tied to the contingency that they do not perform abortions, and in Malta abortions are outlawed in all cases. So, to answer the question of whether Europe really is the pro-choice Mecca media reporting would have you believe: it really depends on who (and where) you ask.
Back to Diplomacy Again
For quite a few weeks there was an awkward silence between Berlin and Kyiv. After the Ukrainian government decided that German Federal President Steinmeier was not a welcome guest, diplomatic relations were difficult. Chancellor Scholz (SPD) didn’t visit Zelenskyy as he chose to show solidary with our Federal President. The Ukrainian ambassador in Germany, Andriy Melnyk, added fuel to the flames several times, as when he for instance called Chancellor Scholz an “offended liverwurst” (German idiom, loosely transl. “being a primadonna”). This week then, we were witnesses of an unprecedented change of events.
Friedrich Merz, CDU chair and opposition leader in parliament and one of the biggest critics of Scholz’s course in the whole crisis, flew to Kyiv. And then he solved EVERYTHING in one conversation. At least, he likes this version of the story. What is certainly true: Merz was scheduled to have a talk with Zelenskyy’s chief of staff. At the end, the President himself showed up and had an hour-long conversation with Merz and his delegation. The office of Germany’s President Steinmeier meanwhile confirmed that it was Merz who urged Zelenskyy to settle his conflict with Steinmeier. And a day later: call between Zelenskyy and Steinmeier with the result that all is well now. If true, this would be a big coup for Merz. Often partly criticized for using the crisis for partisan conflicts with the governing SPD, he now proved to be a real statesman. And in doing so he became theme of some great memes. Like when he met with the Klitschko brothers who are famous in Germany less for the political engagement in Ukraine but mainly because of their great boxing careers and the fact that they speak German even though they are not Germans (rock-solid way to become famous in Germany, trust us). See here (text saying: “Which one of them was Vitaly again?”)
France in Flux
Amidst one of the most contentious election cycles in recent French history, President Macron has gone ahead and renamed his party – again. „Renaissance“ is supposed to convey an image of freshness to a president who, despite a comfortable victory against the far-right candidate in the April run-offs, faces growing popular discontent and an uphill battle to win the upcoming parliamentary elections in June. And while preaching „enlightenment“ values sounds great when you’re up against the xenophobic Marine Le Pen, Macron’s newest challenger is the idol of the French left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The head of „France Unbowed“ is a weird mix of far-left economic policy, radical Euroscepticism and a good old-fashioned dose of Germanophobia – he famously told Angela Merkel to „shut her trap“ (Maul zu) on Twitter (in German, no less…). Leaving aside which of these positions it is that makes him popular in France, Mélenchon did extremely well in the first-round presidentials and this week announced an electoral pact with other left-wing parties for the upcoming parliamentary elections. His humble ambition is the prime ministership.
Meanwhile, Macron’s „Renaissance“ has linked arms with the centrist „MoDem“ and the center-right „Horizons“ led by Édouard Philippe, Macron’s former Prime Minister supposedly fired for his popularity (classy). On the far right, Le Pen is struggling to forge an electoral alliance and faces structural disadvantages which have so far prevented significant inroads into France’s National Assembly (her party got a mere 8 out of 577 seats in the last elections). This makes Mélenchon the most interesting player to watch in the coming weeks, even if France’s notoriously complicated voting system (triangulaires and quadrangulaires, enough said) makes predictions pretty much impossible. Finally, to paraphrase Barrack Obama, don’t underestimate the left’s ability to f*** things up: The much-hyped Socialist Party candidate won a whopping 1,75 percent just a few weeks back.
TAKE A BREAK, GIVE YOUR EYES A REST.
THE HOUSE’S VIEW
“German Politics is not a Netflix Series”
I keep telling my teenage daughter to remember that real life is not like a television series. For one thing, on TV everything is exaggerated and things happen much more quickly on the screen than they do in real life.
As an outside observer watching the domestic and international churn over Germany’s response to the war in Ukraine, one could almost assume that some people believe that policies that are announced one day will be implemented the next. Unlike the developments in a TV series, some things take time.
By Way of Background…
When the Ampelkoalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) came into government many expected some policy shifts after 16 years of government led by Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), but most believed that the new government would not introduce ground-breaking changes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed that.
Just over two months ago – on February 27, days after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine – Scholz gave his Zeitenwende speech before a special session of the Bundestag. The content, substance, and passion of his remarks surprised many people – including in his government and his own party. In the weeks since, Scholz has not been as visible. He has been accused of waffling at a time when leadership and consistency are required. But, earlier this week he once again showed his passion at a May Day event when he defended his position to party members and trade unionists who called him a “warmonger” and expressed concern that the massive increase in defense spending would come at the cost of social projects. Scholz also showed substance when grilled by journalists on ZDF’s “Was Nun, Herr Scholz?” on Monday evening.
The war in Ukraine has created an opportunity for Germany to step up in foreign affairs and security policy and also rethink its energy dependence. Scholz has been deliberate (and some would say slow) in making decisions – but from what I hear the government is truly committed to following through on those decisions. So, don’t be so hasty. Give Berlin a chance.
Let’s not forget what has already happened…
The German government has said that it is committed to supplying weapons to Kyiv to help the Ukrainians defend themselves. One might have hoped that this would have happened sooner (I certainly did), but Scholz has broken with a decades old policy and Germany is now supplying weapons to a conflict zone. This is a big deal for a country that has been known as being pacifist. A recent poll indicated that more than 70 percent of Greens believe Germany should deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine. (Followed by 66 percent of Social Democrats, 65 percent of Free Democrats, and 63 percent of Christian Democrats.) This highlights a significant shift in public opinion in a very short period of time – and indicates that the majority of the population is behind Scholz’s decision to support Ukraine with military hardware.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Green) said it is easy to make promises – and generate newspaper headlines – but the important thing is to ensure that the weapons arrive where they are supposed to. With the commitment of weapons Germany is coordinating with its international partners to make sure they are in sync. There are legitimate security reasons for not revealing exactly what is being supplied to Ukraine or when and how it is being supplied. Afterall, there’s a war on.
In his speech, Scholz said that Germany would immediately invest billions in the Bundeswehr to improve Germany’s defense capabilities and permanently increase the annual defense budget to at least two percent of GDP. This is a massive commitment.
Germany is bolstering NATO’s eastern flank by actively contributing to Baltic air policing and by positioning ships in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas.
Tensions with Russia over Ukraine have sparked a wider debate over Germany’s energy dependence on Russia. Suddenly there is recognition that energy policy is security policy. Even before his February 27 speech, Scholz put an end to Nord Stream 2 by stating it would not go online. The German government has authorized the construction of two liquefied-natural-gas terminals and announced other measures to reduce the country’s dependency on Russian gas. After decades of relying on Russia, it is hard to go cold turkey, but Germany is rapidly reducing its dependence on Russia: imports of Russian oil are down from around 35 percent to 12 percent; imports of Russian gas are down from 55 percent to 35 percent; and imports of Russian coal are down from 50 percent to 8 percent. These reductions are huge in such a short period of time. As the EU maps out a sixth sanctions package against Russia, Germany is now pushing for an embargo on Russian oil.
Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Green) even had his ministry conduct an assessment of whether extending the life of nuclear power plants that are scheduled to go off-line this year is feasible. In the months ahead, Germany’s energy policy will become even more of a priority. The current energy conundrum might cause short-term pain but actually lead to better longer-term success at achieving Germany’s climate goals.
The Guest House View
Despite the cacophony of voices, we’re not seeing ideology driving the new German government. We’re seeing pragmatism and an attempt to find creative solutions. Germany is resolute in its commitment to do as much as it can to support Ukraine – short of instigating direct conflict between Russia and NATO. But, Germany is part of an alliance and must coordinate with its partners.
Olaf Scholz has set Germany on a new course. Watching the back and forth over Germany’s foreign and security policy pivot – and whether it is here to stay – is a reminder that German politics is not like a Netflix series. Some things take time. And, we don’t have much. Ukraine has even less. So, let’s hope Germany continues on the path Scholz has set – but does not take too much time.
LONG STORY SHORT:
- Election Reform on the Horizon: This week the European Parliament voted in favor of revamping European elections. The changes suggested would allow for pan-European candidates (currently candidates are linked to Member States) and link who becomes Commission president to the European vote. Nothing’s final yet though.
- Speaking the Common Tongue: In the past few weeks, there’s been a significant amount of fake news circulating about the war in Ukraine. Particularly in China. The EU has taken it upon itself to debunk some of these claims through its Disinformation Task Force, EUvsDisinfo – in Chinese. This was a first attempt at directly countering Chinese propaganda.
- Johnson’s Conservatives Punished in UK Local Elections: According to projections, the ruling Conservative Party has suffered considerable losses in Thursday’s nationwide elections for all London Borough Councils as well as the local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland. Defeat in long-held Tory seats indicates growing frustration with the Johnson government following multiple scandals regarding cabinet misbehavior during the Covid lockdowns (aka “Partygate”). It’s still too soon to say whether this will impact Boris Johnson’s standing as Prime Minister and party leader, and whether the opposition Labour Party will benefit.
WHAT’S ON OUR MINDS
A FAILED ATTEMPT OF REDEFINING PACIFISM
Many complain, and imho rightly so, about a seemingly reluctant German government, a certainly slow administrative machinery and a somewhat burdensome bureaucracy when it comes to military support for Ukraine.
But there is another complaint being raised (not by many, but it does not make it any less appalling): Under the disguise of pacifism, the absurd assertion that military support and supply of (heavy) weaponry to Ukraine would prolong the war, cost more lives, and bring more pain to everyone involved.
An open letter, published by some well-known public figures, warns of giving the aggressor a reason for even more atrocious deeds. It is a very “interesting” definition of pacifism, to stand by and refuse to help someone being beaten up or raped, and to suggest succumbing to the criminal. To follow the letter’s argumentation, this way it will be over faster.
What they don’t realize, is that an “end” to a war where Ukraine is left under Russian control is not an end to this war. While the bombings may cease, the war will not be over for the people living under a fascist Russian regime, with repression, state violence, and a constant fear of repercussions.
This line of thinking is so absurd to me that I refuse to believe anyone, even the signatories of the open letter, would actually think this way. The only explanation to me is a pathetic try to hide their real motive: Either they have a reluctance to sacrifice their comfortable lives out of laziness or the unwillingness to be part of this conflict out of fear. Admitting to that would be honest at least. But this takes guts. Just like helping those being attacked.