New ICE-Line and ICE City Erfurt Opens

ICE-T train stopping at Erfurt Central Station. Photo taken in March 2017

New High-Speed Line Opens after 25 Years of Planning and Construction. Erfurt and Leipzig to become ICE Cities. 80 ICE trains expected in Erfurt daily.

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BERLIN/ MUNICH/LEIPZIG/ERFURT/COBURG/JENA- It took the signing of former (now late) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s signature to allow for the project to begin- 25 years ago. That in itself was as historic as US President Dwight D. Eisenhowers signature in 1956 to launch the US Interstate Highway System. It took 25 years, from the time of its signature until the time of its completion, costing over 12 billion Euros, and resulting in 37 bridges- including the 8.6 kilometer long Elster-Saale Viaduct near Halle (the longest in Germany)- two dozen tunnels and the complete makeover of five different stations- the main ones of which are in Erfurt and Leipzig.

And now, Frankenstein has come to life!  🙂 The new ICE line between Berlin and Munich has opened. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Richard Lutz (CEO of the Deutsche Bahn), German Transportation Minister Christian Schmidt as well as the primeministers of the states of Bavaria, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia plus many celebrities were on hand to open the ICE-Line as a pair of ICE-3 trains passed through the new stops of Nuremberg, Erfurt, and Leipzig-Halle as they started from Munich and ended in Berlin. The ceremony happened today with the grand ceremony taking place at Berlin Central Station.

With that new line, not only will the cities of Leipzig and Halle will profit from the long-distance trains stopping there on a daily basis, but also the ICE City Erfurt in central Thuringia, where as many as 80 ICE-trains will stop to board people on a daily basis travelling on the N-S axis between Berlin and Munich via Nuremberg, as well as between Dresden and Frankfurt via Leipzig on the W-E axis.  Along the N-S axis, one can travel between the German and Bavarian capitals in just over four hours, two less than its current travel. Between Dresden and Frankfurt, it is expected that trains passing through Erfurt will need only three hours instead of the normal five.  Planned is the new ICE-Sprinter connecting Berlin with Munich with a stop only in Erfurt. That stretch will take only under four hours.  Another is planned for Halle-Munich and Nuremberg-Berlin, each of which will take less than three hours.

Prior to the opening of the new ICE line, a person needed over six hours along the line that went through Naumburg, Jena, Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Bamberg. That line will be relegated to Regio-trains which will be a total inconvenience to people living in Jena and points to the east. With that will mark the end of long-distance service for the first time in over 115 years. The state of Thuringia is working with the Deutsche Bahn to provide better access, which includes a new long-distance InterCity station in Jena to be opened in 2024.  (More on that here).  The ICE line will mean more development for Erfurt, as the ICE-City plans to build a new convention center and series of hotels and restaurants around the station to better accommodate customers and visitors to Erfurt.

ICE-4. Photo by Martin Lechler

The new line will mark the debut of the newest ICE train, the ICE 4, which will travel alongside the ICE 3 from Munich to Berlin. The ICE-T will continue to serve between Dresden and Leipzig (for more on the train types, click here).  At the same time, the older two models will be phased out bit-by-bit after having travelled tens of thousands of kilometers for over 25 years. The newest models can travel over 300 km/h and has compartments for bikes, available upon reservation.

While the new line, scheduled to be part of the train plan come 10 December, will compete with the airlines and automobile in terms of travel time, there is a catch that many people do not like: From Berlin to Munich, one will have to pay at least 125 Euros one-way, 40 Euros more than with the present route. Despite having more Regio-trains providing access to Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle from Jena and elsewhere, it will become an inconvenience when it comes to changing trains and having to rush to the nearest ICE train with very little time left.

Still it is up to the Bahn to decide how to adjust to the situation as it plans to allow for time for people to adjust and get used to the new line. After a year or so, it will make some adjustments to better serve customers who are out of reach of the new line. By then, one will find out whether the billions spent on this project was worth its salt.

Video on the VDE8 Project- the ICE Line Berlin-Erfurt-Munich:

And a map of the new line:

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Jena Says Adé to the ICE Train

Photo courtesy of Bahn Ansage

The last ICE high speed train leaves Jena at 9:00pm on December 9th. Regio-Trains to pass through after December 10th. Future of Long-Distance Train Service Questionable.

JENA, GERMANY-  It has been in the making for over 25 years, the same time as the introduction of the ICE Train along the Saale River Rail Line through Jena, Saalfeld and Lichtenfels connecting Munich and Berlin. Come December 10th, the new ICE Line connecting Erfurt with Bamberg will be open to traffic, and thus the completion of the multi-billion Euro project which features high-speed trains going up to 350 km/hrs. from Berlin to Munich via Leipzig, Erfurt and Coburg.

And with that, a bitter farewell to the service going through Jena. Despite protests and events designed to convince the Deutsche Bahn (DB) Rail Service to continue with the train service once the new ICE-line opens, the train service provider has decided to pull the plug on long-distance train services, which provided passengers with service to both major cities without having to change trains.

From December 2017 onwards, only regional trains will be passing through Jena on both the N-S and W-E axes, thus providing longer travel times to the nearest train stations that serve ICE-trains. To provide a pair of examples: With Regio-Service to Leipzig, it takes up to 90 minutes due to stops at every single station. With the ICE-train, it would have taken less than an hour. Going to Nuremberg, one needs three hours with the ICE. With Regio, it would be an additional two hours. Even if one takes a Regio-train to Erfurt to catch the ICE-train, one needs a half hour just to get to Erfurt.  Reports have indicated that Jena will get the worst end of the bargain in the history of the city’s rail lines and some have compared the service to that of 80 years ago.

IC trains to debut in Jena come 2019

But there is a silver lining to the deal. DB has not completely abandoned long-distance train services, and the state government under Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow is stepping in to provide support for the people in Jena affected by the new ICE rail line. There will be one ICE-train going to Berlin, which leaves at 5:30am every weekday morning and arriving back in Jena at 9:30pm. An Inter-City (IC) train connecting Leipzig with Karlsruhe will pass through Jena on a daily basis, but mainly in the afternoon. Come 2019, InterCity trains will pass through Jena, on the W-E axis, providing service to Gera (east) and Cologne via Erfurt and Kassel (west). This will be a first since 2002, the last time an IC train has passed through. By 2023, it is planned that IC-trains will pass through Jena on a two-hour basis going on the N-S axis between Leipzig and Karlsruhe.  Yet this will not be enough to soften the blow of residents who had been used to travelling with long-distance trains from Jena and need better services.

This is where Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow stepped in, during a conference in Jena on 29 November. The state will provide over 33.9 million Euros between the end of 2018 and 2024 for long-distance trains connecting Jena and Leipzig to ensure that passengers can reach their destinations faster than what is expected. In addition to that, a brand new Central Station in Jena is being planned in the southern suburb of Burgau, where all trains can stop for passengers. Alone with the second proposal came a massive amount of criticism from opponents who claim that with six train stations in Jena it was not necessary to construct another train station. Furthermore, Jena has a long-distance train station in Jena-Paradies, which was built in 2003. Work is already in the making to convert another station, Jena-Göschwitz, into a long-distance train station. Already the train station building is being renovated so that people can wait inside or pick up their food. In addition, the platforms are being rebuilt to include elevators and other handicap-accesses.

Older version of the IC, most of which are owned by Locomore

With the Bahn not committed to long-distance trains along the N-S axis before 2023 and the small number of IC-trains passing through on the W-E axis daily (three in each direction), all using the stops currently used by Regio-Express trains, Ramelow will have to look at private train providers to fulfill the promises of the residents of having long-distance trains between the end of 2018 and 2024. Already on the radar include Locomore, which is owned by Czech provider Leo Express and German bus provider Flixbus. Despite having gone through bankruptcy last year, train services are being reintroduced for lines connecting Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin, competing with DB’s long distance lines in terms of pricing and services. It is very likely that Locomore could take over the former ICE line between Bamberg and Leipzig, thus providing residents in Jena and neighboring Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Naumburg rail service until 2024.

Also in the running is Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn (MRB), which has expanded services in Saxony and could even reintroduce the Inter-Regio train connecting Leipzig with Jena, with an option of going to Bamberg. The Inter-Regio was last used in 2002 and functions as an Inter-City train with a snack bar and compartments for bikes.  Unlike the IC, college students could use the train with their student ticket, which is a big plus. Currently one Regio-Express line serves the Nuremberg-Hof-Chemnitz-Dresden Magistrate, starting in Hof.

Then there is the ALEX Rail, which serves lines connecting Munich with Landau, as well as Regensburg and Hof, mostly operated using diesel trains. If extended from Nuremberg to Leipzig it would provide passengers with direct service to Nuremberg and could thus switch onto the ICE-train to Munich, Frankfurt (via Wurzburg) or Vienna.

All options are currently open, but one variable is certain, due to the adjustment period with the new ICE-line, especially with regards to the pricing and the train access, as well as construction along the N-S axis both south and north of Jena and the planned electrification of the line along the W-E axis which will connect Weimar and Jena first before heading eastward towards Gera and Glauchau, residents of Jena and areas along the N-S axis will have to face the inevitable: the DB is committed to Regio-services in the short and middle terms. Already planned is more Regio trains connecting Jena with Erfurt as well as Jena with Halle(Saale) to provide more access to the ICE-stations. In addition, Erfurt Bahn is seeking to extend its Peppermint Line to Jena, enroute to Possneck via Orlamünde. Currently, the line connects Sommerda (north of Erfurt) with Grossheringen (near Naumburg). Should the plan to realize long-distance train services be in the cards, chances are most likely Jena will have to face prospects of either hand-me-down ICs from DB or Locomores in order to accommodate services.

And this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many who are reliant on the train services. Instead of dealing with multiple train changes and delays while waiting at small train stations with little or no services, many are thinking of investing in a set of wheels and calculating traffic jams on Germany’s Autobahn. Given Jena’s proximity to two of the busiest Autobahns (M9 between Berlin and Munich and M4 between Cologne and Dresden), this would make sense and would even fulfil the prediction once made by OTZ Newspaper Columnist Tino Zippel: In the end, DB will have invested billions for the new ICE-rail line……. and for the automobile.

On the map below, you can see the illustrations based on the information in the article.

 

Jena has six rail stations on both axes. On the N-S we have Jena-Zwätzen, Jena Saalbahnhof and Jena Paradies, the last being the ICE stop. On the W-E, we have Jena-West and Neue Schenke. Both lines cross at Jena-Göschwitz, which is currently being remodeled to become the new Jena Central Station, where all long-distance trains are scheduled to stop. Each station is heavily connected by city bus and street car services, which stops an average of every 10 minutes on a daily basis; 20 minutes on weekends.

 

A farewell ceremony to the ICE-train is scheduled for 9 December beginning at 7:00pm. A flashmob similar to people saying farewell to AirBerlin (when it ceased operations in October) will take place at 9:00pm, when the last ICE stops in Jena Paradies. Details here.

For information on the new train schedule, especially for those wishing to visit Jena can be found via DB here.

Panoramic view of Jena Paradies ICE Station. Built in 2003, this station will soon lose its ICE-stop after 9 December. Photo taken by Michael Sander

2017 Christmas Market Tour: Preview

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The huts are open. The mulled wine is flowing into the cups. Seasons greetings are being sung in front of Christmas trees. And new local goods are being introduced to tourists and regular visitors. This means the Christmas markets in Germany are officially open. And for yours truly, this means I will be on the road, profiling the best and finest of Christmas markets in Germany.  🙂

This year’s Christmas market tour is very unique for its main focus is on history and tradition. History because of the interest in typical holiday traditions in the past in comparison with the future. And tradition because of the interest in comparing the family traditions in the past and present. We know that the Christmas markets originated from eastern Germany and most of the popular figures- the Christmas Pyramid, the Lighted Christmas Arch and the incense people were mostly made in the Ore and Fichtel Mountain regions in Saxony and Bavaria. But while we know our Christmas markets based on the ones from the western half of Germany, which includes Nuremberg and Munich, plus the Christmas traditions, which are typical in the same region, we don’t know much about the history of the ones in the eastern half, which had been under Communist rule until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunited a year later.  We know that Christmas was more or less not focused on Christianity per se because of the government’s crack down on religion. We also know that despite having wooden products made in the Ore Mountains be sold in markets in the western part but not to the people in the region. However, what makes Christmas in the former East Germany unique from the ones we’re accustomed to?

We can start with a pair of commercials that were produced during that period and focused on Christmas and shopping. The questions we have are the following:

  1. What is meant by Konsum in general and how was it used here? Was it a store or propaganda?
  2. What were the themes behind these commercials?
  3. What gifts were common during that time?
  4. How do you perceive the commercials in comparison to the ones accustomed to from an outsider’s perspective?

Have a look at the two examples:

 

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A lot of themes were picked up during my last tour in Saxony, in places like Glauchau, Zwickau, Chemnitz, Leipzig and even Freiberg, which leads to the decision to find out more about Christmas during the Communist era. This includes items like Christmas songs, food, incense men, and other items. Therefore, this year’s tour will take us deep in the heart of the Ore Mountains in hopes to find out exactly how Christmas was celebrated before 1989 and what traditions from the past are still alive today.

Many of these factors will be integrated into the markets I visit, yet there are some factors that will be produced in separate articles, whether it is in a form of interviews, short summaries, video examples or other genres. The bottom line is to compare the tradition of eastern Germany to that of the western counterpart and allow ourselves to decide which tradition was better.

So sit back, relax and havge a look at my tour and findings that will help you (re)define the meaning of Christmas. 🙂

Stay tuned! 🙂

Note: Public Radio Station MDR is also doing coverage on Christmas in Eastern Germany, picking up from a few years ago with their podcasts. Click here for previous broadcasts and stay tuned for news coverage that will come beginning December 1st and will be added here.

 

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End of the Line: Angela Merkel

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Twelve years ago, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, faced with growing pressure from the opposition and within his own perty, especially his party the Social Democrats lost one state after another in the state elections, initiated a vote of confidence to determine whether he has the support to continuing governing the country with the Greens or if he should hold new elections. After three years of power during his second five-year term, he was considered an obstructionist, and many voters were dissatisfied with his governing of Germany. He failed and was forced to hold elections which he eventually lost to the current governing leader, Angela Merkel and her party, the CDU.

Fast forwarding to the present, it appears that Lady Chancellor’s days are about to end, and very quickly. After her party lost over 150,000 votes (or 8.6 percent) in the September elections- many going to the Free Liberals (FDP) and the right-winged Alternative for Germany (AfD), she faced the second strike on November 19th, when talks to form the Jamaica coalition- featuring the FDP and the Greens- failed  after Christian Lindner, head of the FDP, walked out of the talks in Berlin and reinterated this comment:

“It’s better to not govern than to govern wrongly.”

With this, the Federal Republic of Germany is in the worst crisis since 1982, when the vote of no confidence was initiated against Helmut Schmidt, which formed the coalition of CDU and FDP and vaulted Helmut Kohl into the governing seat as chancellor, and thus ruled for an unprecedented 16 years, thus breaking Konrad Adenauer’s record for the longest regime in modern German history.

Given the current situation with Merkel, the family of the late chancellor Kohl can now rest easily. His record will remain untouched.

Merkel is running parallel to British Prime Minister Teresa May. The lady with the iron fist is getting rusty. Merkel is 63 years old and despite her successes during her years as chancellor, she is facing increasing opposition from not only within members of the Bundesparliament and Bundestag, but also among the voters. Like May, Merkel ran the platform in the federal elections as if she was unphased by the attacks made by the candidates, most notably from Martin Schulz from the SPD and Frauke Petry of the AfD. However the results of the elections revealed that Merkel has lost touch on many of the issues affecting Germany, and to a larger extent, Europe and the rest of the world. This includes issues involving refugees, the environment, lack of funding for infrastructure, education and other domestic issues, and most recently lack of unity among Germany’s neighbors, even though her relationship with the US is on the rocks because of actions by the President (Trump), not Merkel herself.

With the Jamaica coalition finally dead, and despite pleas by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to concentrate more on building a government and take responsibility for the voters, the writing is now on the walls of Brandenburg Gate: We must redo the elections again.  This may be a dangerous  choice, as the AfD will surely gain more votes and even have a chance to win the elections. This is why Alexander Gauland and Alice Weigel have celebrated the failure of the Jamaica and even have called for Merkel to step down. However, with the polls showing almost two thirds of the population favoring new elections, this may be inevitable.  Adding insult to injury is the SPD’s constant refusal to create a Grand Coalition with the CDU, claiming they feel like a back-up plan to Merkel should she and her party be caught in a “Schlammasse.”

Both Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles have stated that new elections are acceptable especially for voters.   The same echo applies from the Left, and even the Greens find the new elections as the best alternative.

While Merkel has the option of ruling with a minority- together with the Greens- the chances of her winning that, let alone ruling with a minority successfully are very slim, bordering on the nil scale, especially as she would have a larger opposition as she would have had had the Jamaica been formed. And with growing dissatisfaction as to how to handle the delicate issues, it makes a person wonder if age is already catching up to her and her rule of power combined with her lack of flexibility on these issues makes her an obstructionist and a hindrance to the success of the CDU and its relationship with the sister party, the CSU. It is a well-known fact that the average age of the politicians in the two parties is between 56 and 58 years, with some even in their late 60s. Yet, as one can see with Saxony’s prime minister Stanislav Tillich’s planned resignation in December and the hand-over to Michael Kretschmer, a 42-year old, there are enough younger politicians ready to take over the reigns of the party and make better, more efficient decisions than the older generations.

So let’s look at the scenario very carefully:

Merkel wins the chancellorship through direct elections presented by President Steinmeier but would rule with a minority government.  Her only chance to get a majority is with a coalition with the SPD (and possibly Greens), which Schulz and Nahles both refuse.

She calls for new elections, which takes place in Spring 2018, but not after having a very intensive and sometimes violent campaign, especially the latter from members of the AfD. The votes come in and how would this fare out?

The AfD has a real chance to win the elections but if and only if with an absolute majority (at least 45% of the votes) for it would fail to govern without a partner otherwise. None of the other parties will join.

The CDU wins but with an absolute majority as well, as it cannot partner with other parties except maybe the Greens.

The SPD may have a real shot of winning and forming a Red-Red-Green coalition with the Left and Greens. This could be Martin Schulz’s lucky day especially with a younger group of politicians from each party.

The results could be the same on the second go-round and then the parties would need to rethink their mandates and policies, conceding many to form a universal coalition (everybody but the AfD).

 

But in order to have any chance of a stable government to rule Germany for the next five years, one thing is certain: It must be done by the younger generations as they are more universalists and aware of the issues than the older ones. These are the ones who were taught to listen- and they have listened to the needs of the people.  There is no need to shake up the establishment in Berlin (and the EU in Brussels). There just needs to be a new leader to take Germany to the next level.

Angela Merkel has done her part. It is now time for her to step aside and let others take over; people who are younger and brighter and have better ways of repelling the xenophobes and greeds of the world.  Only then will not only the CDU and CSU but also the other parties have a chance to become successful in the long term.

So for now Ms. Merkel, it has been a pleasure. Happy Retirement and Thank You for your service for Germany, Europe and the rest of the world. 🙂

Facts about  the minority and reelection process can be found here.  Information on the failure of the Jamaica coalition and the consequences can be found via ARD here

 

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Move over or fork it over! New laws for Rettungsgassen on German highways

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An example of a Rettungsgasse on Motorway 659 as an Ambulance makes way toward the accident scene. Photo taken by LosHawlos for wikicommons

New Fines plus Points in Flensburg and Driving Ban to be enforced for blocking emergency lane on German highways. Even for driving and using E-devices. 

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BERLIN/FLENSBURG-  Many people travelling in Germany probably don’t know the term Rettungsgasse, especially if they hear this word on the radio while listening to the traffic report and at the same time, travelling to their destination. A Rettungsgasse is an emergency lane that is created by travellers on German highways, so that police, rescue crews and paramedics can travel to the scene of the accident as quickly as possible. This emergency lane is created when an accident occurs, causing traffic on the highway to come to a halt. While this practice is used mostly on motorways (Autobahn), expressways (Schnellstrasse) and other roads that have multiple lanes, many people don’t know how to create one. An illustration below provides you with some steps on how to create one (hint: Spur is German for lane)

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Image courtesy of Inga Jablonsky

To sum up, drivers are to move off to the side as far as possible to allow passage and save the lives of those affected by an accident.

Yet many drivers are unaware of the fact that when there is a jam on the highway and cars in front of them and crews travelling with blue lights and a Martin horn, that they should move off to the side and let them pass. For a Martin horn, it sounds like this:

In some cases, drivers have blocked Rettungsgassen on the highways, thus hindering crews from going to the scene.

Some of whom, as seen in the video above, have used Smartphones and mobile phones to photograph or even film the scene of the accident.

Effective immediately, it will cost drivers doing one of the two or both more than just money. The German Ministry of Transportation and Digital Infrastructure (BMVDI) has passed a pair of much stricter laws involving both traffic violations.  For blocking the Rettungsgasse and not paying attention to the sirens of the police and rescue crews, one can expect a fine of at least 200 Euros and two points will be added to the driver’s record at the Office of Vehicle Registration in Flensburg. According to the laws in Flensburg passed in 2014, eight or more points means revokation of the driver’s license and possibly retraining on how to drive at the expense of the offender.

In this case, being a spectator, texting while not paying attention or just intentionally blocking the emergency lane will be very costly.  Not building a Rettungsgasse constitutes a fine of 200 Euros plus two Flensburg points. Not building this important lane when the crews go to the scene means 240 Euros, two points and a one month ban from driving.  Blocking the lane while causing damage and endangering lives means a fine of 320 Euros, two or more Flensburg Points, driving ban PLUS confiscation of the vehicle and other items as evidence to be used in court AND possible prosecution!

If you use your electronic device, regardless of whether you are driving or in a traffic jam and/or forming a Rettungsgasse, you can expect a 100 Euro fine and a Flensburg point. Endangering others constitute 150 Euros and two points. Causing damage means 200 Euros, two points and a one month driving ban!

For both offences, the sanctions have increased by more than two-fold as there have been more and more reports of drivers blocking the Rettungsgasse both intentionally as well as unintentionally, many of whom had been either texting or using devices to film accidents. Even doing the latter alone has caused numerous accidents and fatalities in general. According to studies by the Center for Disease Control, an average of nine people die every day from accidents caused by distracted driving, over 1000 are injured.

But the sharp increase in fines and sanctions for blocking the Rettungsgasse comes as officials are cracking down on drivers who do not create these lanes during traffic jams, even if no accidents are reported; most of the traffic jams occur on heavily travelled motorways in the western half of Germany as well as in large cities. This includes the Motorways 3, 6, 7, and 9, as well as motorways and highways in cities, like Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg.  But even more so, the introduction of tougher sanctions comes in response to the freak bus accident and fire last year near Münchberg in northern Bavaria, along the Motorway 9. 18 people died, including the driver, who rescued as many passengers as possible before succumbing to the smoke and burns. According to reports, drivers blocked the Rettungsgasse and took pictures with their phones, thus hampering rescue efforts.

With the introduction of tougher measures, drivers will be forced to pay more attention to the road and not with their electronic devices. Especially when traffic jams occur on the multi-lane highways will drivers be forced to assume the worse and create the emergency lane to allow for rescue crews to get to the scene as quickly as possible.

As a county engineer in Iowa once said: These laws are there to save lives.  It is hoped that these measures will get the driver to think about the lives of others at risk while driving.

So please, pay attention, put the phone down and please the people in front of you. You will do yourself and them a big favor and save yourself some money, time and your car. Thank you.

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Emergency lane laws are similar to the ones in the United States, Canada and other countries. The Move-over Laws that have been enacted since the 1990s require drivers to move over one lane to provide a lane’s width of space for people at the scene of an accident, car repair or any other sort of emergency. Failure to comply can result in the loss of driving privileges for at least a half year in many areas plus fines in the hundreds.

Drivers not originating from Germany but are caught by police for traffic violation are asked to either pay up at the scene where they are pulled over, or they receive a letter addressed to their home countries requesting the fine to be paid. In these cases the point system is usually not enforced. In worst cases, they may be taken into custody at the police precinct.

 

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Merkel Hangs On But Trouble On Horizon

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Christian Democratic Party still holds the cards despite record losses. Free Democrats (FDP) back in the Bundestag, the Right-winged Alternative for Germany (AfD) enters national politics as the third strongest party. 

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BERLIN- The German Federal Elections of 2017 will go down as one of the most controversial elections in modern history. While we have seen government coalitions being taken down because of the vote of no-confidence- the last one being in 2005- there has not been a time where the election campaign has been hotly contested, sometimes even corrupt as this one.  Before looking at the reasons behind this argument, it is best to look at the results.

Summary:

Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU remains the most powerful of the political parties in Germany, having garnered 32.9% of the votes, according to the polls. Unfortunately, that is a loss of 8.6% from the results in the 2013 Elections. Its coalition partner, the Social Democrats, barely finished second with 20%; with the loss of 5.1% of the votes, they set a new low for the number of votes. The director of the party, Martin Schulz, declared at the close of the polls that his party would no longer work together with Merkel’s party, thus forcing the chancellor to look for new partners to rule the country. A very difficult task given the fact that third place finisher, the AfD, finished with 13% of the votes. The party’s candidate, Alexander Gauland, vows to chase Merkel’s government and her policies, especially with regards to refugees and the environment. Gauland is one of many in the party who wishes to bring back policies once carried out by Adolf Hitler during his time in power, minus the holocaust. While Merkel will definitely discard the AfD and has vowed to win back the voters who have left her party for the far right during her next four years in office, she has the possibility of forming a coalition with the Greens (who won 8.9%), FDP (who returned to German parliament after a four-year absence with 10.6% of the vote) and the left-wing party Die Linke (which got 9%).  Most likely will Merkel form a Jamaika Coalition with the Greens and the FDP but according to information from German public channel ARD, all three parties would have to work together to create a joint mandate on several points. Given their hard stance on several issues, this will be rather difficult to achieve. But in order for the coalition to be realized, some compromises and sacrifices may be needed in order for the coalition to work for the next four years. Merkel will most likely face not only one but two sets of opposition. Apart from the AfD preparing to attack her policies at every possible convenience, she will have the far left in the Linke and SPD to contend with, especially with Martin Schulz, who tried to play down her policies during his campaign, but to no avail.

Critique Points:

So what exactly went wrong with the 2017 Campaign? Everything possible, but it would be difficult to point everything out without having to type until seven in the morning, so I will focus on one aspect and that is how the campaign was run.

Firstly, the campaign was very Americanized. Instead of including the parties in the debates, especially on television, it was merely a divorce battle between two coalition partners, the SPD and the CDU. Nothing from the Greens, FDP, Left, AfD and others that were running. Surely with the other parties taking part in the debates, we would have a better idea on the stances of each one plus their plan on how to tackle the problems facing Germany.

Secondly, there was only one TV debate with, as mentioned in the last point, just the two coalition parties. Normally in a multi-party elections, there would be more than one TV debate- better three: two with the main four parties and one with the remaining parties, pending on their performance in the Bundestag. Even in the past, there were at least two TV debates. And with that TV debate between Merkel and Schulz, it turned out to be the German version of the Hillary vs. Trump debate: 100% mudslinging and not getting to the point with the debate at hand. No wonder why Martin Schulz wanted a second TV debate as there were several themes not discussed during the first debate. A big plus for him.

Thirdly, the focus was for the most part on the refugee crisis and what went wrong. Merkel has been sandwiched between Schulz’s accusation of her not doing enough for them and the accusation of the AfD and even the sister party the Christian Socialists (CSU) in Bavaria for not enforcing restrictions on the number of refugees entering the country. There was almost no space for themes that are bigger than that, such as climate change, trade agreements with North America, the EU, the widening gap between rich and poor, etc.  While Merkel and Schulz were wrestling it out politically, the AfD fed off the lack of selection and frustration of the voters who eventually went for them to begin with.

Fourthly, there should have been a TV debate with the AfD, period. Following the Beutelsbach Consensus for Political Discussion in the Classroom (enacted in 1977), having Gauder, Höcke or even Petry as a spokesperson in the debate against Merkel, Schulz and other candidates would produce discussions for all to watch with the purpose of bringing out whatever they have for plans should they be elected. As chaotic as the party has been due to political struggles and controversial remarks from members of the party, this party could be a one-term party unless they have a clear platform that will win over voters, which the only platform they have up until now is to throw out the immigrants in favor of the uneducated- something that was seen 84 years ago.

Fifthly, the last argument has resonances from America’s elections last year: The election was based too much on fame and picking apart the candidates and not on the themes concerning the German and European population. We have Merkel whom many think she’s too old and naive. We have the Schulz effect which is like buying Levi’s jeans just because it is a brand. We have Petry who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We have Göring-Eckhardt, who is the brains but not the support. OK, to be blunt, we have several flavors of Dithmarscher Beer but they all taste the same! And that is what we see with our candidates, period!

What Happens Next?

It is clear that Merkel will start her fourth term and is on course to outgovern Helmut Kohl before the next elections in September 2021. It is also clear that Schulz’s declaration of the divorce from the CDU and going on the opposition is final and that Merkel has just the Greens and FDP to form a coalition. The question will be how she will manage two different oppositional groups: the AfD, who will do everything possible with its 13 representatives in parliament to make her life very difficult, and the SPD and Linke, who will use all measures possible to fight the AfD and keep Merkel in check. For the first time since 1945, we have a right-wing party in power with a potential to repeat history, but this legislative period will feature three factions fighting it out in the German parliament: the far-right, the far-left and the traditional center. This will make things very difficult for Merkel’s coalition to pass any policies agreed on that would satisfy the population.  It is certain that Merkel cannot afford to ignore the AfD and has already declared to win back voter who had left her party to join the far-right. But in order to do that, Merkel will not only have to change her mandate and appease the voters, but she will have to face the AfD directly, consistently, at every possible convenience and especially, proactively.  She will not be able to be passive to the party as she did during the elections and even before that.  She will need to present themes that are complicated for the AfD to comprehend, let alone far-left. And she will need to use all legal measures possible to ensure that there is order in Berlin. She doesn’t need to be Margaret Thatcher, but in order to succeed in the next four years, she will need to go away from her passive approach and go on the proactive to ensure that her policies get through and her oppositions are in check. Only then will she be certain to break Kohl’s record and keep her party the CDU’s reputation as the party that shaped Germany. All other approaches would have fatal consequences for Germany, Europe and Democracy, in general.

For more on the election results, please check out ARD online, which will show you the results and the predictions of what will happen in the coming months. Link:

http://www.ard.de/home/ard/ARD_Startseite/21920/index.html

 

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Wir Schaffen Das: How the Christian Democrats Have Made German History

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A couple years ago, I had a political discussion with another expatriate residing in Germany about Angela Merkel’s willingness to open the gates of Germany to refugees fleeing the regions of Syria, Iraq and North Africa- areas that were decimated by war- just so they can start a new life in a different place, where they can be peaceful and not have to worry about war. A couple days ago, after having posted my preview of the German elections, where Angela Merkel is making a quest to run for her fourth term (and break Helmut Kohl’s record in the process), that same person asked me if her policies of allowing refugees into Germany have done the country good or not, especially with the social and cultural problems that they may have, which were his reasons for opposing opening the gates. We all remember her comments in an interview with Anne Will that has carried a lot of weight around Berlin:

and this in addition to her persuasion of her counterparts to not be afraid of the refugees but to help them…..

But in order to answer that person’s questions, I’m going to take the Taylor Mali approach and give it to him with a little history- not about her or the refugees, but about her party, the Christian Democrats and their slogan “Wir schaffen es!”

Since the creation of the Bundesrepublik in 1949, the CDU has had a chancellor ruling Germany for 48 of the 68 years of its existence. Of which, if we count Merkel in the mix, three different politicians have ruled the country for 42 of the 48 years!  Before Merkel, the previous CDU chancellors had been the late Helmut Kohl, who ruled from 1982 until his defeat in the hands of Gerhardt Schroeder in 1998. The first chancellor of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, ruled what was then West Germany from 1949 until his resignation in 1963. He died four years later at the age of 91, having won the Award for eldest statesman to ever govern a country.  The secret to the successes of the CDU under these three people had been until now made their promises of “Wir schaffen das!” (translated bluntly as We Can Do This) realized through calculated risk-taking, realizing the consequences of these actions and providing a buffer zone between external factors on one hand and Berlin and the rest of the country on the other. It is like the game of chess- the situation is presented on the chessboard, and it is up to the politicians to take the risk that will produce the maximum result to their favor, while figuring in the possible consequences that could happen. Of course any foolhardy move could be fatal, as we are seeing with many far-right politicians in eastern Europe, Turkey, North Korea, the UK and even the US. But each chancellor has had their longest chess game during their time in office; each of which has its own theme. Let’s have a look at each legend’s ability of making it work and bringing Germany to fame.

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Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) Photo courtesy of the German Archives (Bundesarchiv)

“Wir schaffen das allein!”

When Adenauer took office on 15 September 1949, Germany was still in recovery mode after having been in shambles because of World War II and was all alone with the European countries and the US all hesitant in building any relations with the country. Furthermore, Germany was already split between the democratic western half that had been occupied by the Americans, British and French and the eastern half that was controlled by the Soviets. While Germany was considered a chessboard between communism and democracy, Adenauer began to redevelop the country economically, thus making it the economic miracle and later the powerhouse of western Europe with one of the lowest unemployment rates in history (averaging around 2%). The population got jobs and could spend money on new items, including the TV and modern furniture. His policies were based on liberalism and thus showed Germany’s willingness to ally with the US, Britain and other western countries, thus making the country’s integration into the United Nations, NATO and the European Economic Community easier to achieve. His mentality of “Wir schaffen das allein” (we will do it alone) had to do with the fact that Germany’s metamorphisis from a state in shambles to an economic miracle with a modernized socio-economic infrastructure and westernized institutions with policies that are based on conservatism and no experimenting with anything that is new and foreign. Even the elections of 1957, which he won his third term in office, his campaign slogan of “No Experiments!” won overwhelming support because of three factors that led Adenauer to win the hearts and minds of the German population: 1. The reestablishment of relations with neighboring France which used to be the country’s archenemy. With that came the reintegration of the Saarland and the recognition of minorities on both sides of the border. 2. Despite having zero interest in reuniting with East Germany or even having contact with the communist regimes, Adenauer made  agreements with the Soviets to release as many as 10,000 Germans who were prisoners of war, so that they could return home.  That combined with encouraging immigration from parts of the Middle East and Asia to fill in the gaps left behind by the fallen soldiers contributed to Germany’s success as a country as a norm. And thirdly, the people followed Adenauer’s policies because they enabled them to restart their lives again and not allow for external influences and military conflicts to rule and ruin their lives again. If it meant integrating people from outside willing to work in the country- making them open-minded- make it so.  Adenauer’s idea was in order to make the country a powerhouse again, it must work to restore its identity while mending ties with and reassuring other countries that it is different than the Germany under Hitler: It was not power-greedy but a democratic country willing to cooperate for similar causes. Anything that is fattening or potentially risky- anything that does not match Adenauer’s vision of Germany- was simply left behind. This was the reason why Adenauer went with his slogan West Germany first, then we’ll talk about the East. His hard-line policies against Communism combined with his willingness to grow together with other countries made him the most influential politician of modern German history.

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Helmut Kohl (1982- 1998)           Archiv für Christlich-Demokratische Politik (ACDP)

“Wir Schaffen das Miteinander:”

If there was one description that would best fit Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who came into power after the fall of Helmut Schmidt in 1982, it would be that he was the Face of Europe, not just a Unified Germany but simply a Unified Europe. While Kohl was perceived as folksy in terms of his appearance and manner, his ability to be eye-to-eye and down-to-earth with many of his international constituents made him more of an international celebrity than that of his German counterparts in Bonn, which was the federal capital during his 16 years in office. It also helped him in terms of working together with his international colleagues for two of the most important goals on his agenda: To end the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and to reunify West Germany with its eastern counterpart.  While the former was beginning to unfold from within, thanks to the revolutions in the east that toppled the Communist leaders and quickened with the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, the latter Kohl proceeded to do through cooperation with Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev, US President George Bush Sr., British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand. Despite the hesitation that was expressed by Mitterand and the rejection that was made clearly by Margaret Thatcher, Kohl’s actions in reuniting Germany within a year between the Fall of the Wall and the date of 3 October, 1990 (which we still celebrate this date today) received full support and cooperation from Gorbachev and Bush Sr. for several reasons:

  1. Kohl acknowledged that he had no intention of expanding his country to include the Suedetenland in western Czech Repubic and areas in Poland that  had once belonged to Germany before 1945. This Oder-Neisse Agreement confirmed the eastern border and resulted in good relations with the two eastern neighbors.
  2. Kohl agreed that Germany would be a full participant in NATO and the European Economic Community (later the European Union) just like it was when it was West Germany. Furthermore, it would maintain strong economic and political ties with ist allies and be ready to play a larger role on the international stage.
  3. Kohl provided start-up funding and financial support for the former eastern states. With much of the industries in ruins, Kohl presented a program to encourage business development, modernization of the infrastructure, educational support and further education training for the unemployed and reform the retirement system- all with the purpose of bring it up to the level of the western half.  This process has been long and painful, but it has been working to the advantage of People in the East; especially the younger generations born right before the Fall of the Wall.
  4. With a reunified Germany, Gorbachev and Bush Sr. agreed that having a Cold War no longer made sense. Gorbachev wanted the eastern countries to go their own way, and Bush provided those who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain with an opportunity to have a better life without the political connections and influence from the state security police. All they needed was someone in Germany with the same point of view and they found that in Kohl.

The German Reunification and the concessions needed to make that a reality came with criticism from within the German Population and his own Party, the CDU, claiming that the process went too fast and that many displaced Germans from the east were unable to reclaim their regions back. Furthermore, the recession of  1995 as a result of the cost for Reunification resulted in the rise of unemployment. Yet when looking back at this, Kohl looked for the people who were willing to go through with the plan of reunification, taking all the risks that are involved and cementing the Germany that we know today. With that in mind, the idea of “Wir Das Miteinander ,” became “Wir Schaffen Das Zusammen” over time, for whatever the crises, Germany was able to pull through with the support of its people, the CDU and its allies from outside.

Helmut Kohl was given a European send-off at the time of his death on 16th June, 2017 at the age of 87. The procession, which was on 1 July, took place in Strausborg and Speyer, where he was interred.

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Angela Merkel (2005-present)  Photo by Armin Linnartz

“Wir Schaffen Das:”

It is very difficult to describe this theme with Angela Merkel without having to overlap on her counterpart’s slogan, but perhaps it doesn’t need a preposition to describe how she has overcomed her challenges as Chancellor and key player in the CDU. Merkel was presented with three challenges that reshaped her party, Germany and the population during her 12 years in Office. First was keeping Europe together and the Americans happy, something that for Germany as a central power in the EU it could be done by pulling on the leash of the members- in writing. Yet in the praxis, especially in the past 3-4 years, some member countries have tried to go their own way, especially in terms of the refugee policy and the deficits of some countries. The next was satisfying the Americans and finding common ground to carry out the policies that affect both countries and the rest of the world. This depended solely on who was in the Oval Office, and while she has isolated Donald Trump because of his erratic behavior (just like the other countries who have followed suit), her relations with George Bush Jr. was lukewarm at best but with Barack Obama, it was a dream team. 🙂 From an American expatriate’s point of view, Merkel achieved a lot with the right people in Washington, which has been received as a blessing, especially when it comes to the environment and the conflicts out in the Middle East, which has been ongoing for seven years now.  And while we are on the theme with environment, there is the refugee crisis and her handling of it, which makes it the third and most important point. The logic behind her policy of “Wir schaffen das” was quite simple: regions in the north and east needed workers and experienced professions because of the younger people moving to cities in the western and southern parts. The population balance in Germany has been very unequal since 1990 with the population in the north and east getting older, despite attempts to modernize the region. With this decline came the brain drain and the best way to end it is to fill in the gap with people wishing to live and work in Germany, even if it was for a limited time until they were able to return home. Learning from Adenauer’s success in bringing in immigrants and integrating them and Kohl’s success in restructuring the eastern half of the country, Merkel sent them to the regions where work was waiting for them, along with a better life. This has been met with partial success mainly because of the lack of forthcoming to accept them among residents in regions who are older, inflexible and lack the basic knowledge needed to get to know and even help them. This is one of the reasons for the creation of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), one of the main challengers that Merkel has faced and will be dealing with for years to come. However, if asked for why immigration has been successful in Germany, I can look at personal success stories of families who have taken German classes to get by, young people getting training at companies to learn a profession and even refugee children getting along with school children. Granted one doesn’t need to be best friends, but by having a peaceful co-existence and helping out when needed is something that Merkel had in mind, which has been a success if one subtracts the likes of the far-right.

Summary:

Taking a look at the three politicians in summary, one can see how Germany has been shaped. It is a country whose population has been taught to be calculated risk-takers, while at the same time, be open to not only people from different cultures and backgrounds, but also to the changes that are taking shape and affecting the Bundesrepublik. The idea of “Wir Schaffen Das,” regardless of form and circumstances has something to do with the will to try something new but doing it with insurance. That means the risks will be taken under one’s own conditions and with the assurance of a Plan B if all else fails. Many of the policies carried out by the CDU had been tried and true, learning from the successes of the forefathers and implementing them adaptedly to the situation. Germany has learned to adapt to the situation by looking at the options carefully, calculating the risks and benefits and carrying it out with some insurance protection.  Adenauer knew the risks of forming relations with other countries and rebuilding Germany and ensured that Germany wanted to be part of the international theater, by accepting the conditions imposed, bringing home the prisoners of war and encouraging immigration to repopulate the country.  Kohl knew the risks of German reunification and came up with a comprehensive plan to satisfy its neighbors and the population, especially in the East.  Merkel knew the risks of integrating the refugees and the opposition from both within the EU and its own country. Still she found ways for immigration to work in a convincing way.  Whenever there were the risks, they were calculated and carried out in an attempt to create a balance that satisfies everyone.

And this has made it difficult for candidates, like Martin Schulz (SPD), Christian Lindner (FDP), Frauke Petry (AfD) and others to overcome the German Iron Lady and the rock which has become the CDU.

Thanks to this notion of “Wir Schaffen Das,” Germany has become what it is- a nation that loves calculated risks, just as much as the people who live there- which includes the refugees, expats and other immigrants. There is still a lot of challenges ahead, but should Merkel win term number 4, it will most likely be due to the success of her in general, her party, and the forefathers who helped shape Germany to what it is today. If Merkel breaks Kohl’s record for longetivity as chancellor, then her theme will most likely be “Wir haben das geschafft.”

Better have that sherry and champaign ready for  Merkel’s fifth term on 26 September, 2021. 😉

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