Germany and the politics of resignation

It’s a worrying sign of the times that more and more of our leaders respond to controversy by throwing in the towel.

Thomas Deichmann

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Political resignations are currently all the rage in Germany.

After Wolfgang Clement, a leading member of the Social Democrats (SPD), and Friedrich Merz, a prominent conservative in the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), left their respective parties, last week Roland Koch, the Hesse state premier and leader of the CDU, announced that he was throwing in the towel, too. Koch says he will resign in late August.

Koch is stepping down in order to take up a job in the private sector; he has denied rumours of a falling-out with chancellor Angela Merkel. Although he was never very popular, Koch was at least the kind of politician that doesn’t simply talk about problems but actually tries to deal with them fairly decisively. Like Clement and Merz, Koch still believes in the benefits of economic growth and technological progress – positions that are largely out of favour in Germany today.

Then yesterday (31 May), just six days after Koch’s surprise resignation, there was another out-of-the-blue announcement: the CDU’s Horst Koehler, president of Germany, declared that he was also quitting with immediate effect. He said the storm that greeted his recent remarks about Germany’s military mission in Afghanistan was the reason for his decision to step down. Koehler had argued for months for a more honest debate about Germany’s military role – then, upon returning from a visit with German troops in Afghanistan, he found himself in the midst of a national controversy.

Koehler had argued that Germany, being a world champion in exports and a country with big global trading investments, should be prepared to defend its economic interests with military means. (In practice, Germany already does this: it has sent troops to combat pirates in Somali shipping lanes.) He was attacked in left-liberal circles and accused of promoting ‘gunboat diplomacy’. And instead of defending his position, he resigned.

These politicians, especially Koch, have clearly lost the hope and confidence necessary to pull the battered German political leadership system out of its current quagmire. Koehler’s and Koch’s departures may have pleased left-liberals, yet there is something problematic about their departures, regardless of what you think about the individuals involved: they are symptomatic of a profound intellectual and political crisis that has seized not only Germany, but Europe as a whole.

Increasingly, the political elites in Germany and across Europe appear like lame ducks. Clement, Merz, Koch and, to a lesser extent, Koehler were part of a process of political decline and disarray. Admittedly, these politicians did endeavour to provide alternative angles to debates and proceedings – but whenever they did so, they were ridiculed or even punished for their efforts. Today, our political leaders appear incapable of dealing with challenges, such as Germany’s new military role, or of conducting a mature, public debate about the full implications of important decisions and issues. Instead, we get blame games and resignations.

The current situation must be put in some historical perspective. Since the collapse of the old world order, European politics has gradually become more and more diffuse and devoid of intellectual weight. Traditional values and outlooks, some of which were worth keeping, have been discredited and have fallen victim to an all-encompassing cultural relativism. General progressive principles, such as the benefits of economic growth, are now derided and feared. In important areas such as the food industry, agriculture, energy and innovation, there is a voodoo-like cult of risk-aversion, where scientific investigation and the potential for new breakthroughs are treated with scepticism or avoided altogether. Meanwhile, the spheres of education, family life and employment have become focal points for social engineering, with states interfering in the minutiae of citizens’ everyday lives and personal choices.

Increasingly in Europe, armies of narrow-minded and bigoted bureaucrats are hell-bent on organising our lives according to the latest expert theory, study or computer model. And when such efforts fail, the cabal of experts reacts by proposing even more intrusive forms of surveillance and sanctioning. Instead of addressing us as responsible, autonomous citizens, politicians prefer to deal with the public as passive customers. Inspiring visions are conspicuous by their absence; politics has been reduced to no more than a lacklustre form of crisis management.

So instead of having a proper debate about the economic crisis, for example, we get the managerial elite squabbling over taxes and other banalities, with politicians creating all sorts of scapegoats for the recession: ‘economic contagion’, ‘greedy bankers’, ‘fraudulent Greeks’.

Politics is also increasingly dominated by whatever issue happens to get a reaction from the public (at least as revealed, often unreliably, in opinion polls). The recent content-free election campaign in Northrhine-Westphalia between Jürgen Rüttgers (CDU) and Hannelore Kraft (SPD) really brought this home. The campaign showed the extent to which the political elites have hollowed out the democratic process. Their methods have become thoroughly technocratic, as they bypass any politically constructive discourse. Actual decisions get made behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny – if they are made at all.

Consequently we are facing a big train wreck in European politics, including here in Germany. And it was not caused by creative accountants, industrial lobbyists, al-Qaeda terrorists or the Taliban, but by the failures – of vision and integrity – of our own political classes.

The current economic crisis is the price paid for past political and economic shortcomings. It will be difficult for the political elites to get out of this current mess with a modicum of dignity. In fact, only one conclusion can be drawn: the elite’s European Union and euro projects have failed. Technocratic manipulations and breaches of rules, as carried out in Greece and other EU states to try temporarily to stave off the crisis, won’t help to keep the sinking ship afloat.

Yet our politicians keep on performing ever-more elaborate parlour tricks in relation to the recession, including breaching elementary parts of the European contract, such as by acquiring government bonds via the European Central Bank (ECB), while seeming to be oblivious to the fact that these measures can only hasten the demise of, or at least the final collapse of respect for, the European Union. For a while now, our political leaders have failed to face up to their responsibilities in relation to the recession and to act in a way that might steady things now and secure a good future for all. Instead, new regulations, new expenses and an ever-increasing level of borrowing have been introduced.

In the past decade, many opportunities to get a grip on economic problems were passed over. It was known for a long time, for example, that there were ascending economies in the non-Western world which would one day raise questions about the supremacy of the ‘old world’. But a European, politically sound response to these emerging economies is still absent. The European economic region stands out mainly for its readiness to toss out of the window hundreds of billions of euros for madcap schemes: inefficient energy technologies, waste separation and other ‘sustainable’ bric-a-brac. At the same time, there is a lack of vital productive investment in factories and services in Europe, especially in Germany. More and more capital and taxpayers’ money is being wasted on stupid initiatives: for example, year after year we pump billions of euros into the solar industry, which won’t be of any use to us, while at the same time advances in plant biotechnology are being pursued very slowly, if at all, in response to political pressure from opponents to such breakthroughs.

When it comes to digging ourselves out of the worst economic crisis since the Second World War, there is still hope, however. For example, the energy sector could act as a potential emergency valve. Instead of burning more money on a bonfire of climate protection fantasies, Germany could follow the example set by some of our neighbours and invest in a few state-of-the-art nuclear power stations. This would at least solve the problem regarding energy supply for the next few decades, and it would turn the focus towards innovation again and create a great number of jobs. But again the question has to be asked: do our leaders have the wherewithal to introduce such a grand scheme? When German politicians are increasingly likely to resign in the face of controversy and criticism, how can we expect them to take a lead on hot political issues that will rub up against some people’s vested interests but will be beneficial to Europe’s future?

If there is one positive aspect about the recent resignations in Germany, it is that they have made it crystal clear that technocratic politics is a dead end. We need to resuscitate Politics with a capital P, in order to strengthen the economy, society and democracy. It remains to be seen whether our political elites will eventually grasp this fact.

Thomas Deichmann is editor-in-chief of Novo-Argumente, where this article first appeared. It was translated from German by Nicloaj Wild.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins explained why Angela Merkel is bashing the bankers. Matthias Heitmann described the Bundestagnation of German politics. In the run up to the 2005 election. Sabine Reul looked at the evasiveness of German politicians and argued that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany is still divided. Or read more at spiked issue Germany.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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