Politicians the world over are ill-equipped to deal with the biggest threats facing society, hatred and extremism of all kinds including the climate.
Heiner Flassbeck is an economist, as well as publisher and editor of “Makroskop” and “flassbeck economics international”
Originally posted in German at Makroskop
Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
Good politics can only be made by the right people. Europe once again forgot this principle when choosing its top personnel. Germany hasn’t done much better. Let’s hope the attack by a gunman on a synagogue in Halle, east Germany, on October 6th, will trigger a reversal.
A month ago I pointed out that the election of unsuitable people to top positions – which seems to be the expression of a systematic navigation error – endangers democracy at its core. Politicians fail when they are out of their depth, not only in their direct duties, but also – and this is often much more important – because they are unable to explain to the public the reasons for their actions or their inaction.
Two recent events confirm exactly what I feared. The first, when Kristalina Georgiewa, the new head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) nominated by Europe, gave her first speech. And second, when Paolo Gentiloni, the new EU Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs nominated by Italy, was questioned and finally confirmed by the European Parliament.
In her so-called curtain raiser, Georgiewa of course trotted out all that was expected of her and the IMF. She warned against a global slowdown in growth and, as is the current fashion, called on Germany and some other countries to invest more in public infrastructure. She condemned disruptions to international trade and duly mentioned climate change (without linking it to global growth) and what the IMF intends to do about it. Finally, as was to be expected, she highlighted her own country, Bulgaria, as an example of successful transformation.
New people, but no new idea
With the exception of the small section on Bulgaria, which by no means corresponds to the situation in the country (as shown here, in German), any newly appointed IMF director would probably have delivered the speech in the same way. That is exactly the problem. Although the German press acclaimed the speech “dutifully” (here in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), it contained – apart from the reference to Germany – nothing appropriate to the current, extremely difficult situation of the world economy. No serious discussion of the debt problem, no discussion of the one-sided image of free trade as the engine of the world economy, and no statement on how to reconcile growth and the fight against climate change – or not.
Gentiloni was questioned by the European Parliament in public session and was finally waved through without any problems. One wonders why, however. From the outset the man seemed out of his depth and completely powerless. His answers – again the now standard demand for individual countries to do something fiscal – were weak and determined by the fear of saying something politically incorrect. He even evaded good questions from a Spanish MEP because, as you could feel with every word, he was not at all sure of his business but had memorised a few phrases. So are these the people, together with Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis (who is not famous for his expertise so far and failed during the euro crisis) and Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission, who will determine the fate of the euro zone over the next five years and will have to stand up to the heads of government?
Parliament’s hearing, like that for the other candidates, is designed to find out the “attitudes” of the candidates on certain issues. They want to know whether anyone is prepared to do anything about tax avoidance by large international companies. Nobody seems to be interested in whether they also have the intellectual capacity to understand their subject and give, or at least seek, new answers. It remains completely unclear whether a candidate has the communicative skills needed to offer new or different perspectives to the European public.
One can already predict that Paolo Gentiloni will never draw undue attention to himself and will always be solidly mainstream. The fact that he wants to make his compatriot Marco Buti his chef de cabinet speaks clearly in favour of this. This is the man who, as Director-General for Economic and Financial Affairs, has failed more than anyone else in the Commission over the past few years to combat the euro crisis. They ignore the citizens’ real concerns and simply pretend that everything in Europe is going well and there is no need to do anything differently.
Is democracy failing because of the people running it?
What I am describing here is by no means a specifically European problem. On the one hand, it is the nation states that have to select these candidates and thus ultimately take responsibility for their failure. On the other hand, the nation states themselves are not in a position to find the right people for their own interests. Olaf Scholz, federal finance minister, is as overwhelmed by his office as his counterpart the federal economics minister, Peter Altmaier. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, chairwoman of the CDU and defence minister, gives a daily demonstration of how to fail simultaneously on two fronts. The Chancellor, who for 14 years has been responsible for determining the course of German politics, is the greatest failure one can imagine in terms of communication and explaining interrelationships.
Worse still, we are suffering under a federal minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer, who, in his own words, is now willing to learn because of the attempt in Halle to commit a horrendous crime, which only failed because a locked synagogue door withstood a gunman’s attack. Why is he only learning now? Why has he kept the German public in suspense for more than two years on a wavering course, without seeing what was staring him in the face?
Why does he only now accuse the “Internet” and the far-right party AfD? Why doesn’t he talk about the daily rabble-rousing in Bild, Germany’s biggest newspaper? Why doesn’t he ask how it happened that, after 2010, page after page of Thilo Sarrazin’s primitively inflammatory writings were printed in the big media, boosting their circulation by millions? Why doesn’t he talk about his CSU party leader, Markus Söder, who was the biggest agitator against Greece during the euro crisis? Why does he not blame all those who, to this day, pretend that all the other countries are to blame for the euro crisis, but not, of course, Germany?
Where does hatred come from?
The widespread hatred of “others”, which some individuals have expressed repeatedly over the past decade in a particularly frightening way, did not simply fall from the sky. It is a reaction to the tensions in society that have arisen from Germany’s new lust for supremacy. The frustration of those who had no share in the “great and unique successes” is a breeding-ground for hatred. Anyone who hears every day how great Germany is in comparison to everyone else, who sees how some people enrich themselves to an incredible degree and at the same time see that they are never among the lucky ones, naturally look for culprits outside their own circle and fall for mindless slogans.
The chance to appear at least once as a “hero” on the Internet then blows away the last inhibitions of some. To take action against this is not primarily the task of the police. Nor does a stricter control of the Internet – though certainly justified in many cases – provide a solution. The key is to declare war on the subliminal feeling of superiority that has spread in Germany. That is the crucial communication task falling to German politicians.
This task begins with immediately stamping on the feet of a CSU politician who can think of nothing better than declaring “an Italian” incapable from the outset of keeping watch over Europe’s finances. It ends with Germans discussing their own mistakes more honestly and broadly, their tunnel-vision in economic matters as well as the air of superiority that they adopt, especially in relation to climate change.