Germany’s flight plan: from superstar to standstill

Dr Oliver Hartwich
22 August, 2023

If everything had gone according to plan, this column would have been about the visit of the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, to New Zealand. That would have been appropriate as German ministers do not make it to this part of the world too often.

More importantly, it would have given me a good hook for a column on Germany.

Alas, nothing about Germany goes according to plan these days, and Baerbock did not make it to Auckland in the end. Her Luftwaffe (air force) jet broke down in Abu Dhabi. Not once but twice. It was the flaps on both occasions.

But as it turns out, that incident is an even better hook for my column. Because the circumstances of Baerbock’s cancelled visit make it the perfect metaphor for the state of Germany.

In any normal country, let alone a G7 member, intercontinental trips of the foreign minister are diplomatic routine. After all, travelling – and travelling long distances – is what foreign ministers do.

But in Germany, well, not so much. Or at least not without complications.

Problems with Germany’s ageing fleet of government planes have been well known since Angela Merkel had to fly Iberia to attend a G20 summit in South America. That was after her own Luftwaffe Airbus experienced a technical difficulty. Yes, the same plane.

Incidentally, although the name Luftwaffe may sound scary to non-German ears, I imagine it is scarier to those who travel on them. The planes are old, unreliable and have a long record of technical incidents.

And so it was only right that Berlin decided a few years ago to order some new, modern planes such as Airbus’s long-haul, widebody A350 model. Good choice.

The problem: Berlin has only received two of these new A350s so far, and they are often used by the chancellor and the president.

Somewhat bizarrely, in the federal government’s internal pecking order of access to government jets, the foreign minister is only ranked ninth. Even though she may be the most likely to travel of all cabinet members.

And so Baerbock, who had meant to visit not just New Zealand but also Australia and Fiji (to open a new embassy, no less), found herself on the same old plane that grounded Merkel in her day. After two unsuccessful flight attempts following a refuelling stop in Abu Dhabi, Baerbock was seen boarding an Emirates flight back to Germany from Dubai.

If only Baerbock had consulted with Chris Hipkins, she would have followed his example and travelled with two planes just in case one of them once again breaks down along the way. After all, it had happened many times before – just as it had in Germany.

At home, the response to her travel problems was not exactly forgiving. Having dumped 200,000 litres of jet fuel over the Arab desert was not a proud environmental achievement for the Green politician.

But above all, it was embarrassing that a German minister was not able to do what most people would regard as an everyday 21st-century procedure: to take an intercontinental flight and safely arrive at the destination.

Then again, it was highly symptomatic of the state of the government in Berlin and of Germany’s wider malaise. And if any further evidence was needed, the past week delivered it in spades.

Baerbock was still scrambling to get back to Berlin as the next political disaster unfolded.

Unfortunately, her party colleague and deputy chancellor, Robert Habeck, was also away, on holiday in Sweden, when cabinet met for something that should have been a foregone conclusion: the decision on a new economic stimulus bill.

The bill had already been agreed by the heads of all three coalition partners. A routine decision, therefore. Well, just as routine as flying a Luftwaffe jet to the South Pacific, as it turned out.

It was one of cabinet’s lesser-known members, the Green Family Minister Lisa Paus, who blew up political conventions. Frustrated with Liberal Finance Minister Christian Lindner’s obstruction of the child benefit bill, her singular issue, Paus refused her approval of Lindner’s growth opportunities law aimed at cutting taxes for businesses. Never mind that her own party had previously approved it. And a pity, really, that cabinet decisions need to be unanimous.

The move not only embarrassed Lindner but especially Paus’ own party colleague Habeck. It raised questions about the internal dynamics of the Green Party and whether Habeck still had control over his party members.

The chaos that ensued provided a glimpse into the cracks and fissures within the Greens, revealing a temporary power vacuum that has left political observers aghast.

However, if this was just an intra-Greens issue, it would hardly be noteworthy. The German Greens are famous for their, well, robust internal discussion culture.

But where in all of this was the chancellor, Olaf Scholz? And where was his party, the Social Democrats?

Scholz was nowhere to be seen. This is a place where he seems to be all too often.

According to a recent poll for the Bild newspaper, Scholz is facing a significant setback in public opinion. Some 70 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with Scholz’s work, 64 percent are unhappy with the work of the federal government, and also 64 percent believe that a change in government would be good for Germany.

Additionally, Scholz’s party, the SPD, has dropped two percentage points, now standing at only 18 percent.

A separate survey, commissioned by public broadcaster ZDF, underscored these challenges. According to this poll, 72 percent of Germans accuse Scholz of often failing to provide concrete answers in political interviews, more than any other politician. A mere 21 percent of respondents believe that the chancellor asserts himself in essential political matters, and 73 percent say he does not.

Never mind that Scholz once campaigned on a promise of leadership.

So, Germany has a few problems. A foreign minister who cannot travel because of government jets that do not fly. A cabinet that does not reach agreement because of a lack of discipline. And a dysfunctional government because of a chancellor who does not lead.

If the rest of Germany still functioned, all that would be bearable. But the rest of the country does not function, as The Economist magazine stated towards the end of that disastrous week.

In its European cover story, The Economist painted a grim picture of a nation bogged down in bureaucracy, struggling with technological stagnation, and failing to innovate.

According to The Economist, German industry, once the envy of the world, has lost its edge. Stringent regulations hinder its development and adaptability. The famed Autobahns are congested and worn. The education system is mired in debates over standards and structures.

Meanwhile, Germany grapples with divisive matters that remain unresolved. Integration challenges, demographic shifts, and an incoherent response to the environmental crisis have all contributed to a sense of malaise and inertia.

It is hard to take issue with The Economist’s assessment – and readers of this column may have read it before.

Germany is a fallen superstar that, under Angela Merkel, wasted the good years after Gerhard Schröder’s reforms at the beginning of the century.

The Luftwaffe, we are told, now wants to finally scrap that ill-fated jet before it can cause any more embarrassment.

That would have been a straightforward decision. But the restoration of confidence, unity, and global standing will require a profound re-evaluation of Germany’s direction, priorities, and values.

Ordering a new Airbus will be a lot easier.

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