Germany ready to take D-Day ceremonies in its stride

BERLIN - GERMANY has elected a new president. Horst Koehler, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, became Germany’s ninth post-war president to occupy the largely ceremonial office in a ceremony that was as simple as it was colourless. It barely exuded the solemn air of an investiture and seemed more like a proceeding that the political parties wanted to quickly get over with.

By View From Berlin By M N Hebbar

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Published: Thu 3 Jun 2004, 10:39 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:58 AM

Although Germany’s presidency is nominally above politics, incumbents have often influenced national debates and are considered a voice of moral authority. However, the Christian Democrats have portrayed Kohler’s election - he was a candidate of the opposition parties - as part of their campaign to unseat Schroeder in 2006 elections. The new president clearly stated, however, that he would be above party politics.

While Schroeder seems happy to go along with this dispensation, his present concerns centre on resisting US pressures that call for NATO to play an important role in Iraq by relieving military pressure on coalition forces there.

Schroeder has expressed “doubts” about NATO being really the right instrument for the purpose and will no doubt translate them into reality at the forthcoming NATO summit meeting in Istanbul next month. His stance is that NATO would find itself in precisely the same situation as the coalition forces are in now with regard to the confidence the Iraqis have in these forces as guarantors of security and stability. The chancellor has been quick to point out, however, that despite the differences on Iraq that split the Atlantic alliance last year, a broad, general agreement has emerged on the future steps to be taken there, stressing that the Iraqi transitional government should have a voice in its affairs and not just be seen as a political adjunct of the coalition forces.

Having said that, Schroeder is all but ready to stand alongside US president George W. Bush and other world leaders on June 6 on the beaches of Normandy as the first German chancellor to attend festivities commemorating the D-Day landings of World War II. Far from being embarrassed, he has stated that the presence of a German chancellor at the D-Day ceremonies was “a sign of recognition of the role of post-war Germany as an established democracy and as a part of the Western community of values”.

To be fair, ever since the Iraq war began last year, Germany has continually sought to balance its strong opposition to the war with an effort to affirm its overall co-operation with the US. Schroeder has always emphasised the substantial German role in Afghanistan, where Germany has roughly 2,000 troops in the NATO security force, and has avoided criticising the US even in the wake of the Iraqi prison abuse revelations. But he is firm about the German refusal to send troops to Iraq, even as part of a NATO force.

Meanwhile, the coalition government continues to grapple with its budgetary problems even as the persistent gloom about Germany’s weak economy revealed a silver lining in the resurgence of its Mittelstand (small and medium-sized enterprises) in boosting its export drive, especially taking advantage of markets in the US, Asia and elsewhere.

Outsourcing, which conjures up visions of jobs being swished across to Asia and elsewhere, is now a general phenomenon in developed countries. But Germany seems particularly influenced by its geographical and cultural proximity to Eastern Europe, especially to the Mittelstand, which did not muster enough courage to seek markets in Asia.

Ageing country

Germany’s chattering classes are finally facing up to the country’s biggest long-term challenge: an ageing population. After decades of obscurity, population issues are resurfacing in headlines, bestseller lists and talk shows. Pertinently, Germany’s current bestseller is “Das Methusalem-Komplott” (The Methuselah conspiracy), an anti-ageism tirade by Frank Schirrmacher, a co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

The main thesis is that the German population is imploding, not just because of a shortage of children but because young, qualified people are leaving in droves, making many regions even less attractive for job-creating investments. There are many reasons why Germans are waking up now. The reform of pension and healthcare systems, effects of reunification (most imploding regions are in the east) and the fact that Germany’s baby-boomers are beginning to be elderly, are all taking their toll of confidence in the future. The fear is that Germany’s ageing will affect not just pension funds, but the whole of society in how people live, work and relate to one another. It will diminish entrepreneurship and risk-taking, given that more than one-third of the population is older than 60. Firms that are not reorganised to better utilise the experience of old people and ideas will accentuate the problem further. And the integration of immigrants is a question that will not go away.

Efforts to raise the birth rate may not succeed so smoothly. As women get better educated, the present lack of or poor child-care support tends to keep down the birth rate. Many young women feel that they cannot have both children and a career. Moreover, high opportunity costs in lost income and career chances encourage women putting off having a baby. The average first-time mother is almost 30. Only 60 per cent of women work, fewer than in America, Britain or Scandinavia.

All things considered, Germany is becoming a country dominated by ageing dinkies (double income, no kids). Besides having repercussions for future healthcare and pensions, this is hardly conducive to renewed economic dynamism. The government’s plan to spend 1.5 billion euro a year after 2005 on child care and 4.5 billion on all-day schools may make a difference. But the hard truth is that money alone is unlikely to solve Germany’s demographic problems. Myopic politicians seem even less likely to address this challenge in the near future.

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