German giants’ feet of clay exposed in turbulent year

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel facing the biggest challenge of her tenure, Volkswagen and the national football association each mired in scandal: the pillars of German public life will start 2016 on wobbly foundations.

Ms Merkel began the year flying high in the polls, with the EU’s top economy humming and the German leader polishing her “Queen of Europe” crown as a valued mediator in the Ukraine crisis.

Meanwhile VW was on its way to pipping Toyota as the world’s top car maker and German football was still basking in its 2014 World Cup triumph in Brazil.

But after a summer that saw Ms Merkel preside over yet another exhausting round of bailout talks for Greece, her announcement in September of an open-door policy for the biggest refugee influx since World War 2 divided both her country and the EU.

While many took inspiration from her “We can do it” rallying cry, critics soon said the hundreds of thousands of newcomers would overwhelm communities and drive yet another wedge through the 28-country bloc. “Something has changed in the balance of European power,” the centre-left daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote.

“For years, it was the chancellor pulling the strings … but on the refugees she has not managed to unite Europe behind her. And European partners are seeing that Merkel is being attacked by her own allies. Merkel’s position was weakened by the crisis year 2015.”

The main indicators for Europe’s top economy remained largely sunny but the shock revelation that VW systematically installed emission-cheating software in some 11-million diesel engines worldwide shook the Made in Germany brand to its core.

“VW is not just any company, it is the model German corporation,” the director of the German chapter of anticorruption watchdog Transparency International, Edda Mueller said.

“Some business leaders worry that ‘Made in Germany’ — with its belief in a high degree of quality and competence — could be damaged. That makes the lax, inadequate reaction of the political class all the more negligent.”

Political scientist Henrik Enderlein of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance agreed that Germany’s reputation for excellence was a precious but fragile commodity.

“German products sell at a mark-up everywhere in the world,” he said. “The moment you destroy this ‘Made in Germany’ image, and it’s no longer the clear guarantee of perfect quality and absolute reliability, Germany will suffer economically.”

Ms Mueller called 2015 “a disappointing year for the integrity of the German economy”, adding that the sleaze that came to light in the world of sport took it to even more “shameful” lows.

The bombshell hit in October, when Der Spiegel magazine published allegations that Germany won the right to host the 2006 football World Cup — called a “summer fairy tale” for the pivotal role it played in boosting the country’s self-image — thanks to millions in bribes paid to Fifa executives.

The ensuing probe sent the German Football Association (DFB) spiralling into crisis and took down its chief, Wolfgang Niersbach.

However investigators are gunning for an even bigger prize: football legend Franz Beckenbauer, who chaired the bidding committee at the time. He has denied violating any laws.

Ms Merkel, a passionate football fan, urged the DFB to get its house in order, even as she sought to convince Germans that “the good memories remain unchanged”.

“What irony that the Germans’ favourite disciplines have been hit: cars and football,” wrote the daily Stuttgarter Zeitung. “Germany of all places, with its high ethical standards, which since the war has developed into a universally recognised partner and which many countries see as a political leader, is in this new light a complete failure as a moral authority.”

Another corporate scandal of a deeply tragic kind hit earlier in the year when a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps in March, killing all 150 people on board.

It later emerged that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, suffered from depression and that the airline, a low-cost subsidiary of Lufthansa, knew about his health condition.

The disaster raised serious questions about Germany’s balance between privacy protections and public safety, as grieving families angrily denounced the company. Mueller said the series of affairs constituted more than a flesh wound for Germany’s sense of itself.

“It is not only shameful — it represents a danger for our democracy, for the faith people have in the rule of law,” she said.

However Mr Enderlein was more sanguine, saying that the world was just discovering that “Germany is just like every other country, a very normal country, with some strengths and some weaknesses”.

He said the fact that Germany had been taken down a few notches this year could actually stem some of the envy and resentment the country inspires in Europe by dimming its “top of the class” image.

Mr Enderlein said this was another reason why reports of Ms Merkel’s imminent political demise were woefully premature. “I think what makes Merkel strong is she’s never positioned herself as the grand leader of a grand country,” he said. Ms Merkel “would be the first to say: ‘don’t overestimate us, we are just a normal European nation’.”


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