Have the rational Germans gone off their rockers somewhere along the line? Has a nation of prudent planners lost its grip?
If not, how do you explain the country’s two current breaks with a common sense – its rejection of nuclear power and its anti-immigrant xenophobia?
For those of us accustomed to seeing the Federal Republic and its people as a generally sensible anchor in a socio-politically erratic continent, the only answer is that the Germans are more skittish, unstable, and insular than we might have guessed.
Standing out most in its absurdity is the decision to swear off nuclear power. This vow, if Berlin sticks to it, will rob Germany of a fourth of its electricity. The economy will shudder into a long slowdown, since the proclaimed replacements – wind and solar energy – will be anything but immediate plug-ins. Neither wind or solar can imaginably pick up the slack as the reactors are shut down over the coming decade. Neither of these renewable power sources is economic yet in any country.
For all its commendable state-supported solar efforts to date, Germany is not a sun-blessed country, and the wind does not always blow. To fill the energy vacuum in the shorter term, the Federal Republic will have to ramp up its production of electricity from plants fired by coal, the biggest carbon dioxide emitter, and natural gas, another far-from-clean fossil fuel.
In sum, Germany, traditionally environment-sensitive, will turn away from a renewable and comparably clean power source, nuclear energy, and embrace carbon dioxide and a prayer.
How has this happened? How could a state that little more than a year ago committed itself to nuclear energy flip-flop totally? Fukushima, or maybe memories of Chernobyl, I hear the reader murmur, but clearly those explanations won’t wash. Germany is nowhere near a major seismic zone. Its neighbor France is content with more than a score of reactors that provide close to 80 percent of its electricity. An ocean is needed to generate a tsunami; the North Sea and the Baltic wouldn’t do it. Then why would a country shoot itself in the foot this way?
Because of three things. First, governments exist to get themselves re-elected; the current German government is shaky, and an election is coming. Second, it’s a myth that governments are bound to a duty to lead; no, they almost always test the wind and follow. Third, the Fukushima disaster spooked the German public to an unaccountable degree. Herd fear was nurtured by the media. It made no sense. It makes no sense. Germany will have to live with it. Blackouts and candles, anyone?
Immigrants? Germany, like virtually all of Europe, is fed up with them. The trope common in the continent today is that immigrants, read Muslim ones, do not integrate. They bring risks – economic ones, a steady drawdown on state welfare funds; an erosion of national character and tradition; a threat of violence. To a degree these claims are true. But despite its reflexive distaste for the foreign-born, Germany needs them. The country is ageing. It has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Even if the government were to offer birth bonuses as France and Russia have, German couples, content with their affordable lives, would probably not respond. To cite by national comparison a nagging demographic projection, in 2050 the average German will be more than 50 years of age; the average American will be 37.
Given such a picture, who but immigrants will fill Germany’s near-future workplaces? What new blood will quicken its innovation? A decade ago the Gerhard Schroeder government proposed to upgrade the country’s information technology sector by bringing in thousands of Indian software specialists. The parliament voted it down. A risk? Yes, to the country’s complexion. There would be more brown faces on the streets. Curry might seduce the public the way döner kebab has. Proportionate risks, weighed against sclerotic notions of social safety. Recently a Vietnamese-born doctor has become the leader of a main German political party. Any imaginable damage there?
A Germany that goes on being too jittery to face the contemporary risks faced by all states, too unready to make uncomfortable decisions rather than self-indulgent ones, can start before long to forfeit its global role. The Germans are no longer “the single unadulterated people” that Tacitus wrote about and Frederick the Great gloried in, any more than France today is Napoleon’s France, or that America is James Monroe’s, bestriding a hemisphere.
A global changing of the guard is with us. Climate change and a shrunken workforce will menace mid-century Germany far more than nuclear reactor risks or the arrival of people of different ancestries.