A Return to Berlin (Part 4)

brandenburg gate

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It is amazing how quickly this week has passed! It has been an incredible combination of sight-seeing and high-level briefings. We’ve all learned a great deal – and have heard some different perspectives on some of the challenges Germany and Europe face.

The pace of the first part of the week continued. On Thursday, we spent the day in Potsdam visiting historic Cecilienhof, Sansouci (the site of the Potsdam Conference negotiations after World War II), and the Haus am Wannsee (where mid-level Nazi leaders plotted the “Final Solution”).

On Friday morning, the group enjoyed briefings with foreign service officers from the Economic and Political Sections at the U.S. Embassy. And in the evening, we had a closing dinner with former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum.


The take-away:

What’s the take-away after a week in Berlin measuring the pulse of contemporary Germany? Here are three brief observations:

  1. Berlin is looking forward to hosting President Barack Obama in mid-June – just a week before the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Berlin and his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. This will be Obama’s first official trip to Berlin since he took office in 2009. He has been to Germany twice during his first year as president and was in Berlin as a presidential candidate in 2008.
  2. In the run up to the September 22 German parliamentary election, German politics are worth watching. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking reelection and a third four-year term. There seems to be little doubt that she will continue in her role as Chancellor. However, questions abound concerning the make-up of the governing coalition.Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party will need a coalition partner to govern. Their current coalition partner – the Free Democrats – have fallen from nearly 15 percent in the last election to roughly five percent in opinion polls. Smaller parties such as the Pirate Party (which espouses greater internet freedom) and the new euro-sceptic Alternative for Berlin (which advocates a return to the Deutsch Mark) may siphon off some votes from the current coalition government. Taken together, the contraction of the Free Democrats and the rise of new parties may make it difficult for the current government to remain in office.

    A return to a Grand Coalition – of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats – seems most likely. Some analysts and observers believe this is not ideal because Germany will stagnate. Others feel that this is the best-case scenario for Germany at this time.

    One additional factor is how the Green Party will fare. They have been rising in the polls – and could serve as “king maker” to the conservative Christian Democrats or the more liberal Social Democrats.

  3. My sense is that the group left Germany with more questions about the future of Europe than they had when they arrived. One speaker talked about the challenge of “managing the relative decline of Europe” vis-à-vis rising powers, but almost all of the speakers talked about the strong role Germany plays within Europe and on the world stage. There are many questions about the future of Europe – and specifically the role France will play. Many of the speakers talked about a “sputtering” Franco-German engine although these two countries have been at the core of Europe’s postwar development.

All in all, lots of food for thought as we digest a week of new experiences and opinions…

by Dr. Steven E. Sokol, President and CEO, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh

potsdam group