Friday, October 31, 2014

Are Germans really obsessed with austerity?

As Europe braces for another possible recession, Germany is coming under pressure to allow more spending. A lot of Germans believe that won’t help.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Fun-hating German misers have Europe in their grasp and the apocalypse is nigh.


As southern European countries just beginning to climb out of the euro crisis brace for the possibility of another recession, some are ratcheting up criticism of the continent’s economic engine for its insistence on using austerity to solve the problem.

With a record budget surplus amid worrying signs of a slowing domestic economy,
critics argue, Germany should loosen its purse strings and stimulate growth.

But are Germans really the austerity-obsessed buzzkills that people like French Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg make them out to be?

Yes and no.

“I think there is a kind of psychological fixation, yes,” says University of Mainz political scientist Jurgen Falter. “But even your phobias can be correct.”

The collective memory of the disastrous, runaway inflation after World War I that led to the rise of Adolph Hitler in the 1930s has ingrained in Germans a deep aversion to deficit spending. More recent experience has also taught them to view government plans to spur growth by doling out cash with a jaundiced eye, Falter says.

“We had big spending policies in the '80s and nothing happened,” he says. “It only increased inflation.”

In September, Germany posted its biggest budget surplus since reunification even as other statistics revealed a worrying drop in exports and a plunge in investment in public infrastructure and new businesses.

With government spending already lower than most wealthy nations’ — 17 percent of GDP compared to an average 21 percent — that's adding pressure on Germany to step on the gas and let others do the same.

“The German government should invest money in infrastructure, not worry about balancing its budget,” argues the Economist, angling for a spending increase of at least 0.7 percent of GDP.

"Frugality is good, but austerity is not an end in itself to spur an economy," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told reporters this month following his own wrangling with European Union bean-counters.

Even Washington wants Germany to increase spending, freeing up funds to repair its decaying bridges and highways as a start.

Earlier this month, Italy teamed up with France to demand that the EU relax the budgetary rigor imposed in response to the crisis and embark on a more expansionary path.

France can’t align itself with the “excessive obsessions of Germany's conservatives,” warned Montebourg, likening the preoccupation with austerity to “a serious disease, persistent and dangerous.”

Many economists also believe Germany can and should increase its level of investment.

Guntram Wolff, the German economist who heads the Brussels-based Bruegel Institute, advocates a European investment program that would target education and infrastructure in countries like Spain — which has a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent — and other countries where deep budget cuts threaten to create a lost generation.

However, sound economic measures don't always make sense politically, he points out.

“Intellectuals and international institutions are quite clear that countries with fiscal resources and borrowing capacity such as Germany should spend more and countries with their back against the wall such as Italy should be very cautious,” he says.

“But on the political level, what you see is that those countries that can spend money don't want to, and those that can’t actually want to.”

The disconnect is once again pitting Germany against the rest of the EU.

France in particular is angling for a free pass to allow deficit spending of 4.3 percent of GDP in 2015, instead of the 3 percent stipulated by the euro zone's financial authorities, prompting many Germans to view calls for their own increased domestic spending as a Trojan horse.

Falter says the battle reminds him of the mammoth spending spree France embarked on after World War I.

“When they were asked who would pay for that, they would say, 'Germany will pay for everything,'” he says.

He's not alone.

While outsiders clamor for more German spending, support for the new pro-austerity Alternative for Germany Party, AfD, has grown from the 4.7 percent of the vote it earned in parliamentary elections last fall to 7.5 percent today, according to a recent poll.

That's enabled it to cut into Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative base.

Even in left-leaning Berlin, it's hard to find a hard-core tax-and-spend liberal on the streets.

Horst, a driver employed by parliament, says he cooks for himself, studies price tags and buys his clothes secondhand, with the exception of shoes.

“People still get very nervous about inflation and being burdened with a lot of debt,” says the 62-year-old, who asked that his last name be withheld.

Michael Daubman, who headed an outplacement firm before he retired, says his recent experience as the executor of an estate in Greece soured him on government spending.

“We should spend a little more money for industry, but we shouldn't spend money all over the world only for goodwill,” he says.

Hans-Joachim Berg, a member of the euroskeptic AfD, agrees.

“I don't quite comprehend how spending German money internally will help foreign economies,” he says.

That's the essence of the problem for many Germans who don’t understand how their spending would stimulate growth elsewhere.

Most observers blame Germany's slowdown on falling demand for German machinery in China. So filling potholes on the Autobahn is unlikely to encourage the Mittelstand — the country’s famed economic backbone of small and medium-sized companies — to ramp up production for non-existent customers, critics say.

Moreover, as an export-oriented economy, they say, Germany grows at the expense of the rest of Europe, at least to some extent. That's why until recently, when Germany's own economic numbers started to look ugly, some of those same voices were calling on Berlin to somehow reduce its trade surplus.

Increasing spending while dampening exports, critics here say, is a feat few if any governments have ever attempted.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Refugee abuse scandal in Germany is highlighting failing EU policies

As growing numbers flood into Europe, the crisis is straining the continent's ability to cope.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

ESSEN, Germany — Midway through describing his alleged abuse by security guards at a home for asylum seekers here, Badr Abboussi breaks off to answer a call on his cell phone.

After speaking rapidly in Italian, the 21-year-old originally from Morocco hangs up, shrugs his shoulders and says ruefully, “Transfer.”

Ordinarily, that would be good news. Getting transferred from the dormitory-like processing center where he’s been living for the past two months to semi-permanent housing would normally signal that the government has agreed to evaluate his asylum claim.

But with his complaint against the Opti-Park refugee home in this western German city still pending, Abboussi is worried that it represents an effort to shut him up by shuffling him out of sight.

“They treat animals better than they treat us,” he says.

Abboussi says private security guards beat and kicked him so severely that doctors at a nearby hospital wanted to keep him overnight for observation. Dozens of others have recently filed similar complaints about humiliating treatment at homes across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

As Germans wake up to that and other news of grim conditions in overstretched facilities, cases like Abboussi's are prompting locals to call for other European Union members to help by taking on more refugees.

But with millions of Syrians fleeing to Lebanon and Turkey promising to increase refugee rosters in Europe, a looming crisis is putting pressure on ties already strained between EU members.

Among those calling for change, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere is proposing that EU member states accept refugee quotas based on their population sizes or GDP in order to limit the flow into Germany.

Berlin will host an international conference next week to discuss aid to countries hardest hit by the exodus from Syria, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

But much-needed reforms of the EU's own refugee policies probably won't make the agenda.

Instead, human rights activists say, Europe remains focused on building border fences and stepping up patrols to keep people out.

“I don't see the EU member states taking a great share with their resettlement programs or humanitarian mission programs,” says Franziska Vilmar of Amnesty International.

Critics of Germany's abuse cases say they highlight the fact that current policies are encouraging people to think of asylum seekers as invaders or lawbreakers.

Nearly 10 days went by before local police turned up to investigate Abboussi's claims. In another case guards took videos and photographs of themselves stepping on the neck of a handcuffed resident.

Those victims are the lucky ones.

For many others, Europe's fortification of its land borders has proven deadly. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say hundreds of thousands have tried to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats this year, resulting in a record death toll of more than 3,000 people.

As EU member countries squabble over the high cost of absorbing the refugees who do make it to Europe, there are signs of an even greater emphasis on policing the borders on the horizon.

The EU has already spent billions of dollars on building fences, installing electronic surveillance and conducting patrols in Bulgaria, Greece and other border states.

But that’s done little to stem the flow.

Next month, Italy will turn over its Mare Nostrum naval search and rescue operation to the EU's comparatively underequipped Frontex border police agency because other member statesaren't willing to share the $8 million-a-month bill.

That’s worrying observers.

“If Mare Nostrum stops and Frontex takes over, we will with open eyes have a large zone in the Mediterranean where people will drown,” Vilmar says.

Germany's own refugee crisis is shining a spotlight on how EU policies are contributing to the problem.

Under an agreement forged in Dublin in 2003, the first EU state to process asylum seekers’ arrival typically assumes responsibility for taking them in and evaluating their claims for refugee status.

The idea was to prevent asylum seekers from being shuttled from country to country in interminable limbo or “asylum shopping” in various states to increase their chances of being accepted.

In practice, the scheme has pitted EU border states against others on the continent — and states that are relatively friendly to refugees against the more refugee-averse — which has both worsened conditions for the refugees themselves and strained EU ties already stretched thin by infighting over austerity measures and other issues.

Many Germans believe the current policy, together with the effects of the euro crisis, have forced a small number of wealthy countries in northern Europe to accept responsibility for around three-quarters of the EU’s asylum seekers.

However, refugee advocates who point to the problems inside Germany say new quotas would only exacerbate poor conditions for asylum seekers.

Germany allots refugees to its states based on local wealth and population, as it hopes the EU will begin doing at the country level.

But critics say restricting people from moving freely within Germany after they've been granted temporary residence has inadvertently encouraged administrators to treat them like criminals.

“Of course the discourse in Germany leads to even more negative and hostile attitudes in large parts of the German population,” says Karl Kopp of Frankfurt-based Pro Asyl.

At the EU level, current policies have even more severe consequences, critics say.

The fact that countries processing asylum seekers are responsible for not only evaluating their claims, but also providing for their well-being if they’re granted refugee status, is creating an incentive for EU border states to pack arrivals onto trains and buses destined for other countries instead of processing them as required under the Dublin convention.

As Europe’s refugee crisis deepens, some say a change that allows refugees a choice in where they land is the only solution.

“The Dublin system is collapsing,” Kopp says. “It’s time for a real alternative which is taking into account the needs of asylum seekers.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

This celebrity scientist wants Germans to stop recycling. Here's why

Eco-warrior turned chemist Michael Braungart is trying to kickstart a new industrial revolution.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Michael Braungart is in a hurry.

A former environmental activist who once scaled smokestacks to fight pollution for Greenpeace, the celebrity chemist has emerged over the past two decades as a dark horse in the race to find solutions for saving the planet.

Braungart wants to end the current drive for people to “reduce, reuse and recycle” goods in order to prompt the next industrial revolution. His core idea is for manufacturers and users to no longer “consume” raw materials that are turned into waste, but “borrow” them, a concept he calls cradle-to-cradle.

“It's really reinventing everything,” he says.

But he's running out of time.

“We're losing our industrial base so fast in Europe that in the end we know what to do, but we cannot do it anymore,” he says, talking as though he's trying to fit two hours of interview into a scheduled one-hour slot.

He points to a television set he helped develop for the Dutch electronics giant Philips. The first TV designed not to spew toxic fumes into your living room, it saved so much electricity the company “could have given it away for free, if you converted the energy savings,” Braungart says.

Three months later, however, Philips sold its TV unit to a company in China.

With an unruly mop of sandy curls, wire-rimmed glasses and a rumpled denim blazer, Braungart looks like a Hollywood casting agent’s idea of a genius — Steve Jobs meets Dr. Who. Like a mad scientist turned gossip columnist, he peppers his nonstop riff with bizarre non-sequiturs and the names of luminaries who have embraced his ideas, from Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg to Ford Motor Company scion Bill Ford and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

“I don't know your sexual preference,” he begins, seemingly apropos of nothing, eventually coming around to comparing the goal of zero emissions to sadomasochism.

“I talked to Boris ... London wants to be climate neutral,” he says. “How stupid! No tree is climate neutral. We want to be more stupid than a tree?”

“We think it's only organic when my own feces cannot go back [to the soil]?” he adds. “This is sick! This is completely perverse.”

It's a heady mix of ideas. But there's substance, and progress, at its heart.

Working with US architect William McDonough, Braungart aims to transform the world's economy through manufacturing processes that not only do no harm, but actually clean the air, replenish topsoil, and, like trees, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen.

It may sound like pie in the sky. But since first presenting the idea in his bestselling 2002 manifesto “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things,” Braungart has proven the concept’s validity.

He's helped multinationals develop hundreds of products like Desso's EcoBase carpet tiles, designed for the backing to be easily removed and the fabric sent back to the yarn-maker for reuse, and Steelcase's Climatex compostable upholstery fabric, so green that the effluent flowing out of the mill was cleaner than the water coming in.

The best proof that cradle-to-cradle works, according to a recent Desso annual report, is that the company’s market share of commercial carpets in Europe rose from 15 percent to 27 percent in the period the changes were made, 2007 to 2013.

Still, change may not be coming fast enough.

Critics point out that the certification program Braungart and McDonnough started to push companies to adopt cradle-to-cradle manufacturing processes is woefully behind schedule: 353certifications against a targeted 30,000.

In contrast, the US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program, begun in 1994, covers more than 50,000 construction projects worldwide.

Meanwhile, as Braungart's experience with Philips suggests, globalization is driving manufacturers to low-cost countries — where environmental issues are only now beginning to gain prominence — far more rapidly.

Decades of research went into the development of non-toxic ink and compostable leather, for example, before the printing and tanning business pulled up stakes and migrated to China and India.

“It took us 18 years to have a leather which we can compost,” Braungart says. “But in that period all the big tanneries closed down in Europe. Now, I can show you a leather sample which is amazingly nice, but we don't have anybody to use it.”

His biggest obstacle may well be some of the world's most popular green ideas — in which his native Germany is an unquestioned leader.

Obsessively sorting their garbage and reusing bathwater since the 1970s, Germans have turned recycling into a religion. But that well-meaning, paper-or-plastic mentality has spawned huge industries predicated on the creation and incineration of waste.

Strange contradictions in so-called sustainability have resulted, Braungart says.

Among them, the construction of high-tech incinerators to dispose of magazines printed in China with ink made from toxic chemicals, and, more remarkably, the import of more than 2,000 tons of hazardous waste to fuel those plants.

Citing Germany's ballyhooed energy transition or “Energiewende,” Braungart says dramatic policy changes are needed to shift focus away from minimizing damage, which he says slows our inevitable destruction but also helps ensure it.

First up is encouraging innovation by targeting the elimination of waste incineration by 2030 through converting to the manufacture of products that can be returned to biological cycles.

“Just like socialism was never social, ecologism doesn't help the ecology,” Braungart says about well-meaning but ultimately harmful recycling. “It just keeps us busy.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The EU has spent billions to improve the lives of Roma. So why are their lives only getting worse?

Hostility and segregation in Central Europe are growing.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — When Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, Aladar Horvath hoped it would finally put an end to discrimination against the Roma.

The EU soon prioritized eliminating anti-Roma discrimination and segregation. It’s spent billions of dollars since 2007 to encourage integration.

Nevertheless, grassroots groups in Central Europe suggest the efforts may now be failing as festering economic turmoil continues to bolster long-simmering hostility.

A decade after Hungary’s EU accession, Horvath says the Roma’s plight in his country has only deteriorated.

“Even the best program can fail because of the society’s prejudices,” says the veteran civil rights campaigner, who started the Hungarian Roma Party before parliamentary elections in April.

The EU funneled around $100 billion to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia between 2007 and 2013 for economic development programs to benefit the Roma, including investments in low-income housing and school infrastructure.

Under EU policy, however, none of that funding was earmarked for specific schemes, so only a slim fraction was spent directly on the Roma.

Deeply held prejudices and systemic flaws have reduced the effectiveness of even that limited share despite bright spots such as a Hungarian effort to train and employ Roma women, aSlovakian program to fund teacher training and a Czech scheme to certify “ethnic-friendly employers.”

In a typical example, a Hungarian plan to target so-called “least developed micro-regions” resulted in the mushrooming of small towns where local elites captured development funds, Horvath says, while the Roma remained in isolated outlying villages.

“These villages are said to be dead, but they aren’t,” he says. “The cheapest apartments are here, so the Roma moved here, too.”

Broader studies suggest that story isn’t unique.

Social injustice has risen markedly in the majority of EU countries since the economic crisis began in 2008, according to a recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation. Discrimination and social divisions have increased especially quickly in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, where the Roma face “systemic discrimination.”

In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, enrolling Roma children into classes or separate schools for students with “special needs” remains a significant problem despite recent landmark court rulings against segregation in both countries.

Hungary in particular appears to be moving in the wrong direction. Observers say that’s because the popularity of anti-Roma rhetoric and policies outweigh influence from Brussels.

The number of segregated, Roma-only schools has increased from 128 in 1997 to more than 300 today, Horvath says.

Geographical segregation has also increased as the deteriorating job market and cuts to social spending have combined to drive Roma into isolated “islands of poverty,” says Budapest-based researcher Attila Agh, who worked on the Bertelsmann study.

“There are villages where 90 percent of the population is Roma, and there are more and more of these poverty islands in Hungary in general,” he said in an interview.

Hungary questions such assertions, saying that segregation is decreasing.

Still, the government isn’t satisfied with the current level of Roma integration, says international spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, citing the historical legacy of the fall of communism on top of centuries of discrimination.

“We were the first in the EU to submit a Roma strategy,” he said. “We have been cooperating with the Soros Foundation and charity organizations all over the country. And there has been a series of visible results showing decreasing segregation.”

Kovacs cites Prime Minister Viktor Orban's public works scheme, which he argues has provided jobs for 50,000 Roma and more than 300,000 Hungarians overall. Under the program, participants earn around twice the amount they would receive in welfare benefits for working or attending training programs, he says.

“We are trying to orient these people to have jobs,” he said.

Bertelsmann's Agh disagrees, saying that in practice, welfare reform has worsened conditions by reducing the benefits recipients can receive.

“Now, the only way to get some money is through these public works, which aren’t available for 12 months [of the year],” he says.

Although Orban's Fidesz Party raises the problem of Roma integration at the national level, its message becomes increasingly confused as it filters from Budapest to the countryside.

Meanwhile, the growing popularity of the far-right Jobbik Party is putting more pressure on Fidesz to drift further right.

In municipal elections over the weekend, Jobbik won seats in nine cities, up from just three in 2010.

Pressure to adopt anti-Roma policies is especially strong in tightly contested areas such as Miskolc, Hungary's third largest city, says Dorottya Atol of the European Roma Rights Center.

With Fidesz, Jobbik and a third party all neck and neck, she says, the Roma community “is really scapegoated and used for political reasons.”

Before this weekend's elections, Deputy Mayor Gyula Schweickhardt launched a popular scheme to demolish a Roma-dominated neighborhood characterized as a slum to make way for a soccer stadium. The evicted residents will receive money to buy new homes — but only outside the city, and only if they don't return for five years.

“There's a social and economic interest in providing an ideology that allows the middle class to get rid of the poor,” Horvath says, “starting with the Roma.”

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Russia could put a deadly freeze on Ukraine this winter

Moscow appears to be slashing gas exports to countries that supply fuel to the war-torn country.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — It’s shaping up to be a cold winter in Europe — or at least in Ukraine.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkelspearheads a push for peace in Ukraine, reports of reduced natural gas flows to Central Europe indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t ready to deal, experts say.

With storage facilities nearly full across Western Europe, the European Union’s major economies are unlikely to face a serious energy crisis. But Putin’s moves to slash gas exports to countries supplying fuel to Ukraine through so-called reverse flows threaten the war-torn country with a potentially devastating freeze.

“For the EU states, this winter looks fine even if there’s a week or two weeks of gas cutoffs,” says Michael Labelle, an energy expert at the Central European University in Budapest.

But if the EU can’t broker a deal with Russia and cutoffs block those reverse flows, “it’s really the Ukrainian people who are going to suffer," he adds, "and people are going to die."

Moscow cut gas supplies to Ukraine in June following Russia’s annexing of Crimea, arguing that Kyiv showed no signs of paying off a massive debt owed to Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled fuel behemoth. But unlike past cutoffs, gas has continued to flow through Ukraine to Europe.

Still, Putin’s latest moves are reminders that he can still turn off the tap.

“If the Ukraine crisis is not resolved, the transit route through Ukraine might be distorted so that less gas is delivered to Europe, as happened in 2006 and 2009,” says Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert with the German Institute for Economic Research.

Over the past weeks, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and now Romania have reported reductions of as much as 50 percent in the flow of gas they are contracted to receive from Gazprom. The fuel company claims it’s illegal for those countries to re-export gas to Ukraine.

“The Russian side talks about technical problems, about the necessity of filling up storage for the winter season,” Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said. “I have used this expression and I will use it again: Gas has become a tool in a political fight.”

So far, the interruptions have been temporary this time — warning shots rather than full-on salvos like those of 2006 and 2009.

The next milestone could be an extension or a deepening of the cuts. If Gazprom reinstitutes supply cuts to Poland and extends them from a few days to a few weeks, or increases the 50 percent reduction in gas for Slovakia to a full-blown cutoff, for example, that would be a grim sign.

“So far it’s been a stepped approach,” Labelle says.

Nevertheless, even the current comparatively minor saber-rattling has put more pressure on the EU to cobble together a deal under which Ukraine would settle its $3 billion debt owed to Gazprom in exchange for a guarantee of receiving at least 5 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia this winter.

Forging such a deal would give Putin a respectable way to back down without losing face, Kemfert says. But Russia is angling to extract a much higher price from Ukraine for gas than it gets from other European countries — $485 per cubic meter, compared with around $300 in Western Europe.

“An agreement is not in sight,” Kemfert adds.

Meanwhile, the deal itself would be like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg, Labelle warns.

“Certainly, if Russia wants to cool things, they will take this deal,” he says. “But the Ukraine is in really dire economic straits. Is the EU or US paying off Ukraine’s gas debt to Russia the solution? What about next year?”

With countries such as Germany, Austria and Hungary relying on Russia for 40 to 80 percent of their gas supplies, Europe has been endeavoring to forge a common energy market. With interconnected grids and pipelines, member states can increasingly buy and sell gas and electricity to each other (or Ukraine). Theoretically, that should allow the EU to negotiate with Russia as a block, using its economic might to counterbalance Russia’s energy politics.

But Moscow’s initial success in stopping reverse gas flows to Ukraine, as well as a broader reluctance to toe the line espoused by Brussels, has exposed weak links in the strategy.

In response to Gazprom’s supply cuts, not only Hungary but also tough-talking Poland — which has taken Europe’s strongest stance on the Ukraine crisis — immediately suspended reverse flows.

At the same time, Austria, Bulgaria and Hungary are forging ahead with plans to build theSouth Stream pipeline from Russia to Europe despite objections from Brussels that it undermines the EU’s negotiating position. Like the earlier Nord Stream pipeline, which pipes gas directly from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, South Stream would allow Gazprom to circumvent Ukraine and supply gas directly to southern Europe.

“When it comes to a common stance against Russia or with Russia [on energy policy], it’s something that comes out of Brussels, and it doesn’t represent any reality,” Labelle says.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Generations after WWII, is Germany ready to fight again?

Germans want a louder voice in global affairs, but their reluctance to take part in military operations is undermining that effort.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — When Chancellor Angela Merkel took office after her re-election last fall, she promised to expand her country's role in world affairs by unshackling its military.

That would reflect the political and economic leadership position Germany has taken in Europe over the last two decades.

But as the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, in Iraq and Syria is showing, that's easier said than done in a society that’s been a perennial conscientious objector since World War II.

Germany’s commitment to send $90 million worth of arms and equipment to Kurdish rebels fighting IS ended a longstanding policy against sending weapons into conflict zones. But the amount and nature of aid isn’t expected to grow.

That’s angering German hawks who are pushing Berlin to join US-led air strikes and dramatically expand efforts to train and equip those fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. But Merkel is constrained by a general unwillingness to take a direct role in the conflict as well as a crisis in the weapons industry.

“There's still great reluctance and resistance to [Germany's] arms sales to the Kurds, and there would be very strong opposition to joining the fight against IS,” defense expert Michael Brzoska of the University of Hamburg said in a telephone interview.

Over the weekend, local newspapers published the first photos of German troops training 32 Kurdish fighters at a military school in Bavaria.

A group of tough-talking ex-generals took that limited involvement as less a PR opportunity than a case of “those who can’t do, teach.”

“Our allies are flying combat missions against IS to protect our common security,” Harald Kujat, former inspector general of Germany’s Federal Defense Forces, told the tabloid Bildzeitung.

“But Europe's largest economy and one of the most important members of NATO is unable to act.”

Former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was more blunt. “We let others do our dirty work in Iraq,” he said.

Some are warning that the reluctance to fight may have broader consequences, especially after two well-publicized breakdowns of military planes ferrying troops to Iraq and aid to West Africa last week, which prompted criticism of Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.

The breakdowns have been blamed on a reliance on aircraft that have been in service for 50 years.

Germany's unwillingness to fight is spawning an inability to fight, says Rainer Arnold, a Social Democrat member of parliament.

Deep cuts to the defense budget have rendered NATO's would-be leader in Europe unable to meet its military commitments to the alliance, he says.

Germany spends less than $42 billion, or 1.3 percent of GDP, on its military, far below the 2 percent NATO says its members should lay out.

Instead of a lean fighting force, schizophrenic cost-cutting has resulted in an army that's equipped neither for a quick-hitting modern conflict like the fight against IS nor the large Cold War operations for which NATO was originally designed.

Meanwhile, toy-happy decision makers have unwisely slashed the maintenance budget to protect new procurements, Brzoska says.

“If you look at the equipment that the German military has,” he says, “there's no clear line what the armed forces think they're for or clear rationale behind what they're purchasing.”

At the same time, new government policies are targeting customers in other countries.

Germany's reputation for precision engineering has helped its defense industry emerge as the world's third-largest arms exporter, behind the US and Russia.

But last month, Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel unveiled plans that threaten to deliberately strangle Germany's arms makers with strict new limits on exports.

An ongoing shift of those exports from other countries within the European Union to new customers with dubious human rights records in Asia and the Middle East is incompatible with Germany's postwar commitment to peace, Gabriel said on German television.

The restrictions could send the country's weapons makers looking for greener pastures, the head of the German defense industry lobby warned.

"Either we will continue to reduce capacities and thus jobs as well or we'll go abroad," Armin Papperger, president of the Federation of German Security and Defense Industry, said in a recent interview.

Hamburg University's Brzoska doesn’t believe Germany is necessarily hitting a wall in steering from its past to a more influential future.

Taken together, the move to restrict arms exports and decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Iraq represent a shift toward using weapons transfers as a tool for Germany to become a bigger player in foreign affairs, just as Merkel promised, he argues.

Ethical concerns will remain the nominal justification for blacklisting particular countries. But the days of blanket opposition to supplying arms to countries in the middle of conflicts may be over.

Instead, Germany will treat its defense industry like the US, the world's leading arms exporter despite a lengthy list of countries that are banned from receiving American-made weapons.

“If a country is cooperating with the US, they will get lots of arms,” Brzoska says.

“That's what the [German] reform is all about," Brzoska says. “To move away from focusing on making money to focus more on the goals of German foreign policy.”
Some Germans fear rap music is fueling jihad. Musicians say a wave of sensationalism is stoking latent Islamophobia.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (October 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — When hooligans attacked Israeli soccer players in Austria this summer, few paid much attention to the matching sweatshirts they were wearing.

They were emblazoned with an image of crossed scimitars common in Islam together with the German phrase for “I'm staying ghetto,” made famous by a rapper named Kurdo.

For some, it provided new evidence that in Germany and across Europe, a connection is emerging between the hip-hop scene and a radical Islamist movement pushing for Sharia law.

“For a generation that’s growing up with social media, with smart phones, with the internet in general, it's easy for the Islamic State to radicalize young guys,” says Florian Flade, an expert on radicalism.

With new details surfacing almost daily about the growth of the radical Salafist movementhere, news about German jihadis fighting for the Islamic State, or IS, is prompting a renewed debate over the integration of Muslim immigrants. But hip-hop fans and musicians say it’s part of a wave of sensationalism that’s stoking latent Islamophobia in a society still wrestling with the notion of multiculturalism.

Germans have been struggling for years over how to respond to the angry language and glorification of violence prevalent in a strain of hip-hop music originating in Kreuzberg, an immigrant-dominated neighborhood of Berlin that’s sometimes dubbed “Little Istanbul.”

Rappers such as Anis Ferchichi, born in Bonn to a Tunisian father and German mother and better known as Bushido, have drawn criticism for anti-Semitic and homophobic lyrics.

Vulgar slurs have sometimes joined superficial references to Islam or radicalism, including in Bushido's 2009 song “Taliban.”

But now IS is embracing the tools of pop culture to draw recruits. Among its arsenal here is a former rapper named Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg, who in 2013 emerged as the German face of jihad.

After appearing in numerous propaganda videos for Al Qaeda and IS, Cuspert was reportedly killed in April, although IS subsequently denied those reports.

“As a rapper, he had only a little success,” says Freiburg University's Andreas Armborst. “But now he is a household name because his face is splashed across the pages of the [tabloid] Bild Zeitung.”

Together with the attack against Jewish soccer players in Austria, German protests against the Israeli occupation of Gaza this summer exposed a deep current of anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants. Chants included “Jew, Jew, cowardly bastard, come out and fight alone!”

The number of German citizens and residents joining the Salafist movement has tripled from around 1,800 members in 2011 to more than 6,000, according to a recent report by Germany's domestic security agency.

As many as 400 radicals have traveled to the Middle East for combat training and fighting, prompting a police crackdown that this week resulted in raids on homes across Germany and the arrests of several suspects accused of fighting for IS in Syria or funding propaganda videos.

But some Muslims here say public alarm is making it harder to tackle the problem.

They see a stark contrast between the immediate leap to intercede against anti-Semitism during the protests this summer and the official reaction to more than 80 attacks against German mosques since 2012.

Every major news outlet and politician weighed in to express their dismay over the anti-Semitic chants, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, they argue. But when a mosque is set ablaze or when Muslims are attacked and killed — such as in a notorious series of murders allegedly perpetrated by the far-right National Socialist Underground between 2000 and 2007 — the initial official reaction tends to deny prejudice as a motive.

At the same time, hip-hop musicians and fans — as well as German Muslims — caution that sensationalist media reports are creating a climate of hysteria that’s making it more difficult to reach the country's alienated minorities.

News reports about Cuspert — a former Kreuzberg resident born to a Ghanaian father and German mother — made him out to be a big rap star, even though he never achieved much prominence during his short-lived career as Deso Dogg.

After his conversion, Cuspert denounced the music and excoriated his former lifestyle.

That says as much about audience prejudices as it does about hip-hop, says Olad Aden, a social worker who uses rap workshops as a way of reaching Berlin street kids.

“I’m dismayed that several media outlets have highlighted the fact that some of these, for lack of a better term, 'sick' individuals within these terrorist organizations have been 'rappers' in the past,” he says. “Undoubtedly they have been many other things as well.”

The music industry may be partly to blame.

Despite his controversial lyrics and lifestyle, Bushido was awarded Germany's prestigious Bambi award for “successful integration.”

Critics say that reflects the music industry’s glamorization of Muslim alienation.

Iranian-German rapper Kaveh Ahangar says the industry marginalizes moderate rappers “who have a critical text against the US foreign policy, the Israeli occupation or structural racism in Germany.”

Instead, “the only people who get a platform are gangsta or middle-class rappers who rap about issues that are quite banal.”