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Europe, Germany, Italy

Who are Europe’s real clowns?

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD opposition candidate for Chancellor in this autumn’s elections in Germany, caused a diplomatic row in the wake of the Italian elections by describing ‘populists’ Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo as clowns. But neither Peer Steinbrück nor Angela Merkel have understood a thing about Europe’s crisis, argues Jakob Augstein.

A Swiss vote against greed and a protest vote in Italy: Europe is tired of this capitalism. The Germans are alone in failing to understand it. And Steinbrück certainly hasn’t.

Swiss citizens have voted against the unlimited enrichment of corporate executives. In Italy, a government of technocrats was rejected by the voters. There is a populism that is founded on reason – it is called democracy. People are tired of capitalism which destroys society. The outrage has grown, and anger is mounting. Above all against the Germans. But we continue to worry soley about our money and we take offence.

The spat about the clown shows: once again the SPD candidate for chancellor does not understand what is happening in Europe. Germany has become a European problem – and Peer Steinbruck is not the solution.

Lucky Switzerland! Sometimes you have to envy the country and its democracy. In a referendum a fortnight ago the Swiss stopped the madness of soaring bonuses, golden parachutes and six digit salaries: in the future it will be for the shareholders to decide, and not executives. II will ban golden handshakes and millionaire goodbyes. The Swiss had the courage to do something.

Then take the reactions to the Italian elections. The ‘conditions are not clear’ was the first response of the markets. They are the true rulers and behave as such. Moody’s has threatened to a credit downgrade. And the bond market reacted: ‘In exchange for electoral chaos, Italy received a bill with higher interest,’ according to Deutsche Presseagentur. Because for many journalists it is now normal ‘the markets’ make people pay for their politics.

A question: why do the financial markets directly elect governments? In truth this has been happening for a long time. Economics professor Mario Monti in Italy and the central banker Loukas Papademos in Greece were technocrats put in place by markets – and by Angela Merkel.

The German Chancellor has chained the entire continent to the disastrous ideology of ‘austerity’: it sounds good and it seems reasonable. But in truth it’s hell. The austerity measures are bringing down the economy. So the debt burden increases. And you undermine confidence. But money, however, ‘is a matter of confidence’. Wolfgang Münchau wrote recently in Der Spiegel: ‘You can also call it a debt trap. No way out without outside help. And the more you struggle, the deeper you sink into debt.’

Europeans are increasingly tired of Merkel and the markets. ‘The German dream is the European nightmare, wrote French daily ‘Le Monde. Just 25 years after regaining full sovereignty in Europe, Germany is on the path to political isolation.

This is the political legacy of this Chancellor. Merkel did not realize that Europe is a political project. It’s not an accountancy project. She failed to explain to the Germans what integration means: its not only others who must integrate. So here we are. ‘Shock after the Italian elections. Will they destroy our Euro? wrote the online edition of the Bild-Zeitung. And this is just where the misunderstanding lies. It’s not just ‘our’ Euro.

The popular daily likely caught the mood of the people. It ‘s as if the Germans do not understand what is at stake. They witness the weakening morale of their welfare system with strange indifference. Germany’s own Occupy movement, which two years ago was a huge success, quickly crumbled, and no one misses it. The tax on financial transactions, with a strong symbolic importance, is held back by the small Free Democratic Party FDP party, a Merkel ally.

But the challenger to Merkel, Peer Steinbrück, is not the one who will explain the importance of Europe to the Germans. He cannot even understand what is going on around him. Steinbrück has offended the winner of the elections Grillo, calling him a ‘clown’, but he has no idea of ​​the Italian conditions.

Dominated by corruption, crime and kleptocracy, the clown is probably the only reasonable alternative in Italy. But Grillo is not a clown. He’s a moralist. Italian politics are not used to this – nor are Germany’s. His demands – limiting the number of mandates, reduced number of parliamentarians, a law against the conflict of interest of politicians – are anything but clownish. And the ‘grillini’ who are about to enter Parliament, are not technocrats nor lobbyists but rather elected, in the best sense of the term.

If Steinbrück was a Social Democrat, he would have at least a bit of sympathy for these men and women and would wish them a little luck for the difficult journey that awaits them.

The sociologist Oskar Negt wrote: ‘The present suffers from a chronic malnutrition of the productive imagination.’  For Germany it is a perfect phrase. But luckily not for all of Europe.

Jakob Augstein is a columnist for Der Speigel.

Translation/edit by Revolting Europe

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope

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