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FIELDS: Germany’s approach

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2008

OP-ED:

Chancellor Angela Merkel is suffering a barrage of metaphors, some of them pointed and all of them mixed. So, too, President Nicholas Sarkozy in neighboring France. They're the odd couple of the European Union, usually depicted as friends, but every European understands that kisses on both cheeks do not a romance make. Their dance was once a graceful duet in a light-hearted French operetta, but she's now singing off key in a solo, rendering them a misbegotten couple in a Wagnerian opera.

Enough metaphors already? The German press has more. “These days both leaders are governing on the thin ice of the financial crisis, but Mr. Sarkozy is whistling as he turns confident pirouettes, while Mrs. Merkel is crawling across the slippery surface on all fours, slowly and cautiously,” observes Der Spiegel, the weekly newsmagazine, invoking popular cliches to deride the strategy the two leaders are using to deal with the recession.

Other leaders in the European Union want her to package a bigger stimulus, but the cautious Frau Merkel is indeed cautious. She offers only modest sums to trigger investment. Mixed messages join mixed metaphors at home. When the chancellor met this week with government ministers, business executives and labor leaders to find ways to slow the recession, the meeting concluded with mush calling for “collective accountability,” which is no more appealing than “accountable collectivity.” Most Germans do not suffer from personal debt. They're stingy with the plastic. But if they guard their credit cards, they don't seem to mind costly government measures for saving the environment.

Once a staunch supporter of the Merkel environmental protections, German Greens now depict the chancellor in shades of yellow, charging her with cowardice as her enthusiasm for fighting global warming cools (even as the globe itself cools). The Greens are especially angry that she joined other EU nations in a compromise that delays setting goals for reducing carbon emissions in Eastern Europe, where there's a reliance on smokestack industries. She insists that ambitious targeted goals remain in place for the year 2020, but that means playing a waiting game, and there's a long, long time between 2008 and 2020.

Seeking to turn her negatives, Frau Merkel praised the EU economic stimulus package of 200 billion euros ($267 billion) and promised Germans that she would spend billions of euros on road building and repairs next year. She feels the sting in the French accusation that she's “Madam Non,” and failed Mr. Sarkozy for failing to join his expensive “rescue” proposals. She likes the sound of “Madam Oui” better.

Her pas de deux with Mr. Sarkozy over, she's determined to avoid the look of the wallflower. She's eager now for Barack Obama to sign her dance card. The chancellor says she won't commit to more spending on the German economic crisis until after the inauguration “of the new president of the world's largest economy was in office.” She, like most Europeans, is counting on the messiah from Chicago.

Teutonic times are tough all over. The German car industry is fastening its seat belts for the bumpiest ride in its history. BMW and Mercedes-Benz, long synonyms for “quality” and “luxury,” are suffering acute car sickness. They haven't been hit as hard as the Detroit Three, but their cars aren't turning heads and emptying wallets as they did only yesterday. Driving a sedan with a big engine reflects both bad taste and bad judgment in a declining economy. BMW cut more than 8,000 jobs this year and Mercedes says it will sell 150,000 fewer cars next year than it expected to do. Opel, the cutting-edge German car owned by General Motors, is vulnerable, too. Used cars with name brands are less desirable, too, as prospective owners worry that spare parts - batteries, brakes, fan belts, even windshield wipers - will be hard to find.

Mistakes seen through a rear-view mirror only reveal the landscape left behind, and foresight requires manufacturers to change their attitude as well as their designs. Expensive models with fast engines are suddenly unappreciated by drivers addicted to racing across the autobahns. Porsche became the major shareholder in Volkswagen with the intent to make sports cars with more power, but now those expected 12- and 16-cylinder monster engines look only like out-of-reach indulgences for a future demanding fuel efficiency.

Despite the bad economy, Berliners are reveling as usual in their distinctive Christmas markets, scooping up trinkets, gorging on potato pancakes and sipping Glühwein, the distinctive warmed wine. On St. Nicholas Day, celebrated early in December, children found their polished shoes stuffed with candy and sweets as always. The saint lived up to his reputation as a “wonderworker.” Mrs. Merkel once imagined herself as someone like that, but not this year. That's one metaphor that's gone missing.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.