German giants’ feet of clay exposed

By Deborah Cole ,AFP

By Deborah Cole BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel facing the biggest challenge of her tenure, Volkswagen and the national soccer association each mired in scandal: the pillars of German public life will start 2016 on wobbly foundations. Merkel began the year flying high in the polls, with the EU’s top economy humming and the German leader polishing her “Queen of Europe” crown as a valued mediator in the Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile VW was on its way to pipping Toyota as the world’s top automaker and German soccer was still basking in its 2014 World Cup triumph in Brazil. But after a summer that saw Merkel preside over yet another exhausting round of bailout talks for Greece, her announcement in September of an open-door policy for the biggest refugee influx since World War II divided both her country and the EU. While many took inspiration from her “We can do it” rallying cry, critics soon said the hundreds of thousands of newcomers would overwhelm communities and drive yet another wedge through the 28-country bloc.

“Something has changed in the balance of European power,” the center-left daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote. “For years, it was the chancellor pulling the strings … but on the refugees she has not managed to unite Europe behind her. And European partners are seeing that Merkel is being attacked by her own allies. Merkel’s position was weakened by the crisis year 2015.” Scandal ‘made in Germany’

The main indicators for Europe’s top economy remained largely sunny but the shock revelation that VW systematically installed emission-cheating software in some 11 million diesel engines worldwide shook the “Made in Germany” brand to its core. “VW is not just any company, it is the model German corporation,” the director of the German chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, Edda Mueller, told AFP. “Some business leaders worry that ‘Made in Germany’ — with its belief in a high degree of quality and competence — could be damaged. That makes the lax, inadequate reaction of the political class all the more negligent.” Political scientist Henrik Enderlein of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance agreed that Germany’s reputation for excellence was a precious but fragile commodity. “German products sell at a mark-up everywhere in the world,” he said. “The moment you destroy this ‘Made in Germany’ image, and it’s no longer the clear guarantee of perfect quality and absolute reliability, Germany will suffer economically.”

Mueller called 2015 “a disappointing year for the integrity of the German economy,” adding that the sleaze that came to light in the world of sport took it to even more “shameful” lows. The bombshell hit in October, when Der Spiegel magazine published allegations that Germany won the right to host the 2006 soccer World Cup — called a “summer fairy tale” for the pivotal role it played in boosting the country’s self-image — thanks to millions in bribes paid to FIFA executives.