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“We have cut our own legs off”—Roland Tichy speaks about Germany’s troubles by Mátyás Kohán

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Interview

“We have cut our own legs off”—Roland Tichy speaks about Germany’s troubles

Roland Tichy (1955, Bad Reichenhall) is a German journalist and publicist, the founder and editor-in-chief of Tichys Einblick, an online portal with a monthly print edition selling more than twenty thousand copies. After earning his degree in economics, he was an assistant research fellow at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, after which he joined the planning team of the Federal Chancellor’s Office (Bundeskanzleramt) of Helmut Kohl. He continued his career as a journalist, first working as Bonn correspondent for Wirtschaftswoche, and later as deputy editor-in-chief of Capital. For a few years, he was responsible for corporate affairs at Daimler-Benz and was editor-in-chief at various business journals, including Impulse, Die Telebörse, and Euro. As head of the Berlin office of Handelsblatt, chief editor of Wirtschaftswoche, and a popular publicist of Bild am Sonntag, he founded his own journal in 2015.

Mátyás Kohán from the Hungarian online news magazine Mandiner.hu interviewed Mr. Tichy at MCC Feszt, organised by Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), where Tichy participated in a panel discussion on politics, the media, and public life in Germany. 


INTERVIEW

Mr. Tichy, you are heading one of the very few publications in German media that are worth reading. How do you feel in the German media space? How do you see German media as a whole and your own role within it? 

The spectrum of opinions in the German media space has significantly constricted over a period of about twenty years. A female colleague at radical left-wing Süddeutsche Zeitung once called it, self-critically, ‘voluntary Gleichschaltung.’ One should know that Gleichschaltung (forcible coordination) was the method applied by Goebbels in the Third Reich to mute journalists. ‘Voluntary Gleichschaltung’ in this sense is quite an interesting term, as it shows that for some reason—about which we can only speculate—journalists started, out of their own free will, by themselves, to work towards a single direction, without becoming divided against either themselves or the profession. This voluntary Gleichschaltung has only become more pronounced in the last few years. 

I am not happy about this, but I am doing well, as it has provided the opportunity for me to set up a business in an industry where you would otherwise need a huge amount of money, which I just don’t have. There is a saying from the 1950s, of the conservative publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: freedom of the press in Germany is the freedom of a few ultrarich families. I do not belong to them, but thanks to the narrowing of the spectrum of opinions, I still managed to put together a reasonable enterprise. I feel good there, when I’m in a good mood. But of course there are also some days when I’m sad, when I’m down for some reason, because we are facing enormous hostility. After all, this Gleichschaltung has also been accompanied by something that could be called ‘punishing the outsider:’ cover-up, bashing, mudslinging, and attempts to undermine us financially. So, it is rather difficult in Germany to adopt a dissenting point of view. But it is possible, and I have been delighted to do so.

This question has been weighing on me for a long time: regarding sanctions, Germany has virtually given in. The resistance it once put up regarding sanctions against Russian energy is gone. At the same time, leading journalists such as Anne Will or Markus Lanz raised questions already in the first days of the war like ‘does this mean we will not purchase a single cubic metre of Russian gas anymore?’ Hence the question: To what extent is Germany’s caving due to the media? 

This—as usual—is an approach characterised by a low level of intellectual effort concerning the issues themselves. The first decisive step was taken by Angela Merkel, who practically decommissioned all of our nuclear power stations, and —as if that had not been enough—the coal-powered ones as well. But since we still need to receive energy from some source, she arranged for its procurement from Russia.

When people talk about renewable energy in Germany, they in fact have Russian gas in mind, since the sun does not shine at night, and during the winter, which is terribly long and chilly in Germany, neither the sun nor the wind would add more than 1–2% to our energy supply. Therefore, it has to be complemented with Russian gas, and before the war, the plan had been to increase this capacity with 50–60 additional gas power plants. That is, to massively restrict our energy sourcing spectrum to Russia.

This is a novelty in German history, since the energy policy credo in the past was always that we should not become dependent, but should remain independent via the diversity of suppliers: let the oil come from Saudi-Arabia and Venezuela, let the coal flow in from Australia, Colombia, or from our own production, let’s have our own gas and nuclear power … and they went to great lengths to get rid of this wide energy field in favour of Russian gas. If, on top of all this, we also say that we are not going to buy any gas from Russia, it means the lights will go out in Germany. So, such a statement is just ridiculous in itself, without any political or economic implications whatsoever. People who make such statements are proposing stupidity, something one should only laugh at.

You are a business journalist by profession, a field where you have earned significant merits. What perspective can you see for the German economy, in view of the euro’s lost value, for instance, to which the European Central Bank has recently been all but assisting? 

The situation of the German economy has always been made difficult by the fact that the Deutschmark was a rather hard currency, and for those who have a hard currency, exports will be a challenge, since it means that the price of their products in other countries’ currencies would be rather high. Germany, however, has always performed its economic miracle through its hard currency policy. After all, from another angle, hard currency is the expression of stability; interest rates were relatively low, and the continuous competitive pressure was enhancing the performance of the economy.

Now, however, for quite a few years we have been in the position where we have only had the euro. And it is steered by a central bank serving the interests of southern European countries that need a cheap euro and low-interest rates so that they could be financing their overwhelming sovereign debts.

The bill is being paid by Germany, losing on the euro, which is making the future of the German economy grimmer with each day. The obvious gas crisis has added an extra burden: 16% of German companies have declared to have reduced or fully stopped production already. This is a frightening figure.

You said the German energy crisis was “home-made.” What possible solutions can you see? Or, if I can rephrase the question concerning the new European gas emergency plan more candidly: does it actually mean that Germany would take our gas away from us? 

The Germans want European solidarity now, and solidarity always means, euphemistically, that I am poor, so I am taking something from you. In the relations existing between people, solidarity is completely understandable, it is a valuable human trait, since we are not independent beings, but social beings. Solidarity between states, however, is difficult—what can you do with one who is destroying oneself? What can you do with a country which messed up its own economic capacity and then says give me the money that I have wasted? One could look for this in the Bible, and find the parable of talents: the talents should be used, and if one fails to tend to one’s vineyard, one will have to live with the consequences—the destruction of one’s vineyard. 

We destroyed our vineyard; the once highly complex energy infrastructure of this country is in shambles. It is not only about the volume of electricity or gas, but about the method of their distribution within the country. So, we have destroyed our vineyard, and continue to inflict additional pain by putting several industries at a disadvantage, crippling them, for instance, the automotive industry, and now we are demanding solidarity from other countries. It is no wonder that first, they begin by watching us rather nervously before breaking into laughter, after which they say this is your responsibility, after all, so just do whatever you want to do. 

Can you see any other solution to this German energy crisis that would not affect the European gas supply? Due to the interdependence of the economies, a German economic crisis would also be devastating for Central Europe. 

There might be a way out of this crisis, but it is not viable in the short term. A plan should be prepared, describing how we would resolve our energy crisis in one, two, three, or four years, and with such a plan it would be possible to ask for solidarity in the EU. We could say that they should not give their gas to us, we would only borrow it, and once we are back on our feet, we would return the favour in some other way.

What could such a plan consist of? One of the elements, of course, would be that we should continue to operate our nuclear power plants. We are currently in a crazy situation where the last three nuclear power plants are going to be shut down in the winter when the weather will be really cold. Most probably no one in the world understands why we are planning to turn off the heat in the winter only to then beg for someone to give us some heat. We could re-commission at least three nuclear plants, maybe more, that we have shut down. This would also be possible to do. It would still be dodgy in the winter, but this would probably help us to survive it.

Then, we could also re-start natural gas production in Germany. We actually have a lot of natural gas reserves in Germany, in Lower Saxony; the gas production facilities are still there, but they were decommissioned, because we believed it to be wise to bring gas from Russia, from Qatar, and from the U.S., but to leave our own gas under the ground because gas should be in the ground, and not in the air. This is another thing that is difficult to explain to others: why it is okay to import gas produced with the same technology from the U.S. at a higher price—with a high rate of product loss en route from America—while we leave our own gas in the ground. It is also difficult to explain to our Dutch neighbours who provide part of our gas supply. Their gas comes from the same rock layer as our own, but we refuse to tap it, only to ask the Dutch to give it to us as a gift. This policy is terribly difficult to explain.

Then, we could also employ other technologies we have come up with—for example, we could be storing carbon dioxide, produced by burning coal, in the ground. But we also refuse to do this, even though the technology was developed in Germany, and it was ready for mass production.

In other words, we would have many sources of energy if we wanted them. They cannot be activated overnight, which is easy to understand, since we are speaking about major technical facilities, and pipelines are also needed, fuel is required for nuclear plants, and so on, but this could be a plan, on the basis of which we could be telling other countries, look, we have got a problem, it is our fault, and we will solve our problem, but until we reach that point, let’s talk. In the way we are doing it now, cutting our legs off and then saying, please be so kind as to give us your car—this will be rather hard to pull off. 

How stable is the traffic light coalition (Ampelkoalition) in power in Germany at the moment?

The strength of the traffic light coalition is the opposition’s weakness. The strongest opposition force—CDU/CSU—became paralysed for several reasons: first, they are responsible for the wrong decisions in energy policy, as those did not come out of the blue, it was Angela Merkel who actually went through with them. 

So far, CDU has been unable to distance itself from Angela Merkel and her way of doing politics.

This makes them morally vulnerable. Every time a CDU politician says that he wants more nuclear power, the posters which the CDU used to proudly announce that nuclear plants were to be shut down, instantly, are laid out in front of them. A nuclear plant, however, or a coal-burning plant for that matter, is not a simple water boiler that can be switched off and on rapidly. These are complex technologies, and so the wrecking of the entire industry is also the ‘result’ the CDU managed to accomplish. The CDU has not admitted to representing this policy firmly enough yet, because it is ashamed of itself for doing so and would like to manicure the consequences of its actions, and therefore it is now acting submissively—and the CDU’s humbleness is the strength of the Ampelkoalition. 

We are in Hungary, a country which has gained significance in European politics very much in excess of its size. As you are aware, Hungary is struggling between representing its national interests and European cooperation, in respect of the oil and gas issue. We risk failing to receive either a sufficient amount of oil and gas, or EU funds. In this situation, what would be your advice to Hungary? 

From a German perspective, it is hard to give advice to Hungarian politicians, as the aversion to Hungarian politics does not originate from oil- and gas-related policies, but from social and immigration policy. And since Hungary’s policy regarding these issues goes against the European mainstream, this has a negative effect on all levels. 

In this regard, the position of Hungarians is very difficult in the European Union; the Hungarian government may only attempt to achieve the strongest autonomy possible, and thereby keep itself out of this strange game where it is being punished for something it did not even commit in the first place. This is politics. 

On the side, what are your impressions of Hungary?

I am very much surprised by the beauty of the cities I have visited. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do, but there is a chance. I am also surprised by the positive economic data Hungary is showing. This means that Hungary’s policy—and not just Hungarian policy, but the policy of the Central European countries, as I would definitely include the Czech Republic and Poland—is certainly more sensible than the sluggish German policy, which is not even capable of covering its territory with decent internet. Just recently, an Albanian student girl told me how strange it was that the internet was running a lot smoother in Albania than in Hamburg. 

Mátyás Kohán is a foreign policy writer for the Hungarian weekly Mandiner. He has written extensively on the U.S., Russia, Germany, and Italy and appears regularly on national television.

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