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January 23, 2019

The importance of the Aachen Treaty

There are many ways to look at the Aachen Treaty, signed by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron yesterday. The Economist dismissed it as a museum piece, an unnecessary and counterproductive move in a EU in which France and Germany should give up on their ambition to be the engine or, as critics would say, the directoire of European integration. The German media tended to emphasise the united front Berlin and Paris were putting up against populism. On the whole the treaty was welcomed as a validation of the continuing importance of the bilateral relationship for both countries.

Georg Blume writes that it was the obvious ease of the relationship between the two leaders that was most impressive, rather than the symbolism of the ceremony or the treaty's content, with its numerous provisions and declarations of intent ranging from defence, economics, education and border regions.

French commentary was on the whole even more critical. The strong symbolism of the Aachen Treaty is in stark contrast to its weak content, writes Dominique Seux in Les Échos. It is only a pale shadow of what Emmanuel Macron evoked in his speech at the Sorbonne thirteen months ago. Then Macron raised the bar high to force Berlin to agree on an objective for Europe over the next decade - but Germany failed to respond as it had other problems to deal with. The result, he writes, is a treaty with hardly any reference to the eurozone in the text. In that sense it sounds more like the end of an era rather than the beginning of a new one, so Seux.

And how to counteract the avalanche of fake news the Aachen treaty provoked on the far right? The French government chose to publish a communique rejecting each of the fictional claims with a capitalised NON and countering the claims with another capitalised LA VÉRITÉ (the truth). Commentators wondered whether this was a wise move. It is certainly not one without risks, warns Cécile Cornudet. In an angry post-truth world such as ours, such a brutally worded response to brutally wrong claims could backfire. And, by highlighting the claims in this fashion, it pushes the fake news right into the electoral campaign for the European elections.

We believe that the best way to look at the treaty was the one suggested in Aachen by Merkel herself. Just like its landmark predecessor of 1963, the Aachen Treaty is a tool. To what extent it will be used, and become an effective instrument for bilateral Franco-German and future EU policy, will depend entirely on the future governments in charge in each country. As long as the joint influence of France and Germany outweighs any impact either country could exert individually in Europe, the relationship will continue to prevail.

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January 23, 2019

The demise of small Greek parties over Macedonia

The Prespes agreement on the Macedonia name deal is on track to be adopted in a plenary session of the Greek parliament tomorrow. Historic as this treaty is, it caused a deep divide among Greeks and destroyed several small parties along the way, writes Macropolis

The latest victim is To Potami. Two of their MPs are against the deal and - much to the surprise of the other three - decided to leave the party, de facto ending To Potami as a parliamentary group. Kinal, the alliance of parties of the centre-left, is in trouble too. The hard stance against the Macedonia deal by its leader Fofi Gennimata has led to the departure of one of its parties, Dimar. Also, former Pasok leader George Papandreou seems to disagree with Gennimata on this issue, and could yield another blow to Kinal. On the far right, Anel is another victim of the divide. Its leader Panos Kammenos is fighting for his party's political survival after the deal split the party and reduced its MP count down to five.

Syriza is set to benefit from this demise of the small parties in the upcoming elections and beyond. If voters see the elections as a contest between the two largest parties, Syriza and New Democracy, both will be likely to harvest some of the votes from To Potami, Kinal and Anel. Also, with the demise of two centre-left parties, Syriza will have no trouble claiming to be a harbour for the centre-left of the political spectrum, even if New Democracy were to win the elections.

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January 23, 2019

A speed limit on autobahns - what is the world coming coming to?

The noose is tightening. Don't hold your breath - a change in the speed limit on German autobahns is still a long way off - but the debate is shifting. A government commission on the future of mobility has put the speed limit on the agenda, to the annoyance of the industry and of the transport minister, from the CSU. In the German government, transport ministers traditionally defend the industry's interest.

The lack of a speed limit won't fall easily, but we have no doubt that it will fall eventually as Germany is on course for a massive overshoot of its 2030 climate goals. The Greens are prioritising this now. We liked the comparison by Cem Ozdemir, the Green politician who heads the Bundestag's transport committee, between the German obsession with speed and the US obsessions with guns. He is also right when he says that he does not expect the Greens' position on this issue to prevail in the short term. We see parallels with the debate on nuclear power. The Greens prevailed eventually, but it took some time. The German auto lobby, and its many defenders in the media and consumer groups, are still in the driving seat so to speak. 

But consider the changing environment. The German car industry is facing multiple problems - diesel scandals, the dramatic fall in diesel sales, higher fuel taxes, a shift in consumer preference to smaller cars, and technological shifts that favour China and the US. A speed limit is probably not the most important challenge. But its significance is symbolic. 

In our own conversations in Germany, we note a sense of widespread denial not only about the environmental impact of cars, but also on the commercial and industrial consequences of the challenges posed by electric engines and artificial intelligence. A common defence of the status quo that we hear often is the backward-looking assertion that the carbon footprint of an electric car is higher than that of a diesel car. This is true for now, but it is shifting fast.

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