Angela Merkel’s to-do list, Hamburg’s meaty resurgence and the UK’s forthcoming general elections.
Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Together, has a near-impossible task. Viktor Orbán, the right-wing prime minister, is presiding over his second two-thirds majority in Parliament. Together is part of a centre-left that is divided into five parties, which spend much of their time squabbling. Yet still the green shoots of a potential revival can be seen. Szigetvári is a key figure in the new generation of young politicians that is determined to make a difference and shake up a moribund political system.
“My country is in a crisis and should be in much better shape,” says Szigetvári, 36. “We need to rebuild our self-esteem and have a clear vision for the progressive left.” One day the five parties will have to unite to take on the government; when they do, Szigetvári will be ready to be centre stage.
Angela Merkel has held firm to her frugal budget policy, angering European neighbours who would like to see Germany create more demand via investment. But for the country’s export-oriented economy the weak euro, excellent products and the world’s highest productivity mean great business. German firms are mostly doing well, creating jobs and paying lots of taxes: for the first time in almost 50 years the country boasts a balanced federal budget. Merkel’s to-do list remains long, though.
Voices at home and abroad call for more international engagement (read: support of military interventions). The case seemed rather uncontroversial until major shortcomings in the Bundeswehr’s infrastructure surfaced: equipment is old or faulty, while many aircraft are grounded because of missing spare parts. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, seen by many as a possible successor to Merkel, will have to beef up spending.
Integration of immigrants
Germany likes to see itself as a multicultural melting pot and in cities such as Berlin this may be true. But a sudden spike in refugees from the world’s hot spots may change this. In the first seven months of 2014 almost 100,000 people sought asylum, 60 per cent more than in all of 2013. Recently an ugly case of abuse in refugee homes raised public concerns and the German Association of Cities is demanding more money and legislative reform to tackle the issue.
Exporting the ‘Energiewende’
Renewable energies were the largest contributors to German power consumption in 2014 for the first time. That wind, sun and biomass are fuelling one of the world’s most advanced economies is a huge step and hopefully sets an example for other countries to follow. German engineering is already at the core of this Energiewende (“energy transition”) and it could be the case abroad as well. Electric cars from bmw and Volkswagen could boost international popularity for saving the planet the German way: via hi-tech and innovative means.
Before most British elections it is usually easy to pick the winner; not this time. Both Labour and the Conservatives are polling in the low 30s, pinning their hopes on being the least despised. Anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-anything-modern Ukip is driving the agenda.
Officially, yes, it’s an election but Belarus is no democracy. Alexander Lukashenko is, quite rightly, known as Europe’s last dictator. Last time around he “won” 80 per cent of the vote then sent his security forces to crush demonstrations and arrest his opponents.
Time for a new generation of Polish politicians. With former prime minister Donald Tusk now president of the European Council, this year’s parliamentary and presidential elections could see a dramatic change in personnel. Don’t expect the left to get a look-in. Polish politics remains a battle between the right and the centre-right.
Are Germany’s ace designers able to overcome the negative connotations surrounding gentrification and create a shiny new neighbourhood that manages to retain authentic links to Hamburg’s history? Germany’s largest port city is in the throes of a serious urban makeover that might answer this question as the HafenCity project inches towards completion. Valued at nearly €11bn, HafenCity is a mixed-use neighbourhood that will expand central Hamburg by nearly 40 per cent.
When completed in 2025, the project will be home to some 12,000 people in roughly 6,000 new homes, while 22 per cent of its land is designated as green public space. If any country can maintain the balance of forward-thinking urban development that remains true to its roots, it is Germany.
Almost two decades in the making, the high-speed rail link between Erfurt and Leipzig/Halle will be completed in 2015. With speeds of up to 300km/h, Erfurt to Berlin travel time will be cut to one hour and 45 minutes.