Davos Man and Davos Woman, that demographic archetype formerly known as Master and Mistress of the Universe, are again en route to the annual World Economic Forum. Christine Lagarde, boss of the IMF, kicks things off today with her economic overview. With an eye to trouble in China, trade wars, a possible Brexit and more, the IMF is lowering its forecast for global growth by 0.2 points to 3.7 percent. And yet the big story may not be about the 3,000 delegates from 110 countries who are attending, but about the few but big names who won’t be.
Those skipping the event include: Donald Trump, who’s busy with a government shutdown; Emmanuel Macron, who’s worried about looking elitist to the “yellow vests” at home; Theresa May, who’s under fire over Brexit; and Xi Jinping, who feels he posed so persuasively as defender of free trade at Davos in 2017 that he doesn’t need to do it again. With the big guys and gals gone, the German delegations may get more attention. Chancellor Angela Merkel is going, as is her likely heiress, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. We’ll have some on-the-ground impressions later this week.
The even bigger story about Davos is of course the spreading backlash against its very spirit. Davos Man has become a stereotypical bogeyman in the growing tension between “Anywheres and Somewheres,” as one book title famously put it. The Anywheres are the globalist and cosmopolitan elites that would feel comfortable at Davos, or anywhere. The Somewheres are all the rest, rooted in their native lands and cultures, and increasingly inward-turning and even nationalist – at least if populists had their way, from the US to Italy and Brazil. I’ll be curious how the folks at the World Economic Forum respond in their choreography to being pigeon-holed this way.
The right honorable gentlemen
Merkel, like the entire German political elite, will of course have two of Germany’s most important European partners on her mind this week. There’s a good chance she will even tune in to the House of Commons again today. First, to hear its incomparable speaker, John Bercow, shouting “Order, Ordahhhh!” And second, to hear Theresa May, after her humiliation in parliament last week, present her Plan B for Brexit.
There won’t be a Plan B, by the way. Not really. If she had one, she would have pulled it out already by now. And that dead-end feeling scares Merkel. More than France, say, Germany wants Brexit to be soft, or even averted. But it doesn’t want to break ranks with the 26 other EU members in negotiating with the UK. Well, with just over two months to go until a potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit, now is the time for Germany, and Merkel, to make some new overture to London.
Aachen to me, Aix to you
This atmosphere of Euro-anxiety also explains another bit of pageantry this week. Tomorrow, Merkel will be meeting Macron, in the photogenic setting of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French). They will, as it were, renew their wedding vows. The vows in question are the so-called Élysée Treaty of 1963, signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer and meant to seal eternal friendship between France and Germany. Aachen is the backdrop because it was the de facto capital of Charlemagne. From there he roamed around an empire that overlaps geographically almost perfectly with the territory of the six founding members of the European Economic Community in 1957. If France and Germany keep holding hands, the message will be, all will be fine.
Söder's dream comes true
At home, meanwhile, Merkel must be pleased to see that her peskiest gadfly, Horst Seehofer, won’t be quite so pesky anymore. Seehofer is (and remains, for now) interior minister. But his power to needle Merkel was based on his position as leader of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian “sister party” to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Yesterday in Munich, the CSU finally replaced Seehofer as party boss. A long-time arch-rival whose rise Seehofer tried but failed to stop, Markus Söder, is the new party leader, as well as state premier.
In style, Söder is a populist firebrand quite similar to Seehofer. But, after a relatively weak showing in last year’s Bavarian election, Söder may not be the one to watch in the CSU long-term. That could be Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People's Party in the European Parliament (to which both the CDU and CSU belong). At the party conference in Munich, Weber (pictured, right, with Söder) rhetorically claimed that role, because he is running to become the next president of the European Commission. He certainly comes across as more likable, moderate, worldly and pro-European than Söder. Incidentally, for the linguistics nerds among you: Both Seehofer and Weber speak in a classic “Bavarian” accent; Söder, who hails from Nuremberg, speaks Franconian, which, arguably, is not always an asset in German politics.
Germany is famous for being, among other things, the only country in the world that has no national speed limit on its Autobahns. That can lead to hair-raising situations, as when you’re briefly in the left lane to pass someone, and suddenly a Porsche or similar contraption is RIGHT BEHIND you, signalling left into your rearview mirror to mean “get out of the way.” Auto patriots, of which Germany has many, claim that this no-limit culture is part of the German way of life and the origin of the alleged engineering prowess of German car makers.
Now, however, a German politician has dared question that institution. Ralf Stegner, a Social Democrat, wants a national speed limit of 130 kmh (just over 80 mph). That would cut down on carbon emissions, he says. Andreas Scheuer, the transport minister, who also belongs to the aforementioned and very manly CSU (same accent as Weber’s), immediately said no, never. That, in turn, annoyed members of a traffic commission in the government that was working on a draft paper, from which the speed-limit idea was apparently leaked. My ideal Autobahn, by the way, would have: fewer cars, slower cars, electric cars, self-driving cars. I’d use the boredom well.
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