German political and football troubles are music to ears of Brexiteers
London Letter: Schadenfreude aplenty as World Cup puts a grin on a nation’s face
The Cross of St George flies over Downing Street in central London on Thursday. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
The cabinet is in chaos, Brexit is a mess, Airbus and BMW are threatening to move out of the country and a shortage of CO2 means that Britain could run out of beer next week. But a week of scorching heat and England’s unexpected success in the early stages of the World Cup have banished such cares and put a grin on the nation’s sunburnt face.
The flag of St George flew above Downing Street on Thursday as England prepared to face Belgium in Kaliningrad and Theresa May has encouraged all government departments to follow suit on the day of each of the team’s games from now on. Even the Scotland Office has fallen into line, provoking a flood of social media abuse from north of the border for Scottish secretary David Mundell, who has been called everything from a rat to a “traitor to the Saltire and to Scotland”.
Jeremy Corbyn, who displayed the English flag in his office this week, has encouraged bosses to show flexibility to workers who want time off to watch the football.
The joy unleashed by England’s success in qualifying for the knockout stages of the tournament has been nothing, however, to the ecstasy inspired by Germany’s failure to do so on Wednesday.
“Schadenfreude” said the Sun’s front page, “noun (from the German): pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune”. The Telegraph had the same idea, headlining its front page story “A lesson in schadenfreude for the Germans” and the i asked “What is the German for schadenfreude?”.
The Express opted for “Don’t mention the score”, while the Mirror offered its own variation on the same old joke with “Don’t mention the VAR”. The Mail went for a simple “Gott in Himmel” and the Metro settled for “Out Wiedersehen”.
Germany’s humiliation on the football pitch chimed sweetly with another fountain of spiteful satisfaction for many British commentators, Angela Merkel’s current misfortunes. These make the cover of both of Britain’s top political weeklies, with the Spectator’s headed “Angela’s Ashes – Merkel’s authority is collapsing” and the New Statesman’s “Germany, alone – How world leaders turned against Angela Merkel”.
“Until recently, it was assumed that Merkel would last until the next German elections in three years’ time. Now, many are betting that she won’t even make it through the summer,” writes Fredrik Erixon in the Spectator, arguing that Hungary and Poland are winning the argument about immigration in Europe.
Jeremy Cliffe offers a more nuanced judgment in the New Statesman, pointing out that the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany each month has fallen from its peak of 200,000 a few years ago to just 10,000 in May and praising the chancellor’s instinctive multilateralism, awareness of history and years of experience.
“Many may be surprised to find that they miss Angela Merkel when she is gone,” he writes.
It’s not just a match. It’s a religion. We are the football nation
What political commentary needed urgently on Thursday morning was someone to make a direct connection between Germany’s poor performance in the World Cup and the crisis in Merkel’s coalition. Thomas Mattussek, a former German ambassador to Britain, stepped forward on BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“There is a general, collective feeling of shame, of humiliation, of frustration in the street . . . and this atmosphere also plays out in the political arena,” he said.
“Of course, it’s not just a match. It’s a religion. We are the football nation.”
Mattussek invoked Germany’s defeat of Hungary in 1954, the so-called “Miracle of Berne”, suggesting that generated such self-esteem and pride that it kick-started the country’s post-war economic miracle.
“If you have a general feeling of doom and gloom, this is exactly the atmosphere where populist parties . . . play into it because they thrive on frustration, they thrive on humiliation,” he said.
The former ambassador’s words would have been music to the ears of Brexiteers, who clutch at every scrap of evidence that the European Union’s most powerful member state is in decline. Mattussek is, however, an equal opportunity Eeyore and some of those who found comfort in his words on Thursday may be less enchanted by an interview he gave to the German business daily Handelsblatt last week.
Describing Brexit as the worst political crisis Britain has seen, he predicted that an economic crisis would quickly follow Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. “The suffering is not that big yet. The full extent of the crisis has not yet been recognised,” he said.
“It will come. If the Europeans are no longer allowed to work in the NHS, the health care system will collapse and when Britain leaves the customs union, the truck convoys will be stuck in Dover. If it’s a hard Brexit, it will be as bad as in the 1970s.”
Oh well, at least football’s coming home. Isn’t it?