“We need someone who can get inside the continental mind,” the editor said, doing his best imitation of M.
I remarked that while James Bond might have found that sort of assignment a piece of cake, I was not the agent he required. He retorted that Theresa May’s staff had done a pretty poor job of working out how Salzburg would play, and he wanted to know why.
Twenty years ago, when living in Berlin, I would spend hours each day reading the German press, talking to highly informed Germans and pleading with my newsagent, Frau Lorenz, a former East German rowing champion, to make sense of it all.
Even then, I was uneasily aware that I had not got near the heart of the German puzzle, and that a little learning was a dangerous thing. For a long time, I supposed that because most of the ordinary Germans I met said it would be insane to give up the German Mark in order to share a currency with the Italians, this would not happen.
Yet happen it did, because the political class was cut off from ordinary Germans. Members of the Bundestag were more anxious to boast of their European virtues than to worry what their voters thought, and Helmut Kohl, who had the mind of a clever but unscrupulous peasant, realised he could dominate German politics by posing as a good European.
Many years after returning to this country, I tried to make amends by writing a piece for ConHome called Nine things the British don’t understand about the Germans, in which I admitted my own ignorance, and pointed out that even the Germans don’t understand Angela Merkel.
But every diplomat or foreign correspondent who lives for a time in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, Brussels or some other European capital finds himself or herself under a professional obligation to pretend to know what is going on, and even, which is yet harder, to say what is going to happen in the coming months. You get a demand from your employers for an up-to-the-minute response to whatever seems important in London, and you know you will get no thanks, and be regarded as a complete waste of time, if you tell the truth: “I’m sorry, but they’ve got other things to think about.”
Just now, however, the Germans have other things to think about. Last night, I rang a friend in Berlin who confirmed that authority is draining away from Merkel. A new poll by the ARD television station puts her Christian Democrats at a mere 28 per cent, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany on 18 per cent, and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, in third place on a pitiful 17 per cent, for the leaders of that party, obsessed by modish questions to do with sexual politics and the environment, have long since lost touch with the workers who used to vote for it.
Three smaller parties, the Greens, the Left and the Free Democrats, got 15, ten and nine per cent respectively. German politics is splintering, with voters who have long been taken for granted by the main parties going in search of alternatives.
The two main coalition parties are squabbling about Hans-Georg Maassen, whose position as head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or domestic spy agency, became untenable after he cast doubt on the authenticity of a video which showed migrants being hunted in Chemnitz.
Merkel, Andrea Nahles, the leader of the Social Democrats, and Horst Seehofer, the Interior Minister, persuaded themselves that the way to solve this problem was for Seehofer, a veteran leader of the Bavarian CSU, sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, to give Maassen a better paid job in the Interior Ministry.
That in turn led to a wave of protest from the Social Democrats, many of whom want to end the coalition. The CSU face elections in Bavaria next month in which they are expected to do very badly, and so do the Christian Democrats in Hesse.
No wonder Merkel looked as shattered as May did in Salzburg, was quite unable to lead an orderly search for a sensible Brexit settlement, and instead watched as other leaders competed to provide the provocative quotes which the visiting London press required. Emmanuel Macron, who is himself much less popular than he used to be, was in his element.
My own view is that the row in Salzburg has been somewhat overblown, and that agreement is still possible. But such a feeble analysis would have been of no value to May after everyone reported she had been humiliated. She needed to come out fighting, which back in Downing Street she did.
I do not wish to suggest that if Merkel were in her prime, she would have come to the rescue of May. She would not: she would have driven a hard bargain. But the Chancellor might at least have come to the rescue of the European Union, which without German leadership is all over the shop.