Sign Up

What Mrs. Merkel’s Travel Trouble Says About Germany

The German Chancellor’s delayed arrival at the G-20 Summit is a telling tale of more widespread dysfunction in Germany’s public sector.

December 3, 2018

The German Chancellor had quite a G-20 Summit. To make it to Buenos Aires at all, she unexpectedly had to catch a commercial flight in Madrid, missing the first day of meetings and finally arriving 20 hours late.

The reason was that her German Air Force plane unexpectedly developed a technical problem and was forced to turn back an hour or so into the flight.

Such mishaps can certainly occur. And it should definitely not be beneath a German head of government to travel on a commercial flight, along with other citizens. Incidentally, Merkel’s mishap and salvation by commercial airline service puts the security fuss habitually made of top politicians into its proper place.

However, where the tale turns into the bizarre dimension is that the German government and its armed forces should not be able to deliver their boss – occasionally described as the most powerful woman on earth – and her delegation to an important international conference on time, even if there was a hitch.

In fact, one is hard pressed even to imagine that this could happen in any other G-20 country.

Putting paid to German reliability

Stranger still is this part of the story: A second government plane would have been available, but no second crew, while labor regulations forbade the first crew to switch to the second plane.

Evidently, hiring a crew at short notice capable of flying an Airbus plane – or, for that matter, finding a plane with a crew – is beyond the legal and organizational scope of a government responsible for the well-being of 80 million citizens.

Incidental evidence of a bigger crisis

The incident highlights two connected problems Germany is facing. First, the country’s infrastructure is in an appalling state. And second, the civil service is too staid in its ways.

Professionally specializing in creating ever taller mountains of rules and regulations, politicians are ever more interested in their own power games and ever less in service-oriented government.

Meanwhile, Germany’s providers of infrastructure services cannot shake a reputation for poor service at high prices. They mainly excel in making excuses for themselves.

Deutsche Bahn (the railway company), Deutsche Post (the postal service), Deutsche Telekom (the telephone company) and Lufthansa (the national air carrier), not to mention the social security system and other government agencies, provide examples for this.

Berlin’s new airport, operated by a government-owned company, specially set up for the occasion and without any of the required general contractor and complex project management skills, was due to open in 2012. At best, it will now be operational in 2020.

Running on sheer reputation

Germany’s once famous Autobahns, the motorways, are in a constant state of disrepair and overburdened with traffic. Even one of the new buildings for the Bundestag in Berlin may have to be pulled down before it is actually finished, as groundwater coming in apparently cannot be stopped.

When it comes to digitalizing citizen services, Germany is one of the most backward countries in Europe. If you need a new passport in Berlin, it can not only take you two months to get an appointment to file your application, but you have to present yourself in person twice before you get the document.

All of this is evidence that, while Germany’s private sector (mainly those 90% of German businesses that are managed by their owners) continue to be highly creative and competitive, and while German civil society is increasingly vibrant, the same cannot be said for the public sector. Generally speaking, it is neither efficient nor citizen or business-friendly.

Although – or perhaps because? – its size is growing, many of its staff have adopted an attitude that combines high-handedness and inertia. The worst part is that this sector is directly responsible for about 50% of Germany’s GDP and over 90% of Germany’s educational system. This is no good sign for Germany’s future productivity.

High regulation, low performance

Never mind that Germany is one of the most highly regulated countries in the world. Indeed, Germans have often been the laughing stock of non-Germans for the complexity and sheer quantity of the rules and bureaucratic procedures they are keen to observe.

In actual fact, the situation is anything but amusing. Nobody is likely to hire Germans any longer to build an airport, nor for that matter, to buy a German car with a diesel engine.

As if to detract from all this home-borne and home-made misery, at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, the German government is keen on emphasizing Germany’s increasing responsibilities in world affairs.

It is fair to say that this is the result of a double misunderstanding: As much as the leaders of today’s Germany like to bask in international admiration for the country’s orderliness, stability and effectiveness, this respect is increasingly based on the fumes of reputation earned in days past, not actual performance today.

And second, it increasingly appears that Germany’s top politicians bask in that glory so that they can overlook the deficiencies and loss of trust of Germany’s institutions and infrastructure for which they are actually responsible.

Is there hope?

One may hope that Mrs. Merkel’s recent adventures will make her realize she needs to act – and fast, both in the armed forces and in the civil service in general.

Just don’t hold your breath. Past experience teaches us that she will mouth some words that she and much of the rest of the republic will take as earnestly working on rectifying some pressing problems, before falling back into the lethargy and self-centeredness that bewitches many German politicians.


Merkel’s delayed arrival at the G20 Summit is a telling tale of more widespread dysfunction in Germany’s public sector.

The German armed forces could not deliver its boss to an international conference on time. One couldn’t imagine this happening in any other G20 country.

Germany’s infrastructure is in an appalling state, and the civil service is too staid in its ways.

Germany’s leaders like to bask in international admiration for the country’s effectiveness. This respect is increasingly based on reputation, not actual performance.

Nobody is likely to hire Germans any longer to build an airport, nor to buy a German car with a diesel engine.