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There's a metaphorical whiff of glyphosate in Aachen

01 December 2017

In the EU discussion about the controversial herbicide the agriculture minister cast Germany’s vote for a five-year extension of its use in the EU

As dusk falls over Aachen it is met by the rising fumes of mulled wine, the invariable accompaniment to, or perhaps the fuel for, the Christmas markets that are now major tourist attractions in Germany.  In my Eurostar train from London to Brussels a group of a dozen or so Australian women had Aachen firmly marked down as a place to have a good time. 

The stalls selling Christmas knickknacks, chocolate and hot sausages around Aachen’s famous octagonal cathedral present an image of cheery tradition, but also in the air last week, metaphorically at least, was a strong whiff of glyphosate. In the EU discussion last week about the controversial herbicide, the German agriculture minister, Christian Schmidt, went against the standing German policy of abstention and cast Germany’s vote for a five-year extension of the use of glyphosate in the EU. In British terms, one might say he did a Priti Patel, but where Theresa May promptly sacked her international development minister, German chancellor Angela Merkel did no more than wield a feather duster. This was against settled government policy, she said, was wrong, and must not recur.  The minister would be talked to by cabinet heavyweights. 

What made Schmidt’s action more important than usual was that, like Theresa May, Angela Merkel lost her majority in the recent elections. After failing to secure a coalition agreement with the Liberals and the Greens, she is being pushed into another ‘grand coalition’ (Groko in the headlines) with the reluctant Social Democrats.  So Schmidt, as the newspaper Bild put it, ‘sprayed poison on Groko’.  Another factor in Schmidt’s survival is the fact that he belongs to the Christian Social Union, a sort of Catholic DUP from Bavaria, linked to agribusiness, usually described as a ‘sister party’ to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and a party she needs if she is to have the upper hand in a Groko.  So the analysts are suggesting that Schmidt’s vote confirms that Germany is now in the twilight era of Merkel’s power, Muttidämmerung, ‘Mummy’s twilight’ as the wits call it here, with a nod to Wagner.

Few German cities can be more European than Aachen.  Famously the city of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, and his British and Irish advisers such as Alcuin of York, it borders Belgium in such a way that the roads through the hills of the Eifel slip in and out of Belgium, but the border is neither hard nor soft, but non-existent.  From the roads in the Eifel you see frequent remnants of more recent history, clusters of concrete dragon’s teeth planted to block British and US tanks during the second world war.  Too expensive to remove, they remain as mute reminders of why the EU was created in the first place.

Back in Aachen, the cathedral is surprisingly intimate:  various tourist guides have to wait until their colleagues have finished their lectures before beginning their own.  A statue of our Lady at the side of the nave bears the inscription ‘Empress Mary’, which is presumably a genuflection to the tradition of Holy Roman Emperors:  Charlemagne’s throne is to be seen on an upper floor.

Outside the cathedral in the early winter chill, signs of Aachen’s modern identity are all around in the shape of some of the 45,000 students from all over the world who are enrolled in Aachen’s technical university, No 5 in the German university rankings, which claims to be creating a silicon valley around this ancient city.

From Aachen my journey will take me, not back to Brussels for Eurostar home, but to Paris for the funeral of Henri Burin des Roziers, who died suddenly last Sunday.  The Dominican priest and lawyer devoted most of his life to prosecuting Brazilian landowners who hire gunmen to murder the leaders of rural trade unions.  Henri got his Sorbonne qualifications recognised in Brazil, and became a member of the Brazilian bar.  His success in bringing these criminals meant that there was a price on his head, but he managed to keep one step ahead of his enemies.  President Mitterrand made him a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur for his services to human rights, but he has other monuments too, including a settlement of landless people near his former home named after him.  Perhaps more important for a Dominican was to be called a modern Bartolomé de Las Casas, as Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission did last week in its tribute.  Above all, perhaps the memories he leaves in so many hearts, that strong French accent in his Portuguese, his human warmth and his smile.  May he rest in peace.



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