Three years that irrevocably changed the Hiberno-German relationship
There is much respect in Berlin for what Ireland has achieved, but getting our debt relief wishes past the Bundestag will be difficult
Closing the door on the EU/IMF programme ends three difficult years for Ireland, but also for the Irish in Germany. For years, Germany registered no more than friendly disinterest back home. Overnight the bailout made every trip back to Ireland a minefield thanks to the inevitable question: “So what do they think of us in Germany?”
Whether posed by family, friends or taxi drivers, the question was as loaded as the old journalism school chestnut: “Do you still beat your wife?”. The honest answer was “They don’t think of us, Ireland simply doesn’t register on most German radars”.
But that often caused dismay (“Don’t they know how much we’re sacrificing here?”) or even truculence (“the German banks shouldn’t have given us so much money”).
Trying to salvage the situation often made matters worse. “Well, when the Germans do think of Ireland,” the Irish emigrant could reply, “they seem to think they are working hard to get back on their feet.”
That risked raising further hackles about the Germans being patronising. On and on it went. And yet, in conversations in the last years from the Munich beer-halls to the Bundestag in Berlin, Ireland’s EU/IMF programme was rarely registered and the positive view of Ireland in Germany remained undimmed.
Watching Ireland from Germany on the other hand, it seemed at times that Germany and its leader – collectively known as “the Germans” – were Ireland’s new favourite obsession.
The last three years has changed utterly our relationship with Germany, but it was always up to Ireland to settle once and for all its domestic Boston or Berlin debate.
What is striking in hindsight is how civil everything remained in the past three years. In regular meetings Enda Kenny and Angela Merkel often disagreed, particularly on debt relief for Ireland. But the bilateral relationship always remained strong and Mr Kenny’s stock rose even higher after delivering on the fiscal treaty referendum. By last November’s meeting, Mr Kenny’s relationship with Chancellor Merkel was upgraded from the more formal “Sie” form of “you” to the “Du” form – usually reserved for close friends. As the Germans like to say, even friction creates warmth.
Over at the finance ministry in the Wilhelmstrasse, a forbidding place of pilgrimage for Irish officials in the past three years, senior German officials have nothing but respect for their opposite numbers in Ireland. In a tough negotiations, they say, the Irish gave as good as they got – and then some.
For German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Ireland implemented its programme in “exemplary fashion”.
“Ireland took a difficult but, in the end, successful path and is a good example that Ireland is on the right track,” he said to The Irish Times. Lower interest rates and successful sovereign debt auctions were clear evidence, he said, that market confidence is returning and the country is more competitive than before. But Mr Schäuble’s praise came with a clear note of caution to post-troika Ireland in general, and the Government in particular.