Irish in Germany refuse to look back with harshness on economic problems at home

Wed, Aug 29, 2012, 01:00

YOU HEAR the roar from Berlin’s “Bearpit Karaoke” before you see it, tucked into the side of a hill in the Mauerpark.

For two decades the “Wall Park” – a scrappy patch of green on the former no-man’s land between East and West Berlin – has been home to a free-for-all flea market.

These days another big draw is the rollicking karaoke organised by wise-cracking master of ceremonies Joe Hatchiban – also known as Gareth Lennon from Palmerstown in Dublin.

Every Sunday afternoon he unpacks his karaoke kit – a microphone, two custom-made wooden speakers, a car battery, laptop and umbrellas against sun and rain. What happens next is entirely up to the 1,000-plus crowd packed into the semi-circular, outdoor amphitheatre.

The crowd is international, as are the performers and repertoire; a recent session runs the musical gamut from German kitsch too terrible to mention here to Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys and that rarest of karaoke events, a non-ironic rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

The biggest cheer is for an Indian man’s knockout version of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine that has two young boys with painted Spider-Man faces rocking out like Axl Rose and Slash.

The Irish-run karaoke show, like the city of Berlin around it, seems a world away from the euro zone crisis. It shares an important lesson with the Eurovision Song Contest: if we can still a laugh at each others’ singing then things can’t be that bad.

“It started with me going around the park asking people to help me see how long it would take to sing the car battery empty,” said Lennon (39) who has lived in Berlin for a decade.

Like the thousands of Irish living in Germany, Lennon finds himself in the curious position of looking back at his homeland from a country that some view as our tormentor-in-chief.

Regardless of their backgrounds, however, a common feature of the Irish in Germany is their unwillingness to play the bad emigrant, passing harsh judgment from a distance on difficult circumstances at home.

That said, their distance from Ireland in recent years has helped keep fresh their memories of the bad side of Ireland’s good times.

When Lennon thinks of the Ireland he left, he recalls the surreal era of 100 per cent mortgages.

“I don’t think it was German money that made people lose their heads. I think it was the feeling – among Irish people and Irish banks – that property prices were never going to drop,” he said.

“I don’t notice Ireland as a huge talking point here or that German people feel that they’re having to tighten their belts on account of anything happening in Ireland over the last years.”

Mark Willis (30) from Rathmines has had many lively conversations on the crisis with his roommates – a German, a Greek and a Spaniard – since he came to Berlin 18 months ago.

An analyst with Roubini Global Economics, Willis senses a strong moralising streak running through both German economics and its crisis narrative. He sees a rise of late in negative sentiment towards Greece, “even among friends I would consider reasonable people”. Ireland is seen as a “poster-boy, taking our fiscal medicine”.

He sees little awareness among Germans he meets of how tough things continue to be in Ireland. And any suggestion that the crisis had many causes, including the euro zone’s design, or even that Germany is partly responsible draws an “overwhelmingly negative reaction”.

“It’s a combination of what you want to believe and what you read in media of a crisis caused by fiscally promiscuous countries, hence the reason for fiscal retrenchment,” said Willis.

“It’s a remarkable misunderstanding because Germans I know are otherwise incredibly engaged and informed with current affairs and news.”

He is worried that disagreement on the causes of the crisis could delay for years the search for a solution. That could place an unbearable burden on German-Irish relations he thinks have survived relatively unscathed until now.

Brigid Laffan, professor of European politics at UCD, and in recent months a visiting fellow at Berlin’s Free University, remembers clearly the reaction to her presentation on Ireland’s situation to colleagues, in which she used a graph by UCD economist colleague Karl Whelan of German bank exposure in Ireland before the crisis.

“There were gasps. This was an informed audience of political scientists, but they did not know. It has been a very smart act by German politicians to frame the crisis as a problem in the periphery,” she said.

Though German investments in Irish banks have since been sold on, repaid or losses absorbed, this initial framing is what Prof Laffan believes still resonates in German minds. This could eventually be a problem for German politicians as the European debate moves towards a broad crisis solution.

After all, how can Berlin explain to voters the need for a joint solution to the crisis if, as they suggested at the start, the periphery was solely to blame?

“The crisis is one of mutual interdependence in the EU and with that interdependence comes mutual vulnerability. Germany is also vulnerable and it would be better if the narrative was rebalanced to reflect that,” she said.

“It’s not just the countries in deepest trouble that have a problem. I wonder if politicians knew then what they know now if the euro would ever have happened?”

Fergal Lenehan, an academic teaching intercultural studies in Jena’s Friedrich Schiller University, has also noticed how many Germans he knows view the euro zone mess as “someone else’s crisis, at most the plaything of the political elites”.

It’s a different matter back home in Ballinasloe, he said, where Nama and the crisis seem to have become ingrained in society.

“People in Ireland seem to have reverted to a passive victim complex, that there was a culture of stupidity for a while and no one could think for a few years in the past,” he said.

In Germany the euro zone crisis discourse excludes its largest member, he said, with German politicians portrayed as “trans-European firefighters on behalf of the Europe”.

If anything, the memory of economic crises past can seem more alive here than present euro zone problems.

Despite this, Lenehan still senses a European solidarity in Germany he feels is almost unknown in Ireland.

“They may think the crisis was caused on the periphery but German eyes are still fixed on the long-term goal of European integration,” he said.

“They view the European project as ingrained on Germany’s future. The only way Germany can function in a globalising world is as part of a common Europe. To do that they have to bring everyone with them.”