How clueless Irish pundits misrepresented Germany
One of Ireland’s few growth areas during the recession has been in ill-informed commentary about our largest euro-area neighbour
Voters in traditional dress arrive to cast their ballots yesterday in the Bavarian state elections in Haunshofen. Irish commentators’ reactions to the euro crisis confirm that we need to get past German stereotypes. Photograph: Reuters/Michael Dalder
The German journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky, who flourished between the World Wars, once remarked that you have to love the French to understand them – and you have to understand the Germans to love them.
There has not been a lot of love lately in Ireland – particularly in the Irish media – towards the Germans in Ireland and not a lot of understanding, either.
Indeed, one of Ireland’s few growth areas in the recession has been in ill-informed German experts. On the airwaves and in print they moan about Chancellor Angela Merkel and shout about her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. Though the voices vary, the rhetoric never changes: the Germans dominate Europe; and the Germans demand austerity.
To lend their limp punditry an air of crisp authority, they toss about German words like croutons into a tired salad: Bild, Bundestag and even the mouthful that is the Bundesverfassungsgericht, the constitutional court.
For anyone who has any clue, it’s like watching a piano teacher who is one lesson ahead of the student. The pundits owe their success to a vicious circle of lack of interest and lack of information in Ireland about its largest European partner.
While many Irish people understand how the US president is elected by an electoral college of federal states, many are perpetually surprised to hear Germany, too, is a country of federal states.
This gap has allowed three fallacies dominate mainstream Irish understanding of Germany in the euro crisis.
The first and most insidious is the notion of Germany as the crisis villain. My first experience of this came a few years ago when a researcher called to say a well-known Irish pundit was coming to Germany to film a segment for a crisis documentary.
The pundit was anxious to talk to an elderly couple about how German savers fuelled the Irish boom. The aircraft tickets had been bought, now the pundit just needed some pensioners to put a face to their precooked thesis.
Hibernocentric crisis narrative
That Germans saved and Irish spent in the past decade is one of those sweeping statements rarely challenged from which pundits have extrapolated their Hibernocentric crisis narrative. The Germans were effectively buying the drinks for the Irish, they say, and should thus share the blame, the cost and the consequences for the car now wrapped around the tree.
The trouble is that the financial data to support this argument is at best complex and patchy and at worst far less compelling than you might think.
Last March the Central Bank supplied The Irish Times with previously unpublished data showing that when the music stopped in 2008 it was Britain, not Germany, that was by far the biggest source of funding for Irish banks.
Even the infamous bondholders were, according to consolidated data sets, a quarter Irish and two-thirds non-euro area. The entire euro area, including Germany, held just 13 per cent of total Irish bank bonds. While the data available is far from complete or perfect, it presents a different reality from that peddled by the pundits.