Gallant allies in Europe
GERMANY MATTERS to Ireland for a variety of reasons, not least because it is Europe’s largest and most powerful state – an economic powerhouse caught in the midst of a great economic storm. Germany has had leadership thrust upon it, however reluctantly it accepts that new responsibility. As such, Germany is set to play a pivotal role in negotiations about easing Ireland’s €64 billion bank debt burden, which the Government hopes will conclude by October.
The Irish bargaining position may be helped, albeit marginally, by the positive attitude shown by the German people towards Ireland, in general, and the national effort to lower the budget deficit and the debt under the terms of the EU-IMF bailout programme, in particular.
A poll in this newspaper, conducted as part of a major series on Ireland’s relationship with Germany, suggests that Germans have been impressed by the resilience shown by Ireland in meeting a great economic challenge. Equally, the Irish public readily appreciate Germany’s efforts to deal with the euro zone crisis: only one in four people here felt that Germany was not doing enough. The anti-German rhetoric favoured by some commentators finds no echo in the attitudes of the Irish public.
For many Germans, modern writers such as Heinrich Böll in his Irish Journal, will have informed their view of this country. Written in the mid-1950s, the book presented a romantic view of the country as an unspoilt island of innocence in a world of increasing materialism. That beguiling portrait of Ireland, and later the green image of an unpolluted countryside that was conjured up by marketing campaigns for Kerrygold butter, helped to lay the foundations for the German tourist’s great fascination with Ireland over many years.
Unsurprisingly, the predominant Irish image of Germany is that of an efficient and hard-working people with a well managed economy. That view is based on some familiarity with the country, with almost half of those surveyed claiming to have visited Germany. Yet despite that keen level of interest in the country, and Germany’s position as Europe’s dominant economy, far fewer now take German as a Leaving Certificate subject – there was a decline of almost 40 per cent between 1997 and 2011. That huge fall, which coincided with much of the Celtic tiger boom, may well have reflected the misguided view that, in a globalised world where English has become the main means of communication, acquiring a second language matters less than before.
The economic cost of German unification in 1990 has important lessons for many Germans that inform their cautious attitude to the euro zone crisis. The cost in higher taxes was underestimated – it far exceeded initial estimates, while the similarities between west and east Germany were greatly overestimated. But what was never in doubt was Germany’s determination to ensure that unification succeeded, regardless of cost. Others, and not least Ireland, will be hoping that Germany now does everything to ensure the euro, and therefore the EU – the great European project – does not fail.