Derek Scally: It pays to court the Germans
A sustainable engagement with Germany is a timely investment in a changing Europe, and a wise insurance policy in an uncertain world
Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan: she wowed an audience with a speech in fluent German to open Dublin’s Goethe Institute
Just 18 days after the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was on a plane to Berlin. He had two messages for Angela Merkel and the assembled German press in the chancellery: Dublin would not accept a hard border with Northern Ireland, and the Republic was staying in the EU.
The 2½ years since have been about hammering home these points in any European capital that would listen. And in spite of capacity-sapping talks on the first point – Brexit, border and backstop – the Department of Foreign Affairs and other government departments have been working quietly to make good on the second.
On Thursday, while most of Europe was glued to the slow-motion political car crash in London, Dublin’s leading civil servants were planning for Ireland’s post-Brexit future – in Berlin.
Secretaries general from Foreign Affairs, Finance, Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Agriculture all met their opposite number – and each other – for talks and a working lunch. There was no formal agenda but a common interest: how do we work together today, and how can we do more tomorrow?
The UK will always be a crucial partner for Ireland, but it’s never been more important to upgrade other EU partnerships.
After the Brexit vote, Kenny got to Berlin quickly – physically and mentally – to ensure a clear understanding in Germany of potentially cataclysmic consequences for Irish peace, trade and politics because of the UK vote.
In July 2016, eight days before Theresa May was given a cool reception in the chancellery, Merkel acknowledged alongside Kenny the “clearly profound” implications of Brexit for Ireland.
Ahead of an April 2017 summit to agree an EU mandate for Brexit talks, Merkel told the Bundestag there were a “multitude of special interests” on the table, almost too many to mention. And then she name-checked Irish concerns.
Right and proper
From an Irish perspective this seems only right and proper, commensurate with the level of importance we – as any country – attach to ourselves and our place in the world. But such awareness of a small island and its concerns, 1,700km away in Berlin, is far from a given.
Instead it is a virtue of EU politics whereby, even in a crisis, smaller states can get a hearing from larger partners.
In addition, Berlin’s familiarity with Irish concerns is thanks to the prowess – rarely remarked upon in Ireland – of its politicians and officials in keeping their country and its interests front and centre across the continent.
Now, as the Brexit endgame plays out, there’s a certain irony in how Dublin is proceeding with Berlin: proposing contact formats today that could become co-operation traditions tomorrow – in many cases borrowing models that have proven their worth since they were introduced to improve bilateral ties with London.
Last April in Dublin, foreign minister Heiko Maas helped launch Ireland’s strategic review of relations with Germany alongside Tánaiste Simon Coveney. By all accounts it was a meeting of minds between two politicians who see an urgent need to defend multilateralism and a rules-based international order in the face of new populist, unilateral and nationalist challenges.
The review defined Germany as an “indispensable partner” for Ireland, and proposed a greater effort to bridge the gap to Berlin through language, culture and foreign policy. Seven months on the meat is being put on the bones. A new consulate will open next year in Frankfurt, with another pillar possible in Munich. A new cultural director should take up work in Berlin early next year.
Thursday’s talks between Irish secretaries general and their German counterparts should take place every 18 months, supplemented by more regular meetings of foreign ministry staff, as well as meetings of German and Irish think-tankers.
Looking beyond policy planning, Germany is already Ireland’s biggest partner on key EU research programmes, and both sides are anxious to boost these ties further.
There is talk of closer co-operation at the United Nations, learning how the other operates at the New York body to advance policy.
The last months have also seen talk of Germany and Ireland using the deep roots each already have in Africa to shape EU policy for the region.
In Berlin the Irish Embassy is consolidating existing Irish-German structures – often scattered through Germany’s 16 federal states – and creating new bilateral bridges where none existed before.
To ensure long-term Irish political and civil servant buy-in, however, consolidation and effort is essential in Dublin: in particular for officials and Ministers to learn and use German.
The positive potential was obvious last month: Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan wowed an audience with a speech in fluent German, learned as a student in Austria, to open Dublin’s Goethe Institute.
As the post-Brexit era looms, Irish Ministers are clocking up unprecedented air-miles around the continent to boost bilateral ties. A serious and sustainable engagement with Germany is a timely investment in a changing Europe, and a wise insurance policy in an uncertain world.