Higgins must watch his tone during high-stakes German visit
Any criticism of Berlin’s role in austerity will invite finger-pointing at Irish tax regime
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel: Ireland’s state visit offers a chance to match rational policy with real emotional buy-in. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski
The last time an Irish president visited Germany – Mary McAleese in 2008 – the claws were already coming off the Celtic Tiger economy back home.
The crash and recovery recast Ireland’s relationships with its European neighbours and, as Brexit reshapes them once more, President Michael D Higgins begins a three-day state visit to Germany next Wednesday to mark a relationship that, in the last decade, has changed utterly.
Heeding the writing on the wall of Brexit, the Government last year launched a strategy to develop a “wider and deeper” relationship with Germany which, in turn has identified Ireland – along with Finland – as a pilot country for its “like-minded initiative”.
There is already a firm foundation for Ireland to build on with Germany the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-largest partner respectively for inward investment, tourism, trade and Irish food exports.
A Department of Foreign Affairs 2018 strategic review described Irish-German relations, in a lyrical moment, as an “unrequited love affair”, with the Irish often not realising, let alone returning, the love Germans with no connection to us feel for our island – so-called affinity diaspora. The unofficial motto of next week’s state visit: return the love.
A strategic review described Irish-German relations as an 'unrequited love affair', with the Irish often not returning the love Germans feel for our island
Between the two capitals, two-way political – and policy – traffic has never been busier, Irish State agencies are working at full capacity while staff levels at the Irish Embassy in Berlin have almost doubled in just three years.
Accompanied by Sabina Higgins and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, the President will call on Chancellor Angela Merkel, have talks with President Frank Walter Steimeier and join him for a state dinner in Bellevue Palace.
There will be a special Other Voices concert and a keynote address in Leipzig – the first visit by an Irish head of state to the former East Germany. The visit will end in Frankfurt, where a new consulate aims to build Ireland’s footprint in Germany’s financial capital and prosperous southwest.
Travelling to four federal states in three days is about widening Ireland’s Berlin focus to Germany’s powerful federal states while the visit allows Berlin restate its consistent Brexit message since the UK referendum: Ireland’s concerns are its concerns.
Two weeks ago, a six-member, cross-party Bundestag delegation insisted in Dundalk that “an EU that shows solidarity with every member is the only Europe we can imagine being a member of”.
Travelling to four federal states is about widening Ireland’s Berlin focus to Germany’s powerful federal states
For all the transformation, though, several crucial building sites remain. A proposal to tap business expertise with a German-Irish council has fallen between Dublin departmental stools. A dedicated cultural officer with a real budget is still not yet reality, though the appointment of Eugene Downes as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s new cultural director in Dublin should expedite matters.
An ambitious leap forward in German language teaching and school exchanges is – as with previous such Irish policies – struggling to move from page to reality.
On the university and research front, meanwhile, not everyone in Berlin is convinced Ireland has done enough to grasp the one-off opportunity Brexit has provided to become the EU’s go-to English-language destination.
Whether policy goals have been achieved or are outstanding, next week’s visit offers a real chance to match rational policy – Germany is post-Brexit Ireland’s indispensable partner – with some real emotional buy-in.
Enter Michael D Higgins, who has never shied away from broadsides at dominant – read German – economic policies. Given that, the visit could be – to mix metaphors – an interesting tightrope walk into the belly of the beast.
In 2013 in the European Parliament, he described the EU’s euro crisis response as “showing insufficient solidarity” with citizens who felt the economic narrative was “driven by dry technical concerns”.
Last April in UCD, he linked a decline in EU member state cohesion to a “one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy framework which pits creditor against debtor, and those with trade surpluses against those without”. People had, he added, “been presented with too few meaningful alternatives”.
Germany’s long-running trade surplus has been a source of cheers at home but jeers elsewhere as damaging to the euro zone. And crisis policies proposed by Dr Merkel as Alternativlos (“without alternative”) have contributed, some critics now agree in Germany, to the rise of the populist, far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Falling silent on this front in Germany would be an interesting change in tone for the Irish head of state; repeating them would scratch the new bilateral consensus between Dublin and Berlin.
Higgins must strike a balance that recognises different languages, mentalities and often contrary economic doctrines that each considers legitimate
His challenge will be to strike a balance that recognises different languages, mentalities and, as the euro crisis demonstrated, often contrary economic doctrines that each considers legitimate.
Anyone peddling the crisis-era Irish narrative that Berlin, with the bailout programmes, “forced” on us its economic ideology will face robust pushback. If the Irish people resented outside financial interference so much, many Germans ask, why did they invite it on themselves with sloppy financial supervision, nationalised banks and mysterious, late-night bank guarantees?
Any Irish who insist the “German banks shouldn’t have given us so much money” will, critics here say, have to produce the numbers to prove the assumption behind their assertion.
Finally, Irish visitors who criticise a dominant, Berlin-backed EU economic orthodoxy for creating haves and have-nots in Europe will be handed a pen and paper to calculate how much tax revenue Ireland’s EU neighbours don’t have for social spending because of Dublin’s fiscal policies towards its US multinationals.
If Higgins wants a great leap forward for a new, social Europe there are exciting opportunities to start at home and lead by example.
In Germany to help nudge bilateral relations to new heights, the President’s challenge is to acknowledge a challenging decade past – of differing mentalities and, as the euro crisis demonstrated, often contrary economic doctrines that each considers legitimate.