Kenny's chance to impress Germans

 

OPINION:Our ‘European of the Year’ should avoid mentioning debt deal

News that Enda Kenny was to be given the “European of the Year” award in Berlin this evening, presented by Germany’s Association of Magazine Publishers (VDZ), prompted amused if puzzled reactions in Ireland.

A magazine editor friend attending this evening gave his ironic assessment yesterday of what Kenny can expect: “The Oil Barons’ Ball”.

The VDZ event is, for many, an evening of mutual back-slapping by German magazine mavens.

For many in Ireland, feeling the bitter bite of austerity in a downturn, the idea of Germans giving an Irish leader a “European of the Year” award has a hollow ring.

But Kenny knows the evening is a chance to speak directly to an influential, captive audience. To make the most of the opportunity, he needs to remember the cardinal rule of public speaking in Germany: meet your audience where you find them – not where you think they should be – and then bring them further down the road you wish to take them.

The euro zone crisis has, for the most part, been a cacophony of countries talking at cross-purposes. Each EU member has its own crisis narrative, coloured by collective experience, political culture and economic ideology. Each country expects empathy for its own demands while demonstrating apathy for those of others.

Alien logic

Irish politicians who land in Berlin and make bald demands for a “bank debt deal” get nowhere because such phrases are Irish shorthand for a complex argument, based on a domestic understanding of the crisis that rarely gets an airing here, or anywhere else.

Such arguments fail in Germany, not because there isn’t a case to be made, but because the logic is alien to German ears. The narrative they are familiar with is this: the Irish overdid it, have made impressive efforts to reform and, with German assistance, are on the road to recovery. It’s a simple understanding – some would say simplistic – but it’s what visiting Irish politicians have to work with.

Germans still have a hugely positive view of Ireland, unlike all other crisis countries. This is not a case of condescension but an open door to present Ireland’s concerns using clear and unemotional arguments, framed in a way the audience understands.

For now, there are reasons to be grateful that Germany still wears its emerald-tinted, soft-focus glasses when looking our way. They have yet to notice what our TDs still earn, or the unvouched expenses they claim.

They haven’t followed the Irish debate over the allowances regime, the Croke Park agreement or the public pensions bill which, as highlighted by Stephen Collins in this newspaper on Saturday, has risen by two-thirds since 2007. If they had, they might ask how, alongside well-earned pensions for many hard-working public servants, the State can afford generous pay-offs to those who steered the country on to the rocks.

For now, these are domestic debates. But demands for additional European assistance could attract the kind of German attention far more uncomfortable than that which will be on Kenny this evening in Berlin.

* Derek Scally is Berlin correspondent

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