Germany is now the undisputed boss of the European Union. Any lingering doubts about this were ruthlessly dispelled during the recent Greek bail-out crisis. Angela Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, forced through a package of reforms even more brutal than the one rejected by the Greek people in a referendum only a week earlier, and the hapless Greek government toed the line, their Marxist principles sacrificed for the sake of national survival through continued eurozone membership.
The European Union is now effectively being run by Merkel and Schäuble along with the French president Francois Hollande (who tried to speak up for the Greeks), one or two other leaders of larger countries (occasionally), and the heads of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But Merkel has the final word. On the face of things Germany appears to have achieved by pacific means what it was unable to bring about through military conquest on a number of occasions over the past century – the domination of Europe. However as a permanent condition, this ‘German Europe’ is a non-starter. The Germans are the first to recognise that such a condition is the source of the deep antipathies that that have divided the continent not for one but for many centuries (as was argued brilliantly in a recent history of Europe by the Cambridge-based Irish historian Brendan Simms)¹.
I believe that the challenge for Europeans, Irish included, is to persuade the Germans that setting up a banking union and transferring some fiscal powers from the EU states to central EU governing bodies must involve what the eminent British sociologist Anthony Giddens calls mutuality² – that is, shared responsibilities between richer and poorer countries alike (with Germany supporting the weaker EU economies in sustainable ways that it signally failed to do with Greece). This is the only way to a stable Europe and may require further political integration, i.e. a federal solution of some kind, in the relatively near future.
There are other reasons why we in Ireland should seek a closer relationship with the economic powerhouse of Europe. On a short visit to Germany and Austria earlier this month I was impressed again by the sheer scale and dynamism of German industrial and environmental innovation. As we landed in Ryanair’s version of Munich airport (at Memmingen, over 100 kilometres west of the city), I was struck by the multitude of solar panels on practically every rooftop (although perhaps too many of them were made in China!). On days when it is both windy and sunny wind and solar energy can now generate as much as 85% of Germany’s electricity needs. On the outskirts of Munich we passed a towering glass Mercedes Benz showroom with hundreds of tiny, highly fuel efficient Smart Fortwo cars, the world’s smallest automobile. At the Max Planck Institute of Metereology at the other end of the country in Hamburg scientists from Germany, France and Scandinavia are researching the controversial subject of geo-engineering as a means of curbing carbon emissions.
Germans are big into engineering; something our business leaders tell us we should be better at if we are going to make it as an economically successful nation (and something many people in the north of Ireland used to be very good at 50-100 years ago). Just 7% of Irish school leavers go on to be engineers; in Germany it’s 37%. Sean O’Driscoll, head of Glen Dimplex, the hugely successful border region producer of heating appliances (which also employs 1,200 people in Germany), says that rather than such a high proportion of our young people going to university, more should be doing engineering apprenticeships. “We need to learn from Germany and start making money out of making things, not out of financial engineering.”
One thing in our favour is that the Germans like – even love – us. Greatly influenced by Nobel literature laureate Heinrich Böll’s 1957 Irish Journal, which portrayed a country of old-fashioned courtesy and humour, omnipresent religion and children, and rainy romanticism (albeit containing some people who believed that Hitler wasn’t such a bad man), most Germans still insist on seeing us through an idealised lens of green pastures, fat cows and extremely relaxed and friendly (if not always quite sober) people. “A lot of it has to do with their search for an untainted landscape and an untainted culture”, says an Irish acquaintance who has lived for 40 years in Germany. He says it is difficult for a foreigner to grasp just how much German thinking continues to be influenced by the shame most Germans feel about what happened under the Nazis. Germans have also not forgotten that it was during an Irish presidency in 1990, despite opposition from Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterand, that the EU endorsed German reunification.
They also admire us for how we have worked our way out of the horrendous post-2008 crash. A 2012 Irish Times opinion poll found that Germans believed that of the financially-distressed ‘PIGS’ countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), Ireland was trying hardest to fix its economy while Greece – by a distance – was the one that should try much harder. Joachim Beck, professor of public administration at the University of Kehl, says that German politicians hold up Ireland as an example to others: “Look at Ireland. We were nasty with them but they managed to solve their problems. They showed that with proper leadership difficult reforms can work.”
On the other hand, their fear is that Greece is heading towards being a failed state. “Europeans preach to Africa and Latin America about the values of the rule of law, ethics in public administration, people paying their taxes and so on. Germans worry that these things aren’t happening in Greece”, says Beck. In contrast Ireland is seen as “a serious state and a serious European partner. In Ireland you can see where the billions in Structural Funds have been invested – not so in Greece, where they have fiddled the statistics.”
That skilled networker Enda Kenny has shrewdly both played on the theme of ‘good little Ireland’ and cultivated a personal friendship with Angela Merkel since they both started leading their respective Christian Democratic parties in the early 2000s.
However don’t get the idea that the efficient and orderly Germans are a particularly happy people. They work too hard; they have seen negligible pay rises over the past two decades (and the German dole is about half the Irish equivalent); they worry about having the oldest population in the EU (Ireland has the youngest); and they can be xenophobic and extremely right wing when it comes to immigration (although Germany accepts by far the largest number of asylum seekers of any EU country).
And what about Northern Ireland? As in so many European countries, it is now largely invisible. However many Germans take their religion seriously (they have a Protestant pastor as President and the daughter of a Protestant pastor as Chancellor, while Bavaria is a strongly Catholic region), and still react with slightly horrified fascination to the news of disturbances around Orange marches every summer.
There is also an interesting North-South implication to my advocacy of closer Irish-German relations. As the Unionists join many (perhaps most) British Conservatives in calling for the UK to leave the EU, could Dublin cosying up to Berlin become another unfortunate factor in building the wall of partitionism higher on this island?
1. Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy – 1453 to the Present (2015)
2. Anthony Giddens, Turbulent and Mighty Continent – What Future for Europe? (2014)