If you care – or are just curious – about what’s happening in Ireland now, economically and politically, you could do a lot worse than ask a German. Not any German of course, certainly not Angela Merkel, but one Christian Zaschke, who wrote an article for the Süddeutsche Zeitung aptly titled “Conned“. (Translated and republished here by the Irish Times.)
In it he makes a clear connection between Ireland’s erstwhile banking and future oil wealth. One has the potential to provide a solution to the problems created by the other, but it’s likely to be stolen from us just as the first was, and by the same route: Corruption. More precisely, our strange pervading acceptance of that corruption.
Is this over-simplistic? No, it’s just refreshingly direct. We may wish to say in reply that it’s more complicated. We may be deeply intellectually concerned here with the reasons behind why we are so supine in the face of corruption: colonialism, Catholicism, conformity, clientelism, Celticness, corporate capitalism – that’s just the Cs – but it really doesn’t matter what the cause is. The important thing is that we are being supine in the face of corruption. We need to stop.
The Ballyhea group was on telly today – TV3’s Morning Show. That’s as close to media glamour as I’ve got in a while. Not that I was on myself – I’d be useless at that kind of thing, cameras tickle. They had the eloquent, informed ones: Diarmuid and Cath and Vicky. Between them they covered the enormous cost of the bank bailout to each and every one of us (€60,000 for the average household if you spread it evenly), how it affects ordinary people, and how the current response to it will be as disastrous for us as similar ‘medicine’ was for the Developing World – a pretty comprehensive encapsulation of the issue. You can watch it here.
Back to our adventures in Germany then. I’ll skip over the details of organising tickets for the bus into town, the tram to the hotel, and the rooms – except to say that Cath did them all, and found the cheapest way to do them all. One of those people every expedition needs.
Settled in, we next needed to reconnoitre. Having dinner seemed like a good way to do that, so we headed in to the older and more attractive part of Frankfurt. It has to be said, it’s not very big. For a major global hub of wealth and power, Frankfurt is surprisingly unimpressive. It has its expensive suburbs of course, but the historical city centre is not much to look at. And while I’m being rude about our hosts, German sounds like English with a wheel missing.
You feel bad about thinking this when you remember that the reason there’s so little left of historical Frankfurt is that it was obliterated in World War II, first by bombing and then by ground combat. Before then, it actually had the largest mediaeval city centre in the world. So we had our dinner in the ruins, essentially. But first we took the photo-opportunity of a statue representing justice to make our point.
After checking out the ECB building and finding it a lot less like Forty Knox than our mental image, we had dinner at the outdoor restaurant you see behind us there – mainly sausages and sauerkraut of course. I am pleased and relieved to be able to report that the frankfurters were the nicest. After, we fell to singing songs – mainly Cork ones like the Banks and Thady Quill. We weren’t drunk or anything, it just seemed appropriate. Eventually though a woman resident brusquely told us we were too loud, the implication being that this was far too classy a neighbourhood for that sort of thing.
To show solidarity with us, a drunk German man at the next table started off a chorus of Molly Malone. Politics was on!
This is weird. I’m going to sunny Germany tomorrow, but I’m sitting here with nothing to do. For once I packed well in advance. This is as unlike me as it is possible to imagine, and must basically have happened by accident.
So tomorrow we’re driving to Knock, which should take about an hour, flying with Ryanair to Frankfurt, which should take two hours, and then getting from there to where Frankfurt actually is, which will be the longest leg of the whole trip. You know the usual way.
Hahn airport – “Frankfurt-Hahn“, as Ryanair have the nads to call it – is actually nearer Luxembourg. The tickets were fantastically cheap though, it must be said. We are going to Frankfurt basically because we can afford to. Oh, there will be some research and meetings and stuff. This is the home of the European Central Bank, the institution that is handling our currency in such a profoundly wrong-headed way, so there is much to learn. Perhaps we will even have a little protest. I plan to stand opposite the ECB with my arms folded, frowning really hard.
I’ve been planning this trip for a few weeks though, you think I found time to refresh my German? Did I hell. But then, do I need to now? My phone can speak German for me. Even the free Google Translate is very good – though bear in mind that to use an online translation service you have to pay for data at roaming rates. Right now I’m just getting it to say things like “How many cars may I eat?”, “This shop sells millions of ducklings in a box”, and let’s not forget that old favourite, “My wombat is constipated”.
One reason a lot of people will vote for the upcoming “austerity amendment” is that they assume it must, when it all comes down to it, be good for us. Sure it’s going to hurt, but in the long run it will help us have a stronger, better economy – right? It’s a natural assumption. And it would be dead wrong. The wholesale destruction of government spending if we succeed in making its insane deficit-slashing timetable – or the fines if we fail – will shrink the economy precipitously. Disastrously.
But why would the EU want to do that to us? It’s puzzling, but it’s not out of any personal animosity. We are but a small cog in this, and we don’t squeak half enough. It’s just that it’s a one-size-fits-no-one set of strictures that would burden even the healthiest European economy.
The Fiscal Compact has two main objectives. The more obvious one is to outlaw the sort of behaviour that got Greece into trouble – essentially, excessive public borrowing and spending. But note that that’s absolutely not what we did. We were good. We paid back debts when we had the money, we ran a surplus. And though our public spending rose, the highest it ever went was still only the Eurozone average. Very arguably we should have been spending well above that, our public services were still grossly underdeveloped even at the height of the boom. Yet this referendum will have the effect of cutting public spending more drastically than ever. And aside from hurting our most vulnerable, that will of course crush the economy even further. As I said a few days ago, it is the cure for the opposite disease to the one we have.
The second and more covert purpose of the compact though is, putting it as crudely as it deserves, to save Angela Merkel’s political future. In order to win her next election – she has about a year and a half left to go – she needs to convince the German people… Not that the Euro is good for them, no. That’s not enough. That the Euro is the Deutsche Mark. A currency run to Germany’s peculiar rules, for Germany’s peculiar circumstances.
Which are peculiarly set against Keynesian economics, the (well-proven) theory that the best thing a government can do in times of economic depression is borrow and spend to promote recovery. This technique lost favour in Germany essentially because it was employed by Hitler. In the Post-War era a new orthodoxy was needed, and they found it in “Ordoliberalism“, a system in which government must play only the most minimal role. It has worked for Germany so far, but Germany has been in almost continuous growth since it started. That might seem a recommendation, but ordoliberalism is a theory for the good times, utterly lost when facing a crisis of these proportions.
It seems likely that only the introduction of the Euro averted the failure of the German system. From being overburdened by the costs of Reunification with the post-Communist East, Germany went rapidly back to being the richest and most productive economy in Europe. Essentially, by selling more goods than ever before to the rest of Eurozone – while simultaneously lending us the money to buy them.
Germany had become Europe’s company store.
It is worth noting that Merkel’s approval rating is at an all-time high back home. She’s getting to project herself as tough by beating us up. So why is Enda Kenny agreeing to this? Is there some secret backroom agreement where he gets to be her bitch now in return for favours down the line? It’s the only way you can make sense of his apparently acting against the country’s interests. But we can’t depend on the existence of covert deal. Even if it exists, it can so easily be repudiated. And in return we are being asked to write vows of poverty into our own Constitution.
If this referendum passes, the best thing you could do would be to get out of the country as soon as you can. And be sure to bring your more vulnerable relatives with you.
Whatever the exact mechanism, it seems beyond dispute that the German parliament knew details of our budget before ours did. It may not have been the whole budget of course, but it still doesn’t look good.
Particularly in this context. What Merkel has proposed for the Eurozone is EU oversight of members’ budgets. Critics will say that that amounts to German oversight. So this is embarrassing even more for Germany than it is for Ireland.
The British seem to be going particularly overboard for poppies this year, presumably inspired by the calendrical happenstance of all those ones lining up in a row. But unthinkingly, they only emphasize the tragic aspect of this occasion.
Why eleven? The agreement to end hostilities had been signed more than five hours earlier. The war officially ceased only at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month because that seemed a suitably grand and historic way to end a ‘Great War’. So they kept on fighting, and they kept on killing, until that eleventh hour came.
How can one feel anything but contempt for that?
But this act of inhumanity was just the start. The victorious powers chose to accept no portion of blame for the hostilities. On the contrary, and despite the fact that a great deal of the credit for the war’s end belonged to the German people for rising up against their leaders, despite the fact that the Kaiser had abdicated and the empire been abolished, they chose to heap all blame – and punishment – onto the people of the new German democracy. The terms of this ‘armistice’ would lead directly to disaster on a previously unimagined scale.
This hour marks not the end of war, but the beginning of revenge.