November 24, 2010

The Germans on terrorist alerts and Irish alarms

Since last week there is in Germany one of those unspecified terrorist alerts that Michael Moore ridiculed in his "Fahrenheit 9/11". Possible targets are airports, stations and Christmas markets in the big cities. Reichstag’s dome by Normal Foster has been closed to tourists, and there are scary pictures in the press of armed police with their German Shepherd dogs in front of the Brandenburger Tor. And we are continuously reminded that the 9/11 terrorists came from Hamburg and there is a good share of Taliban fighters with German passports.

On the other side, I have been through the airport at the week-end, and yesterday I was at a very big event with the economic and political elite, including Angela Merkel. In both cases extra security measures were clearly visible, but rather low-key and unobstrutive – any British airport without alert is more fussy than the German ones during the alert. Which begs the question: if these alerts are for political consumption, why does not Merkel use it to the full? Is somebody else behind it? Who, the media who don’t have anything else to show to sell? Or worse of all, if it is not for political consumption, should we then start worrying for real?

Not that the Germans seem to worry much. But with a self-deprecating attitude that seems to characterize all European nations, they blame themselves not to worrying enough, rather than congratulating themselves for non panicking. In the news they even report that in Britain they know much better how to behave in case of terrorist alert because the government informs everybody and people have been trained for any event. I can’t remember anything of this kind: it must be that the neighbor’s terrorist alert is always greener.

More seriously are taken the financial alerts: the Euro is not as loved and looked after as the DM but it is still something very important. Yet the reactions to the Irish crisis are very different from those to the Greek crisis at the beginning of the year (on which I recommend this working paper by Dorothee Bohle). When it was Greece needing bailing-out, all the German media were scandalized by the breaching of the Growth and Stability Pact and by the immorality of saving the undeserving, undisciplined Greeks. Now, while in the English speaking media (Guardian, Financial Times) there are articles criticizing German strictness and self-righteousness, actually, the Germans this time are being very quiet and condescending, back to the old motto "a good German is a good European". Merkel has expressed a little obligatory concern with fiscal discipline (well, she can't say the Irish are free to use the 85bn Euro as they like, can she? there is not enough Guinness on the island) but basically nobody objects to saving Ireland, and there is very little fuss about it.

Why the different treatment of the Irish and the Greeks? Certainly, you can lose virginity only once, and once the Growth and Stability Pact’s article on national debts being non-transferable has been violated once, the following violations make little news. Also, there are objective differences between the nature of the debt of Ireland and that of Greece: while Greece has been in chronic debt since independence, Ireland was running, until the crisis, a clean budget. Germans still remember, with a little shame, how just a few years ago Ireland had a budget surplus while Germany itself (tu quoque!) was breaching the deficit limit – and how the Council criticized Ireland for planning tax cuts, while it closed an eye or two on Germany. Beside these objective differences, there may well be a little bias: it is undoubtedly easier, in Germany, to despise the Southern Europeans (I know something about it), than it is despising the Irish.

But more important than the national bias may be the economic bias. That is, falling into debt because of unbalanced, “over-generous” social welfare and subsidies to a frail economy, as in Greece, is morally unacceptable. But falling into debt in order to save disastrously-behaving banks, in which incidentally the Germans have invested so much, is morally OK.


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