He opens as his train stops on the border and he is surrounded by children begging for food:
“The children ran forward – not noisy and squabbling like Dublin ragamuffins scrambling for a penny, but still, very quiet and rather timid. They reached up and took the food, and said, “Danke schon” or “Thank you” – perhaps according to their degree of experience in the business. They did not eat the food. They looked at it with hungry eyes and tucked it away carefully in their bags. They were not working for themselves but for the family. That was my introduction to occupied Germany. All the way down through the cities of the Ruhr the children appeared every time the train came to one of its numerous stops, only they became thinner and more ragged as we moved further on. Behind them we saw the ruins – the twisted wreckage of bridges, the lines of rusty, burned-out railway wagons, the great heap of rubble with a metal dome labelled Dortmundhof perched on top like a juggler’s ball. It is the ruin – the colossal, fantastic, unimaginable vastness of the ruin – that impresses one first in Germany and that ends by overwhelming the mind completely.”
I was a late child and my father died when I was young but still I can scarcely believe that I once lived with the person who saw those things. Our memories are short. Our desire to forget is powerful. But her own recent history is what Germany must remember in its dealings with Greece in the next three weeks.
If the Allied powers had decided to let Germany stew in its “unimaginable ruin” where would Europe be now? It was arguably the ruinous terms of reparations after the First World War which gave Hitler his chance. At the 1953 debt conference in London, the Allied powers and other creditors, no doubt looking over their shoulders at the looming Cold War, wrote off half of Germany’s debt. They stretched out the repayment of the reminder over decades, limiting payments to interest only for five years and linked future repayments to Gross Domestic Product.
All Europeans have gained from these decisions. Germany took on the massive task of reuniting the country in the 1990s and we have all benefitted. We are all in this together. That is the fundamental understanding on which the European Union is based.
Led by Germany, the ECB’s appalling treatment of Ireland in the opening stages of the global recession defaulted wholly from that understanding. The European Central Bank, as a lender of last resort in 2010, should have kept faith with us. We had agreed a strategy with them to which we were adhering. But they pulled the plug on us for their own reasons. Most disgusting of all, they charged us an interest rate of 6% when they were borrowing at 2%.
This despite the fact that Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy had plunged us from difficulty into crisis when they announced on the fringes of the G20 meeting in Deauville in October 2010 that in the future bonds from peripheral countries would not be honoured. At that moment Germany and France broke the trust of the European Union and large numbers of her citizens.
But we have learned a bit since then about what it is to be a currency union. Mario Draghi replaced Jean Claude Trichet and announced, in July 2012, that he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. There is now - as there should have been before the euro was even used - a European Banking Union which aims to supervise and support all licensed banks in the Eurozone. A European Central Bank “quantitive easing” programme, aimed at stimulating the Eurozone economy, is kicking off. Better five years late than never.
All these steps forward risk being taken back again if the EU powers fail to negotiate a debt deal with Greece. I know Greece is being bolshy. Clearly the other European powers can’t invest in a country which completely refuses oversight of its economy. But the terms of the Banking Union in themselves imply oversight. And surely skilled diplomats can come up with a deal from a menu of options including write-down, interest-rate cut, extension of maturity and a link to GDP, which restores to Greek citizens some hope and pride.
The truth is that the only other option Greece has is Grexit. No politician will be able to sell anything less to the Greek people. That would not just be a Greek failure, it would be a European failure. It would mean the loss of a great dream which has brought relative peace and prosperity – as well as human rights and environmental protection - to a large number of people for several decades.
Forget UKIP’s wittering about the shape of a banana. Think of maternity leave, equal pay, parental leave, directives on water quality, building regulations, a basic commitment to tackling climate change. It should be part of our European identity that we stand or fall together, even when that means directing funds from the richer core to the poorer periphery. That is, after all, a policy that has transformed this country so much that if my father were alive today he would not recognise it.
Our role at the negotiating table is to advocate for a new debt management plan for Greece. It is stupid beyond belief to take the view, as Kenny and Noonan seem to do, that because we survived the terms of a bailout programme drawn up at the numbskull stage of the crisis, they should too.
But the alternative view, currently being taken by the Left in this country, that we should hold out for a debt deal for Greece so we can get the same is not honest either. Efforts to reduce our debt commitments must continue unstintingly. But the line that Government politicians love – we are not Greece – is actually true. We are not Greece and no amount of talking will make us Greece.
Both countries have dropped in the UN Human Development Index, corrected for equality: Ireland to number 11, Greece to number 29. Our average income per person is more than twice what theirs is. Greece needs more help because Greece is in more trouble. That is the way the European Union, just like any economic union, was designed to work, as Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath said in the Dáil, “in a spirit of European solidarity.”
We will gain directly from the stability of Greece because we are part of the union and – like a family which hangs together through a tough time – our union will be the stronger for it.
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