BERLIN – The economic news from this blessed country in the heart of Europe are, well, not great. But then again, they could be worse. Certainly compared with the outlook of all these other foreign and distant countries that form the rest of continent called Europe. Just look at Die Welt, the conservative daily, which reports the latest economic outlook of the OECD like this: “Germany is strong even in the midst of crisis.” While the OECD predicts what Die Welt calls a “light recession,” it assures the readers that this recession is only of “a technical nature.”
Why technical? Because during the next quarter, the economy will just shrink by 0.1 percent and by a barely measurable 0.075 percent in the following quarter. According to Die Welt, this is what economists call a “red zero.” For the remainder of 2012, the outlook is bright, with growth “above average.” Somewhere buried in the third paragraph does the reader learn that rest of Europe is sliding into a recession that not even this newspaper can call “technical.” And, that recession is far away, in foreign territories. Germany is indeed a blessed country.
It is in this public environment that Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, delivered his “Berlin speech.” In the capital of a country that enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in decades, Sikorski warned that Europe is “on the edge of a precipice.” Yet, the crisis is something that Germans only know from reading the newspaper – if at all. How are they to understand a sentence like this: “The breakup of the eurozone would be a crisis of apocalyptic proportions”?
If is therefore understandable that the most relevant criticism of Sikorski heard in Berlin the morning after is directed at what locals perceive of as exaggerations. Is it really that bad? Break up? Come on. Isn’t Sikorski an alarmist of sorts?
So, let’s turn this around and assume that Sikorski is not an alarmist, but knows full well what he is talking about. But that, conversely, the echo chamber of Germany’s national conversation has produced an intolerable complacency. It would then be the merit of Sikorski’s wake-up call to have alerted the German public to the reality of their responsibility for the travails of the eurozone. Maybe the most important moment of his speech came when he reminded the audience that, despite Germany’s “understandable aversion to inflation,” the country would have to “appreciate that the danger of collapse is now a much bigger threat.” Maybe five individuals in the audience applauded. Other than that, there was complete and deafening silence. The audience wanted none of it. They did not want to hear the distinction of a problem of the first- and one of the second-order.
Radoslaw Sikorski said what needed to be said. And he said it where it needed to be said and when it needed to be said. Will the Germans hear him?
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Senior Director for Strategy, leads the German Marshall Fund’s project on the financial crisis.
Image by Dirk Enters, DGAP.