BERLIN - People are like that. Most of us think of ourselves a little more positively than other people do. It’s mental hygiene – there is no one we spend more time with than ourselves, so we might as well make things as comfortable as possible.
When self-perception and perception of others clash, that’s the stuff of annual evaluation meetings with the boss, or a major crisis in a relationship. Still, it’s good to know where you stand – it can be cleansing if your constitution is strong enough for a thorough scrub with a rough-bristled brush.
Which is what Germany has just gotten from half of Europe, which after three years of debt, economic crisis, and euro crisis, is taking a much harsher look at Germans than Germans think they deserve.
According to a Pew Research poll, Germans are mostly perceived as egotistical, arrogant and unfeeling. They don’t care what anybody thinks as long as their economy is booming. Not true, say the Germans, who consider themselves the most compassionate people in Europe.
It would be easy to take stock of the various perceptions outlined in the Pew report and move on, were it not for the fact that such deeply anchored prejudices – an egotistical north, a lazy south – have found their way into the politics of the euro crisis. The picture of self-serving Germans isn’t just the stuff of person-on-the-street surveys; the current French government shares that view.
So the question is: what are we Germans going to do about it? Make compensatory gestures – try to please – or defend our positions? We don’t really have a lot of choice, so we’re going to have to settle for the last one, and just put up with not being liked; accept not being loved however generous we may think of ourselves, after all those write-offs!
In Europe, Germany is the exception in terms of both employment and economic growth. Perhaps this creates envy. And no question about it, it does create the expectation that Germans should stop being resistant to "solidarity." Why? You can afford it!
This is nonsense. This concept of solidarity just blurs edges. The real issue is accepting responsibility. At the end of the day, all the demands on Germany boil down to one thing: Germany should put the brakes on so the others can catch up. But we can’t let ourselves be talked into that, it’s not in our interests and what’s more it’s not in the interests of Europe.
Where would the EU be without us?
Right now, France is aligning itself with southern Europe and in so doing is marginalizing itself. It has let deficits get out of control, and weakened the industrial foundations of its prosperity. It has put off reforms again and again and continues to do so.
Joining forces with the ones who have as much catching up to do as you do might make you some buddies in those countries – but it considerably weakens influence and respect elsewhere. Because bottom line everybody knows that rampant debt and stalled reforms weaken performance and undermine trust.
The paradox is that Europe understands the meaning of consolidation but will only admit it under pressure. The countries cutting down are the ones on whom austerity measures have been imposed in return for bailouts. And they’re not all unhappy about it: Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has been calling last year a “success story” because he has managed to restore trust through honest saving.
Germany’s economic strength in Europe is to some extent only relative. New debt is lower than elsewhere but lowering debt levels is something Berlin will tackle as soon as the elections are over. German conceit is not the issue here. On the contrary. Where would the EU be if Germany’s economy fell apart?
That’s a scenario Europeans would rather not think about. Incidentally Pew Research also asked the person on the street if austerity measures were appropriate right now. In Spain, Italy, and France the overwhelming majority were for consolidating budgets.