Monday 5 December 2016

Of course we won't let Ireland down -- but we're more worried about nuclear disaster right now

Kim Bielenberg reports from Baden-Württemberg

Published 02/04/2011 | 05:00

The contrast with Ireland in 2011 could not be more striking. Baden-Württemberg, the state in the south-west of Germany, is now the richest region of Europe.

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While Ireland struggles to repay its debts, this economic powerhouse is enjoying its greatest boom since the Berlin Wall fell and there are jobs for almost everyone who wants them.

The state capital, Stuttgart, is one of the biggest producers of luxury cars in the world, including Mercedes and Porsche. It was here that the first petrol-powered car was invented by Carl Benz.

With much of Europe recovering and even prospering, the factories can barely produce enough of their cars to cope with demand.

Porsches are so common in the hilly suburbs of Stuttgart -- an area lined with blossoming magnolia trees and vineyards -- that the gently purring vehicles, costing €150,000 each in Ireland, do not turn heads.

It may be thriving, but this week the normally conservative region, the heartland of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party, was at the centre of Europe's greatest political after-shock of the decade.

The normally staid and cautious electors of south-west Germany have elected their first Green state government in the country's history. It is the most significant setback of Merkel's career. To an extent that is not easy to comprehend in Ireland, Germany has been spooked by the nuclear disaster in Japan.

A region that is one of the world's greatest producers of gas guzzlers -- 80,000 work in the Mercedes plant alone -- has put into office an environmental party that opposes everything the car stands for.

If there is any comfort to be drawn from Japan's catastrophe, it is that it has pushed the Irish problem down the agenda, in the short term, anyway.

We may fret over what the Germans think about us, but in the south they do not seem to be too concerned about picking up a large part of the tab for our decade of financial excess. In fact, they fully expect to pay.

In the village of Tonbach in the heart of the Black Forest, 100km from Stuttgart, local hotelier Sebastian Finkbeiner is sympathetic to the plight of Ireland.

"Of course people are worried about what is happening over there, but we shouldn't treat the country too harshly," he says.

"If we are in the EU, we have to think of Ireland as part of our family. If someone in your family runs into difficulties, you have to help them.''

When he first mentioned Ireland in our conversation, it was not in the context of our unmanageable debts. Instead, he was keen to talk about a happy summer spent working in the Europa Hotel in Killarney, where he went to pubs and listened to traditional music.

The richest state in Germany may not be representative of the country as a whole, but in Baden-Württemberg the image of Ireland seemed overwhelmingly positive.

Daniel Maier, an economics student in Stuttgart, said: "Ultimately, Germany will not let Ireland fail completely, because that could mean the end of the euro. The euro has helped to build Germany's economic success and we would be crazy to let it go.

"People complain, but in the end we will pay for Ireland.''

As I travelled across the region, from the fringes of the car plants, through vineyards and forests, all they wanted to talk about was the nuclear threat. Alarming pictures of smoke rising from Fukushima led to the sudden surge in support for the Greens in the days before last Sunday's state election.

In the stunningly affluent spa town of Baden-Baden, Anna, a local marketing executive, told me: "It may seem absurd that a region that produces so many cars should elect the Greens, but you have to understand how scared people are of nuclear power.

"We may not have a threat from earthquakes, but what happens if a terrorist flies a plane into a nuclear power plant. That fills me with horror.''

As a trained physicist, married to a scientist, Angela Merkel would seem to be uniquely qualified to make a firm decision on the merits of nuclear power. But she is seen to have dithered on the question.

First, she supported atomic energy and the retention of old plants, but in response to the public outcry over Fukushima she has made a spectacular u-turn. Now she says she wants to phase out nuclear power and has ordered the shutdown of several plants.

As the leader of Europe's most important economy, Merkel is rightly considered the most powerful woman in the world. Her role model is said to be the 18th-century empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, and she has a picture of her hanging on the walls of the chancellery.

As a commentator in the German magazine Der Spiegel noted, both women had to establish themselves in unfamiliar surroundings -- Catherine, a German princess in Russia, and Merkel, a woman from the old East Germany, making it good in a unified country dominated by the West. Both engaged in power struggles with the male establishment and both won.

With her sudden about-turn on nuclear power and her electoral defeat, Merkel now has chinks in her armour.

She may now want to be seen to be tough with Ireland and other spendthrift nations, but the general view in the rich south-west is that Germany will pay up -- in its own national interest.

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