Reading the language of Europe’s crisis

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 9 August 2012

Of all the reasons why Europe’s monetary crisis keeps dragging on, the lack of a common language is not the most obvious one. Why should it matter when the predominant language of finance, politics and diplomacy is English? After all, almost all of the key players in the current crisis are perfectly capable of having a dialogue in the lingua franca of our age. Never mind that lingua franca is actually an Italian expression.

There is a problem with this view. It ignores that in all European countries the formation of the political will still happens in their national languages. There are different approaches to politics, economics and money across Europe, based on different histories and experiences. Thus an Italian talking about stabilità monetaria may have something different in mind than a Dutchman thinking of monetaire stabiliteit.

What’s more, the political dialogue follows different rules and patterns in every country. France, Germany, Italy and Greece may all be bound by a common currency but this economic linkage is not reflected in a similarly connected debate. In effect, each country has its own unique euro discussion that barely overlaps with its neighbours.

To an English-speaking observer, this may come as a surprise. If your mother tongue is English, you could be forgiven for thinking that all countries must have the same understanding of the European economy. That is because it does not matter whether you read British, American, Australian or any other English-language newspapers – their reporting and commentary on the euro crisis is remarkably homogenous. With the exception of Ireland, all are looking at the eurozone from the outside, and views are often shaped by a few globally recognised experts.

Contrast that with Germany. Its population of 82 million people supports a large, diversified media with its own agenda setting publications, lead commentators and economic gurus that few non-Germans would have ever heard of. Where the global euro debate has its Krugmans, Rogoffs and El-Erians, the German euro debate is dominated by people like Hans-Werner Sinn, Michael Hüther, Max Otte and Roland Tichy. If you are unfamiliar with their names, the point is proved.

Non-Germans trying to understand German views about the crisis will find this difficult. Few German publications offer English translations of their articles, and those that do may not be representative of public opinion.

Spiegel Online, for example, translates some of its articles and usually supports bailout programmes and monetary activism. It may not sound too different from mainstream English-language media. However, within the spectrum of Germany’s published opinion, the centre-left Spiegel Online is only one voice, albeit an important one.

To complete and balance the picture, ideally, one should also read economically liberal Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the conservative daily Die Welt. WirtschaftsWoche, the German equivalent of The Economist, usually gives euro rescue measures a harsh treatment – as does the business daily Handelsblatt.

The German sister publication of the Financial Times, called Financial Times Deutschland, on the other hand, is much more apologetic of debt pooling, quantitative easing, euro bonds and the like. Meanwhile, big tabloids like Bild (daily circulation 2.6 million) drive their own campaigns against “lazy Greeks” and “corrupt Italians”.

Finally, the two big public broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, like to err on the side of those in power and consequently show little enthusiasm in criticising the government’s crisis management.

All in all, the variety of German media makes for interesting reading in the euro crisis. But without a reasonable command of German, outside observers would never guess what the Germans are really discussing and how they feel about the euro crisis. The few remaining European correspondents of Australian media organisations, for example, are based in London. To cover Germany, they have to fly in, find a translator and then follow the leads they get from reading Spiegel Online – hardly a recipe for in-depth analyses.

Following the euro crisis through both the German and the international lens is fascinating. It’s a clash of cultures that may not be obvious – but a clash it is. On the one hand, you get to understand the international exasperation with the Germans, their constitutional court, their seemingly old-fashioned belief in monetary orthodoxy and their insistence on austerity. On the other, you should try to see it from their point of view as well. As many German language publications reflect, most ordinary Germans cannot comprehend what wrong they have done that justifies imposing the burden of bailing out Europe on them.

My parents are a good example of this German middle class view. Having lived in rented accommodation all their lives, they saved for their first house which they only bought in their early 50s. The small mortgage they still needed was paid off quickly. Financially they believed they had done everything right.

Perhaps this explains why my mother was so upset when Germany recently agreed to pay for struggling Spanish banks. “Aren’t the Spanish ashamed to beg us for money?” she asked me. “What have we done wrong so that we now must pay for them? And why can’t our government fix the potholes in our roads first before sending our taxes abroad?”

It is difficult to reconcile this view with the anger of the Spanish youth, half of which is out of work. It is difficult to combine it with Greek protesters’ anger at the troika mandated austerity packages.

And that’s the crux of the euro crisis. There are perfectly understandable national crisis narratives, but they are separate from one another and often incompatible. How on earth can you solve this crisis when the Europeans themselves have such different understandings of it?

Usually German is a language with relatively little value outside central Europe. But in this euro crisis making sense of developments is almost impossible if you are unable to read the newspapers of its key player.

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