Letter from Germany: In Profile

In this year’s letter from Germany, Professor Ray Rees, Professor of Economics at the University of Munich, reports on his recent interview by a German magazine. As Ray says, the questions he was asked reveal a great deal about the way that UK attitudes to the EU are seen in continental Europe.

In the UK, an economics student will be quite accustomed to the fact that a large proportion of the people who teach him or her originate from another country. In Germany, on the other hand, only a small handful of economics professors are non-German, or at any rate not from the German-speaking countries. If we were to organise a group outing we could do it in a minibus, if not a large Mercedes. This makes us a little exotic, which is the reason I think for my being ‘profiled’ recently in a magazine (Das Wirtschaftsstudium) whose readership consists mainly of economics students and professors. The ‘profile’ took the form of a short biography followed by about twenty questions, put by the editor, and my answers to them. I found it interesting to see what the questions revealed as to what Germans might want to know about the UK and about what a British academic working in Germany thought. Here are a few examples. How would you have dealt with them?

Q. You are British and have lived and taught in Germany for a number of years. Great Britain is growing faster than Germany. What are they doing better there than we are, in terms of economic policy?
I tried to answer this question at some length in my last year’s Letter from Germany, but here I had to answer in three short sentences. What is interesting is that the question confirms the shock the Germans have had in learning that British per capita GDP is now higher than theirs — at the beginning of the 1980's it was about half of that in West Germany. There is still however considerable reluctance to accept the reforms to the labour market and social security system that most economists argue are necessary to put Germany back on track. Also, opponents of these policies are fond of pointing to the British rail system and the NHS, whose horror stories receive a lot of coverage here, as reasons for not going down that road. These are scare tactics rather than consistent arguments though.

Q. There are many Britons who speak in favour of their country’s exit from the EU and for joining the North Atlantic Free Trade Area, including taking over the dollar. Craziness — or could it really happen one day?
I cannot believe that anyone seriously advocates joining NAFTA and adopting the dollar, and I do not really believe that anything but a loony minority seriously advocates UK withdrawal from the EU, the results of the recent elections notwithstanding. But am I getting out of touch? Impatience with Brussels bureaucracy, and refusal to adopt the Euro until the economic conditions are right, on the other hand, are perfectly sensible and not at all unique to the UK. Again, the question reflects the coverage that anti-European politicians and newspapers in the UK receive in the press here.

Q. By his participation in the Iraq war Blair has aroused in Europe a lot of anger and annoyance. At the same time he wants to play a leading political role in Europe. Isn’t a reality check called for?
I had been struck for the most part by the loss of support and political difficulties Blair’s Iraq policy had caused him in the UK, and had not really thought about this dimension of the issue. But of course it has damaged him in Europe too. On the other hand, since Italy, Spain and Poland also participated, it is hard to see this as evidence that Britain is uniquely ‘non-European’ and ‘pro-American’. All the same, I think it has much reduced Blair’s stature in Europe.

Q. There are still astonishingly many monarchies in Europe - not only in Great Britain. Isn't that something of an anachronism?
In the popular press and magazines in Germany the antics of the more prominent members of the British royal family receive about as much coverage as they do in Britain. Perhaps it's the result of having grown up in a Welsh socialist household, but I do believe that the end of the reign of the present queen would be the perfect time to inaugurate the Republic of Great Britain, with a President, whose functions would roughly be those of the present monarchy, elected for, say, five years, by a free vote of the House of Commons. My candidate for the first president would be Lord Dahrendorf. I do not, of course, expect this to happen.

Q. In Germany there are more and more Bachelor and Master's programmes. Now, after only twelve years in school and three further years for a Bachelor’s degree one is a graduate at 21. Won’t that mean a drastic fall in the level of a university education?
Currently, the main German university qualification is the Diplom, for which students take on average six years. After completing high school at about eighteen or nineteen, and (if male) doing a year and a half’s military or civilian service, one enters university aged about twenty to twenty-two, so typically German students graduate at age twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Taking a year off the high school curriculum and replacing the Diplom by a BA will shorten this by four years. So, yes, graduates in future will certainly be much younger, though still not below the European average. Critics of this reform, which is proceeding very rapidly in the universities, see it as a process of ‘dumbing down’, and yet another instance of aping the American system (the more appropriate comparison would be with the British) to the detriment of tried and trusted German institutions. I think this distrust is misplaced and, at least in economics, where I have experience, the change is a good idea. As well as saving time and resources and increasing flexibility, I think the BA/MA programme actually offers a better education in economics than the old Diplom does. But detailed argument for that position will have to be provided on another occasion.

The remaining questions ranged widely, over EU expansion (would I support admission of Turkey to the EU?), globalisation (good or bad?) to Welsh and Scottish nationalism. It was interesting to have to formulate my views on such a variety of subjects and express them pithily, in no more than three sentences each. I look forward to reading the profiles of the other exotics, my fellow occupants of the minibus, such as Avnar Shaked at Bonn and Nick Baigent at Graz, to see what they reveal about themselves in this process.

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