by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN – It has been more than nine months since reports emerged from China of a novel strain of a coronavirus with an alarming transmission rate. The virus, identified and named as Covid-19, quickly spread to become a pandemic. To date, more than 33,078,076 cases of Covid-19 have been reported worldwide with some 998,999 people having died having been infected with the virus. The pandemic’s toll has been devastating. Economies have been wrecked, from children to adults education has been disrupted, health care systems are stressed to the point of breaking and should the winter flu season prove difficult, consequences could be dire. Countries around the globe have imposed varying travel bans and restrictions to thwart the spread of the virus, many now reimposing earlier, more stringent restrictions. While China and Russia have both rolled-out domestically engineered vaccines, the international community is still awaiting the results of numerous vaccine trials, many of which are now in Phase III testing with approvals not expected until late 2020 at the earliest and more likely sometime during 2021.
Having previously lifted the shut-down in June of this year, Ireland has recently recorded more than 250 new Covid-19 cases per day on a continuing basis, the vast majority of cases being centred in Dublin. The Irish capital entered a lock-down in mid-September which required a recess of Dail Eireann owing to the pandemic threat. In a continuing series of interviews, We are engaging with diplomatic missions in Ireland to provide an insight into how diplomacy has been conducted during these trying circumstances and provide some insight from the Diplomatic Corps into what challenges may lie ahead. In this interview, the German Ambassador to Ireland, Her Excellency Mrs. Deike Potzel, spoke with me about the pandemic and the conduct of German diplomacy and consular services during this difficult period.
Deike Potzel is a graduate of Humboldt University, Berlin with a degree in English and French Language and Literature Studies. She prepared for diplomatic service at the Foreign Service Academy of the Federal Foreign Ministry, Bonn before beginning her career in 1995 as a Desk Officer overseeing Election Observation/Democratization Aid in Berlin. Serving the Ministry as a Press/Protocol/Political Attaché at the German Embassy in Singapore she next took up duties as the Head of the Cultural, Press and Science Section at the German Embassy in Tehran prior to returning to Berlin as a Desk Officer for EU-Enlargement. In 2005, Mrs. Potzel progressed in her career as a Desk Officer for Iran and Gulf Countries, then as Deputy Head of Division for Personnel, Staff Development and Planning for the Foreign Ministry before being selected as the Head of the Personal Office of Federal President Joachim Gauck. Prior to being elevated to the rank of Ambassador, Mrs. Potzel served as the Director-General for Central Services for the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. On 19 December 2017, Her Excellency Mrs. Deike Potzel presented her letters of credence extraordinary and plenipotentiary to President Michael D. Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin and was received as the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Ireland.
Madame Ambassador, thank you for taking time so quickly after returning from the summer holidays to engage in this interview. Much has transpired since the pandemic began. Let’s begin, if you will, with what you found to be the greatest challenge that emerged for your Mission during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The pandemic has profoundly impacted our diplomatic work. For many months now, entertaining people, organising offline events, hosting receptions, lunches, dinners, meeting people at various events, business trips within Ireland, talks, speeches, exhibitions, cultural events have been impossible. As this is a core function of our job in order to represent our country and understand current developments in our host country, it is truly a decisive impediment to our work.
Likewise, the consular section of the Embassy had only been open for the public for emergency cases for some months which significantly reduced our capability of exercising our service function
What was your experience of German nationals seeking to return home from Ireland during the shut-down or throughout the pandemic? Were their issues surrounding repatriation?
Throughout the pandemic, flights and ferries were still available for people wanting to return to Germany from Ireland. That is why, luckily enough, we did not have to assists stranded tourists to get home as was the case in so many other countries around the world.
With a general prohibition on travel and restricted visits to Embassies, what are some of the ways your Mission adapted to meet the needs of people asking for services?
Many people availed of classic ways of communication such as telephone or email. We did, of course, constantly update our social media channels, too. We also kept in touch with our countrymen and women by repeatedly sending out newsletters to them.
Germany is renowned for its scientific, medical and commercial capabilities. Were there any opportunities for Irish-German collaboration over the past many months to tackle the challenges that arose from the Covid-19 crisis?
There were a number of areas of cooperation between our two countries during the pandemic. Among others, Ireland sent Covid19 tests to a laboratory in Germany for testing for a few weeks. I understand that currently Ireland has, once again, signed a contract with a German lab to that purpose. A German company is going to start to produce PPE in Ireland soon, and the Embassy acted as a facilitator between the company and Irish authorities.
There are accounts of diplomats, their spouses or staff serving around the world who fell victim to Covid-19 in the service of their countries. Did your Mission or country experience any losses or illnesses in your diplomatic community during the Covid-19 pandemic to date? If so, is there someone you would like to remember or mention?
I am not aware of any deaths caused by Covid-19 in the German Foreign Service but there have been a few cases of Covid-19 among diplomats and locally employed staff. Here in Ireland, we suspect that two to three of our colleagues might have fallen ill with Covid-19 at the very beginning of the pandemic but as no tests were carried out at the time, we don’t know exactly.
Your Excellency, what are some lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic that you think will have an impact on how diplomacy is conducted in the future?
I sincerely hope that a lot of the things that are part and parcel of our job which cannot be carried out at the moment will soon be feasible again. Diplomats do need personal contacts. We need to meet people. We need to talk to each other in person.
I do believe, however, that the pandemic hugely pushed IT-related developments in our sphere of work, too. More meetings will take place virtually in the future which will have positive effects, too. Less business travels around the globe for (sometimes only short) meetings in person, more efficiency during online meetings (which have to be better prepared/structured). That will also mean less stress for employees as they do travel less.
I am convinced, however, that successful diplomacy requires that people get together in person and talk things over. That was one of the reasons why the EU Heads of State met in Brussels to find a solution for the next EU budget and the Recovery Fund. They spent four days together – much longer than anticipated. A result, many would agree, that wouldn’t have been achieved in video conferences.
Are there any changes in the way you will provide Consular services for the foreseeable future?
The Consular Section has of course seen a substantial increase in workload since the start of the year. We implemented a two-team system early in the crisis to protect both our staff and our clients, and to maintain our service levels. This has worked well, although we are constantly looking for ways to improve things. We are working hard to better our response times to email and telephone enquiries, and our website is being updated regularly.
We have a very busy public office year round, as many of our clients need face-to-face appointments. Our priority will continue to be providing a safe, productive and reliable service to all, in line with any and all restrictions that will be in place. However, the pandemic showed us that we need to accelerate our efforts to offer more services digitally.
Beyond trains and road surface traffic across Germany, Frankfurt Airport is a critical international travel hub connecting other EU nations to Germany and then to the rest of the world. Berlin is celebrated an international centre for culture, politics, business, media and science. Frankfurt is a leading world financial centre. On the Elbe River which leads on to the North Sea is Hamburg, Europe’s third largest ports known as Tor zur Welt – the ‘Gateway to the World’. The toll Covid-19 has taken on travel, tourism and commerce has been profound. Both geographically and commercially Germany is vital to Europe’s health and welfare. Is it possible for Germany to move towards a ‘normalisation’ of travel and tourism?
We are very much looking forward to a joint EU-guideline on travel which will hopefully see the light of day. That would mean clear criteria for all EU member states and citizens for what is possible or advisable.
So far, Germany had – after a short period at the beginning – opened its borders with all EU and Schengen countries without quarantine requirements. Travel warnings were in place for a substantial number of other countries worldwide – people were discouraged to travel there and have to quarantine on the way back. We are now at a point in time where – with numbers rising in Europe once again – some EU-cities or regions have been declared areas of risk with people having to self-isolate when they come back to Germany.
So I suppose it will take quite some time to get back to what we considered normal before the crisis, indeed.
Ireland has faced much the same problem, as have all European nations. What has that meant for Germans wishing to enjoy travel and/or holidays during this pandemic?
The German Minister of Health told the German audience only last week that they can also spend a nice holiday at home in Germany, which I, for instance, did this summer – a few days at wonderful white sandy beaches at the German Baltic Coast with temperatures around 30 degrees. Truly enjoyable.
Any pandemic is a tragedy. But even in such situations there are always stories that inspire. Would you care to share one?
I was very grateful to see many positive examples of cooperation and support throughout Europe. During his recent visit to Italy, German Federal President Steinmeier talked to Covid19-patients who had been treated in German hospitals. We all supported each other in bringing back stranded nationals from all over the world in so called repatriation flights.
Here in Ireland, we made sure that Irish cancer patients were able to travel to Germany for treatment even in times of closed borders. The German company Linde/BOC produced much needed oxygen for Irish hospitals. An Irish company worked with German engineers to design new mask-producing equipment and, as mentioned, Irish Covid-19 tests were and are continuing to be sent to Germany. And there are many more examples like that across Europe which I think deserve to be talked about more because they show: Europe works!
Germany took over the EU-Presidency in the midst of the pandemic. This seems to have brought about a much welcomed measure of stability in these quite fluid times. What are Germany’s priorities during the Presidency?
Tackling the pandemic, very obviously, is the most important topic of our Presidency. Agreeing on the Recovery Fund and the new EU-budget were very important steps. We now need the EU Parliament to agree.
Besides Covid-19, supporting EU efforts in negotiating the future relationship with the UK and preparing for this future is keeping us busy. We are at a very crucial moment and still hope for a positive outcome. But we don’t have much time left.
We also want to move forward on important topics like climate change, digitalisation, common asylum policy, and the rule of law, for instance. And as we can see, current events worldwide – like the situation in Belarus or the Mediterranean – shape the agenda, too. If your readers want to know more they are invited to find out more at www.eu2020.de.
Last year your were the honoured keynote speaker at Annual Armistice Day Commemoration at the World War One Memorial Park in Co. Wicklow. In your remarks, you spoke of a “new dynamism” in Irish-German relations, adding “Ireland is one of the countries that we feel is very like-minded and that we share a lot of convictions and ideas for the future”. How would you describe the current state of German-Irish bilateral relations and what might the future hold?
Dr. Mervin O’Driscoll of UCC said last year that we are more intertwined than ever before in our history. And he is right – we are close partners and friends. This September, we celebrate 90 years of bilateral diplomatic relations.
Over the last few years, our steadfast support for Ireland during Brexit was a clear sign of our close friendship and mutual understanding. Germans love coming to Ireland – more than 800,000 tourists came here in 2019. More than 300 German companies have a base in Ireland. Germany is Irelands 4th biggest trading partner and many Germans found a home here in Ireland – as did many Irish in Germany, with some 4,000 Irish people living and working in Berlin alone.
We are constantly working on deepening and broadening our relations by implementing the Joint Action Plan of 2018 and I am personally very keen on promoting German culture and language in Ireland. The support giving by the German Federal parliament to the Böll Association on Achill Island is a wonderful recent example of our close relations. Here in Co. Mayo, German Literature Nobel Laureate’s Heinrich Böll’s beloved cottage on beautiful Achill Island, which today serves as a residency for artists from around the world, will be refurbished.
And I am also hoping to support building many more bridges like town twinnings between our countries.
Ambassador Potzel, on behalf of Diplomacy in Ireland – The European Diplomat, let me say I am delighted to have had the opportunity to discuss these matters. I wish you, your family, the Embassy and Consular staff, as well as the German people the very best of health and prosperity as we continue to struggle together in these most difficult times. Thank you for your time and insights.
It was my pleasure, Miceál.