The Curious Case of German Leadership

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Some of Germany's European partners accuse Chancellor Angela Merkel of refusing, or failing, to lead properly in the euro crisis. Many Germans agree with that analysis and call for Merkel to guide the rescue efforts with a firmer hand and more vision. Just as many, however, think that Germany is actually leading well, and that this is not sufficiently acknowledged. As one opposition politician put it to me during a recent Berlin visit: "Germany is expected to lead, and if we do, we are criticised as arrogant - unless it's in line with what others want." I learnt that the way many Germans define leadership differs from the views that seem to prevail in other EU countries.

Recent remarks by Volker Kauder, head of the parliamentary faction of Merkel's CDU (and the CSU), that Europe was now "speaking German" were crude - and treated as such by much of the German media. But the sentiment behind that statement is quite common. Many in the government say that leadership consists of spreading Germany's 'stability culture' throughout Europe. They point to the fact that Greece is implementing reforms that were unthinkable until recently, that Italy is now run by a man who praises the strengths of the German model and that Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to get re-elected as president by promising to cut the French budget.

The Germans say they do not want to be the ones who impose austerity and reforms on their neighbours. They clearly do not enjoy being unpopular. And the experience of reunification has shown them how hard it is to salvage an ailing economy (in that case the eastern Länder) even if you can impose your own laws and practices. Merkel's government therefore wants to construct new eurozone rules and institutions - but in a way that spreads and enforces a German vision of a 'stability union'.

Accordingly, the German debate has shifted since the summer. The early debate had been focused on crisis management and blaming profligate South Europeans. Most Germans were spooked by the impression that market pressures were forcing their government into one U-turn after another. Opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier liked to quip about 'Merkel's law': the more fiercely Merkel rules something out, the more certain one can be that it will happen in the end.

In the last couple of months, the German debate has started addressing broader questions about the future of the euro and the EU. Political leaders are queuing up to make big European speeches. Now that the government talks about new treaties and institutions it looks more in charge. Politically, the strategy is working: almost two-thirds of Germans now approve of Merkel's management of the euro crisis, up from 45 per cent in October.

However, the government's vision for Europe is limited so far: a few 'surgical' amendments to the EU treaty to introduce automatic sanctions, take fiscal rule-breakers to the European Court of Justice and allow Brussels to intervene in the budgets of countries that ask for bail-outs. While Germany appears happy for the EU to curtail the sovereignty of countries that spend too much, it is reluctant to accept new constraints itself. During a recent Euro Group meeting, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble obtained written assurances from his counterparts that the reprimands and sanctions of the new 'imbalances procedure' would apply only to countries with deficits, not those with surpluses. Spain in particular had called for more 'symmetric adjustment'. Even economically literate Germans tend to react to such calls with simplistic statements such as "you cannot ask us to reduce our competitiveness and exports" or "we cannot increase our wages artificially to suit the eurozone because we also compete globally".


A Germany in leadership mode would acknowledge that more German demand would help its troubled neighbours to export their way out of recession and that there are all manner of reforms (some of which the government is working on or contemplating) that can boost the German economy without 'reducing competitiveness'. Here, Germany would do well to shed its Mittelstandsdenken (the conservative, inward-focused thinking deeply engrained in Germany's small and mid-sized companies) and start behaving like a large country whose actions impact on the eurozone as a whole.

One area, however, in which Germany will not lead is monetary policy. Observers from abroad often call on Merkel "to allow the European Central Bank to buy more Italian and Spanish bonds". It is true that a majority of Germans is against the central bank buying government debt, mainly because they fear that 'free money' will allow South European countries to carry on borrowing, without implementing reforms and austerity.

However, most Germans do not think that they run monetary policy in Europe. They believe in central bank independence. There is no doubt that the ECB operates in a political environment that is substantially shaped by the German debate. But the idea that there could be a direct chain of command from the chancellery to the ECB or even the Bundesbank would be alien to most Germans.

In the eyes of most of the policy people I spoke to in Berlin, ECB bond-buying is dangerous, wrong, illegal ... and inevitable. They know that the German political system cannot quickly come up with the sums that would be needed to finance Italy's borrowing needs for any considerable length of time. First, Germany's post-war political system was constructed specifically to prevent rash decision-making and strong leadership; a slow-moving, consensus-oriented political culture has developed as a result. Second, recent debates about bail-out laws have shown growing political opposition to committing more funds, in particular in Merkel's own coalition. Any attempt to fill a 'big bazooka' bail-out vehicle with German taxpayers' money could lead to political paralysis and early elections.

That only leaves the ECB. Berlin policy-makers shrug off the fact that Germany is routinely outvoted on the ECB board (votes are usually 17 against four). One person close to Chancellor Merkel said he wished the ECB was less hesitant in its bond-buying programme: "They should just announce that they stand ready to buy all Italian bonds, provided certain conditions are fulfilled." Another told me it was "sad" that the Bundesbank and its boss, Jens Weidmann, were so dogmatic. But German leaders are very careful not to criticise central bankers openly and in public.

No German government will instruct the ECB to "buy more bonds". One government advisor says this would only prompt the ECB to defend its independence: "The more political calls there are for ECB intervention, the harder it gets for them to do what needs to be done." Perhaps it is also time for German leaders to acknowledge that their routine statements about the wrongs of debt monetisation unsettle the markets, and just let the ECB get on with the job of stabilising the eurozone.

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