German think-tanks, Ireland and the European crisis

There is a lively and nuanced policy debate going on in Germany about the Irish situation, and what can be done about it. By Nat O'Connor.

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is making an official visit to Berlin today. As well as meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel, he will speak to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (see also, their UK branch).

The Stiftungen (aka think-tanks, foundations) are central to the German political landscape. They are independent of the political parties, but there is one political Stiftung per party, as well as a range of other ones.

I've been reviewing what the different German foundations have to say about the Irish situation and the euro crisis (with the assistance of Nina Roβmann). What this review shows is that, unlike the rather one-dimensional view that's often reported about what "Germany says", there is a lively and nuanced policy debate going on in Germany. What follows are some highlights of this debate.

The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) is linked to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party. Fine Gael, especially in the European parliament, has fashioned itself as a Christian democratic party, although there are important historical differences in the origins of most continental parties of this type. Also, mainstream Irish liberal economics would be far to the right of the German mainstream.

KAS's economic policy is centred on the “social market economy”, regulated markets balanced with social protection and responsibility towards wider society. In terms of Ireland, KAS has identified the emigration of workers as one of the major challenges Ireland faces. They identify cuts to child benefits and public sector wages as hitting ordinary households. They point to €114.7 billion of German claims in Irish banks and the direct repercussions to German banks if these were not repaid.

In their wider analysis, they ask: Is Ireland a new Greece? But they answer “No”. They explain Ireland's crisis as one of refinancing, whereas the Greek crisis is explained as having more problems of lost competitiveness and structural problems. In one paper, KAS argues against a political union at EU level. They do advocate structural and fiscal reforms in deficit countries and complain that the “no bailot clause” of the EU treaties was undermined (Article 125 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU). However, in a more recent paper KAS's chairman makes an argument for economic government at EU level, which is a changed position.

The other large political foundation is the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (main site in German only), linked to the social democratic party. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) has a different perspective on Ireland and the crisis. Their analysis is that the establishment of monetary union without political union has brought the EU to the brink of collapse. They argue that it is false to claim wage policies in deficit countries are responsibile for the current account imbalances. Instead they point to global economic and financial factors. They argue that Ireland's pro-cyclical spending cuts only aggravated the crisis here and harmed the welfare state.

FES argues that before countries like Ireland lower their wages, relatively low wage countries like Germany have to raise theirs. It also criticises the unequal distribution of wealth in Ireland. FES call for better co-ordination of fiscal and social policies across EU member states, including harmonised corporation tax.

On the wider crisis, FES criticises the policies imposed by the EU on deficit countries, and it warns that this will only lead to rising unemployment, cuts in social services and growing euroscepticism within European trade union and labour movements. FES proposes a four-part change: 1. A European New Deal infrastructure investment strategy for employment; 2. some form of economic government at EU level, including stronger democracy at EU level; 3. Co-ordination of wage, fiscal and social policies across Europe; and 4. Eurobonds as a new way of financing government debt. FES argues against a 'growth' strategy for Europe per se, but a strategy for sustainable prosperity based on a real culture of solidarity.

The other four Stiftungen are Heinrich Böll (green), Friedrich Naumann (liberal), Rosa Luxemburg (democratic socialist) and Hanns Seidel (Christian social union).

Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBS) view Ireland's tax policies as negative. They identify the migration of German companies and jobs to Ireland due to lower taxes. They advocate saving German banks who suffered due to “toxic” Irish stocks. However, they argue that there is of course no alternative to saving Ireland, and the lesson learned should be the establishment of common fiscal and economic policy. They note the German Green Party's Gerhart Schick's call for Ireland to raise corporation tax, not VAT. He also stated that the rich in Ireland have profited above average and should now share their wealth, and that spreading out the burden of the crisis is unfair, as the poor are hit hardest. In another publication, HBS criticises the cuts to unemployment benefit and education in Ireland.

On the wider crisis, HBS sees a federal EU as necessary and the natural consequence of monetary union. However, they note the evidence of a lack of support for this. They also note the fear of “Germanisation” of economic policy, and call for more attention to be paid to the banking sector.

The other foundations have less to say about Ireland in particular, but have their own analyses of the European crisis.

Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS) strongly condemns the violation of the EU's no bailout clause. They argue that the current crisis is not about the euro currency, but about public debt. They argue that any move to European co-ordination of economic and financial policies would be like a “centrally-planned economy” and they compare any such regulatory framework with George Orwell's 1984. FNS argue the pressure being exerted on Greece by the markets (i.e. by us as free citizens) to get its public finances in order is viewed by the Greek government as slavery which must be resisted.

FNS point out that the global ratings agencies (e.g. Standard & Poors, Moody's and Fitch) are in a conflict of interest when they provide consulting alongside credit rating of states at the same time. FNS also have a paper supporting private currencies to compete with the state's monopoly on currency.

The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) identifies a balance to be struck between the fears of many on the left of neoliberal economic policy, and the potential benefits of closer European integration for citizens and society. At one RLS conference, the Jesuit social ethicist Friedhelm Hengsbach SJ argued that the ongoing debate on the EU “transfer union” is absurd, as mechanisms like the European cohesion fund, whose aim it is to balance inequalities among member states, are already in place. He criticised austerity and calls instead for co-ordination of employment, growth, financial, fiscal, wage and social policy. However, he is against common EU economic governance.

RLS argues that the Greek crisis has been oversimplified. The many differences in development in Greece underlie the problems they face, not just wage cost competition. The lack of a social union in the EU permitted redistribution from the bottom to the top, they say, and they call for an EU-wide structural policy to trigger a conversion process to help them develop what they lack in public administration, legal framework, social security, regulation, company strength, banking, procurement, infrastructure, etc.

Hanns Seidel Stiftung (HSS) focuses more on its core mission, supporting "the democratic and civic education of the German people with a Christian basis". They argue for free personality development and autonomy as well as social responsibility and solidarity. They argue this mission is more important than ever, since requirements for more autonomy, a new "culture of independence" and an "active society of citizens" are increasingly evolving.

The existence of the democracy education foundations is a requirement of the post-war constitution, as is their funding by the state. While this originated as an idea imposed by the Allies that the Germans needed to be “taught democracy”, the Stiftungen have evolved into a major resource for the German political system, and they carry out a wide range of policy research. The foundations also invest a lot of their resources in democracy education around the world.

The funding of the Stiftungen is linked to the long-term success of their political party in parliament, so they have an incentive to supply them with policies that will be successful in the long-term, not just in advance of the next election. This investment pays dividends to the German policy-makers by providing them with a range of well-researched options. This also provides the German public with a more nuanced debate, which is helpful in building public support for pragmatic solutions.

Originally published on Republished with permission. 


 Image top: europeanpeoplesparty.