Hamish McRae: Germany reaps the rewards for good behaviour

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The Independent Online

Virtue has been duly rewarded. That, at least, would seem to be the immediate conclusion to be drawn from the divergent paths taken by the German economy and that of much of the rest of the eurozone, notably Italy. Germany, which has clamped down on wages, brought in sweeping labour-market reforms, cut its budget deficit, and boosted exports, has grown by 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Italy, which has done none of those things, shrank by 0.8 per cent. France, which under Nicolas Sarkozy had followed a more or less middle course, had a middling experience: a flat quarter.

So it would seem that the eurozone members doing best are those which have followed austerity, and those which have done worst have let things rip.

But that would be too sweeping a conclusion. There must be some truth in the point that competitiveness is the key to economic growth, and if you compare the competitiveness and industrial production for Germany vis-à-vis those of France and Italy that message is clear. Germany wins on both counts, France is in the middle and Italy at the bottom.

However, Germany's relative success is the result not just of a few years' austerity but of two generations and more of industrial excellence: the ability to make the things that the new rich of Asia want to buy. Germany's great contribution is the competence of its export sector.

So, there is an even bigger message here. This is that Europe's future prosperity will depend not on its macro-economic policies, but rather on the competence of its businesses community.

I find that rather hopeful. If you look at Europe's best businesses they are outstanding by world standards. Europe can prosper if it focuses on selling to the rest of the world, for the world economy as a whole is doing just fine.

There is a message here for the UK, too. We have just had some trade figures that show exports to Europe have been weak, as you might expect under the circumstances. But Europe apart, exports are not at all bad. Britain is gradually reducing its dependence on the eurozone, down to 45.3 per cent of our total exports. That is the lowest since data began in 1988.

This is not the result of any conscious policy to detach ourselves; rather it is the effect of non-eurozone markets growing faster. That is what holds out hope for eurozone states, too.

If only other European countries can control their costs in the way Germany has done, they too can share in global growth.