Ben Chu: How long can Germany sustain this contradiction?


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The Independent Online

It is a German paradox. Opinion polls show that the population is mostly hostile to more bailouts for Greece and the use of German national credit to underpin a rescue for the rest of the eurozone. And yet the most popular political parties in Germany at the moment – the Social Democrats and the Greens – are those that back precisely those policies. Indeed, the party that has tried an ostensibly populist anti-European pitch – the Free Democratic Party (FDP) – was almost wiped out in this month's Berlin state elections.

In yesterday's vote in the Bundestag, 86 per cent of parliamentarians voted to beef up the powers of the European bailout fund. And some of the dissenters complained that the rescue package was not accommodative enough to Greece and other stricken economies on the European fringe. The SPD and the Greens have hardly hidden their support for eurobonds and other radical measures. The SPD has even proposed a new Marshall Plan for southern Europe.

So what is going on? Why do Germans say one thing and vote for another? My impression is that although many Germans are wary of the cost of rescue schemes, they are fundamentally pro-European and pro-euro in a way that most Britons find difficult to grasp. In other words, concerns about the price of the rescue tend to be trumped by support for the European project. What Germans seem to find most frustrating about the present crisis is Chancellor Merkel's lack of strong leadership.

Her problem is that some of the few true hardline eurosceptics in Germany are in her coalition. And she has to tread carefully to keep them on board. If she moves too fast, her government will collapse. Holger Schmieding, an economist at Germany's Berenberg Bank, thinks it is the Chancellor's political future, rather than the fate of the eurozone, that is on the line in these bailout votes. "Even if Merkel falls, Germany will still end up with a pro-euro government," he says.

It's a comforting narrative. But even if it's true, the protracted uncertainty over the crisis is draining confidence from financial markets and pushing Europe closer to another recession. Another slump would make it much more expensive for Germany and other key players to resolve this crisis. Political paradoxes are expensive luxuries during a financial emergency.