German scepticism of the ECB reveals a eurozone paradox

Berlin remains wary of being the paymaster for a ‘transfer union’

Tony Barber

Sabine Lautenschlaeger, former vice president of the Bundesbank, speaks during a farewell ceremony at the Geman central bank in Frankfurt am Main, on May 13, 2014. Lautenschlaeger recently joined the European Central Bank (ECB) as member of the Executive Board. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL ROLAND (Photo credit should read DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Sabine Lautenschläger, Germany’s representative on the ECB’s executive board, has resigned two years before her eight-year term is up © AFP

At the heart of Europe’s 20-year-old currency union lies a disturbing paradox. The beating heart of the eurozone economy is Germany. Yet, from the highest levels of policymaking to the lowest levels of the mass media, Germans are the most outspoken critics of the unconventional measures taken over the past decade to ensure the eurozone’s survival.

The paradox captured attention this week when Sabine Lautenschläger, Germany’s representative on the European Central Bank’s executive board, said she would resign more than two years before her eight-year term is up. This makes her the third German to resign from the ECB’s 25-member governing council, either wholly or partly because of disagreements with its policies, since 2011.

No representatives of the eurozone’s other 18 countries have ever resigned from the ECB council because of policy disputes. Germany’s dissent feeds concerns that Europe’s monetary union, rocked to its foundations in the sovereign debt and banking sector crises of 2010-12, is still not solid enough. György Matolcsy, central bank governor of Hungary, a non-eurozone country, even says: “The EU should admit the strategic error of the euro.”

In Germany, unhappiness with the ECB extends way beyond the rarefied realm of central banking. After Mario Draghi, the ECB president, announced the bank’s latest monetary stimulus measures on September 12, Helmut Schleweis, the head of the German Savings Banks Association, denounced the steps as “disastrous”. Bild Zeitung, Germany’s bestselling tabloid, likened Mr Draghi to a vampire sucking the blood of ordinary German savers.

Across the political spectrum, and across society, mistrust of the ECB’s actions is widespread. Chancellor Angela Merkel has lent quiet support to Mr Draghi and taken care not to make public criticisms of his initiatives. However, many politicians, economists, business leaders and media pundits display less restraint. The flood of attacks on Mr Draghi is submerging the once sacrosanct German principle that a central bank must be independent from political pressure.

Germany’s outlook reflects a certain reading of 20th-century history as well as the nation’s present-day circumstances. The hyperinflation of 1923 is a trauma never to be repeated. Fewer lessons are drawn from the disinflation and economic depression that propelled the Nazis to power in the early 1930s. German anxieties about inflation appear exaggerated, given that the eurozone’s average annual inflation rate since 2011 has been 1.1 per cent.

The ECB’s negative interest rates arouse indignation in Germany, where, it is argued, an ageing population needs decent returns on savings. However, the ECB’s measures benefit wealthy Germans by increasing the value of property, shares and other assets. Furthermore, the ECB’s unorthodox interest rate policies have handed a windfall to the German government by pushing sovereign bond yields to record lows.

With borrowing costs so cheap and the economy on the edge of recession, a chorus of voices is calling for Germany to loosen its fiscal strings and launch an infrastructure investment plan. Dieter Kempf, head of the BDI, Germany’s most influential business lobby, says it is time for the government to relax its insistence on balanced budgets. Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, says: “Germany must invest and invest now. ”

The Christian Democrat-Social Democrat “grand coalition” that holds power in Berlin may one day take this advice. Its reluctance to do so reflects the view that Germany must set an example of budgetary prudence to other countries, mainly in southern Europe. Germany’s caution also illustrates a lack of firm direction at the heart of government. Ms Merkel is near the end of her long reign. Each ruling party senses that the CDU-SPD partnership — the third “grand coalition” out of four governments since 2005 — has outlived its usefulness.

Despite party squabbles, a consensus exists that Germany should not be lured into grand schemes of European integration that cast Berlin in the role of paymaster of a “transfer union”. Germany offered a lukewarm response to the proposals for deeper integration by President Emmanuel Macron of France.

At the ECB, the problem for Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief who will replace Mr Draghi on November 1, is that Germans are not the only critics. Nine ECB council members expressed opposition or reservations about the new measures at the September 12 meeting. They included the national central bank heads of Austria, France and the Netherlands, as well as Germany.

Independent experts have doubts, too. Ashoka Mody, a Princeton University economist, warns that the ECB’s measures could not only damage eurozone banks but have dangerous consequences if financial markets fear that heavily indebted governments will have to bail out the banks.

In principle, Europe’s central bankers and politicians can strike a bargain that balances tighter monetary policy and fiscal expansion. Without such a deal, the risk is that markets will focus on the eurozone’s faultlines and the ECB’s internal disputes.

As long as Germany is the odd man out, doubts about the eurozone’s stability will persist.

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