The Eurozone’s German Problem

LONDON – The eurozone has a German problem. Germany’s beggar-thy-neighbor policies and the broader crisis response that the country has led have proved disastrous. Seven years after the start of the crisis, the eurozone economy is faring worse than Europe did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The German government’s efforts to crush Greece and force it to abandon the single currency have destabilized the monetary union. As long as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration continues to abuse its dominant position as creditor-in-chief to advance its narrow interests, the eurozone cannot thrive – and may not survive.

Germany’s immense current-account surplus – the excess savings generated by suppressing wages to subsidize exports – has been both a cause of the eurozone crisis and an obstacle to resolving it. Before the crisis, it fueled German banks’ bad lending to southern Europe and Ireland. Now that Germany’s annual surplus – which has grown to €233 billion ($255 billion), approaching 8% of GDP – is no longer being recycled in southern Europe, the country’s depressed domestic demand is exporting deflation, deepening the eurozone’s debt woes.

Germany’s external surplus clearly falls afoul of eurozone rules on dangerous imbalances. But, by leaning on the European Commission, Merkel’s government has obtained a free pass. This makes a mockery of its claim to champion the eurozone as a rules-based club. In fact, Germany breaks rules with impunity, changes them to suit its needs, or even invents them at will.

Indeed, even as it pushes others to reform, Germany has ignored the Commission’s recommendations. As a condition of the new eurozone loan program, Germany is forcing Greece to raise its pension age – while it lowers its own. It is insisting that Greek shops open on Sundays, even though German ones do not. Corporatism, it seems, is to be stamped out elsewhere, but protected at home.