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Surplus Debate: Berlin's Export Whining Shows Double Standard

A Commentary by

A container ship in Hamburg: German goods for the world Zoom

A container ship in Hamburg: German goods for the world

The European Commission is taking a closer look at Germany's export surplus and might punish the country. Economic leaders and politicians in Berlin are incensed, but Germany cannot dictate rules to the rest of Europe and then fail to stick to them itself.

If you listen to German politicians or economic leaders these days, Germany is being unjustly savaged in Europe for its export surplus. These German leaders largely argue the same thing: Germany is being punished for its success! Germany's performance must be rewarded!

But now -- in a move that was foreseen for some time-- the European Commission announced on Wednesday that it will put Germany's export surplus under the microscope.

While the politicians have griped, Germany's export surplus has skyrocketed to around 6 percent of gross domestic product. In September alone, German exports exceeded imports by more than €20 billion. If the commission's investigation should decide the surplus is "excessive," then, in theory at least, Germany could be facing a fine of up to 0.1 percent of its economic output, more than €2.5 billion. According to experts in Brussels, it's unlikely things will come to that.

In their anger, the German whiners are forgetting one small thing: They themselves were responsible for the rules designed to keep high export surpluses under control. This provision -- along with targets for deficits, national debts or inflation -- are part of the colorful bouquet of criteria which are supposed to finally make the euro zone macro-economically stable.

Economic Distortions

Of course, German officials only agreed to this condition to prevent even more stringent regulations on export control. And yet in doing so, Berlin clearly recognized the principle that high budget surpluses, just like massive deficits, can lead to economic distortions. This principle has gained new relevance in the euro crisis, because many economists consider higher domestic demand and less exports in Germany an urgent necessity for the stimulation of growth in crisis states.

The real issue here is about rules and their application. The German government has emphasized at every opportunity that the euro zone must be a community of laws. It has admonished crisis states that have complained about overly rigid limits for budget deficits because, after all, they had agreed to the rules.

But when it comes to Germany, apparently different standards apply. It's similar to how the Schröder government saw the country become one of the first EU member states to violate the Maastricht criteria -- the fiscal criteria which establish whether a country is allowed to enter the euro -- in 2003, when it implemented its Agenda 2010 social reforms.

If Germany once again displays a double standard, it will lose the credibility which is a nation's most important currency in these times of crisis. It should also not be surprised that the ambassador of a southern EU state angrily declared on Tuesday that German supremacy within the EU can only exist if "the same rules apply for all."

Europe can afford such discord among partners even less than overly high deficits or surpluses. All which means: It's time the Germans quit their moaning.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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1. optional
rudilionheart 11/13/2013
What Mr Schmitz and the European Commission ignore is the fact that the German Economy does not operate in a state dictated "dirigisme" environment as the French would love us to be. Germany operates and competes on a global scale, where demand dictates production and supply, not politically desirable levels of export or imports.
2. Myopia
Jim in MD 11/13/2013
The problem is that the export-driven economy has been a mixed blessing for Germans too! It has led to a mish-mash of labor reforms that are impoverishing workers. The more the Germany government rules the economy based on politics the more it hurts Germans (look at energy, for example).
3. Great article!
lucienm 11/13/2013
Great article! Usually I don't feel this way about der Spiegel, but this article seems right on the money - including the 'opinion' at the bottom!
4. Export surplus
nrkmann 11/14/2013
How else does Germany have the economic might to support the southern half of Europe? Euros don't grow on trees.
5. Surplus Debate
mike.wood2 11/14/2013
In a properly managed pan european currency this sort of thing shouldn't happen. Germany should have been under sustained pressure to expand its economy to complement the austerity in southern europe and secure a balanced recovery. This hasn't happened because Europe lacks a genuine federal ministry for economics (like the Fed). Germany has been pressing for "ever closer union" but doesn't like it when it is criticised. The German reaction is probably not unique. More political union has to be accompanied by more democracy. This is where the rubber hits the road. Are Germany and all other countries prepared to surrender more sovereignty and be ruled by pan european elected politicians rather than national ones ? If the answer is no, then the only solution is to abandon the euro.
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