Monitoring Euro Stability 'Offenders and Watchdogs Are Identical'
Part 2: 'No Country Should Be Able to Spend More than It Takes In'
SPIEGEL: Is Greece still even capable of helping itself at this point?
Kirchhof: Of course. Greece is a democracy. The country has the same problems as all democracies in Europe. Citizens everywhere have concentrated their hopes for a share of government funds into demands that exceed the economic capabilities of the commonwealth. And in Germany, as elsewhere, the politicians keep promising them even more: more social welfare, more subsidies, higher tax cuts. This system is a threat to cohesion in individual countries, and it endangers European unity.
SPIEGEL: What is your alternative?
Kirchhof: The goal is to promptly convince all participating countries to practice absolute budgetary discipline. No country should be able to spend more money in the long term than it takes in. We have to enforce this principle. And we have to anchor the thinking behind it in all countries. This is the real heart of the currency problem, and no European nation is more familiar with it than Germany.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Kirchhof: Look back at 1949. At the time, Germany was in a crisis that was a great deal more serious that Greece's problems today. The country had fallen apart, assets were devalued and there was the threat of a third world war. In that moment, the new German constitution established a guiding principle: freedom. Everyone had to roll up their sleeves and start by helping themselves. This mental attitude was the root of the economic miracle and, as a result, Germany managed to turn itself into a respected and reliable member of the international community within a few years. The concept of freedom has proven to be successful as a means of overcoming crises in Germany. It would also be a model for the European Monetary Union.
SPIEGEL: You mention freedom, and yet your proposals would drive Greece into national bankruptcy.
Kirchhof: It would be completely wrong to invoke the extreme scenario now. Insolvency is avoidable. What prevents Greece from making all government services subject to funding? The government could cut the salaries of civil servants and subsidies for companies. This is not easy, but it presents an enormous opportunity ...
SPIEGEL: ... especially for new strikes and mass protests. Don't you think that the Greek government probably sees risks instead of opportunities?
Kirchhof: That could be, but it would be misguided to lose all faith in people's ability to reason. During the crisis, everyone thought that the solution was to dig deep into the government's coffers, because the government has unlimited resources. That was a mistake. The financial crisis is also a crisis of thought. If we return to the basic axioms of the monetary union, the euro could even become the world's anchor currency in the medium and long term.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't the failure of most monetary unions in the past make you wonder?
Kirchhof: That was a key question during the Constitutional Court's Maastricht trial: Can something succeed in Europe that has never succeeded before? Our response, as constitutional judges, was this: The experience that a positive historic example does not exist does not mean that it cannot exist. It would be a catastrophe if we could never try anything new.
SPIEGEL: Many politicians find fault with the Constitutional Court for intervening too heavily in European politics. They complain that the court disproportionately restricted the German government's capacity to act with its ruling on the Lisbon Treaty. Is there anything to this?
Kirchhof: No. The Constitutional Court is, in a sense, the repair shop for our democracy. It demands the limits of political action stated under the constitution. For this reason, it will always become involved in politics. This is part of the nature of the constitutional state. And when it comes to the question of the transfer of competencies to Brussels, it is clear that if the Bundestag (Germany's federal parliament) adopts a majority resolution to transfer competencies to the EU, it can do so. However, if this boils down to amending the constitution, the parliament needs a two-thirds majority to do so. And some core elements of the constitution cannot be amended at all.
SPIEGEL: Germany and France want to establish a European economic government, partly to provide the euro with a stronger political foundation. Is that helpful?
Kirchhof: I am skeptical on that subject. It would involve combining the economic administrations of individual countries. I am more inclined to think that we have to assign responsibility to where it is controlled by parliaments -- namely to the member states.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean that an economic government is unconstitutional, in your view, because the German sovereign state is assigning too many competencies to the EU?
Kirchhof: The ruling on the Lisbon Treaty implies that the Bundestag must retain central competencies. The Bundestag is the only democratically and directly legitimized representation of the German people. We cannot assign its rights to Europe, as long as there is no European people with European constitutional bodies. Besides, other European countries have no intention of allowing themselves to be sucked up by Europe.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kirchhof, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Wolfgang Reuter and Michael Sauga. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
- Part 1: 'Offenders and Watchdogs Are Identical'
- Part 2: 'No Country Should Be Able to Spend More than It Takes In'