Comments on French Crisis and Germany’s Role

Here are some comments from Professor Schmidt in response during a recent interview on the role of Germany in the recent restructuring of the French government:

On the role of Germany in the restructuring: It played no direct role, but of course indirectly, Germany does. First, through its ordo-liberal ideas that underpin the Stability and Growth Pact and all the subsequent packs (six pack, two pack) and pacts (fiscal compact), and a discourse that has promoted the ‘Stability Culture,’ and policies focused on austerity and structural reform as the only answer. But why blame only Germany? Its allies include the ECB, that also believes in stability, and has pushed austerity and structural reform as a quid pro quo for its own monetary policies; the Commission, that has only begun to show flexibility very recently; and a variety of member-states worried about a ‘transfer union’ in which the core would have to pay for the periphery. Moreover, France (under Sarkozy) signed up to all of this as well, so Hollande is stuck with it, whether he likes it or not.

That said, Montebourg’s comments about the German obsession with austerity were indeed crucial to his ousting for two reasons. First, he is a Minister in a government in which the President had just announced continued austerity and structural reforms in line with ‘the line’ of the EU. Breaking ranks in this way is never appreciated by any Prime Minister or President of a country. Second, no doubt there were already frictions with the PM, and this was the opportunity to get rid of him. Montebourg may himself have welcomed it, so that he is no longer associated with a President (and government) he plans to run against in the next Presidential elections. But this means that there will be no vocal representatives of the left of the Socialist Party in the government—a problem for Hollande in terms of keeping his party entirely behind him.

Finally, on whether Berlin with change its European policy, the answer is not in the discourse, but possibly in the practice. My sense is that the discourse will continue to focus on ‘staying the course’ of austerity and structural reform, but that the Commission will exercise increasing flexibility in meeting the criteria, and the Council is likely to try to provide some investment to promote growth. I think by now everyone recognizes that these policies are not working, and you can’t just blame the Greeks, the Italians, and the French for it!

If I am asked: will policy change a lot soon? The answer is no. However, policy is likely to shift incrementally over time, in particular if and when the Council itself becomes increasingly represented by social-democratic member-state leaders.