Is Germany once again the sick man of Europe?
Its ills are different from 1999. But another stiff dose of reform is still needed
N years ago this newspaper called Germany the sick man of the euro. The combination of reunification, a sclerotic job market and slowing export demand all plagued the economy, forcing unemployment into double digits. Then a series of reforms in the early 2000s ushered in a golden age. Germany became the envy of its peers. Not only did the trains run on time but, with its world-beating engineering, the country also stood out as an exporting powerhouse. However, while Germany has prospered, the world has kept on turning. As a result, Germany has once again started to fall behind.
Europe’s biggest economy has gone from a growth leader to a laggard. Between 2006 and 2017 it outperformed its large counterparts and kept pace with America. Yet today it has just experienced its third quarter of contraction or stagnation and may end up being the only big economy to shrink in 2023. The problems lie not only in the here and now. According to the , Germany will than America, Britain, France and Spain over the next five years, too.
To be sure, things are not as alarming as they were in 1999. Unemployment today is around 3%; the country is richer and more open. But Germans increasingly complain that their country is not working as well as it should. Four out of five tell pollsters that Germany is not a fair place to live. Trains now run so serially behind the clock that Switzerland has barred late ones from its network. After being stranded abroad for the second time this summer as her ageing official plane malfunctioned, Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister, has aborted a trip to Australia.
For years Germany’s outperformance in old industries papered over its lack of investment in new ones. Complacency and an obsession with fiscal prudence led to too little public investment, and not just in Deutsche Bahn and the Bundeswehr. Overall, the country’s investment in information technology as a share of is less than half that in America and France. Bureaucratic conservatism also gets in the way. Obtaining a licence to operate a business takes 120 days—twice as long as the average. Added to this are worsening geopolitics, the difficulty of eliminating carbon emissions and the travails of an ageing population.
The geopolitics mean that manufacturing may no longer be the cash cow it used to be. Of all the large Western economies, Germany is the most exposed to China. Last year trade between the two amounted to $314bn. That relationship was once governed by the profit motive; now things are more complicated. In China German carmakers are losing the battle for market share against home-grown competitors. And in more sensitive areas, as the West “de-risks” its ties with China, some may be severed altogether. Meanwhile, a scramble for advanced manufacturing and robust supply chains is unleashing a torrent of subsidies to foster home-grown industry that will either threaten German firms or demand subsidies inside the European Union.
Another difficulty comes from the energy transition. Germany’s industrial sector uses nearly twice as much energy as the next-biggest in Europe, and its consumers have a much bigger carbon footprint than those in France or Italy. Cheap Russian gas is no longer an option and the country has, in a , turned away from nuclear power (see Europe section). A lack of investment in grids and a sluggardly permit system are hobbling the transition to cheap renewable energy, threatening to make manufacturers less competitive.
Increasingly, too, Germany lacks the talent it needs. A baby boom after the second world war means that 2m workers, on net, will retire over the next five years. Although the country has attracted almost 1.1m Ukrainian refugees, many are children and non-working women who may soon return home. Already, two-fifths of employers say they are struggling to find skilled workers. That is not just grumbling: the state of Berlin cannot fill even half of its teaching vacancies with qualified staff.
For Germany to thrive in a more fragmented, greener and ageing world, its economic model will need to adapt. Yet whereas high unemployment forced Gerhard Schröder’s coalition into action in the 1990s, the alarm bells are easier to ignore this time. Few in today’s government, made up of the Social Democrats, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens, admit to the scale of the task. Even if they did, the coalition is so fractious that the parties would struggle to agree on a remedy. Moreover, Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right populist party, is polling at 20% nationally and may win some state elections next year. Few in government will propose radical change for fear of playing into its hands.
The temptation may therefore be to stick with the old ways of doing things. But that would not bring back Germany’s heyday. Nor would it quell the onrush of challenges to the status quo. China will continue to develop and compete, and de-risking, decarbonisation and demography cannot simply be wished away.
Instead of running scared, politicians must look ahead, by fostering new firms, infrastructure and talent. Embracing technology would be a gift to new firms and industries. A digitised bureaucracy would do wonders for smaller firms that lack the capacity to fill out reams of paperwork. Further permit reform would help ensure that infrastructure gets built speedily and to budget. Money also matters. Too often infrastructure has suffered as the government has made a fetish of its balanced-budget rules. Although Germany cannot spend as freely as it might have in the 2010s, when interest rates were low, forgoing investment as a way of reining in excess spending is a false economy.
Just as important will be attracting new talent. Germany has liberalised its immigration rules, but the visa process is still glacial and Germany is better at welcoming refugees than professionals. Attracting more skilled immigrants could even nurture home-grown talent, if it helped deal with the chronic shortage of teachers. In a country of coalition governments and cautious bureaucrats, none of this will be easy. Yet two decades ago, Germany pulled off a remarkable transformation to extraordinary effect. It is time for another visit to the health farm.