“Germany: not a net contributor to Europe, but a net winner from Europe”

22.03.2017 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 22 March 2017

Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” of 22 March 2017


If we are serious about our pledges of commitment to Europe, then we should stop telling ourselves the wrong stories about Europe. For it is not only Europe’s right- and left‑wing extremist opponents who are trying to convince us that European integration is against national interests; pro‑European parties have long been doing the same, in many different ways. “Fake news” is not something new that arrived during the US presidential campaign.

In Germany, politicians, the media and sections of the business community repeatedly allege that our country is the European Union’s “beast of burden”. Germany, they claim, is a “net contributor” that pays far more into Europe than it ever gets out. Consequently, virtually all Federal Governments over the past three decades have tried in the European Union financial negotiations to reduce our “net contributor position” – usually in the company of the eurosceptic British. In the most recent negotiations, this meant that financing for the European Structural Funds was cut, so less money was available for many of the poorer regions. Including eastern Germany. That, in turn, was at once blamed on Europe.

In other words, a distorted view of Europe has long been deeply engrained in the day‑to‑day political consciousness in Germany, officially such a pro‑European country. Investment in the cohesion and future of Europe has been redefined as being a burden for the Germans. The extreme right‑wing interpretation of this narrative is that “Germany’s guilt complex” allegedly leads us to spend far too much of the hard‑working Germans’ money on the “lazy Europeans”. And that, in the AfD functionaries’ view, we would be best immediately to do away with the whole culture of remembrance in Germany – meaning the remembrance of the attacks on our neighbours in the Second World War, and of the Holocaust.

The truth is that Germany is not a net contributor to Europe, but a net winner from Europe. Of course we provide more tax income for the European budget than we get back out of the European funding programmes. But that is just a small part of the equation. We export almost 60 percent of our goods and services to the European Union, and not even 10 percent to China (and the USA). Millions of jobs depend on the people in other EU states being well enough off to afford our products – because they are not cheap, thank goodness, owing to their high quality and the relatively high wages paid. So every euro we pay into the EU budget comes back to us – directly or indirectly – several times over. Investment in Europe’s future is always also an investment in the prosperity and well‑being of our own children and grandchildren.

The alleged renunciation of sovereignty by the nation‑states for the process of European integration is another false tale. In truth, Europe is giving us Europeans back the sovereignty which we would be completely unable to maintain as nation‑states in the world of the 21st century, in which Asia, Latin America and Africa are growing and we Europeans are shrinking.

Here’s another, similar, story: over the past few years, we have urged partner states please to do the same as Germany and to combine social reforms with the reduction of government deficits. The truth is: precisely that is what we did not do. No, first we implemented the necessary reforms in the country – think of SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 – and during that time in fact incurred more debts that the European budget rules allowed. Because we knew that drastic cuts would hamper economic growth and increase unemployment. Instead, in parallel to the difficult social reform, we invested massively in all‑day schools, in renewable energy, and in research and development. As a result, we came through the crisis better than everyone else, and today we can reduce our debts and easily observe the European stability rules. Why do we disguise this experience and recommend solutions to our neighbours that demonstrably lead to higher unemployment and thus, in the end, to mounting debts? At its core, this must mean that we stop reducing European stability to a pure austerity policy. Anyone reforming his country must be able to get more time to cut deficits and help with investment.

Of course, there is fake news like this not only in Germany, but also in our neighbouring countries, often about us. But it is not Germany’s fault that impenetrable tax and judicial systems, and corruption and bureaucratic failure, elsewhere lead to an unwillingness to invest and thus to poorer growth.

Quite simply, anyone who wants approval for Europe must not tell the wrong stories. Europe’s largest economy, most populous member state and the biggest beneficiary of European integration – Germany – has a very special responsibility for ensuring that the correct European story is told.

That is why it is important to reject false narratives. Germany can do that. Our direct contribution to the EU budget outstrips direct returns by 14‑15 billion euros net on average per year. That’s a lot of money, no doubt about it. But anyone who looks at the items of expenditure in the Federal budget will quickly see that this sum is – in comparison – not hugely relevant for us. At least not if you add all the big showpiece speeches about the importance of Europe into the equation. And some partners, such as Sweden or the Netherlands, contribute considerably more than us, per capita.

So how about doing something completely unheard of in the next debate about Europe’s finances? Instead of fighting for a reduction in our contributions to the European Union, why not signal our willingness to pay even more? To invest in Europe, because to do so is to invest in our own future and that of our children and grandchildren? Because we will only have a voice in the world of tomorrow if it is a single European voice.

Massive investment in Europe – in education, in research and development, in the world’s most modern digital infrastructure, and in growth and jobs – would be something the rest of Europe has not heard from the German political scene for a long time. And we would then also speak, by the way, about the conditions under which we might be able to increase our investment in Europe: it is not about more of the same Europe, it’s about a better, stronger Europe, with a common foreign policy, a common security and defence policy, European border management and a single market which will become a social market economy. And we will also have to talk about a different tax policy. It cannot be the case that every independent local baker has to pay higher tax rates than big companies like Starbucks, Amazon or Apple. Just because tax dumping can take place in a legal way in Europe. Last but certainly not least, financial solidarity in Europe must of course go hand in hand with political solidarity for Europe and our shared values.

Narratives make policies, policies make narratives. I want to fight to ensure that they are the right narratives for our Europe, not fake news.

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