The German political left and the European austerity policies: Challenges and debates in the fourth year of the crisis

Anna Striethorst und Moritz Kirchner

Contribution to the Fête de l’Humanité, Paris, September 2012

The dramatic austerity measures as in Greece and Spain, the ESM and the restructuring of the European institutions will irreversibly shape the future of the European Union. The German government has taken a distinctive position in pushing these decisions and in pursuing a Europe of several speeds. Against that background many European leftists set their hopes on the ability of the German left to turn public opinion, against austerity and towards solidarity within Europe.

However, at the current state such a scenario appears more than unlikely. 66 percent of Germans back the “German interests first” policy of chancellor Merkel. The chance of building up a movement against the triumphant procession of the conservative government appears not very high at this moment. Thus, this contribution shall focus on two questions: What challenges does the left in Germany face in their attempt to build an alliance against austerity? And which proposals on the crisis and on the European Union are currently debated within the party DIE LINKE?

So what are the current challenges for the left in Germany? Firstly, against all odds the impact of the crisis is not yet felt in Germany. Ironically, the economic situation in Germany has even slightly improved in the past years and the unemployment rate is decreasing. Other than elsewhere in Europe no sudden cut in public spending took place. The contrary is the case: The imposition of public cuts in the name of austerity has endured all the past decade. As a result, the German public was already under the impression of a permanent crisis in the years before 2008.

The neoliberal reforms of the last decade have not only produced massive wealth redistribution from the bottom to the top. The trade surplus which they created has been one of the main reasons for the economic decline of the European periphery, too. However, many Germans find it difficult to accept that all their sacrifices have been for nothing or that they have even created damage. Instead the benefits reform, the stagnation of wages, the widening of low-paid and precarious work are today even being accepted as explanations for the stami-na of the German economy during the crisis.

On the whole the absence of dramatic austerity measures in Germany has so far prevented a public outcry. There might certainly be fears that the liability within the Eurozone could at one stage affect the German state budget and 85 percent of Germans believe that the worst is yet to come. These fears have, however, not yet transformed into political protests.

Thus, the large protests that took place in Germany in the last two years have predo-minantly not dealt with the crisis. Instead they tackled the future of nuclear energy and the rebuilding of the railway station in Stuttgart. The only exception were the protests in Frankfurt in May 2012 that attracted 30,000 people. These protests brought together sympathizers of the Occupy movement, those demanding a stop of austerity in Europe and campaigners against the cut of the German welfare state.

Secondly, at the current state Germany until now has a fixed coalition of parties in the Bundestag and trade unions, which aims to protect the interests of Germany in the crisis. The trade unions are traditionally deeply embedded into corporatist structures in German politics, and up until now they have remained outside the protest alliance “We will not pay for your crisis”. Instead of calling for strikes and protests they set their hopes on consensual agreements within their enterprises. By moderate wage agreements they actively help maintaining the competitiveness of the German industry while their European co-workers suffer from massive layoffs. And as a side effect there is no increase in the demand in Germany, which could support the economies in the GIIPS states, too.

There are, however, some positive signals: In the spring of 2012 warning strikes took place in the public sector and campaigns were set up for a minimum wage and for equal pay for temporary workers. The most recent campaign “Umfairteilen” (Redistribute fairly) involves a representative alliance of trade unions and interest groups for social matters. It demands higher taxation for high incomes and has received a lot of public support and media attention.

Thirdly, the debate in Germany is morally charged and it features a high dose of nationalism. The very idea of debt has a particularity in German language: The word “debt” is the same word as “guilt” and this negative connotation has been abused by the government and the mainstream media more than once. In the last four years they have been able to set up a discourse that presents state debts as result of a weakness of character, of irresponsible spending, corruption and laziness. The agreement to a plan of austerity which is simply a strict spending policy in order to balance the budget has under such circumstances become a question of honor. In the meanwhile Germany´s own debts are tacitly brushed under the carpet. The chancellor even went as far as promoting the “Swabian housewife” – a woman from the countryside who doesn´t spend beyond her means and always stays away from credits – as an ideal for a state´s spending policy.

Besides, the tabloids promote national chauvinism and arrogance: The German news-paper BILD which is daily read by more than 12 million people fuels resentments for Greece. Their headline “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks” was merely the climax of an enduring campaign that successfully distracted from the need of restructuring the system of liability within the European Union. The fact that other media have jumped on the band wagon, mirrors the crucial interests of the German capital fractions in preventing such a restructuring. And it will assure that the Merkel government will in any case carry on with their austerity plans for Greece.

To sum up, at the current state there is little awareness of the crisis in Germany, the protests remain weak and the debate in the German media shows a lack of solidarity with the European neighbors in the south. Against this background it is not surprising that – unlike in some other European countries such as Greece, the Czech Republic and Iceland – the crisis has not yet favored the left in Germany. At the moment, DIE LINKE stands in surveys at 9 percent. This is a gain compared to recent surveys but still a lower result than the 12 percent that the party won in the 2009 elections. This slight loss was mirrored in the last years in several federal states elections where especially young and swing voters moved to the new “Pirate” party.

It is doubtful in how far the current results of DIE LINKE can be ascribed to the crisis. Instead they rather seem to be due to a struggle between tendencies in the LINKE that the party is about to overcome since their last congress in Göttingen in June. Since then, the new leadership of Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger has been able to calm intra-party debates and to provoke, more than their predecessors, a positive image in the media.

The German political left in the fourth year of the crisis has only started to formulate coherent and far-reaching answers to the European austerity policies and to position itself in the debate on the future of the Eurozone and the European Union. This has a lot to do with the significance of European politics for DIE LINKE. Traditionally, the party sees national politics as the main arena of their political struggle. Consequently, previous election campaigns focused rather on issues in national competence such as the social benefits reform and the involvement of the German army in the Afghanistan war. The same time there is still potential in the capacity of DIE LINKE to mobilize voters on European issues: In the last European elections they received only 7,5 percent of votes which corresponds to less than two third of their good result in the national elections three months later.

Against the background of the crisis one can assert a growing trend towards Euro-scepticism within DIE LINKE: While in 1999 the party still articulated that it supports the European integration in principle, today this formula is missing. Instead the new Erfurt Program of 2011 stated among other things: “Together with other left parties we represent a fun-damental policy change in the European Union.”

The latest EU debate in DIE LINKE is a vivid and diverse one, with a wide range of considerable short-term proposals and more fundamental ideas on the future of the EU. One discussion revolves around a refoundation or a restart of the EU. Since the start of the austerity impositions the impression is growing in DIE LINKE that a left vision of the European Union might only be a dream which the party must wake up from. Therefore it is discussed if the left should not speak out for a whole new contract and a new set of institutions which can significantly change the direction of the European project. However, the debate features as well the picture of a united Europe as an originally left, internationalist idea which in the factual EU has only been perverted into a neoliberal project. This leads to confidence that the notion of Europe can be reclaimed through a strong presence of DIE LINKE in existing EU politics.

Further, the debate focuses on the issue whether the left must not to fight for a “Political Union” right now as the only way to prevent the hegemonic rise of Germany in Europe (or more generally spoken, a Europe in the hands of the strong member states). How could a wide set of regulation competences of the EU help to remove the imbalances that have driven the peripheral countries into the crisis and that eventually will lead to a breakup of the EU? In this context the question is raised, too, how one can convey solidarity with other countries to a German population which for years has suffered already under the permanent crisis of the social benefits reform and the expansion of the low wage sector.

As concrete responses to the Eurocrisis DIE LINKE currently discusses left proposals for economic governance in the EU and it demands a transfer union which shall be reached through a limitation of the trade surpluses and through measures to increase the wages in Germany. There is agreement on a financial transaction tax, a tax on high incomes, a European public bank (or a more active role of the European Investment Bank), a striving for european-wide minimum wages and a European Pact for public investment. The common presumption behind these proposals is that the crisis is predominantly the result of an eroding purchasing power and of a lack of public revenue. The latter idea is for instance expressed in the slogan of DIE LINKE “Our debt brake is a wealth tax”.

Further, there is awareness of the threats of the crisis to democracy and to the independence of the financial markets. This awareness is expressed in demands for a higher control of the European Central Bank and the establishment of a European rating agency. The democratic concern within DIE LINKE focuses on two different aspects: One is that the current restructuring of the EU will trample the democratic influence of the Bundestag and that it will in particular affect its budget sovereignty. The other one is that even the small number of new rights which the European Parliament has gained through the Lisbon Treaty will become obsolete.

These two concerns have been the foremost reason for DIE LINKE to vote (as only party in the German parliament) against the Fiscal Pact and the ESM which as international treaties not only fall into the executive of the member states but remain as well outside the control of the European Parliament. This vote has certainly been acknowledged in the German public as has been the lawsuit against these new institutions in the Federal Constitutional Court. However, this lawsuit has revealed the challenge for DIE LINKE in explaining their objectives in regards to the EU, too: Politicians from the conservative party CSU handed in an own lawsuit, aiming to restrict Germany´s liability towards other countries in the Eurozone. With complex issues at stake it was very difficult for DIE LINKE to distinguish their motives and to highlight that they were not campaigning against the support for Greece or other European countries.

The debate in DIE LINKE on the stance towards the austerity policies and the future of the EU has gained importance as the party is preparing itself for the Bundestag elections in less than a year. Recently the chairs of the party, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger have presented a strategy paper for the election campaign. It acknowledges that in surveys the Eu-rocrisis is currently considered as the most important problem. In their paper Kipping and Riexinger draft ideas on a left narrative of the crisis based on the formula “class not nation” and they envisage a Europe of strong regulation and wealth redistribution in favor of public services. Still, their paper does not yet foresee a deeper discussion on the future of the Euro-pean integration or the institutions of the EU as such.

It is too early to say what direction the electoral campaign will take in regards to the basic message of DIE LINKE on European integration. However, strategically there are lessons that DIE LINKE can learn from SYRIZA in Greece (26,9 percent in the last elections) and the SP in the Netherlands (9,7 percent). SYRIZA has demonstrated that powerfully criti-cizing the current EU and at the same time maintaining the principle of European integration can lead the left into electoral success. On the contrary the EU-sceptical campaign by the SP and their demand for an exit from the Eurozone have not been rewarded.

Thus, DIE LINKE has both the chance and the challenge to present a balanced election proposal: One that is critical towards the EU and that clearly opposes the current trend of the EU towards even more neoliberal policies, but that at the same time avoids being labeled as anti-European. That this label is unjustified and that the party can campaign successfully with a positive reference to the European integration as such is suggested by a recent survey, too. In it 44 percent of potential voters of DIE LINKE supported a political union in Europe. This is the highest support for the European project among voters of all political parties in Germany.

To conclude, the election period will see a continuation of an already interesting strategic and ideological debate on European politics within DIE LINKE. And in spite of the challenging preconditions in Germany there remains a certain hope: That the promise of the current election campaign, which is “The stronger DIE LINKE the more social the country” will at some point turn into “The stronger DIE LINKE the more social the EU”.