The next German government is almost certain to crack down on spending and drastically raise taxes after the lower house of parliament yesterday adopted measures that come close to banning budget deficits beyond 2016.
The controversial constitutional amendment, part of a reform of federal institutions, will prohibit Germany’s 16 regional governments from running fiscal deficits and limit the structural deficit of the federal government to 0.35 per cent of gross domestic product.
The amendment still requires approval by a two-thirds majority of the upper house of parliament which represents the regions. The vote is scheduled to take place on July 12 and is expected to be approved.
The most sweeping reform of public finances in 40 years was an “economic policy decision of historic proportions”, Peer Steinbrück, finance minister, told parliament shortly before MPs endorsed the amendment with the required two-thirds majority.
The vote underlines Berlin’s determination quickly to plug the holes that the economic crisis, two fiscal stimulus packages and a €500bn ($706bn, £437bn) rescue operation for German banks are expected to blow in the public coffers this year and next.
In 2009 alone, legislators from the ruling coalition expect the federal budget to show a deficit of more than €80bn, twice the current all-time record of €40bn reached in 1996 as Germany was absorbing the formidable costs of its reunification.
This figure does not include the deficit of the social security system, which is expected to rocket too, as unemployment rises to an expected 5m next year.
The constitutional amendment, popularly known as the “debt brake”, allows a degree of flexibility in tough economic times, just as it encourages governments to build cash reserves in good times.
Yet economists have warned the new rules could force the next government to implement a ruthless fiscal crackdown as soon as it takes office after the general election of September 27 if it is serous about hitting the 2016 deficit target.
“Given the massive fiscal expansion we are currently seeing, the ‘debt brake’ will lead to a significant tightening of fiscal policy in the coming years,” Dirk Schumacher, economist at Goldman Sachs, wrote in a note.
In a separate assessment, the Cologne-based IfW economic institute said the federal government would need to save €10bn a year until 2015 through a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts.
Klaus Zimmermann, president of the DIW economic institute in Berlin, said the next government might have to increase value added tax by six points to 25 per cent. This would be the biggest tax rise in German history.
The “debt brake” could complicate Angela Merkel’s re-election bid. Under pressure from parts of her Christian Democratic Union, the chancellor recently pledged to cut taxes if returned to office in September, though she pointedly failed to put a date on her promise.
The Free Democratic party, the CDU’s traditional ally, has made hefty income tax cuts a key condition for forming a coalition with Ms Merkel’s party should the two jointly obtain more than 50 per cent of the votes.
The debate has cut a deep rift within the CDU, which was threatening to deepen further yesterday as opponents of tax cuts seized on the constitutional change to back their arguments.
Günther Oettinger, the CDU state premier of Baden Wurttemberg, said “promises of broad tax cuts are unrealistic… First we must overcome the crisis, then we need more robust growth, and when we finally get more tax revenues, we should use them to repay debt, finance core state activities and for limited, very targeted tax cuts.”
Oettinger is wrong when he says we have to overcome the crisis first before cutting taxes. It is the same old argument that governments advance again and again so as to procrastinate necessary changes. This amendment is something that states around the world should mimic in one way or another. It is high time to institutionalize fiscal responsibility by legal means.
A strong FDP (Free Democratic Party) in the next German coalition would be the best thing that could happen to Germany. No change will emanate from SPD or CDU, just as in the US no change can emerge from Democrats or Republicans in their current state.