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The EU sometimes takes Germany as seriously as its fantasy palaceImage: AP/Fremdenverkehrsamt Allgäu

Federalism Weakens Germany in Europe

Angela Göpfert (tkw)
October 21, 2005

Experts are warning that without reform to its federal system, Germany will be both politically and economically disadvantaged on the international stage.


While Bavarian representation at the EU in Brussels is mockingly referred to as "Neuschwanstein Castle", the reality of the state's presence there is far less frivolous than the fairytale palace. German states are seeking their say in the Belgian capital, and are consequently running the risk of making the country's federalist constitution look as ridiculous as traditional Bavarian Lederhosen.

Deutscher Bundestag, Reichstagsgebäude
The German government doesn't get all the say in BrusselsImage: dpa

Germany, Austria and Belgium are the only three federations in Europe, and the complex decision-making structures of the former are weakening Berlin's weight in Europe.

Hans-Peter Schneider, Director of the Institute for Federal Studies says Germany harms itself. "Germany is often overruled because the government constantly has to confer with its individual states, which means it doesn't have the necessary flexibility for negotiations" he said. As a result, Germany often refrains from voting in Brussels, so often, in fact, that abstaining from a ballot is now simply referred to as the "German vote".

Federal versus state governments

In addition there is a conflict of interests between the federal government as a net contributor and state governments as recipients of EU grants. Thomas Fischer, a federalism expert from the Bertelsmann Foundation says it "presents the Commission with the opportunity to play the federal and state governments off against one another."

Less chaos could mean more moneyImage: dpa

In order to harmonize the discord, Schneider says Germany should do as they do in Austria, where the federal states reach agreement on the topic up for vote ahead of a ballot in Brussels.

And it is not only politically, but economically that the wrangle between the federal and state government is hurting Germany. "We can't expect foreign investors to skip over to Germany and sink their cash into this chaos," said Schneider.

Looking for reform examples

While Germany grapples with ways of reforming its federal system, and the heads of Germany's sixteen state governments met in Berlin this week to discuss how to proceed, there is some solace to be sought in the fact other countries, such as Canada and Australia have struggled with the same problems.

Ministerpräsidenten Föderalismus Treffen in Berlin
Germany's 16 state premiers meet in BerlinImage: AP

And although there are not many examples of reforms which worked, there are no shortage of objectives. Federalism expert, Fischer says that besides centralisation à la French model, Canada's "asymmetric federalism" could also serve as an example for Germany.

But given that many of the poorer states are not able to fulfil their duties, and considering the outrage that a redistribution of responsibilities from the "poor" to the "rich" states would unleash, such a reform suggestion will likely remain on paper.

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