Germany's Scholz vows to modernise economy, back Ukraine, despite budget woes

Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday sought to reassure the German people and businesses that his government would modernise the economy and support vital industries like chip factories, despite a court ruling that tore a hole in the federal budget.

Publication: 28.11.2023 - 16:06
Germany's Scholz vows to modernise economy, back Ukraine, despite budget woes
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Speaking to parliament, Scholz went into Germany's recent history of the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine and soaring energy prices to extend a suspension of self-imposed borrowing limits to tackle a crisis that has knocked his coalition.

A constitutional court ruling nearly two weeks ago blocked the government's plans to reallocate unused pandemic funds towards green initiatives and industry support, raising fears Germany's economy could be further weakened.

The verdict also called into question Germany's traditionally strict fiscal policy and sparked warnings that companies could be starved of support to keep them globally competitive against subsidies offered elsewhere.

"It would be a grave and unforgivable mistake to neglect the modernisation of our country in the face of all these acute challenges," Scholz told the Bundestag in a 25-minute speech.

The country's federal states had the greatest interest in securing investment in areas like semiconductors, climate-friendly steel production and battery plants, he said, addressing concerns of specific industries who fear losing out.

Scholz said the government would end a scheme to cap energy prices by the end of this year but promised to act quickly if prices shot up again.

However, he left open the question of whether the government would try to suspend Germany's constitutionally enshrined debt brakes again in 2024, which some in his coalition have called for but the opposition might challenge in court.

Spending curbs an option 

Scholz said his government was working with parliament to draw up a 2024 budget "as quickly as possible" that could include spending curbs.

Scholz's assurances that his government would solve the budget crisis with care were met with jeers and laughter from the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), whose lawsuit against the government had sparked the earlier court ruling.

"I don't know how to interpret your laughing there," said Scholz, who in English invoked the song "You'll Never Walk Alone" to reassure Germans of the government's support through difficult times.

He underscored support for Ukraine, after the recent budget turmoil raised questions over how much military aid Berlin was willing to commit. Scholz's government has pledged to double support to 8 billion euros ($8.76 billion) next year.

"It is also clear that we must not let up in our support for Ukraine and in overcoming the energy crisis. That would not be responsible, that would endanger our future," he said.

'Role model'

CDU leader Friedrich Merz accused Scholz's government of a brazen attempt to circumvent borrowing rules and said its behaviour risked undermining the European Union's wider fiscal reforms in upcoming negotiations.

"If the dams burst in Germany, they will also not hold in all other countries in the currency union," Merz said.

"Germany has a function as a role model there and you need to realise that, whether you like it or not."

Germany has by far the lowest debt in the G7 grouping of major economies, but memories of how frugality paved the way for postwar reconstruction and how costly it was to re-integrate indebted ex-communist East Germany have shaped a uniquely debt-averse political culture.

In order to keep supporting industry, Finance Minister Christian Lindner has ruled out tax rises and said savings would have to be found elsewhere, backed up by welfare reforms.

The debt brake, introduced after the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, was first suspended in 2020 to help the government support firms and health systems during the COVID pandemic.

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