by Peter Franklin
Monday, 23
August 2021
Explainer
15:20

Germany’s ‘black zero’ fetish hurts the rest of Europe

The CDU's obsession with a balanced budget is a scam
by Peter Franklin
The CDU slogan reads Wir stehen zu unserem Fetisch — “we stand by our fetish”

Things are getting weird in Germany’s general election campaign. In fact, the latest campaign tweet from the CDU — the party of Angela Merkel and her designated successor Armin Laschet — is downright creepy. 

Against the background of the German flag it features a leather cap perched on top of a big black zero. The slogan reads Wir stehen zu unserem Fetisch — “we stand by our fetish”. 

What on Earth is going on? Why are the Christian Democrats featuring bondage gear on their campaign materials? And what does the zero symbolise?

Let’s start with the number — the schwarze Null or “black zero” refers to the German habit of balancing the budget for year after year. Critics, both at home and abroad, have condemned this stubborn policy as a “fetish” because Germany could easily afford to run a modest deficit — thus provide much needed demand in the European economy. 

We shouldn’t forget that Germany is only able to run balanced budgets because of it success in getting other countries to pay for its stuff. Thus the Americans pay for Germany’s defence. The Mediterraneans help subsidise German exports through the distorted exchange rate locked in by the single currency. And the other countries of Northern Europe pay for an EU budget that builds Germany’s export infrastructure to its economic backyard in central and Eastern Europe. 

It’s a scam, but because it can be dressed up in the clothes of fiscal responsibility, Merkel got away with it. 

The Covid crisis forced the German government to loosen its economic policy as an emergency measure and to allow the other nations of the EU to do the same. But, under Laschet, the CDU is a standing on a platform of getting back to the old discipline — hence the unashamed embrace of the fetish label.

This isn’t just about an appetite for masochism at home, but the sadistic impulses directed at Germany’s neighbours. The CDU is betting that German voters will want to reimpose the pre-Covid constraints of Eurozone membership. Great pain has been inflicted on Greece, Italy and other “peripheral” states, but the German attitude is that these countries deserve it.

Thus the electoral appeal of schwarze Null is as much about getting the rest of Europe tied down again as it is about returning to balanced budgets at home. 

But is it working? According to the latest poll, the CDU has sunk to a new low of 22% in the opinion polling.

If the Social Democrat and Green parties form a new coalition then we could see old disciplines permanently relaxed. And yet there’s a catch. The electoral arithmetic is such that these two parties would need a third coalition partner. In practice, that either means the Free Democrats or the CDU — and both parties are committed to black zero. 

Europe shouldn’t bet on breaking free just yet. 

Join the discussion


  • This is a blatant attempt to woo back the conservatives in the CSU-CDU union who have been alienated by the appointment of Armin Laschet, i.e. Merkel’s preferred candidate (the “Man Merkel”). True German conservatives have been put off by several years of leftwards drift under Merkel and favoured Friedrich Merz or Markus Söder as successor (possibly more the former, as Söder’s opportunism is also a turn off).
    This awful poster and its lame attempt at humour is saying “don’t worry, if you vote for us, then we’ll go back to our conservative principles! No really – we will!”
    Not convincing.

  • As is the Euro, undervalued for Germany, greatly over valued for southern European countries.

  • I think you are conflating two things here: membership of the EU and membership of the Eurozone. The imposition of fiscal discipline would only really apply to the Eurozone, of which the UK was never a part, so Brexit is a bit of a dodgy comparison to draw here.
    If Germany were to get really tough on fiscal discipline within the Eurozone (or put pressure on the Commission to put the boot in), you would probably see the Italians getting shirty fairly quickly and chuntering about leaving the euro. Although with Draghi in charge, that probably won’t happen as he is Brussels-approved.
    But the reality is this: neither Greece nor the Italians will ever leave the euro of their own accord as it would just involve too much pain. Germany will complain about the spendthrift Southerners a bit but the Eurozone breaking down would land them in endless amounts of hot water aswell.
    In other words: everyone will carry on with the passive-aggressive grumbling to keep their respective voters happy, but nothing will change and the euro will just bumble along as imperfectly as it ever did.

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