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Home » Content » From 16 to 6 ‘Länder’: Germany ruminates a radical reform of its regional structure
Germany ruminates radically modify its federal structure to save and face globalization, but also to try to end once and for all with financing problems


01/06/2015 05:00

Is Germany doing well? The statistics of the largest European economy show enviable figures in the current context for most industrialized economies. A solid growth, a rate of unemployment in continuous decline and a stone’s throw from full employment, an astronomical trade surplus with domesticated inflation, public accounts anchored to a slight surplus – the so-called “black zero” -, and a marked reduction in Public debt However, these figures contain a certain mirage. The situation is not at all homogeneous throughout the country. And the differences tend to increase.
As with the works of Max Liebermann, one of the most famous painters of German Impressionism, the colors that at a distance seem simple uniform strokes are, in fact, when approaching the point of view to the canvas, an amazing juxtaposition of tones and colorations diverse, sometimes hardly reconcilable. The German macroeconomic picture does not differ much from these others that populate museums and galleries.
While in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria the unemployment rate is 3.8 and 4%, respectively, in Berlin and in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern unemployment rises to 11.1 and 11.2%, respectively. While Bavaria and its municipalities closed last year with a surplus of 3,458 million euros, North Rhine-Westphalia and its municipalities ended up with a fiscal hole of 3,024 million. While Bavaria – again, Bavaria – had to contribute 4,852 million euros to the federal compensation mechanism in 2014, Berlin received 2,247 million from this fund and Saxony, 2,205. And while Bremen owed 30,600 euros per inhabitant in the last fiscal year registered, Saxony grieves owed 2,100 per resident.

An unsustainable situation

The situation is unsustainable. That is what they say in the four Länder that, year after year, they must increase the items they transfer to their poorest neighbors. But for the moment, the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has failed to find the magic formula that satisfies everyone. His proposals, one after another, succumb to criticism of the rich south, the emerging east or the depauperate industrial west. Nothing satisfies both the battered state cities and the great Länder, the capital and the rest, the depopulated north and the dense west. The German tabloid Bild, the most widely read newspaper in Europe, recently claimed that the mechanism of “federal financial compensation, which should guarantee the same standard of living throughout Germany, has failed.”
In the face of noise, a heterogeneous collective increasingly promotes a somewhat revolutionary idea that, without being new, is gaining adherents and repercussion in recent months: a radical reform of the German political map that reduces the current 16 federated states to, in the most extreme case, just six. They have their reasons.

145 ministers and 1.3 million officials

“Larger federated states throughout Germany would, in the long run, be better able to carry out their duties,” explains Bernward Rothe, a member of the State Parliament of Saxony-Anhalt and leader of the Initiative in an interview with El Confidencial. Fusion of States. “A new division would reduce the expenses of the Government and the Administration, which would allow for more money to fulfill other tasks, such as investment in education,” he reasons.

The current administrative division of Germany has created 16 federated states, with 16 capitals and 16 regional parliaments. Or what is the same, 145 ministers, 1,857 parliamentarians and 1.3 million officials. And also 16 parallel legislations in the competence areas of the Länder: Education, Culture, Training, Security Forces and Prisons, among others. In Germany there are, for example, 16 laws to regulate the operation of funiculars. And 16 regional secret services. The maintenance of these structures represents billions of euros and their efficiency, given the external financing needs of twelve of the 16 federated states, is more than doubtful. Reiner Meier, a member of the Bundestag for the Social Christian Union (CSU), the Bavarian subsidiary of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel, affects this point: “In any case something must finally move, since many small Länder are not able to survive economically. “

According to German economists Thiess Büttner and Sebastian Hauptmeier, a massive merger of Länder could reduce the fixed costs of the Administration as a whole by 4%. Only the merger of the city-state of Hamburg with its neighbor Schleswig-Holstein would mean, for these authors, a saving of 800 million euros a year. The president of the independent lobby of the Taxpayers Federation, Reiner Holznagel, believes that the union of federated states “especially taking into account the current fiscal deficits and the introduction of the debt brake, would provide lasting relief for public coffers and, therefore, for taxpayers. “

The Prime Minister of the state of Saarland, Christian Democrat Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, pointed last December in the same direction in the face of the serious economic survival difficulties of her own Land: “We would then have to talk about how to better prepare Germany for the future and specifically, if there should not be six or eight Länder in the future instead of the current 16 “.

Others, beyond financial issues, point to the need to improve the competitiveness of the entire country in times of globalization, with the emergence of emerging giants in Asia and the progressive financial and economic cohesion of the Eurozone. For Mario Ohoven, president of the Federal Association of Medium-sized Enterprise (BVMW) it is “time for a radical reform of federalism.” “The (current) division of Germany is an anachronism in the times of globalization and European integration,” he adds.

Stop centralism

In addition, there are a number of political arguments. The first, as Rothe points out, is the resurgence of the central state, which, given the lack of economic muscle in the regions, assumes more and more functions. This policy, which has been seen in recent months in matters as varied as university scholarships or refugee assistance, awakens for more than one terrible ghosts of the past. “The transfer of partial powers to the central government is already taking place, as in the field of higher education and the secret services of the interior,” says Rothe, and warns: “If we fail to build capable Länder throughout Germany, we run the risk of returning to a centralized unitary state, as has happened repeatedly in German history. “

The second argument of a political nature is the marked decompensation currently in the representation of the various Länder in the Legislative. In the Bundesrat, the regional chamber, the vote of a neighbor of the state of Bremen counts in practice twelve times more than that of a resident in North Rhine-Westphalia, since the latter represents six votes to more than 17 million people, while the first has three votes to give voice to its 650,000 inhabitants.

“For me it is about having a healthy federalism”, argues Rothe, who manages a thematic web page with everything that happens in Germany around the proposal of reorganization of the territory, and that defends that his theses “are not simple” but yes “realizable”. For this politician the “example” is France, which has already approved that in 2016 its regions go from being 22 to 13.

Six, seven, eight or nine Länder

The models for administratively reorganizing Germany are varied. “From my point of view,” says Rothe, the ideal would be “a model with eight federated states, all with more than five million inhabitants.” This would imply, following Werner Rutz’s proposal, splitting the Land of this Social-Democratic parliamentarian, Saxony-Anhalt, in two, to join the south with Saxony and Thuringia, and adhere the north to Brandenburg, Berlin and part Mecklemburg-Vorpommern. Saarland would merge with Baden-Württemberg, while Bremen and Hamburg would join Lower Saxony, among other modifications.

The bravest proposal, however, is committed to reducing federated states to only six. Andreas Barthelmess and Philipp Hübl, members of the think-tank Club of Rome, have suggested merging Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt; unite the entire northern fringe (Lower Saxony, Bremen, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklemburg-Vorpommern) in the “Hanseatic Federation”; fuse the center of the country, from Saarland to Thuringia, through Hessen and Rhineland-Palatinate; and leave as they are to Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia. These six demarcations would also have a similar number of inhabitants.

Although 61% of Germans consider the effects of a possible merger positive, 69% do not want a reduction in the number of ‘Länder’.

The proponents of the mergers also indicate that their proposals have a history of success. In fact, Baden-Württemberg, with Bavaria one of the German states with the most dazzling macroeconomic statistics, is the result of the union, in 1952, between the states of Baden, Württemberg-Baden and Württemberg-Hohenzollern. The political initiative was supported by the affected population through a referendum. The then German president, Theodor Heuss, from the area, called the merger “exemplary.”

Political and popular reluctance

The defenders of the mergers, a transversal group that has members in all the great German political parties, has garnered important support, such as that of the current German president. The independent Joachim Gauck, an ethical reference in Germany, has labeled the administrative restructuring of the country as “necessary”, since the current model is in his opinion “outdated”. However, no top-level leader – from Merkel to the leaders of the rest of the great forces such as the Social Democratic Party, The Left or The Greens – has picked up the glove and lawyer for opening this melon.

“Indeed, integration is not easy,” says Rothe, one of his greatest leaders, who points out that, although in the short term problems may occur by joining “strong and weak partners, in the long term all parties” would benefit from a process of this caliber.

As expected, many Länder politicians do not welcome this proposal, which, at best, would bring instability, but an open loss of power. In the worst case scenario, it would mean a political harakiri. “A reconfiguration always means a redistribution of political power, something that for political parties is linked to the collapse of their positions,” explains Rudolf Hrbek, president of the European Center for Federalism Research (EZFF) in Thuringia.

But it seems that, in addition, a large part of the population does not favor this thesis. Although 61% of Germans see “positive” the effects of a possible merger (cost reduction, regulatory unification, among others), 69% do not want a reduction in the number of Länder, according to a survey by Emnid for the Bild press. A curious detail is that people over 65 years of age, those who have experienced other administrative configurations of the German State, are much more prone to reorganization than young people.

In fact, the last attempt to merge, the union of Berlin with the surrounding state, Brandenburg, closed with a resounding failure in 1996, when in the final referendum among the population the 25% quorum failed to vote, although the “no” prevailed over the “yes”. Many experts then pointed out that Brandenburg did not want the risk involved in assuming the enormous debts of the state that hosts the German federal capital.

2019, the key year

The lawyers for the case have pressed the accelerator in recent months. Many believe that they are facing a window of opportunity that they cannot waste, a curious alignment of stars ideal for their alternative. On the one hand, they point out that the current great coalition that governs in Berlin, an executive of conservatives and social democrats, has 80% support in the Bundestag.

This means that the Government could pull its weight in the Legislative to skip the process provided in the constitution to unite federated states (bill, ratification by the Bundestag and Bundesrat, and referendum in the affected regions) and approve the change by qualified majority, that is, with at least two thirds of the lower chamber. Meier, defender of the reform and member of that parliamentary majority, considers in this sense that a large coalition “should include large projects.”

On the other hand, the promoters of the administrative reorganization of Germany point out that in 2019 the term of validity of the current federal financing mechanism ends and that it is necessary to find a substitute, a political spawn so far elusive. It is necessary, in his opinion, to take advantage of this caesura to introduce draft reforms.

“It is an appropriate occasion to complete the Länder merger,” Rothe acknowledges, although he also believes that it is not necessary for the reorganization to take place just in 2019, coinciding with the end, among other laws, of which the solidarity tax was launched. to cover the development of the territories that belonged to East Germany.



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