Is Germany really the poorest eurozone country?

Not really, no.

Last week, a study released by the European Central Bank showed that the median net wealth of German households was the lowest in the eurozone – with the median Italian and Spanish households being nearly four times richer.

The study sparked a debate over how far apparently poor taxpayers in Northern Europe should have to support the bailouts of the "wealthy" Southern European, but a response this week from the double-team of Paul De Grauwe and Yuemei Ji highlights the other side to the initially reported data.

The Wall Street Journal was typical in its reporting of the paper, with Brian Blackstone and Nina Koeppen writing:

[T]he report offers a reminder that citizens in some of the countries hardest-hit by Europe's debt crisis aren't as bad off as many believe.

The question of how much taxpayer money should be put up to bail out governments in Greece, Cyprus and Portugal tops the political agenda in Germany, Europe's biggest economy and financial backer…

By one ECB measure of typical households, Germany is the poorest country in the euro bloc, behind even Slovakia and Portugal. A number of factors appear to have skewed the results, such as the emphasis on homeownership, household size and small-business ownership that favors countries in Southern Europe.

But de Grauwe and Ji argue that the rest of the data in the paper presents a different picture. Compare and contrast the distributions for the ten biggest Eurozone countries when the mean and median household wealth is examined:

Figure 1. Net wealth of median households (1000€)

Figure 2. Mean household net wealth (1000€)

Germany is roughly middling when it comes to mean household wealth, suggesting a massive inequality of household wealth in the country. Indeed, of all the counties de Grauwe and Ji look at, Germany has the largest discrepancy between mean and median household wealth – the latter is almost a quarter the former.

They write:

Put differently, there is a lot of household wealth in Germany but this is to be found mostly in the top of the wealth distribution.

That's partially because Germany itself is a relatively unequal society, but also due to the lack of widespread homeownership. As a result, poorer German households spend the same amount on housing as in comparable countries, but don't come out of it owning a house.

Germany also has a different distribution of wealth within the country's total capital stock to many other nations. Far more wealth in Germany is held by corporations and the government, meaning that citizens appear poor on official statistics even as the nation itself is wealthy:

Figure 6. Total capital stock per capita (euro)

What this really tells us isn't the merits or otherwise of distributing wealth from Germany to the European south. That's a question which can only be answered by asking what the value of keeping the euro alive is, and whether there's any way it can survive without a transfer of some sort. But it does tell us where, within the Northern countries, the money to do that lies. It's not with the "normal German", who holds surprisingly few assets – instead, it's with wealthy Germans, and, overwhelmingly, the governments and corporations of Northern Europe.

There is the money to save the south, in other words, but there might not be the will to take it from where it needs to come from.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.