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Angela Merkel’s mania for austerity is destroying Europe, says Mehdi Hasan

The German Chancellor is terminating growth and pushing us towards a new Depression.

Which world leader poses the biggest threat to global order and prosperity? The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Wrong. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu? Nope. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un? Wrong again.

The answer is a mild-mannered opera fan and former chemist who has been in office for seven years. Yes, step forward, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose solution to Europe’s financial crisis – or lack thereof – has brought the continent, and perhaps the world, to the edge of a second Great Depression. “World Bank warns that euro collapse could spark global crisis”, read the headline on the front of the Observer on 17 June.

With apologies to Mike Godwin and his eponymous law, Merkel is the most dangerous German leader since Hitler. Her eight predecessors – from Konrad Adenauer to Gerhard Schröder – presided over a manufacturing miracle at home and the rehabilitation of Germany’s reputation abroad. Under Merkel, however, the country finds itself isolated once again, loathed and feared in equal measure.

Cartoons in the newspapers of Germany’s neighbours have depicted the chancellor with a Hitler moustache or wearing a spiked, Bismarck-era military helmet. Commenting on the phenomenon, the columnist Jakob Augstein observed: “Her abrasive pro-austerity policies threaten everything that previous German governments had accomplished since World War II.” Merkel, Augstein rightly noted, is “a radical politician, not a conservative one”.

Neighbourhood bully

Merkel did not cause the financial crisis; that (dis)honour still belongs to the world’s “top” bankers. But her deficit fetishism and obsession with spending cuts are exacerbating the continent-wide debt-and-growth crises that threaten to upset more than six decades of pan-European unity and stability.

Then there is her bullying tendency. The majority of Greeks voted on 17 June either to delay or to cancel the EU-imposed austerity plan; up popped Merkel the next day to warn: “No departures can be made from the reform measures . . . We have to count on Greece sticking to its commitments” – and to slap down her foreign minister, who had suggested that the EU might give Greece more time to do cuts.

Merkel prefers to fiddle as Athens burns – and Madrid and Rome, too. Youth unemployment in Spain and Greece is hovering around 50 per cent; in Italy, a third of 15-to-24-year-olds are out of work. Riots beckon as Europe’s far right attracts new supporters. It is ironic that the leader of a nation paranoid about and offended by any mention of its Nazi period seems so relaxed about the rise of anti-austerity, neo-Nazi parties across the EU, from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to Greece’s black-shirted Golden Dawn to the fascists of Jobbik, now the third-largest party in Hungary’s parliament.

Merkel’s supporters argue that this is unfair. She is, they say, standing up for hard-working Germans who are weary of bailing out their feckless southern European neighbours. This is nonsense. First, figures released by the OECD show that the “lazy” Greek worker labours for 2,017 hours per year, which is more than the average in any other EU nation – and more than 40 per cent longer than the average German works. So a little less Schadenfreude, please.

Second, it isn’t just southern Europeans who are revolting against fiscal sadism. In May, Mer­kel’s Christian Democrats suffered a humiliating defeat in an election in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia. It was the party’s worst result in the state since the Second World War. Ordinary Germans are starting to acknowledge that austerity isn’t working.

But Merkel won’t budge. She is a purveyor of the conventional wisdom which says that the economy is like a household that can’t borrow or spend more than it earns. But economies are not households – or credit cards! – and common sense tells us that the solution to a downturn caused by a prolonged drought in demand is not to reduce demand further (by slashing spending). History teaches us that the Great Depression wasn’t helped by Herbert Hoover’s cuts in the US and, in pre-war Germany, it was mass unemployment, not hyperinflation, that propelled Hitler to power in 1933.

Fiscal self-flagellation

In a study published in 2010, analysts at the International Monetary Fund found just two cases, out of 170 examples across 15 advanced economies between 1980 and 2009, in which cuts in government spending turned out to be expansionary for the economy overall. They concluded: “Fiscal consolidation typically has a contractionary effect on output.”

Merkel’s insistence on fiscal self-flagellation, her unwillingness to countenance any fiscal stimulus by Germany or an easy-money policy by the European Central Bank, have pushed depressed countries such as Greece further into depression. The recent announcement at the G20 summit in Mexico that Merkel may now be willing to allow eurozone institutions to buy up the debt of crisis-hit member countries is too little, too late.

This isn’t just about geopolitics or macro­economics. Europe’s austerians have blood on their hands. Suicide rates are up by 40 per cent in Greece; the birthplace of western democracy is being remorselessly reduced to the status of a developing country. Meanwhile, Merkel, as the US economist Robert Kuttner wrote earlier this month, “continues to pursue Germany’s narrow self-interest . . . [because] Germany benefits from the rest of Europe’s suf­fering in two ways – expanded exports and dirt-cheap money”.

In denial and bent on austerity über alles, Merkel is destroying the European project, pauperising Germany’s neighbours and risking a new global depression.

She must be stopped. 

Mehdi Hasan is the author of the ebook “The Debt Delusion” (Vintage Digital, £3.74). For the New Statesman's position on the Eurozone crisis, read our leader here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.