Germany's Trades War

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Regulation of trades and professional life are deeply embedded in German life. Controversially, Europe wants to see them reformed, as a way of opening up a free market in services.

  • Facts


    • In January this year, the European Commission put forward a number of measures designed to simplify national regulation of trades and professions, and open up a single market in services.
    • The European proposals have drawn criticism from German professional and trade bodies, fearful of seeing the country’s tight regulations watered down.
    • In late 2015, the European Court of Justice forced Germany to open up its market in tax consultancy.
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Ausbildungsreport 2017
German craftsmen study hard to gain the fabled Meisterbrief certification. Source: DPA

Angela Merkel’s statement was clear and from the horse’s mouth. Speaking last week, she said that if the European Commission, “while stipulating free movement and lower barriers to service,” in fact intended to abolish Germany’s system of trade and professional regulation, then it would be in for a long, hard struggle.

In saying so, the chancellor – with one eye on this year’s elections – joined a choir of outraged voices from across the political spectrum, all declaring their loyalty to a deeply German set of institutions: its highly regulated, traditional system of apprenticeships and trade organizations, which are seen as guarantors of quality workmanship and trustworthy training.

A central element in this system is the so-called “Meisterbrief,” the hard-earned qualification which certifies a master craftsman in dozens of trades. However, elsewhere in Europe, some see these regulations as a way of privileging German workers over foreign competition.

“We will not let the Meisterbrief be destroyed,” announced Brigitte Zypries, the Social Democratic minister of economic affairs a couple of weeks ago at the Internationale Handwerksmesse in Munich, an industrial exhibition showcasing trades and skilled crafts of all kinds. Echoing Ms. Zypries, Holger Schwannecke, the general secretary of the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts, or ZDH, said: “Deregulation just means that our proven high standards of training will be questioned, and lowered in the medium term. Ultimately, it is an attack on our economic strength.”

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