Europe’s German agenda

As Europe continues to fumble its way through its debt crisis, can Germany’s reforms from a decade ago really serve as an example for the rest of the Continent? The Local’s Marc Young looks back to see an agenda for the future.

Europe’s German agenda
Photo: DPA

The economy is in shambles, people are taking to the streets in angry protest, and the government is on the verge of collapse after passing unpopular yet necessary austerity measures.

But this is not Greece in 2012 – it was Germany a decade ago.

Contending with the worst economic downturn since 1993, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder came up with a package of labour and welfare reforms he called Agenda 2010. Deeply disliked at the time, it’s now widely credited as the reason why Germany is in considerably better shape than the rest of Europe.

In particular, it helped increase Germany’s competitiveness by making its labour market more flexible and living on the dole less attractive. But the Greeks, Italians and Irish now railing against the supposedly callous Germans for living it up while demanding their neighbours implement tough austerity measures appear not to be aware of just what it was like here ten years ago.

Dubbed the “sick man of Europe” at the time, Germany’s economy stagnated as eurozone economies like Spain, Ireland and Greece flourished. While their fellow Europeans gorged on cheap credit which fuelled a building boom and property bubble, glum Germans took to the streets to protest against rising unemployment and welfare cuts. An estimated 100,000 people turned out in Berlin to demonstrate against the government’s reforms in 2003.

Joblessness eventually peaked at 13 percent nationally a few years later, when a whopping fifth of all eastern Germans were out of work.

Socially, the reaction to Agenda 2010 was explosive. Many Germans feared welfare cuts, commonly known as Hartz IV, threatened to destroy their society’s much vaunted solidarity with the poor.

And even though most would admit they are now better off than they were ten years ago – unemployment has dropped to a post-reunification low and the economy remains robust despite the eurozone crisis – few Germans feel as if they’re living lives of luxury.

Some critics complain the Schröder’s reforms paved the way for more part-time and badly paid jobs in Germany. And while others would counter that any job is still better than living on the dole, an increasing number of those in employment have to take supplementary work to make ends meet.

But the political price was equally high for Schröder, who had to force through the reforms despite fierce opposition from his own centre-left coalition. His policies – now so eagerly being copied by French President Nicolas Sarkozy – gutted support for his Social Democrats (SPD) and helped give rise to the to a hard-line socialist party The Left.

After the SPD lost a key state stronghold in the spring of 2005, Schröder was forced to call an early federal election, which he narrowly lost to Angela Merkel.

So it’s not that Germans are unsympathetic to the plight of their fellow Europeans – it’s simply that they have recently been through wrenching social and economic changes without the prospect of an EU bailout.

Yet they shouldn’t allow themselves to become too smug about how they reformed their country a decade ago. Though Germans like to profess the virtues of austerity to their European partners these days, they were consistently flouting the eurozone’s deficit limit while they were agreeing to take their bitter Agenda 2010 medicine.

Marc Young

[email protected]

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.