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03.1 Program for the Study of Germany and Europe

European Corporate Governance Reform and the German Party Paradox

2003 – Martin Höpner


This paper addresses the current discussion on links between party politics and production regimes. Why do German Social Democrats opt for more corporate governance liberalization than the CDU although, in terms of the distributional outcomes of such reforms, one would expect the situation to be reversed? I divide my analysis into three stages. First, I use the European Parliament’s crucial vote on the European takeover directive in July 2001 as a test case to show that the left-right dimension does indeed matter in corporate governance reform, beside cross-class and cross-party nation-based interests. In a second step, by analyzing the party positions in the main German corporate governance reforms in the 1990s, I show that the SPD and the CDU behave “paradoxically” in the sense that the SPD favored more corporate governance liberalization than the CDU, which protected the institutions of “Rhenish,” “organized” capitalism. This constellation occurred in the discussions on company disclosure, management accountability, the power of banks, network dissolution, and takeover regulation. Third, I offer two explanations for this paradoxical party behavior. The first explanation concerns the historical conversion of ideas. I show that trade unions and Social Democrats favored a high degree of capital organization in the Weimar Republic, but this ideological position was driven in new directions at two watersheds: one in the late 1940s, the other in the late 1950s. My second explanation lies in the importance of conflicts over managerial control, in which both employees and minority shareholders oppose managers, and in which increased shareholder power strengthens the position of works councils.