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Archiv: May 2013

Will France Become like the Netherlands or the Netherlands like France?

28. May 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (1)

To understand the euro project we need to go back to 1989 and the frustrations over exchange rate adaptations under the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). France was frustrated by the hard Deutsch Mark and, occasionally, lost billions on aligning the FF to the DM. Mitterrand used the German unification as a lever to get Kohl to accept the euro. This was regarded by the Dutch with grave worries for various reasons. In essence, the euro is a French project.

For one, the Dutch, together with the Germans, wanted at least to ensure that the euro would be a hard currency and demanded the Maastricht criteria, the SGP and an independent ECB. The demand for rules to reinforce economic institutions continues and resulted of late in an ‘independent Commissioner’ and semi-automatic sanctions. The euro may have a French pedigree but was supposed to become German/Dutch and, with that, ‘southern’ Europeans would/should become like the Germans/Dutch. One of the most recent steps in this effort was the line in the six pack that all countries should have an independent budgetary authority. The Dutch have such a prestigious economic analysis bureau but in France this function has been part of the Ministry of Finance. Strong economic governance goes together with strong, independent, rule-bound and transparent institutions.

The Netherlands is now in a recession and economic prospects seem to be gloomy for some time to come. To be able to reform, the Dutch need to rely on their proven social ‘polder-model’ and recently a social pact between employers and employees was agreed on and supported by the government. However, the government did not want the independent budgetary control office to examine the consequences of this social pact nor its implications for the 3% rule. Moreover, this control office recently had a shift in leadership and a top civil from the ministry of finance was appointed. The new director may be extremely competent but the image of independence is endangered. Moreover, Prime Minister Rutte spoke out to be optimistic about economic prospects. Yet, over-optimism has been one of the most annoying characteristic of politicians when it comes to reliable statements about the SGP criteria. Recently Hollande also presented a brighter economic future for France than Olli Rehn. In the debate for EP on 7 May, Dijsselbloem ̶ albeit it as chair of the Eurogroup ̶ emphasised that we should not examine the weakness of banks until the eurozone has the resolution mechanisms in place. Hence, the message seems to be, let us postpone the facts until we think we are ready. Is it wise to circumvent facts, to thwart the image of independence and not to analyse major reform proposals?

Rumsfeld once stated that there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but the eurozone has invented the ‘unknowns we’d rather not know’. The French had a political perspective on the fiscal policy whereas the Germans and Dutch stood for rationality. As it now seems, the euro is not changing Hollande into Kohl, but it might make the Netherlands more French.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Help the Bruised French out of the Corner!

23. May 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (1)

There has been a lot of bad news last week: the Eurozone is further contracting, France is moving into recession and the EU has been dramatically losing support all across Europe according to figures published in a Pew poll.

Watching President Hollande’s Élysée address one year into his presidency one saw a cornered head of state fighting for his survival at home and against a growing mistrust in Europe towards the French willingness and ability to reform. Not surprisingly, President Hollande, in a desperate attempt to lift the spirits of his fellow Frenchmen, started off his speech with the French leadership in Mali. Not surprisingly, the French president then tried to gain ground vis-à-vis the dominant German neighbour by coming up with a ‘European initiative’: a real economic government, a strategy for investment, a European Energy Community and a eurozone budget. While there might be doubts about the depth and the impact of his proposals one has to acknowledge that the French president did come out of the corner.

In Berlin, however, one hears a lot of derisive commentary about France these days and there are indeed clearly different views about the future architecture of the eurozone. But I saw a man who believed in what he said, who warned that the recession caused by austerity was threatening the very identity of Europe. A President who insisted that his country had made its choice for Europe right from the start, who in the course of the crisis has been trying to “shake things up in Europe” and who is increasingly frustrated about the lack of response from Berlin. A frustration that is likely to expand also to his social democratic friends in the SPD, despite Hollande’s presence during the celebrations of the SPD’s 150th birthday this week. Hollande is watching his country being put into the camp of the ‘poor southerners’ and being publicly accused by the President of the European Commission of not understanding the opportunities of globalisation. What a humiliation for a proud nation to being graciously awarded an extra two years to cut down its deficit – in terms of communication I found this a disaster.
We have got to the point where a public blame game is going on that undermines and disempowers even the most potent leaders in Europe – how does this create the urgently needed trust among citizens that their politicians will eventually manage to find a way out of the crisis?

In all this – and it feels almost absurd living and working here – Berlin still feels like an island of peace. Recession? Didn’t the most recent numbers suggest that the German economy continued to grow, albeit mildly? And doesn’t the minor growth rate support the chancellor’s argument made continuously during the crisis that Germany cannot lift the rest of the eurozone on its own? A lack of citizens’ support? Doesn’t Germany score best in the Pew poll, with 60 per cent of Germans still in favour of the EU despite taxpayers’ money being used for the bailouts?

I wonder if Angela Merkel sometimes wakes up in the morning and asks herself whether she is Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice’s fantasy world, Merkel’s Berlin is full of absurdities these days. As the crisis is threatening to tear the union apart, Frau Merkel enjoys a never ending round dance around herself and an abundance of what I would like to call ‘conversations of comfort’. Not that it is her who actively triggers them – they just seem to happen. Just last month she conversed with the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in the proud representation of Deutsche Bank in Berlin. Just having published a biography on Merkel’s foreign policy Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, led the conversation: no drama, no real challenge, just pleasure and comfort and agreement, and the Polish Prime Minister doing the job for Merkel by raving about pretty much anything Merkel and German. The venue was packed on this occasion and politics, business and the media gathering all seemed to be a bit in love with the lady that holds court in the most non-courting way: she just sat there and enjoyed it as seemingly everybody else. A few days later, it felt like the whole of Europe was hanging on her every word when Frau Merkel conversed with the editors of a women’s magazine in a trendy Berlin theatre, chatting about cooking and what she likes in men.

When are the media starting to do their job properly? I really hope for German and French national televisions to gang up and convince Merkel and Hollande to battle it out openly in a TV duel. One of Merkel’s ways of dealing with potentially uncomfortable adversaries is by simply ignoring them – a strategy that seems to work and make her look even stronger. With a few exceptions, she hasn’t even given her social democratic challenger Peer Steinbrück the dignity of a direct address yet. The worst thing that can happen to Hollande in his attempt to contribute to the future architecture of the eurozone now is to be ignored by the German Chancellor. Berlin should know its responsibilities.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Dangerous Fantasies and Really Existing ‘Adjustment’

15. May 2013, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (1)

It has been two years to the month since the original Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the ECB-EC-IMF Troika and the Portuguese Government. Elections followed shortly after, bringing into power a new conservative coalition government, which proceeded to implement the structural adjustment programme with unbridled enthusiasm. In the words of Prime Minister Passos Coelho in June 2011, the newly-elected government was “keen to surpass the Troika”.

And, as a matter of fact, it has: successive cuts in government spending, affecting in particular the health, education and social security areas (albeit not the police budget, as befits the ‘austeritarian’ model); sharp increases in user fees, VAT and income taxes; radical changes in labour laws (including slashing unemployment benefits, longer working hours and raising the age of retirement – significant choices at a time of hyper-unemployment); the ongoing privatisation of the remainder of the state-owned sector and numerous other measures in accordance with the austerity/privatisation/deregulation model. In sum, the full neoliberal package in compressed form, of which the economic and social effects have long been well-known from the experience of the global South in the 1980s, though it has to be kept in mind that the first-wave of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), unlike the current ones, at least made allowance for currency devaluations.

The results speak for themselves. In Portugal, U-3 unemployment shot up from 12% to 17.5% in the last two years, while broad unemployment is currently around 27% and unemployment protection coverage has been significantly reduced. Consumption, investment and therefore GDP have all been freefalling: in the case of GDP, the total reduction since the MoU entered into effect has been around -5%. The current account deficit has been significantly narrowed (in fact, almost eliminated), but that was due to the effect upon imports of the sharp compression of domestic demand and the closure of tens of thousands of SMEs (the brief spike in exports in 2012 was caused by the temporary external depreciation of the euro and was quickly reversed in mid-2012). And most tellingly of all, public debt has kept increasing in both absolute and relative terms (from 108% of GDP in 2011 to 126% at present); for the most part because fiscal revenues kept falling as a consequence of the (largely self-induced) recession. Not yet as catastrophic as the Greek case, but well on its way there – and with a fully compliant government in power.

Now, this is not quite how it was supposed to turn out, was it? Wasn’t the whole idea to bring public debt under control and to unleash the economy’s growth potential by getting rid of excessive regulation, protection and government interference? Wasn’t the slashing of ‘unit labour costs’ (that persistent fallacy, to which I shall return in my next post) supposed to have boosted competitiveness and brought about sustained growth? Well, maybe so in the fantasy world of expansionary austerity and supply-side economics. But of course we all know that austerity is not expansionary and by now we should all know that this crisis (not just in Portugal, but more generally in Europe and across advanced economies as a whole) is being driven by demand, not supply. So why do the Troika and governments across Europe keep insisting on the same recipe? Why have all seven revisions of the Portuguese MoU involved the acknowledgement of a complete failure to attain the targets that were previously set, while carrying on prescribing the same measures yet predicting an imminent recovery? Is it stupidity or malice?

Well, I certainly don’t think that either these decision-makers or their technical staff are stupid people. So, as Sherlock Holmes would put it, that leaves malice as the only plausible explanation. And we have good grounds for pinpointing exactly what malice means here. Studies of the effects of the first-wave SAPs (see here and here, for example) have shown that neoliberal structural adjustment has consistently failed to bring about growth, vastly increased poverty, but, crucially, significantly increased the capital share of national income at the expense of labour. In the Portuguese case and in 2012 alone, the labour share of income dropped from 65% to 62% ̶ and all the gains were concentrated in larger corporations, not SMEs.

This is really about getting a larger piece of a smaller pie and that is why you get a coalition of international and domestic interests pushing forth this agenda. Large capital is bent on increasing its power – even if it destroys the entire European project. There’s not much time left to rein it in and avoid such an outcome.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Doubts about Rehn’s Position as Independent Commissioner

7. May 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

Rehn has spoken. Friday 3 May, the independent Commissioner for economic and monetary affairs gave his verdict on the state of the national economies in the EU. His statements were remarkable in several ways and come at a time when he has to prove his worth as an independent Commissioner. France, which has been dragging its feet regarding the necessary reforms, has received two extra years to bring its budget in order although its deficit is 4,2% and its public debt is moving towards an incredible 96,2% next year. The Dutch are in a better position but received a one year delay while allowing the public burden to increase instead of pushing for reforms. Newspapers and civil servants point to heavy lobbying of, in particular, France.

How do we know whether Rehn has spoken words of wisdom? Whatever Rehn says, he will always be criticised by many. If he criticises, for example, Berlusconi for having failed to reform, even his Italian colleague Antonio Tajani (Commissioner for industry) openly speaks out against him. If he cautions over austerity, he is criticised by EPP MEPs for failing to keep Member States to stick to the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). Even Barroso has been going over Rehn’s head by stating that austerity has reached the limits of popular support – displaying evidently that Barroso is primarily a politician. Barroso may not have contradicted Rehn over the need for some slack, but his comments have placed Rehn’s work as independent Commissioner in a political light and Barroso has hinted at differences in the Commission. Other attacks come from economists and Nobel-prize winner Paul Krugman made fun of Rehn’s over-optimistic growth forecasts in the Financial Times and slashed his emphasis on austerity (‘Rehn of Terror’). Hence many, including his colleagues in the College, disagree with whatever Rehn concludes.

Rehn’s advice is easily distrusted. Therefore, the analyses and recommendations of the European semester commissioner should be widely recognised as the result of careful examination of long term trends in national and European economies. The weight of his words depends in many ways on the respect peers in governments, journalist and financial analysts have for the independent Commissioner as institution. His prestige depends on the analytical quality of the reports of DG EcFin, on the reputation of this staff and on the extent to which procedures are trusted to guarantee quality and independence.

Much has been achieved in terms of ensuring the quality of the work of DG EcFin, but not enough. First of all, there are trends that are incompatible with the role of an independent Commissioner. The Commission is increasingly presenting itself as a political body, searching political support from the European parliament and calling itself a ‘government’. This seems to be a worrying step away from the traditional focus of the Commission on content as envisaged by Jean Monnet. An ‘independent Commissioner’ as part of a political ‘government’ seems to be a paradox if not a straightforward contradiction. Pleas in Barroso’s State of the Union (2012) to operate ‘independently under the supervision’ of the European Parliament are equally confusing.

Secondly, the process through which the independent Commissioner formulates conclusions and economic advice to Member States needs to live up to standards such as independence from political influence from both within the Commission and from Member States, quality (size and expertise) of the staff of DG EcFin and transparency. However, if we try to piece together how DG Ecfin operates within the Commission, we cannot conclude that quality and independence are guaranteed.

To start with, reliable statistics are the basis of any economic report. It was already known to insiders that European statistics were unreliable but the Greek crisis in 2009 proved that some countries provided rubbish if not lies. No economic system in the 21st century should aspire to function on the basis of a suspicious statistical system. Moreover, if only for its prestige, Eurostat should not fall under the College of Commissioners but should be an independent agency.

Moreover, although major improvements are to report in terms of economic governance resulting from the 2- and 6-pack, the European semester is still not supported by a transparent depoliticised analytical process. DG EcFin has been enlarged but it is still unclear what is being done with its staff reports. The parts of DG EcFin that are independent remain in any case dependent on other – political – DGs for sector input. Also, the staff papers are forwarded to the College. The staff papers are ‘the sole responsibility’ of the independent Commissioner although officially other Commissioners may pose questions and other DGs are consulted in the writing of SGP reports and of conclusions of the macroeconomic imbalances procedure. Furthermore, the President of the Commission is supported by a Chief Economic Analyst in the process of the drafting of the recommendations. It is unclear why Barroso has an additional analyst if reports are produced by Rehn and DG EcFin. Finally, there are actually confirmations that the recent statements by Rehn have been strongly influenced by national lobbying.

Hence, also the production of the country reports and recommendations should be set aside in an independent agency – just as the 6-pack dictates that Member States should have independent budgetary authorities. If there is an ‘independent Commissioner’ he should not be part of a College. This would also improve the transparency of the process.

As it stands, the legitimacy of the Commission’s role in the renewed European semester remains weakened by compounded functions and procedures. One thing economic governance requires is reliable and transparent institutions. The Commission, of course, will be strongly opposed to any discussion of redesigning its tasks and powers. A pity for those who hoped that the European semester was the start of something new.

Europe For Citizens

“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”

Blog Authors

Adriaan SchoutAdriaan Schout

Dr Adriaan Schout is Deputy Director Research/Europe at Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International relations. (read more...)

Alexandre AbreuAlexandre Abreu

Dr Alexandre Abreu is a 33-year-old Portuguese economist with a PhD from the University of London. Currently he is a lecturer in Development Economics at the Institute of Economics and Business Administration, Technical University of Lisbon, and a Researcher at the Centre for African and Development Studies of the same University.

Almut MöllerAlmut Möller

Almut Möller is a political analyst in European integration and European foreign policy. She is currently the head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. (read more...)

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