Eurozone « Euro

Artikel getagged mit ‘Eurozone’

What is EU Membership all About?

19. December 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

This is my last entry in the Eurozone 2013 blog. I want to conclude with some general remarks tackling what sounds like a rather innocent question and is the subject of a paper I am working on: What is EU membership all about? The question was put to me for a talk at a summer school in Britain earlier this year. Needless to say, the British are particularly concerned with what I call the changing notion of EU membership. Is it essentially about the single market, Eurozone membership, or about a community of rules and values? All of them really, one might respond, but things are not that simple anymore.

Ever since the governments of the Eurozone started to repair the dysfunctional economic and monetary union the notion of membership has been blurred. This development is nothing new – we have seen that the essence of EU (formerly EC) membership shifted along with successive treaty reforms, most markedly with the Treaty of Maastricht that significantly widened the scope of joint policies. With the need to further integrate EMU in the course of the crisis we are currently seeing yet another shift of membership – one that might turn out divisive.

What kind of union are we talking about? This question challenges not only the political identity of euro and non-euro members of the EU-28 such as the UK and Poland. It also poses questions for countries eligible to or on their way to membership such as Serbia and the other non-EU Balkan states or Turkey for that matter. While the pre-crisis European Union was by no means the monolithic bloc as which it was often portrayed the notion of membership got even less clear cut in the course of the crisis.

Why does this matter? Has the union not been dealing with different layers (a colleague once branded it the “European Onion”) for quite some time, the euro and Schengen being the most prominent examples? From an outside point of view, the demarcation between Europe as a continent, the European Union of 28 members and the eurozone of 17 – 18 with Latvia joining in 2014 – is not that clear anyway and not so important. For EU Member States, however, the degree to which they participate in the union’s policies clearly matters. It determines the rules that countries have to adopt, their rights and obligations, their access to policies, institutions, decision-making and resources. It matters to the daily reality of citizens in the EU’s Member States – think, for example, of borderless travel granted only to Schengen members. And, one aspect that gained particular relevance in the course of the crisis: the degree of participation in the EU’s policies, in particular EMU, influences the overall clout of Member states in the Union. The power question is back.

Arguably the direction of the Union is defined by the members of the eurozone nowadays. True, most non-Euro members signed up to the new legal arrangements that were adopted since the beginning of the crisis, and countries within the eurozone tried to keep the ‘outs’ close to their bosom. A fragmented Union is risky for all Member States, and realising this has so far been the glue for cohesiveness. But will it hold as the eurozone continues to move ahead next year?

The notion of membership has also been challenged when it comes to the Union’s values. What role do Member States still attribute to the values of their founding treaties? How could Member States invite Greece to join the Eurozone with such obvious deficiencies in its state functions and its market economy? A question that not only the union’s newest member Croatia might ask after having been through a detailed and demanding fitness regime in preparation for accession. Then, how on earth was it possible that the most important countries of the eurozone, Germany and France, both on several occasions violated the Stability and Growth Pact ten years ago without being sanctioned by the European Commission – arguably the early kiss of death for the euro in its current shape? What makes the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán so confident in pushing his luck with fellow EU countries, turning his back on fundamental rights and freedoms at home?

While the EU has developed a sophisticated set of instruments to encourage good behaviour and to punish when its rules and values are disrespected in its enlargement policy, it struggles to pull similar carrots and sticks with fellow EU members. Overall, the respect of rules and values has been watered down – consequently, member states take a certain freedom in interpreting them these days. This is a most damaging side effect of the crisis that member states will have to deal with in years to come.

The upcoming elections to the European parliament will demonstrate how vulnerable the Union has become with regard to its values. Parties and movements that claim they want a different Union but that in reality don’t want the Union to work will manage to capitalize from this worrying development.

There are two lessons from 2013 that policymakers should bear in mind in 2014: EU membership must not be divisive, and it must bring values to the fore again.

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.”

Parallel Currencies are no Alternative for the Euro

21. October 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

Many are upset about the ‘TINA-type solutions’ for the euro crisis. ‘There-is-no-alternative’ (TINA) seems to have been an irrevocable characteristic of the euro right from the start. A sense of ‘having been forced onto the people’ was kindled by the fact that in most countries the single currency was adopted without referenda. Subsequently, many of the measures including EFSF, ESM, disputable bail-outs of governments and banks by the ECB, sharpening up of the stability and growth pact and the 2pack (which forces Member States to hand in national budgets before being adopted in parliament) have all contributed to the image of the euro as extremely risky and as an undemocratic intrusion on national competences. On top of this, many countries struggle with the constraints of the dubious 3% rule. If economic governance is to work, Barroso in his blueprint has given a clear insight into what it involves, including an EU finance minister and EU bonds.

There is a sizeable group in the eurozone that does not want these TINA-type steps towards a federalised and centralised EU. Many would like to leave the EU straight away. Others, such as German Professor Kerber and adepts of The Matheo Solution, suggest to introduce types of parallel currencies or currency units (calculation currencies such as the ECU). According to Kerber, if southern states do not want to leave the euro zone, then the countries with a current account surplus should introduce their own currency. He suggests that since the relevant northern countries are only Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and possibly Luxembourg, the new currency might as well be the DM under the watchful eye of the Deutsche Bundesbank.

Hopes of a parallel currency immediately lead to serious questions (even if we ignore the political complications and impossibilities). Firstly, there are legal questions about breaking away from the eurozone. Will the Commission use all legal means to ensure the integrity of the eurozone? Secondly, one should not think lightly of the consequences for the competitiveness of the new DM block when the DM revaluates. Thirdly, a break-up would complicate the necessary steps towards the banking union even more and thwart the internal market at least in financial services. With bouts of devaluations, any banking resolution mechanism would be frail. However, most worryingly of all would be the fall back towards the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism) days when especially southern countries had to devalue repeatedly. This had profound economic consequences including financial losses while structural changes continued to be stalled and spells of high unemployment because countries mostly postponed devaluations to ensure prestige. (B. Connolly (1994), The Rotten Heart of Europe, Faber and Faber.)

The changes for successful reforms in countries outside the euro framework are (decidedly) lower than within the eurozone. The best options for structural changes in expenditures, labour market reforms, tax reforms, deregulation, anti-corruption policies, rule of law measures, banking supervision, etc. are within the euro system. This will, in the long run also benefit the eurozone and EU more broadly.

Evidently, the costs of dealing with the current bubbles in the eurozone are huge. However, these costs in terms of ban risks and government deficits have already been committed and have been shifted to, among others, the balance of the ECB. They will not go away with a break-up of the euro. Inside or outside the euro, adaptations will remain expensive.

Of course, we can throw away all hope for reform in countries such as France, Italy and Greece. If we are so negative, we would better dismantle the euro as soon as possible. However, it would be in all our interests to ensure reforms. Changes seem to be taking place in and, in any case, prospects for reform are best within the eurozone (ask the Dutch).

Parallel currencies show at least that alternatives for the euro do exist but it seems wise to keep such disruptive alternatives at bay for the time being. Thoughts about parallel currencies are signs of serious euro frustration but not of ‘cold thinking’.

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.”

The Eurozone Crisis: Finance 2 – Society 0

24. September 2013, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

An interesting and crucial feature of the eurozone crisis, which hardly ever gets mentioned, is the extent to which it corresponds to a massive, lengthy, disguised and undemocratic process of socialisation of debt relations. What started out as a massive build-up of debt/credit relations between private debtors and private creditors has been gradually converted into debt/credit relations between state debtors and state creditors, with the implication that those who will ultimately foot the bill for the inevitable restructuring of the massive ‘debt overhang’ holding the European economy back will be European taxpayers and peripheral-country citizens, rather than the financial sector and its shareholders. The aim of this post is to show why and how this is so, and to highlight the two main phases that have characterised this process.

By way of background, it is worth recalling that the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis and the ensuing Great Stagnation are very much akin to the 1929 Crisis and the ensuing Great Depression: in the build-up to both crises, capital-friendly growth regimes ensured the profitability of investments through direct and indirect wage compression; gave rise to increasing inequality and an increasingly central role of finance; and made up for the detrimental effect (upon aggregate demand) of this rising inequality through a massive increase in private debt. The expansion of credit served as a mechanism not only for recycling profits, but also for households to make up for their relatively stagnant incomes and for firms to expand, merge and modernise. The resulting credit-fuelled demand, again in the build-up to both 1929 and 2007, allowed for ‘roaring’ growth, but sooner or later it had to come up against its limits. And so it did when over-indebtedness reached its ceiling and surfaced as a ‘financial’ crisis, originally emerging in the system’s weakest links (in the first instance, the subprime housing credit market in the US), but ultimately exposing the unsustainable basis on which the entire growth regime was built.

In this sense, the current crisis is indeed global (or at least a crisis of advanced, mature economies as a whole), and it is indeed systemic (for it signals the unsustainability of the neoliberal growth regime). Another aspect to be noticed is the radically different character of this systemic crisis (and the one of the 1930s) vis-à-vis the crisis of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the systemic crisis of a labour-friendly growth regime, brought about by the discouraging effect of declining profitability (in its turn arising out of the workers’ increasing bargaining power) upon investment. And the final background commentary concerns the key difference between the crisis of the 1930s and the current one: while they share the same underlying causes, the crisis of the 1930s took the form of the “Great Depression” because the process of deleveraging was relatively rapid, violent and uncurbed by government action; the current crisis, by contrast, has taken the form of a “Great Stagnation” (after the initial shock in 2007-09) because governments stepped in and halted the process of debt deflation (although the consequence is that there can be no sustained growth, absent inflation or major write-offs, because the ‘debt overhang’ remains in place).

In the eurozone context, this otherwise ‘merely’ socioeconomic process (which is the form it has taken in the US, for example) has taken on an especially serious and international character because of the inherently faulty features of the EMU (the inability on the part of deficit countries to undertake currency devaluations; the requirement that the burden of adjustment falls exclusively upon deficit countries, as opposed to being shared by deficit and surplus countries; the interwoven character of national financial systems and national public finances; and the ‘constitutional’ ban on inflation, which would otherwise provide the means for addressing the ‘debt overhang’).

From this perspective, the story of the eurozone crisis may be summed up in two main phases. Phase 1 corresponded to the socialisation of the debt relation on the debtors’ side: economies whose private sectors were up against the limits of unsustainable indebtedness when the process of debt deflation was triggered in 2007-08 (including Portugal, Greece and Spain) very quickly saw that private debt morph into public debt through two main mechanisms – the direct effect of financial sector bail-outs and the indirect effect of so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’ (declining government receipts and rising expenditures due to economic contraction). Recall that the eurozone’s peripheral economies currently being affected by the so-called ‘sovereign debt crisis’ include countries with vastly different public debt/GDP ratios as of 2007 (36% in Spain, 68% in Portugal, 107% in Greece); what they had in common was the unsustainable levels of net external indebtedness of their economies as a whole by 2007 (78% of GDP in Spain, 87% in Portugal, 115% in Greece). The escalation of peripheral countries’ public debt levels was a consequence, not the cause, of the crisis – and reflected the socialisation of the process of debt deflation on the debtors’ side.

Phase 2 is the one that we’re currently going through: it consists of the process of socialisation of the debt relation on the creditors’ side, as private creditors (particularly banks and other financial institutions in the European ‘core’) are gradually replaced by official lenders as the holders of peripheral countries’ ‘sovereign’ debt. After this debt was socialised on the debtors’ side as of phase 1, the impending inability on the part of the governments in question to service it meant that there were only two options on the table: either those governments defaulted, which would have meant losses for the private creditors, or official lenders like the EC-IMF-ECB troika stepped in (as indeed they did), lending just enough to support the continuing servicing of the debt while private creditors gradually rid themselves of these bonds (as indeed they have been doing over the course of the last 2-3 years).

Given that the public debt/GDP ratios in the crisis countries keeps escalating precisely because of the lethal combination of the dynamics of debt deflation and public-sector austerity (i.e. simultaneous deleveraging across all sectors of these economies, implying recession and decreasing ability to pay), it is increasingly obvious that the sovereign debt of peripheral eurozone countries will eventually and inevitably require a default or serious write-down (not like the Greek one in 2012, which did next to nothing to overcome these structural barriers). This is not a “whether-or-not” question; it’s a ‘when’ question. And when it is that this takes place is important for two reasons: (i) the later the default or write-down occurs, the more the burden will fall upon European taxpayers as a whole as opposed to private creditors; and (ii) the later it takes place, the more time peripheral country governments will have to hold their constituencies to ransom in order to undertake the neoliberal restructuring of their societies in a way which otherwise would never have been possible.

In sum, regardless of the uproar in 2008 against the financial sector, its reckless behaviour and the need to rein it in, the story of the eurozone crisis is a re-run of 2008 in a different, protracted and more subtle form: once again, finance tramples society and forces it to bear the burden of its losses.

 

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.”

German Federal Constitutional Court Chews on Role of European Central Bank

18. June 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

Verdicts from Karlsruhe usually serve as pacifiers for the German public and, more recently, for the eurozone as a whole. Remember the ruling on the ESM and the Fiscal Compact, which the German Federal Constitutional Court concluded was reconcilable with the country’s basic law, or Grundgesetz, in September 2012. What a relief this announcement was for the eurozone’s capitals in their step-by-step struggle for the rescue of the common currency. Germans tend to have a great deal of respect for their constitutional court, and fellow Europeans over the past years learned that every year or so they would have to set eyes onto this city in the southwest of Germany: What does Karlsruhe say?

However, on the euro, things remain far from being put to rest. The overall question that continues to loom is to what extend the more recent rescue measures are covered under the Grundgesetz, or whether they lead to a further Europeanization that the German constitution does not allow for in its current shape. The eurozone continues to be a moving target and at the time of the ESM verdict in the fall of 2012 the judges already knew they would have to chew on another measure of the euro rescue: the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) programme announced as the court was still dealing with the ESM and the Fiscal Compact. With the programme the ECB said it was ready to buy government bonds of eurozone countries affected by the crisis in order to stabilize their interest levels.

Critics say that this programme violated EU treaties, in particular article 123 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU. It is however widely assumed that without this bold move of the ECB the eurozone would not have made it into 2013. What is being questioned though by several groups, among them the NGO “Mehr Demokratie” supported by various organisations and 37.000 German citizens is the legality of the rescue measure. Did the ECB go well beyond its mandate and did it thereby violate the budgetary rights of the German parliament and of German taxpayers? Clearly, these are fair and reasonable questions to ask.

With an impressive line-up including Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, powerfully eloquent political figures such as Gregor Gysi, the head of DIE LINKE in the Bundestag, and the euro-critic MP Peter Gauweiler, the president of the Bundesbank Jens Weidmann and ECB executive board member Jörg Asmussen, the stage was set for drama in Karlsruhe. The media particularly loved what was framed as two gladiators, reportedly friends from university days in Bonn, confronting each other in the courtroom: Jens Weidmann, well-known for its critical stance on the ECB’s bond buying programme, was the only member of the Governing Council that voted against the programme in the fall of 2012. Jörg Asmussen then has been an articulate and public advocate of the ECB’s programme, making the point that while indeed the mission of the central bank was to work for price stability in the eurozone, there was no point in sticking to a narrow interpretation of the mandate when the eurozone was facing a breakup. There are a number of very complex issues that the court will have to look at in the months to come, and many of them are without precedent. But not surprisingly, German gladiators deliberate even the hottest issues in the calmest way – no big surprises in the courtroom last week.

Politically speaking the issues on the table are certainly powerful, and potentially challenging what has perhaps been the most effective intervention in the euro rescue so far. The weird thing is that while the current German government and all that work for a further recovery of the eurozone certainly long for yet another pacifier made by Karlsruhe, the court might have to disappoint when it announces its conclusions in the fall: de facto, Karlsruhe for now is dealing with a non-issue. So far, the ECB only announced the OMT programme without implementing it in detail, a move that proved enough to prevent the breakup of the eurozone. Can a mere announcement form the basis of a court case? The president of the Federal Constitutional Court Andreas Voßkuhle during last week’s hearings made the point that the court’s power was limited. The ECB was an independent European institution, indicating that it was beyond Karlsruhe’s competence to rule over the ECB’s action. Commentators say there is a chance for the case to be conveyed to the European Court of Justice in the end – which perhaps would bring a different dynamic to the outcome.

What has already been a feature of last year’s deliberations on the ESM and the Fiscal Compact was visible again last week: The highest German judges would perhaps like to stay away from the politics of the euro rescue, but because of the nature of the complaints clearly struggle to do so. Ironically, the ECB would (or should) also be more in its comfort zone in a less politicised role.

The real baffling issue around last week’s shoulder rubbing between Karlsruhe and Frankfurt is therefore the weakness (some would even argue the absence) of politics. Without any doubt, the OMT will not solve the problems of the eurozone in the end. For the eurozone’s governments still to make their case! I am not sure the June summit will bring some of the much-needed decisions and will get back to this.

Reckless Spending and Excessive Wage Growth: Myths Debunked

13. June 2013, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

If I were to pinpoint the two most harmful and most often repeated myths at the core of the orthodox account of the euro crisis, these would surely be, first, that the public debt crisis across the eurozone was solely or mostly caused by reckless government spending; and second, that the fundamental competitiveness problem of the economies of the eurozone periphery is a result of excessive real wage growth. Both of these propositions have been repeated so often that they have become a sort of common wisdom – and yet they are both false.

Let us begin with the first proposition. The problem with it, of course, is that it disregards the crucial facts that: a) budget deficits are an endogenous variable whose ‘receipts’ and ‘expenditures’ components are both adversely affected by recession, as indeed they have been in the last few years and especially so in 2008-2009; b) that in many eurozone countries, bank bailouts account for a substantial portion of the budget deficits of the last few years and c) that factors other than budget deficits contribute to public debt levels spiralling out of control – namely the compounding interest charged on that debt, particularly when far in excess of GDP growth (the so-called ‘snowball effect’). Take all of these into account and you get a very different picture from the alleged government largesse.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about the quality of public finance in many of these countries in the last few years or decades, including with respect to ruinous public-private partnerships, tax exemptions and other forms of government capture by vested interests. However, the idea that the simultaneous public debt crises of numerous eurozone countries was caused by governments in all of these countries suddenly and recklessly deciding to increase spending on a whim is, quite simply, not true. What really underlies the public debt crisis is the lethal combination of recession, deflation and the unbelievably Byzantine financial-sector mediation between the ECB and governments (a case-study in financial expropriation for many decades to come). And the corollary is that austerity only makes everything worse and will continue to do so; the only way to solve the (public and private) debt crisis is growth along with moderate inflation (and in some cases the inevitable write-downs).

The second fallacy is also a particularly persistent and pervasive one, and usually relies on showing how the nominal compensation of employees, or alternatively unit labour costs (ULCs), increased in excess of productivity in the eurozone periphery in the last couple of decades, thereby causing competitiveness to deteriorate. In turn, this argument very quickly leads to the conclusion that regaining competitiveness requires sharp wage cuts (internal devaluation). This, too, has been repeated to the point of exhaustion, perhaps most notably and recently by Mr. Draghi in a two-hour session with the eurozone’s 17 heads of state and government in March (see the power point here). Both the argument and the conclusion are plainly wrong, however.

As Felipe and Kumar show in one of the most important (and neglected) papers to have been written on the euro crisis , while ULCs lend themselves to an intuitive and correct interpretation at the firm level (say, the labour cost of producing a table or laptop), at the aggregate level of the economy they are constructed using the economy’s value added, rather than physical quantities, as the measure of output – and therefore the ‘intuitive’ interpretation is no longer appropriate. Rather, these authors show algebraically that, at the aggregate level, ULCs are nothing other than a simple product of two factors: the labour share in the functional distribution of income multiplied by the price deflator (rate of inflation). Allow me to rephrase this: an increase in aggregate ULCs can only be accounted for about by an increase in the labour share of income and/or by inflation. Indeed, we can construct an exactly analogous indicator, called Unit Capital Costs (UKCs), which increases to the extent that the capital share of income increases and/or that there is inflation. And what do we get when we do compute this indicator for the eurozone economies? Refer back to Felipe and Kumar (p. 16) and… lo and behold: with the sole exception of Greece, UKCs increased more than ULCs in every single euro zone country both between 1980 and 2007 and between 1995 and 2007.

The interpretation should by now be obvious: Greece was the only euro country where the functional distribution of income changed in labour’s favour in the last three decades; in all the other countries, the capital share of income increased at the expense of labour; and the extent to which the various economies had greater or lesser increases in both their ULCs and their UKCs was a consequence of differential inflation. So ULCs are really quite distinct from real wages; and following this aggregate approach to its logical policy consequences would entail measures to cut down profits, not wages, in order to regain competitiveness. The real culprits of the differential change in ULCs (or the nominal compensation of employees) across the euro zone is differential inflation and the real wage decrease in the European core – not real wage increases in the periphery.

Promoting competitiveness in the periphery through wage compression is therefore both cynical and wrong – in several different ways. First, workers are being forced to foot the bill twice over; second, the prime determinant of economic competitiveness is not sale price per se, but rather sale prices combined with the pattern of productive specialisation (and recessionary internal devaluations are not helping with the latter, either); and third, the Great Stagnation that the US and Europe as a whole have been living through is a consequence of insufficient demand in the context of a massive (though protracted) process of debt deflation, so compressing wages in the current context is a sure way to further compress demand and curb growth (see here for more detailed information on this).

On some occasions, this erroneous diagnosis takes on an especially aberrant and cynical twist: that’s when the argument is constructed around a comparison of nominal ULCs (or the nominal compensation of employees) with real (i.e. deflated) productivity. Seems obviously wrong even to a first-year undergraduate, wouldn’t you say? Well, that’s actually what many analysts and commentators have been doing for quite a while – and it’s also a key part of Mr Draghi’s story (check slides 9 and 10 in his power point presentation, link above).

So neither is the public debt crisis caused by reckless spending, nor is declining competitiveness a consequence of excessive wage increases. And yet, these ‘fairy tales’ are repeated again and again to make us believe them and are used as a pretext for deleterious and counterproductive policies. We’ve been here before (does the name Heinrich Brüning ring any bells?) – and it wasn’t pretty. Shouldn’t we be taking the lessons from history far more seriously?

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.”

Dijsselbloem or DijsselDoom – a Dutch Perspective

9. April 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

I already presented my reservations against the appointment of Dutch Minister of Finance, Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Labour Party) as President of the Eurogroup. The public outrage following the bankruptcy of the banking sector in Cyprus has raised new questions concerning his ‘presidency’ (for which in Dutch the more modest ‘chairmanship’ is used). My initial doubts concerned the question whether this prestigious position would be in the interest of the Netherlands – and I was bold enough to propose Olli Rehn as possible candidate for a permanent chair after his departure from the European Commission in 2014.

The Cypriot turbulence in March immediately tested Dijsselbloem’s ability as a chair. He had become minister of finance in the Netherlands only in November 2012 and his appointment was almost immediately followed by rumours about his candidacy as president of the Eurogroup. In that respect, the criticism of his lack of experience and authority during the Cyprus crisis came as no surprise. For his two rescue proposals for Cyprus the media treated him on nicknames such as “DieselBoom”, “DijsselDoom” and “EuroBaldrick” (borrowed from the series Blackadder) as well as on appeals for his resignation. The fierce debates he provoked centre on the question as to whether the deposit holders are really completely safe. ‘True’ EU believers – and bankers who long for stability – would have preferred a banking resolution including European deposit guarantees in order to prevent bank runs whereas EU sceptics wished for the dismantling of the euro. Moreover, as was to be expected, Dijsselbloem was scorned as a Dutch puppet of Germany and blamed for defending the Dutch position instead of being a neutral chair.

Yet, in view of political realities like the upcoming elections in Germany and the public reservations against saving zombie banks and eurozone countries, the decisions of the Eurogroup to dismantle the Cypriot banks and to bail in seem inevitable. Moreover, given the lack of money in any country, it is highly unlikely that former Eurogroup President Juncker would have been able to orchestrate a different outcome. Approximately € 3 trillion is needed to stabilise banks in the eurozone. It is simply impossible to avoid more haircuts. Still, Dijsselbloem’s presentation of the measures appeared cold and his alleged Dutch bluntness provoked comments like the one by Juncker that you sometimes have to lie as chairman of the Eurogroup – as if financial markets preferred unreliability instead of predictability.

Also, the role of the chairman of the Eurogroup seems to be widely overestimated, if one has a close look at the EU power structure. A lot of criticism on Dijsselbloem is politically naïve in view of the strong resistance against the Cyprus bail-out not only in Germany but also in countries such as France where EU Affairs Minister Moscovici talked about “casino banking” on Cyprus. It seems widely regarded as reasonable to bail-in bondholders and deposit owners – particularly in the absence of an effective European resolution mechanism.

Hence, Dijsselbloem seems to have withstood the criticism well so far. Yet, there are issues for which he could be criticised, which in some cases can be blamed on his lack of experience. First of all, he made himself more important than he really is by ̶ during the hearing before the European Parliament ̶ taking the blame for the bailing-in of savings below €100 000 in the first deal with the Cypriot government. Firstly, the chair (President of the Eurogroup) is not a decision maker but mainly a spokesman: it was the decision of the Eurogroup to bail in those savings. Secondly, he referred to the bail-in of Dutch bondholders. A chair should be as neutral as possible and avoid telling the world how good his native country is in dealing with a crisis. Particularly Dutch politicians should take care not to be too outspoken. Dijsselbloem’s presentation of the Netherlands as a role model fuelled the criticism that he was pursuing a national agenda. Thirdly, he talked in terms of “core” and “periphery countries” as well as “the north” and “the south” whereas a chair should avoid divisions at any cost (as he later seemed to have realised).

Even though these issues are mainly issues of style and nothing serious, the international press once again saw a reason to complain about Dutch bluntness and about pushing through the Northern austerity agenda. Similarly, when Dijsselbloem, as Dutch Minister of Finance, attacked the Commission’s request for an additional € 11.2 billion for the budget for 2013, a question basically unrelated to the euro crisis, this led to head lines such as ”Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup, joining forces with the UK” (EurActiv 3 April 2013). This shows that it seems to be inevitable that the chair of the Eurogroup is not regarded as neutral but as a national politician.

If Cyprus can cause an existential euro crisis overnight, it is very likely that more and more serious crises are to be expected. Against this backdrop, complaints about Dutch bluntness, accusations of Dijsselbloem acting as a German puppet or being part of the British camp, are particularly unhelpful both for the EU and for the Netherlands. What the Eurogroup urgently needs is a professional chair!

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.”

Halftime in Cyprus

27. March 2013, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

Analysing the latest acute episode of the euro crisis, Cyprus, on March 26th is a bit like writing a match report at halftime: you’re bound to get much of the story right, but if you try to predict the final outcome, you may very well miss – by an inch or by a mile. And as it happens, this particular crisis episode is very much at halftime: after intense negotiations and some extraordinarily clumsy backing and forthing by the Eurogroup and the Cypriot authorities, a deal has finally been brokered that involves a 10€ billion emergency loan, differential treatment of the various banks, austerity (as always), a bail-in of the holders of bonds and deposits over 100,000€ (the big novelty) and no penalty on holders of deposits under that amount (albeit after an announcement to the contrary with indelible consequences, more on which below). However, the banks in Cyprus remain closed to the public as I write, with strict restrictions on movements and withdrawals in place, and no one really knows what will happen once depositors are once again allowed to access their money. My own guess, taking into account the rationality of bank runs and the stage that has been set by the political handling of this crisis, is that the Cypriot banking system may well come crumbling down in a matter of days – and it’s anyone’s guess what that could unleash. We shall soon find out, however, so rather than play the role of Cassandra here, I shall instead dwell on some of the lessons that, even at halftime, we can already draw from the Cypriot crisis – and there are some interesting ones to be drawn.

1. It ain’t over till it’s over. By now, there have probably been a hundred different speeches claiming that the worst of the euro crisis is behind us. In some instances, this has been based on wishful thinking regarding the imaginary virtuous properties of the fiscal compact and structural reform (read: permanent austerity, labour market deregulation and privatisation). In other cases, it has been supported by the peripheral countries’ ‘return’ to the bond markets (really due to the OMT) or the reduction in their current account deficits (mostly a consequence of recession). For all this magical thinking, however, the fact of the matter remains that the eurozone as a whole is in recession and looks set to plunge even deeper; the number of countries that have had to resort to emergency loans has by now reached a handful (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus); the social and economic situation is dire across the eurozone periphery and catastrophic in the hardest-hit countries; and the question in many people’s minds is which country will be next, with several candidates in line. So really, it’s far from over.

2. Every unhappy eurozone member is unhappy in its own way. Each troubled eurozone country has its own set of specific troubles, including the unraveling of massively bloated financial systems, busted housing bubbles, distorted specialisation patterns, loss of international competitiveness, or various combinations of the above. Make no mistake about it, however: there is one common cause underlying all of these epiphenomena, and that cause is an ultimately flawed monetary union without a sovereign to back it.

3. All creditors are equal, but some creditors are more equal than others. Throughout the Eurozone crisis, creditors (typically bondholders) have by and large been treated as sacrosanct. The argument has always been that default or suspension of debt/interest repayment is really not an option, because once you scare investors away, it’s well-nigh impossible to regain their trust. In the Portuguese case, for example, this is used to justify paying out 10 billion euros in interest on public debt in 2013 (more or less equivalent to total public spending on health), even as the economy collapses for lack of domestic demand and even as it is increasingly obvious that a default, or at least major haircut, isinevitable further down the road (public debt amounting to 120% of GDP, with an implicit average interest rate of 5%-6% and absent inflation, can never be repaid by the government of a shrinking economy). Now, what the Cyprus banking crisis has shown is that creditors are not so sacrosanct after all, and it’s alright to scare them away if most of those creditors are not financial institutions from the European core – particularly if there’s a fair chance that these creditors might be scared away from Cyprus and onto Luxembourg or the Netherlands. Indeed, taking into account how all the Cyprus-bashing as an offshore haven for Russian mobsters and oligarchs fails to recall the amount of money laundering that takes place in Luxembourg, the Isle of Man, the Netherlands – and even Germany, for that matter –, one might add that all offshore havens are equal, but some are more equal than others.

4. Once the cat is out of the bag, you probably won’t be able to catch it. The Cypriot banking crisis has been quite extraordinary not only because this is the first time that creditors are called upon to suffer losses as a pre-condition for a bail-out, but also, and especially, because the initial plan involved overriding the EU-wide insurance on deposits under 100,000€ by levying a 6,7% penalty on those deposits. This figure was subsequently reduced to 3%, and then dropped altogether, but by then the cat had already been let out of the bag: depositors in Cyprus, across the Eurozone periphery and in fact across the Eurozone as a whole now know that, under certain circumstances, the European authorities are willing to sacrifice small depositors. Now that’s what I call a sure way of triggering some major bank runs across the Eurozone. But then again, let me not play Cassandra here.

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.”

Is there an Alternative for Europe in Germany?

15. March 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (1)

In my last blog I made the point that despite Germany being a major player in the reform of the eurozone and despite federal elections taking place in the fall of 2013, Germans at the moment seem rather indifferent about the eurozone’s future direction.

I found this to be rather baffling, since the decisions taken by eurozone leaders these days are not mere technical or legal adjustments, but will determine the substance of policies in the currency union and have already done so.

But is it really true that Europe is absent in the minds of German citizens? Perhaps it is a question of weeks now.

The election campaigns haven’t got into full swing yet, as the political parties are still in the process of putting together and adopting their platforms. And it was only this week that a new party with a distinctly anti-euro profile has entered the stage (to which I will come back).

Over these past two weeks, both the leaders of the Green Party (BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN) and the Social Democrats (SPD) have presented their draft platforms to the public. The Greens will put the draft to their party congress in Berlin in late April. In June, every party member gets the chance to cast a vote on the top ten priorities for the Green campaign. As to the Social Democrats, their party congress will convene in mid-April in the southern German city of Augsburg to adopt the 2013 platform. Those seeking for “Europe controversy” in the country notorious for its “Europe consensus” are likely to eventually find some food for commentary at these gatherings.

Leafing through the 100-pages platform of the SPD and searching for “Europe”, there was a particular thing that struck me. EU matters have usually been framed as a grand thought and duty for Germany, more of a political ritual found in intros or conclusions, or in the obligatory chapter at the end in pamphlets of this kind (sometimes together with foreign policy). For voters that made the effort to read through those pamphlets, things must have quite naturally looked as something of a separate matter (“We will work for a better Germany for you, and then there is also the EU which we, good Germans as we are, want to build.”).

Today, European affairs have become much more a matter of policy substance – and with issues such as budget and banking supervision or the tax on financial transactions, quite naturally, intertwined with the domestic context. The new message, accelerated by the past years of crisis, is “We will work for a better Germany for you, and our playing field to achieve this is also Europe”. In other words, we can only preserve our freedom, prosperity and social justice in this world when taking much more responsibility for each other. My guess is that this is a line that still won’t go down naturally with traditional SPD voters.

Needless to say that for the Greens, advocating Europe in such a way is an easier argument to make. The party’s environmental agenda, one of its main pillars since entering the formal political arena in Germany thirty years ago, is by its very nature a field in which the borders of nation-states do not matter all that much.
It is too early to tell though whether the parties challenging Angela Merkel’s return to the chancellery manage to frame their agendas to really make a difference – and to portray European affairs no longer as a matter of statecraft at EU summits, but of political choices, of political drama and of majorities.

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.”

The French Squeeze

14. March 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

There are signs that the economies in the eurozone are picking up in various ways. Recent figures of the ECB on Target2 (the capital account of the eurozone countries within the ECB) show remarkable signs of improvement. The claims of the triple-A countries Germany, Finland and the Netherlands on the problem countries are going down. The Dutch and the German claims at the peak of Target2 lending in 2012 amounted to € 173 billion and € 750 billion, but these have dropped by almost 20% since. There are many explanations for this development. Draghi’s promise to do ”whatever it takes” to keep the eurozone intact, has created the trust needed to restart trade in sovereign debt of Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy. In addition, (wage) reforms and austerity measures have reduced the imports; investors are returning and exports of for example horticultural products are increasing.

These developments in the south imply enormous reductions in risks for the budgets of northern countries. If the situation in the problem countries had deteriorated, the Target2 claims could have end up as losses – and downgrades – for the triple-A countries. These claims are not just important in terms of abstract risks on the ECB books, but they also have practical implications for the national debt positions. The Dutch government used the profits from the Central Bank on the sovereign debts from Southern countries to lower its public debt figures, so that the deficit is at least cosmetically closer to the 3% monitored by Olli Rehn. However, including the Target2 risks of the ECB in the national budgets would show that national debts are potentially much higher. Also in this respect the drop in the ECB’s Target2 exposure is good news.

However, the difficulties in the eurozone and the Target2 risks are far from over. The Global Competitiveness report for 2012-2013 displays the many remaining economic hurdles in the eurozone including repeated warnings over inflexible labour markets in Spain. Moreover, the outcome of the recent elections in Italy obviously creates additional challenges.

The real worry however is France. Its Target2 deficit has not gone up due to the deterioration of its current account. Moreover, its public debt is rising above 95% – which means that its debt becomes unsustainable. The global competitiveness index of France has fallen last year from 18 to 22. It is doubtful whether the French social economic institutions – including its labour relations – are up to the economic challenges France is facing. Despite the efforts of Olli Rehn with the reinforced EU semester, France has shown few signs of improvement over the past year. Worryingly, with the economic reforms in its neighbouring countries including Spain and the Netherlands, its competitiveness and current account balance is being threatened from all sides.
We saw in August 2011 that financial markets woke up to the worries over Italy’s economic situation. Typically, this awakening did not happen with a whisper but with a bang. The crisis in the eurozone was then probably at its worst because of the size of the Italian economy. An immediate crisis over France may not be around the corner, but all ingredients for the next major euro problem are present. Symbolically as well as economically, a eurocrisis over France would be extremely damaging to the European integration project as a whole.

It is surprising that the French interest rates are currently still comparable to those of Germany. Either financial markets are irrational or they are counting on Draghi’s unconditional support for France. Both explanations would be very dangerous economically and politically. Irrational financial markets could prove to be extremely volatile and a repetition of August 2012 is possible. Alternatively, German – and Dutch – patience with Draghi and the ECB could reach its limits. FDP chairman Brüderle already warned France that reforms are needed. The EU cannot afford an existential crisis because of French economic negligence.

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...)

Supported by