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2013: A Year in the Crisis

15. January 2014, von Alexandre Abreu, Comments (0)

So here we are in 2014. As this edition of the Euro Crisis blog draws to a close, it is time to say farewell to the readers and greet the new contributors who will take over and comment on the Euro zone crisis as it develops from here on in. Farewells are also an appropriate time for stock-taking exercises, however, so I think it is appropriate to end my contribution by reviewing what the latest year has meant for the bigger picture of the Euro crisis – at least the way I see it. What progress has been made in the various fronts? And how much closer are we to a resolution of the crisis?

Perhaps not surprisingly, my views are considerably less optimistic than those of most other analysts, many of whom seem to consider that the worse of the crisis is largely behind us. I, on the contrary, believe that we are still far from hitting the bottom, let alone from a resolution. And I also believe that we end the year 2013 in a worse position that we started it.

First, take the superficial element of the crisis: the sovereign debt levels of the eurozone countries. (Superficial in the sense that, as I and many others have argued before, they are a consequence, not a cause, of the crisis.) Between the second quarter of 2012 and the same quarter of 2013 (the latest for which Eurostat has available comparable data), in a context of widespread austerity, absolute public debt levels increased in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia and Spain. That is to say, in every single eurozone country except for Germany and Latvia. As a percentage of GDP, government debt increased in all 18 eurozone countries except for Austria, Germany and Latvia – including to such remarkable levels as Greece’s 169%, Portugal’s 131%, Ireland’s 126% and Spain’s 92%. Not quite unexpected given the obviously recessive consequences of austerity, but certainly not a sign of progress towards a resolution: greater debt levels mean a greater burden constraining the possibility of counter-cyclical fiscal policy (particularly with the Fiscal Compact in place) and, at least in the Portuguese and Greek cases, a greater amount which will not, for it cannot, be repaid (whether this be through haircuts or sovereign defaults).

More significantly, though, the more fundamental economic variables which encapsulate the nature of the crisis have either deteriorated or remained unaltered during the course of 2013: the massively negative external debt, or international investment position, of the peripheral Euro zone countries (the ‘divergence’ component of the crisis) remained basically unaltered, save for some marginal improvement in the case of Ireland. As for the overall economic performance (the ‘stagnation’ element of the crisis), the outlook also continues to be profoundly depressing: annual GDP growth in the euro area as a whole in 2013 is estimated at -0.4%, while euro area unemployment remains at a record 12.1%. At the same time, the constraints weighing down on that performance have not alleviated: the deleveraging of the private (household and corporate) sector remains to be done, while the spectrum of deflation is an ever-more-present possibility, further worsening the debt overhang and giving rise to recessive debt-deflation dynamics.

At the political and institutional levels, we now have a Fiscal Compact in place which has basically banned counter-cyclical fiscal policy at a time when monetary policy has become well-nigh ineffective; a ‘banking union’ which has not broken the vicious links between troubled banks and troubled sovereigns; a minuscule EU budget slashing all hopes of a recovery led by counter-cyclical policy at the European level; unrelenting insistence on austerity as supposed way out; discontent with the European project growing steadily across the EU; the far right increasingly showing its ugly head as it takes advantage of the European leaders’ incapacity or unwillingness to address the real root causes of the crisis; and a full-fledged humanitarian crisis in large swathes of the European periphery. Hardly grounds for optimism.

Having said this, it is no doubt true that the eurozone crisis has changed its character during the course of 2013: in contrast to earlier on in the year, we no longer experience the crisis as a series of acute episodes, in which the possibility of a dénouement is just around the corner. Instead, we have entered a largely chronic stage, with neither collapse nor improvement in sight. A significant indicator in this respect consists of the interest rate levels on sovereign debt throughout the eurozone: even though the economic outlook has continued to worsen, interest rates, particularly in the eurozone periphery, have fallen significantly over the course of 2013, thus alleviating one of the most acute dimensions of the crisis. By and large a continuation of the ‘Draghi effect’ (the ECB’s manifest willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent defaults in the Euro zone, provided that austerity remains in place), but unintelligible without taking into account the extent to which resistance to austerity has so far failed to materialise at the political level (thus rendering this deleterious low-level political-economic equilibrium much more stable than it seemed 12 months ago).

But this equilibrium will not last, for austerity and deflation are exactly the key ingredients of permanent recession in our current debt overhang situation – and sooner or later the electorate, in at least one of the more chastised countries, will prefer default and the possibility of a euro exit, for all their risks, to the certainty of perpetual impoverishment. In 2013 the crisis turned into chronic stagnation, but we should not let ourselves be fooled by this apparent calm: it only takes one card to bring the house down.

May you have a happy 2014, dear reader – and in these times of crisis, may Europe and its peoples live up to the lofty democratic ideals which the continent has spawned throughout its history.

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.”

Too Much Trust in EU Institutions

9. January 2014, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

The general impression is that the EMU zone (which gathers countries belonging to, or potentially belonging to, the euro) suffers from a crisis of trust. How can we move forward with European integration when people lack trust in EU institutions? The facts may however be quite different: there is too much trust in the EU institutions and too much trust in the reform capacities in the EMU countries.

The guiding rule for EU-leaders has been to restore trust in the EMU and to get economic growth in the EU back on track. Many steps are being taken to rebuild trust ranging from fiscal compact and banking union, to measures to increase the relevance of subsidiarity. Overall, these measures and the fight for trust will – optimistically – lead to deeper integration.

However, the EMU zone may not suffer from a lack of trust. Paradoxically, this is bad news. First of all, there is generally more trust in EU institutions than in national institutions. Over the past few weeks, I sat in meetings with senior officials and politicians from different parts of the EU. On the question whether they would like to see the EU institutions take over economic tasks and develop into an EU economic government, the answer was decidedly ‘yes’. According to the responses, national institutions (including central banks), have been the cause of the economic and banking problems.

This trust in EU institutions is in accordance with the Eurobarometer which indicates that the people in 17 euro countries have (much) more trust in EU institutions than in their national governments. The bottom of the list with trust in national governments shows euro countries Spain (8% trust national government), Greece (9%), Slovenia (10%), Portugal (10%) and Italy (11%). Other countries with low national trust and higher trust in EU institutions include France (only 24% trust national government) and Ireland (18%).

The consequence of this situation is that there is not so much a lack of trust in the EU (and the related euro institutions) but a national trust crisis – and EU institutions are trusted to manage national economies. If the discussions of the past week are anything to go by, there is a majority of countries in the EU that would like to see the development of stronger European economic governance because they are themselves too weak to run their own economies. In the words of a minister from a country preparing for joining the euro: “the Commission can better decide what is good for us”.

The second reason why there is not a lack of trust in EU institutions is that the EU seems to suffer from traditional over-optimism. Judging by the hope that the EU is better in taking economic governance decisions than national governments closer to their voters, this over-optimism still exists. Greece, Portugal and East European countries were allowed into the EEC/EU. Similarly, accession into Schengen also proved quite easy. Membership was assumed to lead to reforms. In the same vein, despite an argument between monetarist and economic governance economists, euro membership was granted ahead of economic reforms, trusting that membership would do the trick. Hence, the EU has been gambling with economic history based on naïve trust in EU reform mechanisms.

Thirdly, countries have been trusted to be flexible and to develop. However, the French competitiveness index fell from 15th position in 2000 to 22nd in 2013. Italy’s competitiveness eroded as underlined by the drop from 24th position to 49th. Greece managed a slight but hugely painful improvement from 33rd to the 31st position.

Deeper integration is on the agenda. The EU Council meeting of December 2013 concluded additional steps towards banking union and economic contracts. The basis of the economic governance, however, remains a collection of mostly week states; states that seem to have given up managing their own economies and that place their hope in the EU. The EU might as well be doomed with this trust in the EU to solve national reform problems.

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.”

Are we Living in a Post-EU Society?

20. November 2013, von Adriaan Schout, Comments (0)

There seems to be a paradox: whereas the euro crisis has enforced deeper integration, economic and political attention is shifting away from the EU. Europhiles blame the Eurosceptics but EU-watchers should be careful to follow simplistic reasoning.

Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans has the reputation to be an EU-believer and was, among others, a convinced member of the Convention that drafted the Constitutional Treaty. When he became minister of foreign (including EU) affairs, the general impression in the Netherlands, and the rest of the EU, was that his appointment was a good sign of the Netherlands becoming pro-EU again. However, now one year in office, Timmermans has shown himself rather critical of the EU. He talked about a ‘Brussels bubble’ that has lost touch with reality, criticised EU salaries and insisted on closer control of the EU Commission by the European Council (i.e. intergovernmentalisation of the Commission). Of course, it is possible to contribute this to pragmatic kowtowing to the political signs of our times or to the more reserved EU attitude of the Dutch liberal Prime Minister Rutte and his coalition government of which Timmermans is a member.

Yet, there is more. Minister Timmermans is also travelling extensively abroad. In fact, he is much more in other parts of the world than in Brussels or in EU Member States. One could could argue that the Dutch international influence via the EU would be more pronounced and, hence, that the use of all his international activism outside the EU is debatable.

In the meantime, across the channel, Cameron has expressed the possibility of an in-out referendum. A part of British industry has been issuing threats of leaving the country, and many in the EU are once again appalled by the Brits who continue to be unsurpassed EU-sceptics. However, rather than condemning – as so often happens – the Brexit discussion ignited by Cameron, we could also try to take the British debate seriously. Similarly, we might need to consider that Timmermans’ external perspective is well-founded. In any case, it has to be admitted that the British are good at thinking outside the box, so maybe there is more substance behind the Brexit debate than simple Euroscepticism.

Studies also show that big as well as small and medium-sized industry in the UK question the relevance of current EU policies and of the importance of the EU. Whereas about half of the UK’s exports go to the EU, the other half is going to other parts of the world and, more importantly, it is there where the growth in export – not just the UK’s ─ is taking place. Discussions about competitiveness are now primarily linked to comparisons with countries such as India, China, Brazil and the USA.

Hence, rather than sticking to European navel-gazing, it seems justified to look at the rest of the world for market opportunities and for new threats. In principle, questioning social policy objectives – maybe precisely because they are more symbolic than real – and other developments in for example the growing tasks of the ECB and in the EU’s economic governance, seems a valid starting point in the current debates on the future of the EU. It is crucial to consider what such trends imply for the EU’s competitiveness. This is important from an economic perspective but one also has to consider that the EU’s international security and influence are intimately related to its economic strength. External benchmarking of the EU’s competitiveness should not suffer from internal euro crisis debates.

The EU may have to come to terms with the fact that we work and live in a post-EU society, which also helps to put the traditional European claims into perspective. There is a keen awareness in the Netherlands that 70% of our trade goes to countries within the EU, especially to countries within 1000 kilometres of our borders. This has actually little to do with the EU. Trade relations with neighbouring countries are bound to be important, irrespective of the European integration project. Although important, extensive trade with countries close by are more or less traditionally given. Trade with other parts of the world is clearly increasing and posing new and painful challenges. To focus trade relations more on the rest of the world seems a natural and necessary development.

We in the EU may have to accept the post-EU society as a reality. Voters, consumers and industry have interests beyond the internal market and internal eurozone worries. This recognition has, in principle, little to do with anti-EU sentiments. It would be a mistake to taboo those who’ cast their nets out further’. On the contrary, accepting this might actually help us to get a better focus on what is important within the EU, e.g. standing together in external relations, and what is potentially dangerous such as, for example, creating a French-type EU. The European Union is important, but there is a lot more in the world that counts.

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.”

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.”

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.”

On Axes and Party Politics: the End of Europe’s Predictability

30. April 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

In a commentary last year on the eve of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty I wondered to what extent the notion of ‘the Franco-German axis’ was still a useful framework to analyse politics in Europe. I argued that in the course of the euro crisis, economic and monetary policies in Europe have become an issue of political majorities along party families rather than of axes such as the Franco-German. Much was at stake in rescuing the euro, I argued, and political leaders travelling to European summits were forced to be increasingly responsive to their electorates—which I believed was good news for democracy. Forget about the Franco-German axis and embrace party politics as a sign of political maturity of the European Union.

I have been challenging myself on this point over the past months on various occasions and, what can I say, I am not at all convinced. As much as those small pockets of europeanised party strategists would like to see it, there is no real alignment of the European left yet, determined to jointly win back majorities to shape a ‘social Europe’ as the new eurozone is in the making. Neither is there a solid conservative bulwark led by the German chancellor to europeanise the notorious Swabian housewife. Rather, the strategies that governments embrace these days in navigating the crisis reflect a much wider repertoire. And while it seems that the old and rather predictable game of summits, axes and treaty reforms is over, the rules of the new game are yet to be written.

In the German context, Peer Steinbrück, the social democratic candidate for the 2013 general elections, is far from leading Europe’s socialists in the reconstruction of the eurozone. Indeed for tactical reasons he chose not to even try and challenge Angela Merkel in what has become her domaine réservé. Or might he be pulling the strings behind Hollande, and the French Left is doing the messy job for him now? (Trying to undermine Merkel from the outside is likely to have the opposite effect, but quite frankly I don’t believe in the existence of such witty tactics anyway). Martin Schulz, recently branded “an extension of Adenauer by social democratic means” with a whiff of respect by, of all papers, the conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is in his ambition to become the joint candidate of Europe’s social democrats for the next president of the European Commission, doing a much better job. However, Schulz has just disappointed those looking for order on the Paris angle by seconding Angela Merkel when she was personally accused by leading French socialists of dominating and ultimately destroying Europe.

I still stick to the observation that in the course of the crisis, European Union affairs have been politicised to an unprecedented degree. Party politics matter. But for those (including myself) who predicted that the rather predictable old order (‘the Franco-German axis’ ‘the net contributors versus the recipients’, ‘the Weimar Triangle’ etc.) would make way to a similarly predictable order formed along political colours and ideologies have been proven wrong.

The truth is: things have become utterly mazy and therefore rather unpredictable. Now it is for Europe’s great minds to make sense of the new rules of the European power game, of political colours and ideologies, of institutional quarrels (prominently featuring the Commission president these days), of reflexes of national pride, of the new power of domestic constraints, of old balance-of-power thinking, of the shadow of history returning, and of a longing for rationality that is expressed in Europe’s elites turning to scholarly knowledge (and, not surprisingly, failing to find answers). Welcome to the politics of unpredictability.

One thing is for sure: Those who hold the key to understanding the new game will be shaping and, ultimately, winning it.

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

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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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