Many say that the eurocrisis is not about the euro but about financial markets. Whatever the precise cause: it seems to be a purely economic crisis. Of course, the financial sector was a motor behind the crisis, but there have been other drivers too. National conditions – such as high private debts, corruption and inflexible labour markets – inflated the bubbles and accelerated the economic crisis once these bubbles burst. With this in mind, it is somewhat strange to see that the bulk of the economic discussions about solutions for the eurocrisis concern deeper integration at EU level.
Economists have pointed to the impossibilities of working with a half-baked EMU. The euro started as a Monetary Union while the Economic (now called: political) Union was lacking. What this political union should have included, according to the economic analyses, are a central bank with more responsibilities, EU bonds to reduce interest rates and solidarity mechanisms. A second focal point in the debates is the question whether austerity is wise. Economists are happy to call for EU growth initiatives and transfers.
Given these profound economic debates, it is no wonder to see far-reaching economic solutions in Barroso’s Blueprint for a genuine EMU: an additional EU budget, steps towards eurobonds, etc.
The consequence of these economic solutions is centralisation (federalisation) including treaty change. Hence, Barroso’s plans are also about transforming the Commission into a European government, European taxes, a larger EU budget and a stronger role for the European Parliament. Many economists de facto want a political union.
Yet, northern countries lack trust in southern governments and are therefore unwilling to accept EU bonds, to pay for a banking resolution mechanism or to accept other moves towards a transfer union. In the end, the EU seems to remain stuck with the Mundell-Fleming ‘impossible triangle’ that states that the combination of fixed exchange rates, free capital movement and independent monetary policy cannot be maintained.
This call for deeper integration seems perverse integration. The eurocrisis originated at national levels. Hence, the national level is the level where solutions have to be found and implemented first of all. Understanding the eurocrisis requires institutional, in addition to economic, analysis. Banking supervision was failing in all countries. National statistics proved unreliable. National political parties suffer from corruption and regional governments have been deeply involved in the housing bubble. The relevance of the national level is also with a view to the fact that the national publics lack enthusiasm for this federalisation process.
National institutions determine the state of the economy and many of these institutions have been ineffective. It is impossible to construct an EMU with (semi) failing states. Politicians need to do what they hate the most: accept independent European (in whatever form) scrutiny of their national administrations. This involves assessing the independence and quality of national statistical systems, national budgetary control authorities, deregulation authorities, tax collection systems, etc. In addition, scrutiny is needed of the quality of social economic councils in Member States, of the size and quality of regional governments, of the management of political parties, of transparency policies in member states, of labour market and education systems, of anti-corruption policies, etc.
The measures proposed by Barroso to strengthen the EMU will become much less needed if Member States possess institutions with self-cleaning capacities. It is contrary to the subsidiarity principle in the Treaty to centralise decision making in the EU when many of the problems originate at national levels of government and when further measures can be taking at the national level. The food crisis in the 1990s was not solved through a ‘Food Union’ but by building food authorities incorporated in European networks supported by appropriate legislation and independent national controls. Similarly, competition policy in the EU is now based on independent national authorities. If Member States do not trust each other’s administrations, steps towards a closer union will be impossible. Similarly, if Member States have effective national institutions, there will be much less need for centralisation. By the same token: centralisation will fail – and lack public support – if national governments are weak. Evidently, reforming national institutions cannot be done without EU networks and EU legislation, but the bulk of the reforms should be national. This could also prevent that ‘Brussels’ is used as scapegoat, even though the Commission will always be put in the position to criticise Member States, if they lack self-correcting mechanisms. Weak Member States will, therefore, create an automatic dislike of the EU.
This focus on national institutions is also needed to break the stalemates in social policy. A growth agenda is partly blocked due to lack of trust in national institutions. Triple-A countries are afraid of reducing reform incentives elsewhere. Yet, without social support, the euro could fall apart due to the consequences of collective austerity. However, growth will not come from more money (there is no), but has to be based on sound national policies and sustainable national institutions.
National institutions should be targeted first of all in the discussion on deeper integration. Barroso’s agenda towards a genuine EMU seems logical to economist who ignore the importance of national institutions but it will never work or it will require a transfer union that is politically extremely dangerous.