Showing posts with label austerity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label austerity. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Confidence vote won, absolute majority lost: not the best start for the new French government

The new French government, led by Prime Minister Manuel Valls, yesterday won its first vote of confidence in the National Assembly. That was expected, but the big news is that Valls and his government have fallen well short of winning an absolute majority.

269 MPs voted in favour, 244 against, and 53 abstained. The absolute majority is set at 289 votes.

Most importantly, the voting records reveal that 31 MPs from the Prime Minister's Socialist Party chose to abstain. Back in April, when Valls sought the confidence for his first government, he got 306 votes in favour. Hence, yesterday marked a substantial step backwards.

The outcome of the confidence vote seems to confirm that the 'left wing' of the French Socialist Party remains opposed to the economic policies being pursued by Valls - which in substance means remaining critical of the approach defended by the European Commission, Germany and other northern eurozone countries.

Incidentally, these divergences forced a cabinet reshuffle at the end of August - which saw the ousting of the three most left-leaning ministers, notably including Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg.

French history shows that it is possible to govern without an absolute majority in parliament. Another Socialist Prime Minister, Michel Rocard (widely seen as one of the political mentors of Valls), did it between 1988 and 1991.

However, it remains to be seen to what extent Valls will be able to push through the wide-reaching reforms and sizeable spending cuts demanded by the EU if he fails to win back the full support of his own party. As an alternative, he may try and strike deals with the smaller centrist parties in parliament - but the success of such a move would be far from guaranteed.

Indeed, this is hardly great news at a time when the French economic situation is not encouraging, making it essential to move forward quickly with the necessary measures.
The road to recovery may have just become longer and bumpier for France.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Will the real Jean-Claude Juncker please stand up?

This week, Jean-Claude Juncker conducted his tour of political groups in the European Parliament in a bid to get their support for him to succeed Barroso. On this occasion, German social democrat MEP Udo Bullmann stressed:
"Mr. Juncker will have to present concrete ideas over how he will address the massive investment gap, the creeping de-industrialisation of Europe and the social distortions. We will not be won over with empty phrases or with recycled ideas. There is too much at stake for people to do that."
We're not sure how confident Mr. Bullman can be, given that Juncker gave a masterful display of how to be all things to all men and women, finding the right things to say to placate everyone from conservatives to communists. Here is an overview of some of the highlights.

Juncker is not a federalist after all...
... but favours at the same time shifting more powers to Brussels:

He is is in favour of "budgetary rigour"... 

...but not "excessive austerity"       
He promises the Socialists the Economic and Monetary affairs portfolio...
...but then says it is still up for negotiation (according to ALDE)
"On the composition of the Commission, we note his statement during our hearing that no portfolio has as yet been attributed to any particular Commissioner or political family, not least the portfolio of economic and monetary affairs – in contrast to what has been reported as having been said to the S&D Group."
His manifesto argued for reducing energy dependency and ensuring affordability...
"We need to diversify our energy sources, and reduce the energy dependency of several of our Member States... we need to strengthen the share of renewable energies on our continent... It is, at the same time, an industrial policy imperative if we still want to have affordable energy at our disposal in the medium term."
...while opposing a "rush" towards "new technologies": 

He also endorsed EU enlargement to the Western Balkans while coming out against "any specific enlargements" within the next few years.

While his desire to build bridges is commendable, on many key issues he ended up either sitting on the fence or espousing outright contradictory positions. Will the real Jean-Claude Juncker please stand up?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Where are the real fault lines in the EU?

Ipsos Mori has this week published an interesting poll on public attitudes* in ten EU member states. Across the ten countries as a whole relatively few people want to leave the EU outright (18% on average), but the single most popular option is staying in the EU but reducing its powers (34%).

Just over a third want to see either the EU’s powers strengthened further (19%), or even a long-term policy of working towards a single European government (18%) - click to enlarge the charts.

Broken down by country, the British (68%), along with the Swedes and Dutch (69% and 68% respectively) are most in favour of leaving or reducing the EU’s powers:

The research suggests that, on average, two in three (68%) think things across the EU are moving in the wrong direction. People from the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Britain are in line with the average, but those in the Mediterranean countries are the most pessimistic.

France, is the most pessimistic of the countries polled, whch seems to have a lot to do with the state of the country's economy. People in France, Italy and Spain are all particularly negative about the EU’s impact on the economy (74%, 74%, and 68% respectively are critical), and many feel that their economy has been damaged by the demands of austerity (75%, 70%, and 75% respectively).

The UK political debate on Europe may be a few years ahead of many other countries (perhaps with the exception of the Netherlands), but at the level of the individual, there are many people disenchanted with the European project. Many countries are deeply split but, on average, there is clearly an appetitie for the EU to do less. Most interesting though is the striking fault line in the eurozone. Francois Hollande has had precious little influence on EU policy since his election as president, but the question is, how long before the French public's disenchantment is reperesented by its politicians?

If you think the UK is the awkward partner, imagine if French politicians actually started telling Chancellor Merkel what their people think about Europe.

* It should be noted that the poll is not representative of the entire electorate in Belgium, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden (where 16-64 year olds were interviewed), while the Dutch panel is representative of voters. Why they chose not to poll people over 65 is unclear and in our view is likely to skew the results somewhat (in different directions for different countries).

Friday, October 04, 2013

Are the Irish more optimistic about an austerity cure for Europe than the Germans?

A new Gallup poll for Debating Europe has asked peple all over the EU, except Luxembourg for some reason, about their views on austerity.

Now, of course, 'austerity' is rather a nebulous concept, particularly as different member states have had different experiences, while deficit cutting and structural reform all fall under the same term. Nevertheless, there are some interesting results.

The table above (click to enlarge) shows that across Europe as a whole, 51% said austerity is not working, while 34% said it is working but will take time, and 5% were sure it is already working.

Clearly, there are differences across the member states. No surprises that Greeks (80%) and Cypriots (64%) are the most sceptical about the merits of austerity. Portugal and Spain are also towards the right hand, anti-austerity side of the scale.

But look at Ireland. According to this poll, more Irish respondents (53%) think that austerity is working than Germans (42%), Finns (40%), or Dutch (39%)  - whose governments are considered to be the eurozone's most hawkish.

It is also striking that people from the new member states in central and eastern Europe, albeit outside the eurozone, have the most trust in austerity policies. The Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) in particular were subjected to significant austerity in the aftermath of the financial crisis yet many in these countries still support such an approach.

It is not clear what exlpains Irish optimism about austerity. It is likely to be a mixture of the fact that, so far, the Irish economy has made relatively good progress (although fears about the banks and property market still remain) and a general cultural disposition - as we noted in a paper last year, of all the struggling eurozone countries Ireland has the economic and social setup and history most likely to fit with the austerity approach.

But taken as a whole, this poll highlights the political and social scale of the challenge the eurozone faces with its current policy approach, particularly among the populations of Southern Europe.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Vice-President of Italian Senate has a go at 'Mr Nobody' Olli Rehn

Maurizio Gasparri, a senior member of Silvio Berlusconi's PdL party and a Vice-President of the Italian Senate, yesterday launched one of the toughest verbal attacks on a member of the European Commission we can think of over the past months, if not years. His target was EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn, and here's what Mr Gasparri said,
It's time to stop it with the 'corporals of the day' such as this Olli Rehn, a Mr Nobody who comes to Italy acting as a supervisor. He should rather meditate on the disasters that people like him have caused by destroying Europe. Thick bureaucrats who kill the peoples [of Europe] and make the continent die because of China’s unfair competition and [their] ruinous economic policies. This Rehn is persona non grata. He should take a plane, go back home and pay as many taxes he likes.
But what prompted this rant? Very simple. During a hearing in the Italian parliament earlier in the day, Rehn had noted that the abolition of a controversial property tax on first homes – one of Berlusconi's flagship electoral pledges – was not in line with the European Commission's economic policy recommendations to Italy, and cast doubts over the country's ability to meet the deficit targets agreed with Brussels.

Interestingly, Mr Gasparri's critical reaction to Rehn's remarks was not the only one of the day either, though arguably the most colourful. Stefano Fassina, Italy's centre-left Deputy Economy Minister, also invited Rehn to "think about the mistakes the European Commission has made in all these years instead of continuing to give us lessons." Another sign that 'austerity fatigue' in Italy is also mounting among a number of top politicians, not just the citizens.   

Friday, September 13, 2013

Spotlight on Slovenia

Back in the spring, we looked at who might be next in the line of eurozone bailout requests. It's now looking increasingly likely that one of our predictions, Portugal, will require some form of further assistance to fully exit its current bailout. Now, suspicions are rising that our other tip, Slovenia, may need external aid in a not-too-distant future.

Today and yesterday, eurozone finance ministers have been meeting in Lithuania with aid for Slovenia (as well as Greece, Portugal and Ireland) top of the eurozone’s agenda.

Recap – What problems is Slovenia facing?
  • The banking sector is nursing a possible €7.5bn (21% of GDP) capital shortfall. Although Slovenia’s government debt remains very manageable (at 54% of GDP) it could increase quickly due to a toxic combination of collapsing economic growth and spiralling costs of bailing out banks.
  • As we noted back in the spring, provisions against this capital shortfall are far below the levels needed and covered at best half of the problematic loans. Since then, the level of bad loans has increased, while little progress has been made on recapitalising banks. The recent bailout of two small banks cost a combined €900m+, and included a bail-in of subordinated debtors. This could set the tone for the approach to the rest of the sector. Worryingly, this is also around the total amount previously estimated for the capital needs of the whole banking sector.
  • The European Commission has pushed the independent bank stress test to be expanded to cover the whole banking sector. The results are expected at the start of next month, and could well reveal deeper holes in Slovenia banks. Filling these without external aid will be tricky.
  • Non-financial corporations also continue to struggle under a mountain of debt, with a debt-to-equity ratio of around 200%. This will be a significant drag on the economy for some time as firms shrink and deleverage while many could well shutter for good. This of course has further knock on impacts for the level of bad loans at the banks and the level of unemployment.
  • Austerity has been limited so far with the government deficit at around 8% of GDP (and possibly set to increase this year). Significant cuts will still have to happen and, as we have been at pains to point out before, the combination of bank deleveraging, fiscal consolidation and struggling domestic demand can create a very painful downward spiral.
  • The privatisation programme has failed to get off the ground, with the only sizeable move so far being the €240m sale of retailer Mercator.
  • Concerns also remain surrounding the significant amount of cronyism and corruption at play, particularly within state owned firms and within the financial sector. The government has recently moved to crack down on the shadow economy with wider taxes, although whether this will prove successful remains to be seen.
Despite these issues, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaüble struck a positive tone today, saying,
“I think if they stay strictly on course -- and they’ve said that want to do that; they’ve supplied two small banks with capital over the weekend -- then they’ll manage without it…So as long as Slovenia itself says they can manage it, we should encourage them in that.”
EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn voiced similar sentiments. So far then, Slovenia seems to be happy to go it alone and (possibly with other things on their minds) Germany and others are happy to acquiesce. But with the ECB reportedly increasingly concerned about the state of the banking sector, the upcoming stress test results could be a turning point – assuming of course they are judged credible (far from a given). 

If any aid is eventually forthcoming, as we’ve argued before, it seems much more likely to take a similar form to that in Spain than in Cyprus or elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

No fundamental change in eurozone policy after the German elections

Today we released an in-depth briefing on the German elections, and their implications on the eurozone. The top line: don’t expect any fundamental change in Germany’s eurozone policy after the elections.

Of the nine proposals being floated to pull the eurozone out of crisis, we expect clear movement in only one or two areas, including the most important but most unclear one: the proposal for a single eurozone resolution authority for banks.

Moreover, Germany is unlikely to depart from its emphasis on ‘sparkpolitik’ or austerity. Any change here will be largely superficial: a continuation of same policies wrapped up differently. This is based on Germany desire to ‘lead by example,’ and the broad support for austerity enjoyed among the German public.

The German insistence on structural reforms, and strong controls on taxation and spending of other eurozone states won’t change either. A government lead by Angela Merkel, could, however, push for a formalised “competitiveness pact” where by struggling eurozone countries commit to reforms  in return for aid.

The question of debt pooling will remain a contentious one  –  with the recent Open Europe/ Open Europe Berlin poll, conducted by YouGov Deutschland, showing that 64% of Germans are opposed to such a step. A debt redemption fund, as has been proposed by the influential Council of Economic Experts that advises the government, may be a possibility – however, this won’t be without opposition.

See our table below (click to enlarge) which breaks down and analyses the key eurozone policy areas on a party-by-party basis, detailing if we can expect to see movement after the elections:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Let's have a look beyond the (rather encouraging) headline figures on Spanish unemployment

The Spanish National Statistics Institute (INE) has this morning published its latest unemployment data. The headline figures look encouraging. In the second quarter of 2013, the number of unemployed people went down by 225,200 - and is now slightly below six million. The total unemployment rate now stands at 26.3%, while youth unemployment rate is 56.1%.

However, a few points are worth keeping in mind when assessing the importance of these figures:
  • The figures are not seasonally adjusted, so the decrease is clearly linked to the arrival of the summer - when a lot more seasonal jobs are on offer. The two Spanish regions where the number of employed people increased the most were the Balearic Islands (Ibiza, Formentera, Mallorca and Menorca) and Andalusia - top tourist summer destinations.
  • A similar phenomenon took place last summer. The initial, non-seasonally adjusted figures for June 2012 showed a 0.2% drop in unemployment from May 2012. However, once these figures were seasonally adjusted the result was actually a 0.2% increase. The graph below highlights this well, showing that there is a similar dip in unemployment every year when the summer approaches (data are from the EU's statistics office Eurostat, click to enlarge).
  • Part of the decrease in the unemployment rate is also due to a reduction in Spain's active population (those working or actively searching for work) - 76,100 people less over the same period. To fully judge the importance of the figures, it is also worth looking at the level of employment which is not impacted by such a change in activity. The figures for June 2013 showed employment increased by only 149,000, much lower than the overall fall in unemployment.
    • A final point to keep in mind is the on-going emigration of Spaniards. This has reached record levels with close to 60,000 Spaniards emigrating in 2012 and many immigrants also moving elsewhere. This is obviously linked to people dropping out of the active labour force. We may well see future declines in unemployment but they will be meaningless if they simply arise from less people actively searching for work or moving abroad to find work elsewhere.
    Unsurprisingly, the Spanish government had predicted "good" data - and will probably hail the new figures as a success of its policies. But once the summer is over, as happened last year, the figures may ultimately tell a rather different story.  

    Tuesday, July 09, 2013

    Athens strikes another bargain in Brussels, but how long will this one last?

    As we noted last week on CNBC, a deal was always likely this time round in Greece:
    "We've got German elections coming up in September and no one wants to have that talk of how we're going to fund Greece for the next three or four years. So they just want to kick the can down the road until after the elections…They will come to some agreement but it's clear that Greece is well behind track on its programme once again and it's only a matter of time before a new funding gap opens there."
    One was eventually reached yesterday morning with details filtering out overnight.

    How much will be disbursed and when?
    • The eurozone will provide €2.5bn this month and €500m in October, while eurozone central banks will provide €1.5bn and €500m at the same time by releasing profits from their holdings of Greek government bonds. This should give Greece enough cash to cover costs and payoff the €2.2bn of government debt maturing in August.
    • The IMF will hold a meeting later this month where it is expected to agree to release its next €1.8bn share of the bailout.
    • The staggered pay-out of this €6.8bn will allow the eurozone to enforce more conditionality, meaning it could delay the future tranches if Greece does not stick to its reform programme.
    • Once this round of funding is complete, Greece will have received around €208bn out of a total €246bn committed.
    What does Greece need to do?
    • The bargain comes with strict conditions on Greece (as always), particularly in terms of civil servant cuts on which Greece seems to have fallen far behind. Greece must put 12,500 civil servants in the labour mobility scheme within the next few weeks (where they receive reduced pay and are sacked within a year if they do not find a new position).
    • This must be doubled by the end of the year, while 15,000 must be laid off by the end of 2014.
    • Greece must also work to step up reform of the tax system, tackling evasion and improving collection of back taxes. This is obviously easier said than done and has been a target from the beginning, no details yet as to how this time round will be any different.
    • Must close the funding gap in the healthcare provider EOPYY which totals around €1bn. Again no details as to how and when exactly this will be closed.
    Unanswered questions
    • On top of the ones hinted at above, the key unanswered question remains, how will Greece fund itself once the bailout runs out? The eurozone has already further committed to €11bn in aid (unlikely to be in the form of direct funds) in 2014 and 2015 although it is yet to identify where this will come from. Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem dismissed such concerns saying, "If there is a financing gap it will be at the end of 2014, which will allow us plenty of time to deal with it," which provides little comfort given the delays in dealing with other eurozone problems.
    • Can the government actually push through all these measures with its slim majority? We expect it will probably be able to (just), but it will be the first real test for the new coalition and will provide a good bellwether of how it will fair in the coming months.
    • What is happening to the closed state broadcaster ERT? This remains unclear. This is important not just for political reasons (still has the potential to expose divisions in the coalition) but also since the 2,600 employees could provide a big boost towards meeting the targets for civil servant cuts (the real reason behind the closure in the first place we suspect).
    • Another key aspect of the recent funding gap was the reluctance of national central banks to rollover their holdings of Greek bonds (thereby reducing the amount Greece has to pay off). It’s not clear whether this has been done or will be done, although comments from officials this morning suggest it may not yet be finalised.
    Another bargain very much along the usual lines of cash-for-reforms. Questions over Greece still loom large, it is not clear that they will be able to push through these public sector reforms having failed many times before. Given the lukewarm comments from the Troika it seems that even they expect another funding gap to open soon. Meanwhile as the end of the bailout approaches the fundamental issue which the eurozone has been avoiding for some time – how to fund Greece for the next decade – will need to be dealt with.

    Thursday, July 04, 2013

    Portugal's coalition fights to keep its head above water

    UPDATE (17:15) - First reports of an agreement to keep the coalition alive. Stay tuned for more details.

    UPDATE (16:40) -
    Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and Foreign Minister Paulo Portas have just come out of another (swift) round of talks.

    The outcomes of their third meeting in less than 24 hours are still unclear. Passos Coelho is now heading to the Belém Palace - where Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva is waiting for him.

    UPDATE (14:45) -
    The second meeting between Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and Foreign Minister Paulo Portas is over. It was "very positive" - according to the Prime Minister's office - but inconclusive. Negotiations over a new coalition agreement will therefore continue.

    According to the Portuguese media, Portas may backtrack on his resignation. If he did so, he would reportedly be appointed Deputy Prime Minister (the post is now vacant after former Finance Minister Vítor Gaspar quit) and Economy Minister (which in Portugal is a separate portfolio from Finance Minister).

    More interestingly, a source quoted by Diário Económico suggests that a revamped coalition agreement would involve discussing "a new compromise with the [EU/IMF/ECB] Troika" - so potentially a relaxation of Portugal's deficit and reform targets.


    As we noted in yesterday’s flash analysis, tensions in the Portuguese coalition reached critical levels over the past few days. They have eased off somewhat overnight, but there is still plenty of uncertainty around.

    Key developments:
    • Despite tendering his resignation from his post as Foreign Minister, the leader of junior coalition member CDS-PP, Paulo Portas, now seems to be backtracking somewhat. This is down to both internal pressure from his party, which is clearly not keen to be seen as bringing down the government, and external pressure from markets and eurozone partners over fears of snap elections which would delay the implementation of key reforms in Portugal.
    • Portas already met Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, with another meeting due later this morning. The two will also meet Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva this afternoon.
    What are the potential outcomes?
    • Portas is reportedly seeking a renegotiation of the coalition agreement. At the moment, it's not entirely clear whether his desire is more power for his party or less focus on austerity - or both. The former seems possible, although his party is significantly smaller (Passos Coelho's Social Democratic party controls 108 seats compared to 24 for CDS-PP). The latter seems less likely. The government has very little scope to adjust its economic policy due to the bailout requirements, while, as we noted yesterday, austerity and structural reforms need to continue with the country already falling behind in terms of implementing its programme.
    • It is, of course, still possible that no agreement is reached and the CDS-PP confirms its withdrawal from government. However, the Portuguese media seem to agree that, even in that case, CDS-PP would keep granting parliamentary support to the government (an arrangement the Portuguese call incidência parlamentar).
    • No matter the outcome, the divisions within the coalition are clear and present. There are likely to be some tough votes to come, particularly on labour market reform and further budget cuts. Whenever these take place, the spotlight will be on the coalition to see if it holds up under pressure.
    We will continue to update this blog throughout the day with developments and news as we get them.

    Tuesday, June 18, 2013

    Berlusconi: Let's breach EU deficit rules, no-one would throw us out

    With the next meeting of EU leaders only one week away, Silvio Berlusconi has stepped his anti-austerity rhetoric up by a few notches. He said yesterday,
    "We need someone from the [Italian] government to go to Brussels and tell those gentlemen, ‘We are in this situation because of your damn austerity policies. We must put things back in their place. From now on, you can forget about the fiscal pact and the deficit limit of 3% of GDP. Do you want to throw us out of the single currency? Go ahead. Do you want to throw us out of the EU? Well, we’d like to remind you that we pay €18bn a year [into the EU budget] and only get €10bn back’. Who would throw us out?"
    As usual when Berlusconi is involved, these incendiary remarks form part of a broader communication strategy. Following his party's poor showing in the latest round of mayoral elections, Berlusconi wants to make clear to his electorate that he is still dictating the agenda to Italy's coalition government - and that he means business when it comes to keeping his flagship electoral promises, be it about scrapping a property tax on first homes or putting an end to EU-mandated austerity.

    However, this time the explicit invite to ignore EU deficit rules is in clear contradiction with the line taken by Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta so far: Italy does want an easing of austerity at the EU level, but will keep its deficit below 3% of GDP and respect all its commitments. Therefore, Berlusconi's words risk shaking the coalition government at home, and undermining Italy's credibility vis-à-vis its eurozone partners.

    It will be extremely interesting to see if, once in Brussels next week, Mr Letta pretends his coalition partner Berlusconi never said those words or takes Il Cavaliere's advice on board and adopts a tougher anti-austerity stance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the other Northern eurozone leaders.  

    Thursday, June 06, 2013

    Berlusconi wants to say 'basta' to EU diktats

    Silvio Berlusconi's interviews never go unnoticed. Yesterday evening, he told Italian TV channel T9 that:

    "We now have a strong government…also vis-à-vis Europe. We need this government to go to Brussels and say ‘I’ll do it this way’. We can no longer accept certain diktats. It’s for us to decide what needs to be done to put our economy back on its feet." 
    Our regular readers know this is not the first time Berlusconi uses this type of rhetoric (see here and here for similar remarks). But his words have a much greater significance now. The electoral campaign is over, and Berlusconi's party holds a number of key ministerial posts in the new Italian government - on which he can pull the plug whenever he likes.

    As we noted before, Berlusconi's blackmailing power could lead to Italy taking a tougher anti-austerity stance in Brussels - and this is exactly what Il Cavaliere is trying to achieve. Pressure is now on Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who has so far been a lot milder in his demands for an easing of austerity and has consistently stressed that Italy will stick to its EU commitments.

    Letta can't ignore Berlusconi's requests, or the survival of his 'grand coalition' will be at risk. But he will also have to make these requests sound acceptable to German Chancellor Angela Merkel - who faces a general election in three months' time. Not the easiest of tasks.

    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    Any Commission changes to the eurozone crisis policy are largely semantic as the bloc continues to shy away from the tough choices

    Building on our blog from yesterday, Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel has an article in City AM today discussing the Commission’s country specific recommendations. Raoul argues that, despite protestations to the contrary, this is far from a wholesale change in policy but only a small change in the pace of policy implementation. Raoul also brings in an earlier discussion from this blog regarding the nature of the austerity vs. growth debate in Europe – fundamentally the real choice remains between creating a new eurozone architecture or breaking up.

    See below for the full piece:
    A REVOLT against austerity. A shift to growth. A new policy for the Eurozone. The supposed new approach, symbolised by yesterday’s European Commission economic recommendations for each Eurozone country, has been called many things. But once the rhetoric is stripped away, any changes that remain are largely semantic. The Eurozone remains on the same policy path; at most, it is just progressing along it at a more leisurely pace.

    Let me quickly recap yesterday’s recommendations. Spain, France and the Netherlands were all given more time to meet their deficit targets, albeit in exchange for more open-ended commitments to deep structural reform. Don’t forget that this is far from a new precedent; Greece, Portugal and Spain have all received numerous extensions over the past few years.

    Meanwhile, Italy exited the proverbial EU economic dog house known as the “Excessive Deficit Procedure”, a move which in normal times would allow it more economic freedom. Unfortunately, these remain far from normal times, and few doubt that those in charge of the purse strings in stronger Eurozone economies will continue to scrutinise every Italian policy move as if it were their own. Countries like Belgium and Slovenia got some leeway, but were also on the receiving end of a textbook scalding for a lack of structural and financial market reform – the type of which most Commission officials could probably dole out from memory by now.

    For all the fanfare over the past months and weeks, this “new path” seems very much par for the course. Yes, there is a tweak here and there, but much in the same way a football manager might bring on a defender when his team is getting thrashed – it’s more about saving face than making a sizeable impact on the course of the game.

    The first question to ask is, despite this not being the wholesale change it was cracked up to be, will it have any impact on the crisis?

    In a word: unlikely. It’s clear that the current policy approach is not working, and in many cases a slowdown in the pace of cuts will be helpful – at least in political and social terms – as it allows a slower pace of wage and jobs cuts. That said, the amount of additional fiscal spending to be allocated to boosting the real economy remains a pittance in comparison to collapsing domestic demand and falling investment in many of the struggling countries. Further, it’s worth noting that, although some spending cuts have been slowed, the flip side of this will be deeper and faster structural reform. In many cases this falls heavily on the labour market. Unfortunately the short-term impact of such reforms, no matter how necessary, is often increased unemployment.

    The second and more interesting question is, what more could actually be done on this front?

    This brings us, inevitably, to the broader question of austerity versus growth. This has become a key debate during the crisis, but it fails to capture the key question in the Eurozone. It is clear to everyone that Greece, Portugal and Ireland were insolvent, and it was market pressure that pushed them into bailouts. Reducing debt levels is a vital part of their reform, while also serving to counter the significant moral hazard that comes with a bailout. Similar constraints apply in Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Slovenia in terms of expanding spending in the short run.

    Therefore, asking to end austerity in much of the Eurozone is akin to asking for greater transfers from the stronger countries – whether direct, through fiscal union, or indirect, through banking union or much higher inflation.

    This provides us with a clearer picture of the situation. First, the widely mooted change in Eurozone economic policy actually amounts to little more than a small adjustment, slathered in a thick coating of political rhetoric. Secondly, in reality there was little room for adjustment to this policy. This is mostly because many states have little room for further spending, but also because the decisions lie with national governments and parliaments, not the Commission.

    This brings us to the conclusion that, rather than discussing whether or not to change austerity, there should be more focus on solutions that can really solve the crisis. The fundamental choice for the Eurozone remains the same as it always has been: the creation of the necessary architecture to deal with a widespread economic crisis, or face a break-up.

    Tuesday, May 21, 2013

    Why not shrink the European Commission?

    The online edition of German weekly Der Spiegel reports on "secret" plans by EU heads of state and government to stick to the 'one country, one EU Commissioner' principle, despite the number of Commissioners being set to rise to 28 following Croatia's entry in July.

    Under the Lisbon Treaty, from November 2014, the number of Commissioners is supposed to correspond to two-thirds of member states, but national governments can agree to keep things as they are by unanimous decision. Der Spiegel estimates that keeping 28 Commissioners instead of 19 would come at an extra cost to European taxpayers of at least €13.5 million a year. So why, the article asks, are Germany, France and the UK keen to keep one Commissioner per country?

    A couple of points need to be made here.
    • The plans are hardly a secret. Going back to the days of the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Ireland was given reassurances that the 'one country, one EU Commissioner' principle would stay (see the conclusions of the June 2009 European Council summit). Also, a European Council decision on the subject was drafted last October - and only needs to be rubber-stamped by EU leaders (see here).
    That being said it is increasingly hard to defend the growing size of the EU Commission, not least because it gets increasingly difficult to find a credible portfolio for everyone. To accommodate for Croatia's entry, for instance, the Health and Consumer Protection portfolio will be split into two separate posts.

    The big question is, would it be so bad if the number of Commissioners was reduced and the proliferation of Commission DGs slim-lined into more rational departments?

    True, smaller memebr states may take offence (larger ones like the UK would virtually be guaranteed a Commissioner). However, member states without a Commissioner for one rotation period could be given deputy Commissioners instead. Surely, there would be more influence to be had as Deputy Commissioner for Internal Market than as Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth?

    Nevertheless, EU leaders look set to rubber-stamp the 'one country, one Commissioner' decision - so we'll continue to have 28 EU Commissioners after 2014. At the very least, if we are going to have an extra Commissioner, the European Commission should be obliged to find savings so net spending does not increase. Our report on reforming the EU budget from last June included some suggestions. 

    Tuesday, April 30, 2013

    Italian PM launches opening salvo against austerity - but where will the cash come from?

    The new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced his first raft of policies in his first speech to the Italian parliament yesterday. The speech was strong on anti-austerity rhetoric but short on details of how his new approach would be funded - illustrating that ever-so-relevant dilemma in the eurozone (and elsewhere): it's easy to criticise austerity, much harder come up with alternatives. Here are the key points:

    ·    The government will scrap up to €6bn worth of tax rises, although Letta provided no detail about how this funding gap would be filled. Much of this move was motivated by Silvio Berlusconi’s insistence on scrapping a new housing tax which was laid out as a precondition for the formation of the grand coalition

    ·    Some phrases which will make German Chancellor Angela Merkel wince, such as: “We will die of fiscal rigour alone. Growth policies cannot wait any longer”, “[Europe faces] a crisis of legitimacy” and there is a need for a “United States of Europe”.

    ·    Letta believes Italy’s welfare system is inadequate and will look to broaden it to provide further help to women, young people and temporary workers.

    ·    Businesses will also receive tax incentives to hire young workers.

    ·    Again no details on how such policies will be funded. La Stampa reports that all in, the “Letta Agenda” could cost €20bn. He made no mention of privatisations or the sorely needed reforms to the labour and product markets to make Italy more competitive.

    ·    Letta did stress that Italy will meet all of its EU commitments and targets.

    ·    He set himself and the new government an 18 month window in which to achieve the some success in turning around the economy or “face the consequences”.

    ·    Promised to reform the electoral law and cut MP’s pay.

    A very interesting opening salvo from Letta. In fact, not too dissimilar to French President Francois Hollande’s early comments regarding austerity – we can’t help but wonder if his enthusiasm and/or success will wane in a similar way.

    One thing that is clear from the speech is the continuing power of Silvio Berlusconi (as we previously noted). La Stampa suggest up to €12bn of the cost of the ‘Letta Agenda’ actually comes from Berlusconi’s demands, while following the speech Angelino Alfano, the new Deputy PM and key Berlusconi ally, said, “I share the words of Enrico Letta’s speech from the first to the last. It is music to our ears.” Meanwhile, Berlusconi also took the opportunity to this morning ramp up his own rhetoric against austerity, calling for the new Italian government to “renegotiate its deficit commitments” with the EU.

    All of this sets an interesting tone and background for Letta’s first meeting with Merkel which takes place this afternoon. As we have noted previously and at length, the key question surrounding this whole austerity debate remains, if not through cuts, then who will pay for the party? Germany and the ECB certainly aren't ready to foot the bill indefinitely and while market sentiment is positive now, it likely could not withstand a new spending spree in a country with a debt-to-GDP of 120% already. We suspect Merkel may make just that very point...

    Criticise it all you want, Germany is not going to drop austerity

    Writing on his Telegraph blog, Open Europe Director Mats Persson argues that anyone who prays for Germany to U-turn on its eurozone policy after the September election will probably be left sorely disappointed.

    Read the full article below:

    "Fuelled by an intensified wider debate about the merits or otherwise of austerity as a remedy to economic problems, the last few weeks have seen politicians, commentators and economists coming out in droves to criticise Germany’s austerity-for-cash approach to the eurozone crisis.

    The new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta – who is today meeting his German counterpart, Angela Merkel – said yesterday that Italy “will die of fiscal consolidation alone”, leading some to conclude that Italy will lead the revolt against austerity in the Eurozone.

    Everyone is now looking ahead to the German election in September, with the idea being that with election season gone and perhaps with a Conservative/Social Democrat "grand coalition" at the helm, Germany will flinch and drop the whole austerity thing.

    Unlikely. We might see some easing of targets and toned down rhetoric, but no fundamental shift. The German consensus on austerity runs incredibly deep.

    Although, strictly speaking, in Germany, austerity is actually not called austerity at all (it sounds “evil” as Angela Merkel has pointed out). Instead, the term used is sparkurs (savings course) or sparpolitik (savings politics). Or as a verb; Hausaufgaben machen – to do your homework. The opposite is schuldenpolitik (debt politics) or Schulden machen (to make debt).

    Such semantics matter. Fundamentally, they illustrate that the perceived dichotomy between ‘austerity’ and ‘growth’ – which strikes a chord with some other electorates in Europe – is a non-starter in Germany. It would be electoral suicide for a German politician to advocate schuldenpolitik – akin to an American Presidential candidate professing himself an atheist or a Swedish politician denying climate change (the latter would most likely also involve being stripped of one’s Swedish passport). This logic drives politicians’ approach both at home and abroad.

    By and large the main opposition party, the centre-left SPD, does not advocate a radical departure from Merkel’s blueprint. Instead, it merely nit-picks at the edges while garnishing the whole exercise with concerned rhetoric about the social consequences. A typical SPD critique is that expressed by Nils Schmidt, the leader of the Party in Baden-Württemberg: “We have to make cuts, but step-by-step, we can’t make them all at once.” The key there is “we have to make cuts”. And remember, in an effort to be seen as tough on irresponsible banks it was the SPD that was the most hawkish over Cyprus. Even the Green party is keen to be seen as fiscally responsible taking a tough line on paying down public debt.

    German opinion polls have also consistently backed the austerity-for-cash approach abroad with a recent opinion poll showing that 65 per cent said they agreed with Merkel’s handling of the crisis – up from 46 per cent in July 2011.

    In other words, even under a grand coalition between Merkel’s CDU/CSU and SPD, the basic course in Germany’s Europe policy will remain fairly steady. Crucially, the complicated sequencing for any further eurozone integration – such a resolution fund for banks or public debt pooling – will likely stay broadly the same: constitutionally-anchored eurozone-wide supervision first, cash later. This also means that Franco-German axis will continue to suffer from tensions.

    There is, of course, an intense debate going on within Germany over the country’s position in Europe – and a worry about being seen as the neighbourhood bully. As I’ve argued previously, the crisis sees Germany’s two post-war pillars clashing head-on – firm commitments to both Europe and sound money.

    Exactly how this debate will play out remains unclear. However, anyone – say a French socialist – who prays for Germany to U-turn on its eurozone policy after the September election will probably be left sorely disappointed."

    Friday, April 26, 2013

    Not everyone in François Hollande's party cares about Franco-German diplomacy...

    French President François Hollande's Socialist Party will hold its 'Convention on Europe' in Paris on 16 June. Several working papers are currently being prepared as a basis for discussion among party members and supporters at the Convention. One of them has been leaked to Le Monde. And believe us, it contains some pretty strong stuff.

    Two caveats before we start:
    • We learn from the official website of the Convention that the papers do not reflect party policy "at this stage".
    • The draft published by Le Monde could still be tweaked before the Convention.
    Nevertheless, it does give a sense of the mood within the party. These are arguably the most 'explosive' excerpts:
    "The communitarian project is today wounded by an alliance of circumstance between the Thatcherite rhetoric of the British Prime Minister - who only conceives a devalued à la carte Europe - and the selfish intransigence of Chancellor Merkel - who cares about nothing but the savings of depositors across the Rhine, Berlin's trade balance and her electoral future. In this context, France has today the only genuinely European government among the EU's big member states."
    "Democratic confrontation with the European right means political confrontation with the German right. Franco-German friendship is not the friendship between France and Chancellor Merkel's European policy."
    "[Former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy had imposed a certain practice: not Franco-German friendship, but France's alignment to Germany."
    The document concludes the party should stand behind President Hollande and support him "in his arm wrestling against the austerity Chancellor [yes, it's Angela again] and the European Conservatives."

    It's hard to imagine the French government or Hollande himself publicly endorsing this document, but the sense of frustration is palpable and points to the widely recognised relative decline of French influence over both the direction of the 'Franco-German motor' and the EU more widely. It signals the mood within Hollande's party is becoming increasing hostile to Mrs Merkel, and that the party wants the President to be tougher in confronting the German Chancellor. Not a call Hollande can keep ignoring forever. But also a fight, deep down, he knows he is probably not going to win.

    Wednesday, April 24, 2013

    Italy's new Prime Minister: Pro-EU integration, anti-austerity?

    We've detected strong demand for a quick profile on Enrico Letta, who has just been appointed Italy's new Prime Minister. With the debate raging over the wisdom or otherwise of German-style fiscal discipline in the eurozone, the big question is: is Letta against austerity? Here's a short bio:
    • He holds a PhD in European Law, and was appointed Europe Minister in 1998. At the time, he was 32 - which made him the youngest Italian minister ever. He also served as Industry Minister under Massimo D'Alema.
    • Letta was an MEP between 2004 and 2006. 
    • He's been the deputy leader of the centre-left Democratic Party since 2009.
    • Importantly, he is a big AC Milan fan - which could help him win support from Silvio Berlusconi. Well, perhaps along with the fact that Enrico Letta is the nephew of Gianni Letta, Il Cavaliere's closest aide. 
    So what about his political views and that key austerity point?

    In his press statement after the meeting with President Giorgio Napolitano, Letta said Italy should be
    "firmly committed to changing the direction of EU [economic] policies [which are] too focused on austerity, which as European Commission President [José Manuel] Barroso said the other day are no longer sufficient."
    (Hallo, Angela!) 

    And remember that when the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize, Letta tweeted the award should be
    "a spur to be prouder, more concrete and effective in our pro-European stance. There's no future without the United States of Europe." 
    This goes to show he is strongly in favour of more EU integration (though admittedly so are a majority of Italian politicians). In other words, Napolitano has appointed a Prime Minister with solid European credentials and who can credibly argue for an easing of austerity in the EU. Quite smart. 

    Crucially, Letta also stressed the new government won't be formed "at any cost". This can be seen as a warning to Silvio Berlusconi not to set out too tough conditions for lending his support. However, it's worth bearing in mind that Berlusconi's centre-right alliance is ahead in all opinion polls - meaning Silvio is in a position of strength right now.

    Letta will hold talks with all other political parties tomorrow. If things move on smoothly, we should have the list of ministers by the end of the week. Follow us on Twitter @OpenEurope and @LondonerVince for further updates from Italy. 

    Thursday, April 18, 2013

    Public support for the EU drops by 16% in one month: is popular support for the euro in Greece finally about to wane?

    As we've noted in the past, a factor that will determine whether the eurozone can hang together in the long term is the extent to which the public in the South begins to see the euro and EU austerity as synonymous.

    For example, despite everything that has taken place in Greece, this has not been the case, with a majority of Greeks consistently in favour of remaining inside the euro. The choice is instead perceived as being between austerity or some form of alternative. This is why we rightly predicted that Greece would remain inside the euro following its hectic dual elections last year (at a point when many analysts were predicting an imminent Grexit).

    But is this now starting to change? 


    A new Public Issue poll shows that 66% of Greeks now have a "negative opinion" about the EU. For a country that has traditionally has been staunchly pro-EU, that's bad enough. But extraordinarily, when the same question was asked only a month ago, 'only' 50% of respondents said that had a negative opinion  about the EU- a massive 16% increase in only a month, possibly owing to the handling of the Cypriot bailout and the renewed Troika push for civil service cuts in Greece. Those with a positive view dropped from 48% to 31% in the same space (see the graph below).

    A separate poll by Marc for Alpha TV asked the question, “In case it’s not possible to improve the conditions of the loan agreement, what do you think we should do?” 53.8% answered "remain in the EU and the euro", while 41.3% said they wanted to "leave the EU and return to the drachma" (4.9% don't know). Note that this was a question about leaving the EU, not only the eurozone. Whilst still a majority in favour of sticking around, to our knowledge, there has been no Greek opinion poll to date with such a large share in favour of leaving the euro and the EU.

    Incidentally, the Public Issue poll also asked who respondents wanted to see as Prime Minister. Top candidate? “None”. (see graph)

    We're not drawing any firm conclusion from this, although if this trend continues it will be significant. Currently a majority of Greeks believe that things "would be worse" outside the euro. It's worth listening to our interview with leading German economist Hans-Werner Sinn, which we published today, on the prospects for Greece in the euro. One thing is clear: this won't be easy.

    Wednesday, April 17, 2013

    Is the academic premise for austerity in the eurozone crumbling? Not quite…

    A mini-storm has been whipped up in the economic community overnight after a paper was published highlighting some flaws in the widely cited Reinhart & Rogoff paper ‘Growth in a time of debt’.

    A quick recap for those of you not familiar with the paper. It essentially argues that high debt levels are associated with low economic growth. It bases its analysis on data from 44 countries over the past 200 years. It also notes that this relationship gets stronger once debt exceeds 90% of GDP. The paper has been widely cited in defence of and in support for ‘austerity’ – by politicians in both the US and Europe (notably Olli Rehn in respect to the eurozone crisis).

    The new research released challenged Reinhart & Rogoff’s (R&R) findings, on the basis of an excel error (oops), data omissions and incorrectly weighting of data. There has been plenty written about which side is correct – you can see a summary of criticisms here and R&R’s responses here and here.

    The question that interests us is not necessarily the intricacies of this academic back and forth. To be honest, it is obvious that there is no clear single threshold above which debt begins to impact growth in all countries and that often specific historical experiences in certain countries may not mean much for policies in different times and places (see this Ed Hugh post for a good summary). This is particularly true given some of the unique constraints of the eurozone crisis.

    But given that some people are seeing this as a damning indictment of the backing for ‘austerity’, will this have any impact on the approach to the eurozone crisis?

    In a word, no. Here are a few reasons why:
    • R&R research aside it is clear to everyone that Greece, Portugal and Ireland were insolvent, it was market pressure that pushed them into a bailout. Reducing the debt level is a vital part of their reform, while it also serve to counter the significant moral hazard that comes with a bailout.
    • Similar constraints apply in Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Slovenia. With elevated borrowing costs they cannot expand fiscal policy without coming up against greater market pressure and pushing their average interest costs well above their growth rates (especially in the short run).
    • Therefore, arguing for the end of austerity in these countries is actually arguing for fiscal transfers from the rest of the eurozone, since they do not have much, if any, room to expand spending. This is ultimately where the debate is at, it is not about austerity or spending, it is about whether the stronger countries are willing to provide the transfers – be it through banking union or fiscal union – to keep the eurozone together in the longer run and create the architecture necessary so that it can withstand future shocks. If they are not then they have to face the prospect of breaking up or decreasing the size of the eurozone.
    • The constraints which apply also extend much further than just public debt. As we have seen in Spain, Ireland and Cyprus (and are seeing in Slovenia) the levels of private sector and banking sector debt are equally important. The macro picture is much more complex than just the level of public debt and economic growth. The problems in the crisis are a mix of fiscal, banking and structural.
    • Austerity is more than just cutting spending. It has become a catch-all term for some very necessary reforms to improve competitiveness and productivity in the eurozone. Even if spending could be increased, these reforms would be needed, although admittedly the fallout (increased unemployment in many cases and massive political backlash) might be more bearable – but as noted above, this isn’t really possible in many of the worst cases.
    • The logic behind the current approach is also strongly driven by Germany’s own economic experience in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which proved very effective in turning the country around. The main issue here is not whether the approach itself is correct or not (since it clearly did work there), but the scope in which it is applied. It is clear that you cannot have 17 Germanys with economies driven by exports in a single currency bloc where the countries predominantly trade with each other (it might help in the short term but its not clear it is a sustainable long term economic model for the bloc).
    So what academics (and policymakers) really should debate is whether fiscal transfers are possible and/or desirable.  Proving or disproving R&R is neither here nor there when it comes to dealing with the eurozone crisis.