by Emma Clancy
The decision of EU leaders to grant Theresa May a long extension has kicked Brexit into the long grass. But with the European Parliament elections approaching, the structural, economic and political faultlines within the European system lie badly exposed. Emma Clancy explains how another eurozone recession and continued gains for the radical right are made more likely by European rules and their unequal enforcement by the EU institutions.
In his open letter to Europeans last month, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that he feared Europe “has become a soulless market” in the eyes of its citizens. Twenty years after the introduction of the common currency, and more than a decade after the global financial crisis, the soulless market is in trouble – again.
The eurozone has experienced a period of weak GDP growth over the past five years, during which a peak of 2.4 per cent growth in 2017 – the highest in a decade, but a rate that pre-crisis would have been considered to be very low – was celebrated as heralding the final end of the crisis, and christened with the hashtag #euroboom.
After a dramatic fall in growth in 2018 in which growth slumped to 0.2 per cent in the third quarter, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission have both sharply revised downwards their growth projections for the eurozone in 2019. In its February Winter Forecast, the European Commission said it expects eurozone growth to slow from 1.9 per cent in 2018 to 1.3 per cent this year and 1.6 per cent next year.
The ECB followed in March with a gloomier quarterly forecast, projecting growth to slow to 1.1 per cent in 2019 and 1.6 per cent in 2020. This announcement was followed by several ECB policymakers anonymously briefing Bloomberg that they thought the projections were still too optimistic. Apparently abandoning all pretence of hope of achieving its target of “close to 2 per cent” inflation at any point in the near future, the ECB also cut its inflation projections to 1.4 per cent for this year, 1.5 per cent in 2020 and 1.6 per cent fin 2021.
In Italy, growth was negative for two consecutive quarters in the second half of 2018, meaning the country has officially fallen into its third recession in a decade. The grim surprise came from the export-led manufacturing powerhouse of the eurozone: Germany barely avoided the recession label, recording negative growth of -0.2 per cent in the third quarter and zero growth in the fourth. Data released last week showed that German industrial production and manufacturing orders and fell in February, with a survey this week reporting “both total new orders and export sales are now falling at rates not seen since the global financial crisis”.
Addressing a bankers’ convention in Frankfurt in November, ECB President Mario Draghi outlined the weak and fragile nature of the eurozone’s recovery: “Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21 per cent over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10 per cent above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21 per cent.”
What can explain the brief period that saw eurozone growth reach the dizzying height of 2.4 per cent in 2017? In a word – a massive fiscal expansion. But the expansion did not take place in the eurozone; it was a result of the fiscal policies implemented in the US, Japan and China, in the latter two cases funded by their respective central banks. Such an expansion could not possibly take place in EU Member States, which must stick to the absurd, arbitrary and stifling debt and deficit limits laid down as gospel in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and Fiscal Compact.
The slow growth and grinding recovery in the eurozone can be partially explained by the post-crisis austerity shock treatment applied to the periphery by the Troika, but the architecture of the common currency has acted as a brake on sustainable growth and convergence since day one. The euro has been built on an enduring effort to constitutionalise austerity, an effort that continues today despite all of the evidence demonstrating that it causes economic contraction.
‘Purely ideological and economically unsound’
The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 enshrined the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ – a set of rules members and potential members of the common currency were obliged to follow. And what were these convergence criteria? To join the euro, states had to pledge to control inflation, and government debt and deficits, and commit to exchange rate stability and the convergence of interest rates. As the ECB was preparing to begin operating to control inflation and interest rates, Germany pushed for the adoption of an EU-wide SGP in 1997, including non-eurozone members, to enshrine the fiscal control aspects of Maastricht, and more generally to increase EU surveillance and control over Member States’ national budgets.
The convergence criteria are purely ideological and economically unsound. When a eurozone Member State experienced a downturn, its deficit would inevitably rise as a result of lower tax revenue and higher expenditure on social security. But when the convergence criteria kicked in, causing governments to cut spending or raise taxes, it would invariably worsen the downturn by suppressing demand. Even French neoliberal Pascal Lamy, formerly the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, called the SGP “crude and medieval” when he was EU trade commissioner.
The blanket, one-size-fits-all fiscal rules in the criteria – that Member States must keep public debt limited to 60 per cent of GDP and annual budget deficits to below 3 per cent of GDP – were proposed by Germany, based on its own national SGP structure. In 2010, Germany proposed the reform of the Pact to make it stricter and more enforceable through the adoption of the ‘six-pack’ and ‘two-pack’ of enhanced macroeconomic and budgetary surveillance measures. Despite the vast evidence by this stage that the SGP was counterproductive and unenforceable, Germany pushed for the fiscal rules to be tightened yet again in 2012 through the Fiscal Compact Treaty, which created the obligation for the convergence criteria targets to be inserted into the national law of the ratifying states.
The Fiscal Compact and its implications
The Fiscal Compact Treaty, signed by all EU Member States with the exception of Britain, the Czech Republic and Croatia, enshrines the rule that members in excess of the limit are obliged to reduce their debt level above 60 per cent at an average of at least 5 per cent per year. The structural deficit rule – called the ‘balanced budget rule’ – must be incorporated into the national law of signatory states under the Fiscal Compact.
Not satisfied with the Fiscal Compact being an intergovernmental treaty, the Commission proposed last year that it be permanently enshrined into EU law. The Commission wanted the Fiscal Compact’s automatic correction mechanism to be integrated into national budgetary processes so that deviations would immediately lead to a reduction in public expenditure.
On 27 November 2018, this proposal was rejected in a tied vote of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. Fortunately for the Commission, it had anticipated such a possibility and had made its proposal on a dubious legal basis that provides for a decision to be taken solely by the Council of Member States, and under which the Parliament only has an ‘opinion’ – despite the fact that several EU laws on the same issues have been adopted using the normal process whereby the Parliament and Council are co-legislators.
Despite the opposition of the Parliament, the Fiscal Compact is likely to be enshrined into EU law permanently – with its automatic correction mechanism, designed to remove the power to make a political decision on spending from national governments and put it in the hands of technocrats, beyond the reach of politics.
Winners and losers
It will come as little surprise that a system designed to promote the German model of wage suppression, low inflation and export-led growth, propped up by a currency modelled on the Deutschmark, has benefited one country more than all other members of the eurozone.
In February, a German ordoliberal think tank affiliated with the ruling Christian Democrats, the Centre for European Policy, published an empirical study of the “winners and losers” from the euro twenty years after its introduction. It found that Germany was the big winner, having benefited by €1.9 trillion from the euro between 1999 and 2017, or around €23,000 per person. The Netherlands was the only other state that gained substantial benefits from the common currency. France had lost €3.6 trillion or €56,000 per person; while Italy had lost more than any other state, at €4.3 trillion or €74,000 per person.
Germany’s massive and consistent trade surplus – whereby the country’s exports exceed its imports by nearly €300 billion – has meant that its biggest export to the rest of the eurozone has been stagnation. But as a result of European fiscal discipline in the wake of the recession, there is not enough internal demand in the eurozone to sustain German industry. Now that a global slowdown has taken hold, and growth is slowing in China due to US trade tariffs and a debt crisis, the dangers of this economic model are exposed. If China’s latest stimulus package fails to boost demand, the German economy will certainly enter recession.
Italy, the euro’s big loser, is there already. The Italian economy is one of just two in the OECD in which GDP has failed to return to pre-crisis levels; the other is Greece. The Italian governing coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord faced its first test of eurozone fiscal discipline last year through the European Semester process. When it presented its draft budget for 2019, including a 2.4 per cent deficit, the Commission rejected it and threatened to enact the ‘excessive deficit procedure’ under the SGP, which consists of deadlines to comply, followed by substantial fines.
The proposed deficit did not even cross the SGP’s 3 per cent limit. But using dubious mathematics to measure the structural deficit – what the deficit would be if the economy was at full employment – described here by Thomas Fazi, the Commission argued that the Italian economy, in recession, would be at risk of overheating if a fiscal deficit of 2.4 per cent was reached.
Instead of being technocratic, the budgetary surveillance and enforcement process is overtly political. When Macron’s government announced €10 billion in additional spending in December to defuse the gilets jaunes protests, taking France’s projected deficit for 2019 up to 3.4 per cent, EU economic commissioner Pierre Moscovici gave the thumbs-up.
“The comparison with Italy is tempting but wrong,” he said. “The situations are totally different. The European Commission has been monitoring the Italian debt for several years; we have never done that for France.” This is despite the fact that it was only in 2017 that France emerged from a long period with a deficit breaching the SGP rules.
A French treasury official agreed with Moscovici: “The situations are not comparable. Contrary to Italy, we do not question European rules. We agree that having public finances in order and reducing public debt are the right thing to do.”
The ECB as enforcer
The Commission is not the only enforcer policing the public spending of EU Member States. The ECB has played an even more important role, throughout the crisis and in the latest clash with Italy. Its role during the crisis as part of the Troika enforcing austerity shock therapy under the bailout programmes is well known; its role in manufacturing the sovereign debt crisis between 2009-2012 as a means to force governments to capitulate on their budgetary plans, less so. Adam Tooze refers to the ‘bond market vigilantes’ behind the massive capital flight from the periphery to the core during this period, and adds: “The role of bond markets in relation to the ECB and the dominant German government was less that of a freewheeling vigilante, than of state-sanctioned paramilitaries delivering a punishment beating whilst the police looked on.”
In May last year, during the political and market crisis in Italy arising from the temporary collapse of the coalition after the effort to appoint a eurosceptic finance minister by Five Star, EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger openly hoped that the market turmoil “could be so drastic that this could be a possible signal to voters not to choose populists from left and right”.
The ECB’s new role, self-proclaimed in 2012, where there is a mass sell-off of government bonds of a eurozone member – the situation that caused the sovereign debt crisis in 2010-2011 – is to support the state’s economy by purchasing the bonds through its quantitative easing (QE) programme. But instead of buying more Italian government bonds during this crisis in May last year, the ECB was buying less, and diverting its investment to German bonds instead.
In October the ECB announced it planned to change the ‘capital key’ it used in its €2.5 trillion QE programme. Put simply, the central banks of Member States act as shareholders of the ECB. The capital key calculates the size of their shares according to the size of national populations and economies. By extension the capital key also determines how much the ECB spends on eurozone government bonds, and where.
Though the ECB announced it would stop buying government bonds from the end of 2018, it is not the end of QE. The ECB is continuing to reinvest the maturing debt it holds – an estimated €117 billion in the first nine months of 2019 – back into eurozone government bonds. The adjustment to the capital key will reduce the shares of twelve Member States including Italy, Spain and Greece, while increasing the shares of sixteen, including Germany, France and Austria.
One economist estimates that the change will result in about €28 billion less in reinvestment in Italian bonds, and €19 billion less in Spanish bonds than would have been the case if the change had not been made. Like the Commission’s bizarre calculation of the structural deficit as potentially causing runaway inflation in Italy’s clearly stagnating economy, the ECB’s capital key adjustment is another example of politicised thuggishness dressed up as ‘technocracy’.
Approaching the ‘cliff-edge’
This long stagnation caused by the SGP rules, Italy’s inability to recover economic activity to pre-crisis levels, double-digit unemployment and still massive youth unemployment have created the conditions for the election of the racist Lega Nord and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Following the Commission’s budgetary clash with Rome, support for Five Star has been strongly overtaken by support for the Lega. The actions of Commission and the ECB have directly contributed to the ongoing rise of the far right in Italy. It is no mystery if Italians, and Europeans, see Europe as a “soulless market”.
The threat of an economic collapse in Italy, precipitated by an inter-related banking and sovereign debt crisis, remains very real. It is exacerbated daily by the Commission and ECB. The Italian government needs to issue around €400 billion a year in public debt in order to stay afloat, which domestic banks are pushed into buying. This means Italy’s shaky bond market is highly exposed to its vulnerable banking sector, and vice versa. Banks in other EU states hold more than €425 billion euros of sovereign and private Italian debt. French banks are most exposed, holding €285 billion of this.
None of the much-touted reforms put in place in the EU after the crisis will rein in the bond market vigilantes; free movement of capital is sacrosanct. The proposal to end the ‘too-big-to-fail’ problem in Europe’s banks by structurally separating the commercial and investment activists of the banks – the so-called Bank Structural Reform – was officially withdrawn in 2017 after conservatives blocked its progress in the European Parliament and Council.
It is little wonder that there are winners and losers in the eurozone when the game is rigged and the referee is openly biased. Fears of economic collapse in Italy that peaked in May last year receded later in the year. But the country’s recession, combined with the broader global slowdown and a high likelihood of a eurozone-wide recession in the near future will push Italy closer to the cliff-edge. The deficit fetishism of the ECB and the Commission may push them off.
About the author: Emma Clancy is an economics advisor for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament, and editor of Irish Broad Left.