How are the southern euro area countries doing in tackling their weaknesses?

There has been a malaise

Overall the experience of southern European euro zone countries has not been good since the euro zone was initiated in 1999 with Portugal, Spain and Italy all founding members and Greece joining two years later. Whether or to what extent this poor performance is due to the supposed structural flaw in the euro zone (an integrated monetary area but not an integrated fiscal or political area) or due to problems in the countries themselves is open to debate. The fact that performance was not very good also in the 1990s compared with previous decades supports the view that the problems lie within the countries themselves although two countries in particular were ultimately hurt by excess borrowing resulting from the mistaken view of markets that the lending within the euro zone was safe. When the 2008-09 financial crisis came from the US to the EU the southern euro zone was hit particularly badly. Initially the worst hit countries were Greece, Portugal and Spain plus Ireland. Ireland was the first to recover while Italy’s problems including those of its banks became worse so the ungainly acronym PIGS remained appropriate swapping Italy for Ireland.

From a societal point of view the biggest problem in all these countries is unemployment, especially youth unemployment. In Greece and until recently Spain youth unemployment is almost 50% (although this does not account for unregistered employment) in Italy and Portugal 40%.

Much advice on offer, perhaps too much

International organisations including the European Commission, the OECD and the IMF constantly call for reform and stipulate a wide range of such reforms. Reforms are also called for by creditor countries notably Germany and the Netherlands and the European Commission has to take account of their views in its own recommendations. The creditors recommendations are inevitably informed by their own self interest. The IMF is also a creditor of Greece and is calling for debt relief but not of its own loans.  Such self-interest is reasonable up to a point. Irresponsible borrowing should not be encouraged. But there comes a point when the pain should be shared. Irresponsible lending which assumes that government loans will always be repaid also should not be encouraged.

The biggest problem with reform recommendations is that they tend to be so wide-ranging as to be telling supposedly sovereign and democratic parliaments how to legislate over a wide range of subjects. This has particularly been the case for the hardest hit country Greece but is also a live issue in the other countries. For this reason I want to focus on those l reforms which I think most important. First are reforms to the labour market, most importantly to modify protections to employees which are perceived by employers as very  burdensome and so discourage taking on employees. The second is the pressing need in several countries to simplify regulations and reduce the cost for starting new businesses and running small businesses.  Thirdly, there is the task of making the rule of law more effective, in terms of independence and impartiality of the judiciary, effectiveness in terms of sanctions and also the time taken to bring about justice. Finally, reforms may be needed to improve the management of public finances, not least in terms of collection of taxes. Decisions about how spending is divided and how much to tax should be left to free democratic choice unless expenditure is bankrupting the country or taxes are utterly crippling economic activity remembering that some countries can be economically successful with high levels of public expenditure.

Spain has led on labour market reform key to employment creation

The most important single reform which can improve the chances that more job opportunities are provided and one which more than most others can be done through a single piece of legislation from central governments is to limit the costs and legal procedures for companies to shed employees. The reason is simply that there is much evidence gathered by a range of organisations like the OECD that, if such costs are reasonable and predictable, companies will be much more willing to take on new employees. The model to be aimed at is one in Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands where redundant employees are given adequate welfare support and crucially access to retraining. However, there has been huge resistance to such reforms in countries like Italy and France from trade unions. Trade unions are a key ingredient in a plural society and should not be lightly over-ridden, but in this instance where they are giving priority to their hold on a diminishing membership at the expense of opportunities for young people, they should be over-ridden. The best example of a country that has reformed its labour market in this way is Spain which began introducing reforms early in the last decade and enacted a major labor market reform in 2012, while in recession.  This reform permitted companies in most cases to dismiss regular contract employees with 20 days severance pay per year worked, compared to up to 48 days previously. There were high levels of job creation in Spain during the boom before the 2008 crash, but during the recession and in the wake of a reform making it easier to fire workers, it went sharply into reverse. From 2014 the economy and employment have been recovering strongly. In Italy Matteo Renzi introduced significant reforms in employment legislation when prime minister between 2014 and 2016. There has been no major impact on job creation so far, though this may be due to the fact that the economy remains weaker than the euro area average.

Such a reform to increase flexibility should not be seen as a complete deregulation of the labour market.  The UK, which has long been one of the most flexible labour markets with high levels of job creation, has kept powerful employment tribunals to protect individuals against discrimination or victimisation, although they are now weakened by cost cutting. However, in Italy a law protecting individual employees was a long cause of controversy with employers accepting paying compensation if found to have dismissed an employee unfairly but arguing that having to take the employee back was disruptive.

More can be done to make life for small businesses easier

Making life easy for people to start and run small businesses should not be controversial but is less easy in practice than might be expected. Two reasons may be postulated. One is that registration usually involves local governments, which are rightly autonomous. Secondly, some parts of southern Europe have a long established culture of non-co-operation and even antagonism between the private and public sectors. Private companies regard government as just a hindrance and don’t like paying taxes while government regards private companies as out to cheat. The resulting behavior of one side reinforces that of the other. Nevertheless there have been significant improvements according to the OECD in most OECD countries over the last eight years. In 2016 an OECD survey found that Scandinavian countries, the UK, Ireland and France were below average for both time and cost required to start a new business. Amongst southern European countries, Portugal seemed the best with well below average time and just slightly above average cost (just over 2% of income per capita). Italy was average for time but high for cost.

Another survey on overall Barriers to Entrepreneurship affecting small and medium enterprises also published by the OECD shows that both Italy and Portugal moved from being amongst the countries with the most burdensome regulations to being third and seventh best in terms of least restrictive legislation between 2008 and 2013. Spain, however, which has as noted done most to reform labour market legislation, retained in 2013 the second most burdensome other restrictions on entrepreneurship, having seen no improvement over the previous five years. Greece did improve but still scored only a little better than Spain.

It may of interest that Italy according to the OECD had just over 3.5m enterprises in 2013 more in absolute not just relative terms than any other country apart from the US (and not much less than the US). A generation ago Italy’s local networks of enterprises both cooperating and competing were seen as a model. They have been less dynamic than hoped in the intervening period but remain resilient. In particular Italy is a (possibly the) world leader in design, particularly but not only clothing, and there has been a moderate return of clothes making to Italy for those willing to pay a little more.

Quality government usually changes only gradually

On the general question of good government, a very interesting and still relevant book called Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy by Robert Putnam was published in 1993.  It takes as its starting point the major devolution of government reform which took place in 1970 following 100 years since unification of centralized government. It compared various survey measures of good government seen through the eyes of both individual citizens and businesses and measures of civic participation (partly actual participation in social groups and partly attitudes). It found that regions with a higher degree of “civicness” correlated surprisingly closely with better government performance both through objective tests and as seen by citizens. The higher degree of civicness itself was found to be linked to the history of the regions – ones that had been city states or with local autonomy hundreds of years ago showing much higher levels of civic participation than those that had been under autocracies – most notably in the south. But the book did not find that as a cause for fatalism. Both southerners and northerners were positive about the impact of devolution and improvements on the quality of government could be seen in the south as well as north between 1970 and the early 1990s. While the south remains poorer than the centre and north and with higher unemployment, its standard of living, which had remained very low during 100 years of centralised government, has increased hugely in the decades after 1970. The book is not only relevant to Italy. The differences between regions within a country are perhaps particularly strong in Italy but also exist in most other countries and should be a warning against sweeping generalisations.

Often taking for granted when it operates well, the effectiveness of a country’s legal system including the objectivity and independence of the judiciary, is essential to a good environment for businesses of all sizes to operate and so to economic development. Companies need to be able to enforce contracts and be able to operate without fear of criminals particular mafia-type organisations which have in southern Italy particularly conducted widespread extortion.  In Spain and Italy the judiciary is independent and has been a thorn in the side of allegedly corrupt politicians in both countries, including members of the governing Popular Party in Spain. On the other hand, the system can be very slow, especially in Italy. As is well known Sicily and southern Italy are where the word mafia originated and particularly in Sicily, Calabria and around Naples has had a vice-look grip on parts of the economy. Due to the dedication and bravery of police, public prosecutors and judges, and also the co-operation of businesses in resisting extortion, the power of the mafias especially in Sicily have been reduced though they remain a major challenge and have indeed spread into the north.

In overall terms, I think the four countries I have discussed are all making changes for the better albeit slowly and unevenly and subject to the normal political shenanigans of any democratic country. The devolution of power in Italy has been very beneficial, although inevitably it means differences in quality of government between the regions. It has also overall been beneficial in Spain, despite some bad examples of corruption associated with speculative building in some regions. Outright independence for any region would be a step backwards. Although independence is favoured by many in Catalonia, a geographically small but economically important autonomous community in Spain, I don’t think the majority exists to bring it about.

The issues here discussed are in my opinion more important for the countries’ future than whether or not they remain members of the euro zone, though leaving would cause a lot of disruption and no significant benefit. Criticisms made of euro area policies towards countries dependent on the backing of creditors and of the European Central Bank are mostly valid but their claim that a softer policy would have enormous benefits is exaggerated. Once country Greece is being unjustly treated by Germany and the Netherlands taken into account how much pain it has suffered in the last nine years, the fact that it finds itself host to more refugees relative to its population than any other EU member and the fact that lenders and EU decision makers acted just as irresponsibly as Greek governments, but even in this case the answers to Greece’s economic travails lie more inside Greece than outside.

 

 

Anti-system parties adapt to opposing forces

The agreement reached between the Greek government, led by the leftwing Syriza coalition, and representatives of Greece’s creditors on August 11th for a third loan to avoid default, following those in 2010 and 2012, increases the chances that Greece will stay in the euro zone, despite uncertainties over whether the government will be able to implement what it has agreed to and as to whether the creditor governments from the rest of the euro zone will be willing at some point to make the debt manageable.

It means that – apart from a significant dissenting minority—the formerly anti-system Syriza has succumbed to the rules of the euro zone. This development can be looked at negatively as the denial of democratic hopes of the Greek people but there is still the chance that the new government can prove to be radical in the Greek context.  It can remodel the administration to work for the public rather than in its own interests or those of privileged clients as has often been the case; it can reform the tax system to enforce payment of taxes, but for this to be possible it will have to ensure that payment of taxes is compatible with Greece’s large number of small businesses thriving and expanding. Despite this proviso it cannot act to reduce inequality. There is still scope to hope that a government not formed of one of the two that have governed Greece since the end of military rule in 1974 will be able to do what the others failed to do, namely transforming the enduring Greek view of the state as opponent of the individual citizen to one of a state serving the citizen.

 

Spain’s Podemos likely to make gains but will also have to compromise

In Spain two new parties, Podemos (We Can) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), will at the end-November elections in similar manner challenge the longstanding hold on power over 30 years of two established parties of centre-right and centre-left.  While Ciudadonos is a centrist party, Podemos is very similar to Syriza, except that Syriza is a coalition of formerly existing small parties, while Podemos has emerged as completely new since the 2008-09 crisis. It achieved considerable breakthroughs when local groups supported by Podemos won sufficient seats on the town councils of Madrid, Barcelona and some other cities, to appoint mayors. The new mayor of Barcelona, the 41-year-old Ana Colau was previously running a campaign group against evictions of families unable to pay mortgages while the new mayor of Madrid, the 71-year-old Manuela Carmena, had in the past been a leading member of a law firm focusing on employment law, who had seem some of her colleagues in the firm assassinated by right wing extremists soon after the restoration of democracy in 1975.

Creditor institutions are now claiming that a Greek recovery was beginning at the time of Syriza’s election victory in January 2015, but any such recovery was highly tentative and had not had any impact on the great majority of the Greek public. The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party) can point to expected 3% growth this year and half a million extra jobs in the year to mid-2015. The opposition, which includes the traditional socialist party (PSOE) as well as the two new parties, can point to major corruption cases implicating the PP and continuing near 50% youth unemployment. Despite Podemos’ success in major cities, the two new parties, alone or together, are not likely to win the election. But they should become a significant presence at national level and could be part of a coalition of the centre-left.

 

Portugal prepares for a traditional two party contest

Portugal is holding general elections in early October. Remarkably, despite the severe austerity the country has experienced, there is no sign of any increase in support for non-traditional or existing far-left or far-right parties. The elections will be a close contest between the governing parties –the Social Democrats  and  Christian Democrats – which have recently united to fight the election– and the opposition Socialist Party. One reason may be that, despite government cuts and high taxation reducing living standards unemployment at 11% is much lower than the rates of 23% and 25% in Spain and Greece. Another could be that an active and independent judiciary has gone so far as detain the former Socialist prime minister, Jose Socrates, in prison since November 2014 awaiting trial for corruption and Ricardo Salgado, the head of the country’s largest failed bank, Espirito Santo was put under precautionary house arrest in July pending trial on a range of charges connected with his leadership of the bank. The public may therefore not feel the establishment is able to act with impunity.

 

Real change may still be possible

In Greece and Spain, anti-system parties have made gains and are likely to do so again in the November general elections in Spain. But they have been and will continue to have to compromise with internal and external forces they oppose. Even so they bring new energy and challenge vested interests. Some real change could be achieved, although it will fall well short of their ambitions.

After five years, is the era of extreme austerity in southern Europe coming to an end?

The  southern countries of the euro zone, Ireland and France have experienced nearly six years of extreme austerity since the economic crash in North America and Europe at the end of 2008 exposed many weaknesses in these countries’ economies and their banks. At last there has been the beginning of an easing of austerity with the possibility of more measures to come. The reasons for austerity have been the high public debts and deficits of the countries concerned, excessive household and business debt in some of the countries, bank losses and inadequate bank capital ratios compounded by lack of transparency, and average inflation across the euro zone had stuck at close to the ECB target of just under 2%, which meant that the ECB could not within its policy mandate to take very substantive measures to loosen monetary policy, although its interest rates have for a long time been very low and it has provided easy short-term financing to banks.

Herculean efforts have meant that some of the affected countries, notably Italy but also even Greece, have managed to bring their deficit ratios (though not their debt ratios) to levels at which they have a little room for manoeuvre which they are exploiting even if without the approval of the troika (European Commission, ECB and IMF) or the ultimate authority, the German government itself dependent on  German voters. Less optimistically, household debt remains high especially in Spain, Portugal and Ireland and the condition of most banks remains weak, while at least until the new round of ECB supervised stress tests to be published later this, they are also lacking in transparency so there are fears that some banks may be still weaker.

The biggest change is that average inflation in the euro zone has fallen to 0.5% which means that the ECB is having to take action to boost the economy to allow inflation to rise towards its target and to avoid actual deflation. It did so on June 5th, with the first negative interest rate of 0.25% on bank deposits with the ECB and €400bn made available as targeted long term refinancing operations (TLTROs) provide banks onlend the sums at reasonable interest rates to non-financial companies. A further move which is being prepared and debated in the ECB is its purchase of asset backed securities (ASBs) of loan packages to small and medium enterprises. The TLTROs and, if they are introduced, ASBs, are the first real effort to tackle a major distortion in the euro zone, namely that it is far more difficult and more expensive for SMEs in southern Europe to borrow than in Germany or other north European countries.

Another significant development is the declared intention of the chair of the euro zone group of finance ministers, the Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, that some countries in the euro zone be given a little more flexibility in regard to the harsh imposition of rigour over the public finances. He made a distinction between countries with still relatively high  deficits which require a full focus on “corrective” measures, ie standard austerity measures to cut spending or raise taxes and those which have brought their deficits below the magic 3% threshold and for which “preventative” measures could be accepted in exchange for more flexibility on fiscal targets. These would be unlikely to include raising the 3% threshold but could imply flexibility of the goals for debt reduction and moving towards surplus. It may be helpful that it is Mr Dijsselbloem is suggesting such flexibility given that his provenance, the Netherlands, is seen as a country like Germany committed to fiscal orthodoxy at home. Nevertheless he and the countries, including most notably Italy which hope to be given more flexibility, will have to marshal their arguments cogently to challenge the severe belief in the merits of fiscal orthodoxy amongst the German establishment and German public opinion and not least, the view of the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble.

EU structural budget should aim to make a bigger impact

Final agreement between the Council (ie member state governments) and  the European Parliament, for the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the years 2014-20, is close. The budget ceiling in relation to GDP has been gradually reduced from 1.18% in 1993-99 to less that 1% in the coming seven years[1]. Parliament has accepted with reluctance a reduction in real terms compared with 2007-13 but has won some concessions on flexibility to increase the scope for sums not used in one year to be spend in subsequent years, and, more importantly, to allow some switching of spending from one area where demand may turn out less to another which becomes a high priority.

 

EU budget is small but still important

When the single currency was being discussed as a theoretical project, an independent report, the McDougall Report of 1977, recommended that the budget for a more integrated EU, but still without full monetary union, should be 2-2.5% of GDP and that monetary union itself should involve a federation with expenditure of 5-7% of GDP, so as to manage the imbalances between participating states that could occur. In contrast, although the budget increased in the early 1990s, it has actually fallen following the introduction of full monetary union.

Nevertheless, the budget is significant both in terms of contributions and expenditure. Net payments to the budget are close to 0.5% of GDP for major countries like Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and even Italy. This is not much less than the 0.7% OECD target for total foreign aid to less developed countries and as much as most are actually giving in such aid.

In terms of expenditure to poorer countries such as Greece and Portugal it is 3-4% of GDP and about 1% in Spain. Although Italy is actually a net contributor, expenditure in southern Italy, as well as in poorer regions of Spain, could make a contribution to boosting economic activity.

With all these southern countries in great economic difficulty, the question of whether EU spending is being used to best effect is an important one. There are two aspects to this question. One is a negative one: to impose sufficiently rigorous financial controls to ensure the money is spent as intended and not diverted into the hands of individuals or businesses for whom it is not intended. In reducing fraud the Commission claims to have been successful despite the fact that control of the funds still lies to a great extent at national and local levels, although sometimes the result is that not all allocated funds are used.

With regard to positive impact, the Commission claims that research shows that regional funding has had a positive impact on growth[2] in the regions concerned but whether right or wrong such studies are only of interest to experts. EU spending, especially structural spending in disadvantaged regions, should make a noticeable contribution to the inhabitants of those regions. At present and almost certainly over the next few years the most immediate need for these regions is to improve the prospects for young people after leaving formal education.

 

Youth guarantee is in danger of failure

The EU Commission won agreement by all EU member states at the beginning of 2013 that they would commit to a guarantee of training or paid work for all under-25s within four months of leaving education or losing a job. But the resources to put this into practice even with the political will is not available to the many countries struggling to meet fiscal commitments agreed with the Troika (IMF, ECB and Commission) for those under rescue programmes, or for others like Italy which are also being monitored by the Commission with a view to avoiding the need for rescue programmes. EU funding should therefore be made available with urgency for the purpose. Such funding should be possible under the remit of structural spending on economically-disadvantaged regions, which is provided with a third of the total EU budget.

 The reality does not show this urgency or commitment. So far only €6bn over the period 2014-20 is to be made available for helping young people find employment, which is less than 1% of the total EU budget. And it is not starting until January 1st, 2014.  A degree of caution is understandable on new forms of spending given the need to prevent fraud but there should be room for much more ambition than to spend only 1% of a modest budget on this challenge.

More broadly, the structural funds should be redirected from infrastructure to promoting vocational education and the creation and expansion of the small and medium enterprises which are the dominant providers of jobs, especially new jobs, in the better performing countries and regions. This switch should be particularly emphasized in southern Europe where infrastructure is now good.

Help to SMEs can be largely through help in providing affordable credit in association with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Investment Fund (EIF). The latter’s JEREMIE programme, which leverages the structural funds, is a good example which could be built on. The aim should be to promote networks of business activity.

 

 



[1] The measure now used for the budget is the marginally different Gross National Income (GNI).

[2] This is, with qualifications, supported by EU Structural Funds: Do they lead to more growth? CAGE-Chatham House Series of Policy Briefing Papers, December 2012.

Much talk on youth unemployment and just a little action

Youth unemployment moves up the agenda

Recent weeks have seen increased traction to the perception that youth unemployment across the EU, especially the euro zone, has to be treated as a major—indeed the major crisis, if one is reassured that financial meltdown of the euro zone has been relegated. Of course the danger of the latter cannot be treated as though it had been eliminated but rising unemployment, especially of young people, could undermine the political support needed to sustain the kind of policies in southern Europe, and even in France, that are required to prevent financial meltdown, as so clearly indicated by the result of the Italian election of March 24-25th where huge swings in votes to the rightwing PdL and the internet based protest movement M5S, must be interpreted as protests against the well intentioned policies of the previous government led by the respected academic Mario Monti, to comply with the desiderata of the EU institutions.

 

Situation in southern Europe cannot be ignored in the north

This means not only that youth unemployment must become the top priority of governments in the peripheral countries most affected, and of the European institutions, but also of the countries like Germany the Netherlands and Finland that are doing much better in terms both of overall economic performance and specifically in providing opportunities for young job-seekers. If these countries are committed to the survival, let alone deepening, of the process of European political integration that goes back to 1951, as the great majority of political parties in all these countries claim to be (with the exceptions of Geert Wilders’ Netherlands Freedom Party and Timo Soini’s True Finns), then the employment crisis in fellow member states has to be taken as a serious challenge to their own credibility.

Recently some members of Germany’s government have shown signs that they are aware of this challenge. In mid-May the German employment minister, Ursula von der Leyen signed an agreement with her Spanish counterpart, Fatima Banez,  to facilitate the availability of apprenticeships in Germany for Spanish nationals and for German experts to provide advice to Spanish companies willing to learn on how aspects of the successful German apprenticeship system, whose roots go back centuries and which has been a major feature of the post-Second World War German economy, might be implemented in Spain. This would build on existing Spanish government efforts to promote apprenticeships. The  scheme has been supported by Wolfgang Schauble, the formidable German finance minister who has said “we must be faster and more definitive in fighting youth unemployment”. He also agreed on May 22nd with the Portuguese finance minister, Vitor Gaspar, that the German state development bank, KfW, should help set up a Portuguese institution to promote work or training for young people. On June 3rd the KfW signed a deal to lend €800m to its already existing Spanish counterpart, ICO  (with an extra €200m once agreed by parliament for “mezzanine” financing). On July 3rd, Angela Merkel is to host a meeting of EU employment ministers in Berlin.

 

But measures so far are mere drops in the ocean

However, the measures mentioned above are no more than drops in the ocean. While the subject of youth unemployment has risen dramatically in the field of international discussion across Europe, as seen in the OECD Forum at its headquarters in Paris on May 28-29th, there is as yet no policy measures which are likely to be make a significant impact. The €6bn of EU funds structural funds which are frequently mentioned are over the whole 2014-20 period so amounting to less than €1bn a year, which is 1% of the EU’s modest budget and 0.01% of EU GDP. It can be argued that larger sums if made available might be mis-spent given high levels of corruption in parts of southern Europe but that means that the rapid use and of EU funds to provide job and training opportunities, followed by rigorous assessments of their success with a view to applying any lessons to further funding, are urgently required.

How much is EU commitment to guaranteeing opportunities to young people worth?

 

Is EU tilting at windmills?

On April 22nd the Council of Ministers formally adopted a Commission proposal made in December that every young person leaving education or losing a job should have the offer of a job or training within four months. This is in some degree capable of being achieved in the more successful economies of northern Europe but in much of southern Europe looks like an aspiration divorced from the reality of youth unemployment ranging from 38% in Italy and Portugal to nearly 60% in Spain and Greece. The economies of southern Europe are now at or close to external current account balance so they are now longer consuming more than they produce and are, in addition, servicing high levels of foreign debt. But government deficits remain high leaving no extra finance for governments to fulfill the promise that they have made at EU level.

 

Southern Europe countries can not meet guarantee on their own

The emergency has to be treated as an EU one and its resources put into the struggle to make its commitment more than empty words. The EU budget at 1% of its GDP is small and 40% is still taken up with agriculture where employment can only continue to decline. But the regional fund should be re-directed from physical infrastructure which in southern Europe is mostly now adequate after decades of EU funding to human and enterprise development.

Good work by the European Investment Fund, which specialises in finance for small and medium businesses, and the European Investment Bank, should be supported by increased financial resources.

Ways must be found, by the European Central Bank, the national central banks and the banks themselves, to eliminate the huge difference in the cost of bank finance that is being charged to businesses in Spain and Italy compared with Germany and France. This may require risks being taken by the ECB in increasing its exposure but the risks of its exposure to southern Europe are already high and the risks to inflation of unorthodox policies have to be set against the risk to social and political cohesion and also the ability of the southern European economies to recover and so be in a position to raise the revenue to meet the stability requirements to their government finances.

Newspapers and politicians have insisted that Germany and its partner creditor countries are not prepared to subsidise southern European who retire early and lead leisurely lives. But that should not mean an unwillingness to act against the enforced leisure afflicting so many young people and others at present.

A meeting of minds did take place on May 10th between the new Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta and the president of the European Parliament, the German socialist, Martin Schulz. The latter said he was in complete agreement with with Letta’s statement that “Europe must respond to the greatest problem of today, the rising level of youth unemployment to unsustainable levels”. Specifically Schulz said that the €6bn provided for youth training in the 2014-20 EU budget be brought forward. He added that the problem was too urgent to wait for the result of the German election in September 2013. His proposal could if taken up be a start but would be far from enough to solve the problem but would give an indication of serious intent. Letta has proposed that youth employment measures be seen as an investment in the future and so justify financing like investment outside the normal budgetary rules. That means any measures could only be temporary otherwise they would add permanently to budgetary costs. Moreover Letta’s government has yet to show that it can manage the normal budget successfully replacing the lucrative property tax Imu which it is committed to abolishing with other revenue or spending cuts. But the challenge is not just for the southern member states but the whole EU or at least the whole euro zone.

Iberia and Italy send contradictory messages to EU policy-makers

 

Portugal cuts to the bone

The Portuguese government’s newly announced cuts of 30,000 government employees designed to replace the cuts in holiday pay and pensions that were disallowed in early April by the Constitutional Tribunal threaten to weaken key services like education, where Portugal is anyway weak, and healthcare, where a relatively well-performing service could be undermined. Portugal like other countries has already endured five years of declining incomes which in the last 12 months have been severely intensified. During this period its long-term external imbalance as measured by the current account deficit has finally been rectified which implies that exports of goods and services now exceed imports of goods and services by a margin sufficient to service the large external debt. But further government cuts threaten to wreak deeper and more permanent damage to the social fabric than has already occurred.

The same is true perhaps even more so with Spain where unemployment has reached a staggering 27% with well over 50% of young people unemployed. If some of these have precarious and low paid jobs in the grey economy such employment hardly provides a basis for their future.

 

Help out of debt-depression spiral is desperately needed

In both Portugal and Spain governments of the centre-right have been implementing harsh austerity policies prescribed by the European Commission and the creditor countries (Germany and the Netherlands being the largest of such countries) and also striving to put in place the kind of structural reforms to labour and product markets which they are being urged to take. Yet even the beginnings of economic recovery remain elusive. Portugal for example has seen a 20% increase in exports outside the EU but with the majority of exports being to an EU in recession this is insufficient to make a noticeable difference. They have a real need for some complementary action by the creditors and European institutions. This commentary does not believe there is any magic answer to the debt-depression spiral but Germany and others could ease fiscal policy a little and allow wages to rise slightly faster so boosting disposable incomes. They could move a little faster to a banking union which would gradually tackle the divided lending markets where businesses in southern Europe have to pay to banks double or more the interest rates charged by German or Dutch banks in their own countries. Germany and its allies in the ECB could take slightly more risks with the distant danger of excessive inflation.

Estimates of the EU budget required to oil monetary union before the actual plans where drawn up in the Maastricht treaty of 1992 were up to 5% of GDP, the actual budget has been held rigidly within a 1% limit. Loans through the European Stability Mechanism or otherwise are not transfers. They do entail the risk of default but such default could be more rather than less likely if southern economies continue their downward trajectory.

On the other hand the German fear, fed by the country’s own experience of massive transfers since unification to eastern Germany which failed to bring economic convergence, of pouring money into countries which use it to avoid rather than help necessary financial discipline and reform is also understandable. What is being done in Portugal and Spain (and even more so in Greece) should make Germany and its creditor allies see that such fears are now as justified as fearing that an anorexic could become obese by over-eatin.

 

But Italy sends another message

However the message coming to the creditors from Italy is very different from that from Spain, Portugal or Greece. Although Italy has a massive and chronic government debt its private sector has a low level of debt and huge financial assets so overall it is a wealthy country and not heavily indebted externally. It is less far off eliminating its government deficit than the other countries and its failure to do so is a result of politicians who in an effort to be re-elected have not taken feasible and necessary measures.

In November 2011, the financial markets and Italy’s partners (then President Sarkozy as much as Chancellor Merkel) lost confidence in the government of Silvio Berlusconi and the yields being demanded of Italian debt threatened to bring the country to financial collapse. As a result the head of state, President Napolitano who normally kept aloof from the country’s politics, intervened to appoint the academic economist, Mario Monti, as prime minister of a government of non-politicians to “save” Italy. Its first set of measures entitled “Salva-Italia”) included a tax on first homes (second homes were already taxed). Although similar property taxes are common in other countries, this was highly unpopular in Italy, and from late 2012 Mr Berlusconi staged a spectacular recovery from near political oblivion to almost winning the March election, a central theme of which was his promise to abolish this very property tax which had been necessary to convince external creditors including private bondholders that Italy was financially viable.

In view of such events in Italy, Germans would not be completely mistaken if they concluded that an easing of financial pressures on Italy would make it easier for politicians like Mr Berlusconi to return to power and use that power to entrench their privileges rather than make the reforms needed to allow Italy to perform adequately within the monetary union.

 

Italy’s problems are not just a result of the economic downturn

It is true that Italy is also suffering from prolonged recession and is offering its young people poor economic prospects but this predicament is more due to deep flaws in Italian politics and society than to the euro zone crisis. The success of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) which came from obscurity to 25% of the votes in the March 2013 election reflected a feeling amongst much of the population that Italy’s political class was self-serving. Unfortunately, though, this message was blurred by the simultaneous recovery of Italy’s most self-serving politician Silvio Berlusconi, helped by his control of much of the country’s television. Other flaws include the notorious organized crime clans which though being combatted seriously in Sicily remains rampant in two large southern regions, Calabria and Campania, where their impact on the wider economy is profound. The justice system includes many brave and dedicated public servants but remains appalling slow and is also over-politicised. Most professions remain encumbered by restrictive practices which makes entry even by well qualified young people difficult.

 

New prime minister Letta has to square the circle

Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the Democratic Party (PD) which just emerged as the largest party in the March election, but performed much less well than seemed likely at the start of the campaign, leads a new grand coalition between the PD and Berlusconi’s People of Liberty (PdL) having failed to persuade Grillo to enter constructive discussions. The government states that it wants to ease austerity but sis committed to maintaining the budget projections of the Monti government including a 2.9% of GDP deficit in 2013, but will have to remove the property tax if it is to retain the support of Berlusconi. It will somehow have to find expenditure cuts or other tax increases to meet this commitment. Neither are likely to be possible without taking on entrenched interest groups linked to one or other of the two parties in the coalition. Hard-nosed German and Dutch policy-makers will be watching.

 

 

Budget negotiations are key to future image of EU

On February 5th Herman Van Rompuy put out a video message (http://tvnewsroom.consilium.europa.eu/event/video-messages-of-herman-van-rompuy/eu-budget-negotiations-the-bigger-picture-must-not-get-lost) which made an admirably concise plea for a budget to focus on jobs and particularly jobs for young people and also insisted on moderation, which he surprisingly defined as a real terms cut. This would imply that the demands of the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands in terms of expenditure discipline would be met or even exceeded.

Budget is small in relative terms,but high in absolute terms

As a percentage of national budgets (about 2%) the EU budget is much smaller than implied by the claims of over-centralisation of power. It has remained at around 1% of gross national income (considered a fairer measure than gross domestic product) over the last 20 years well below its allowed maximum of 1.24% of GNI. To have done this during a period when the EU has expanded to include 12 new countries almost all well below the 75% of average income threshold which entitles them to substantial funding to help catch up, and when a monetary union has been created for 17 member states, an embryonic diplomatic service has been set up and effective measures for criminal justice have been put in place is a significant achievement.

The gains in terms of both political stability and prosperity from the single market are not possible to measure but surely hugely outweigh the costs of the EU. Nevertheless when expressed in absolute terms, the amounts are large enough to become politically contentious, at a time when all countries are having to make cuts which are causing large scale public redundancies, closures of hospitals, and other public services like libraries. The UK, France and Italy are currently spending about €16bn (£13bn) in gross terms and €6bn (£5bn) in net terms in contributions to the EU budget.

Some but not all is all is well spent

Some of this money is very well spent. There is huge over-demand for the 11% of the total EU budget spent on boosting collaboration between EU countries (and sometimes also other countries) on scientific research and the development of new technologies. This is money well spent on boosting the EU’s economic potential and ability to thrive in the face of competition from rapidly growing economies like China and India. A strong plea for this spending to be maintained was made on February 5th in a letter to the Financial Times by leading British scientists. Another area of money well spend is co-operation on justice mainly criminal justice, which takes up just 2% of the budget. According to the British Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) if, as is being considered, the UK were to opt out of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) just one of about 20 important EU measures in the field of criminal justice, the result would be “fewer extraditions, longer delays, higher costs, more offenders evading justice and increased risks to public safety”.

Slightly lower in terms of money well spent is the category of administration which absorbs 6%. At 0.06% of national income this is good value for underpinning the benefits of a rules-based single market with a level playing field evened by the enforcement of rules on competition. Yet at a time of austerity the pay and privileges of the upper tiers of the Commission which exceed those of leaders of national governments look excessive.

The largest items of spending are agriculture and regional policy. Agricultural spending, narrowly defined to standard income support for farmers amounts to 27% of spending. If the EU were starting from scratch this might see excessive, but there has been a continuing decline from about 70% when the UK joined the EU in 1973 and most of the spending no longer supports (ie increases) prices as it used to. There is however an additional item called rural development environment and fisheries which absorbs 10% of the total. This is almost as much as is spent on research and innovation and yet its purpose. It includes the very different objectives of environmental conservation or improvement and diversification to non-farming economic activities. It is a category which at least merits careful scrutiny.

Focus of regional spending should be on job creation

But the category which needs most attention is the 37% spent on helping the poorer or most economically troubled regions. This spending has in the past been heavily focused on infrastructure, which does not necessarily bring fundamental economic development. What is most needed is to foster the development and expansion of new micro, small and medium businesses which having already  been responsible for the great majority of job creation across the EU in recent years have the best potential to provide employment opportunities in southern European regions where rates of youth unemployment often exceed 50%.

 

How different is Portugal from Greece?

Greece has rightly tended since the beginning of the euro zone crisis to attract as much or more attention than any other euro zone economy as the weakest link in the chain. Portugal has of the vulnerable countries attracted much less attention except at the time when its financial rescue programme was being negotiated and elections were held in the first half of 2011. This reflects the fact that Portugal’s sovereign debt burden, though rising steadily, still significantly less than that of Greece (even after the latter has seen private sector debt written down). And Portugal’s government deficit has been a perennial problem rather than, as in the case of Greece, one which suddenly shocked financial markets by the revelation in 2009 that previous deficits had been dramatically under-estimated.

Portugal does however have some similarities to Greece. Its population at 10.6m in 2011 is almost exactly the same as Greece’s estimated 10.8m. The two countries’ GDP at purchasing power parities are both at the bottom of EU and euro zone countries other than those taken in from the enlargement of the EU in 2004 and the more recent enlargements of the euro zone to include Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia. In 2010 Greek GDP per head at purchasing power parities (PPPs) was €21,900 and Portugal’s €19,600, compared with a euro zone average of €26,400, according to Eurostat figures. As Greece’s GDP fell much more than that of Portugal in 2011 and is likely to do so again in 2012, the two countries’ GDPs this year are likely to be close to each other.

Both countries have been running high external current account deficits in recent years although Greece’s has been the higher of the two. These deficits should be given as much attention as fiscal deficits since they measure the viability of the countries’ economies as a whole, not just the public sector. In the case of Ireland, which, despite continuing major problems with its banks and public sector, remains a much richer country, the current account deficit has already been eliminated. Current account deficits can be reduced mainly by two methods, reducing imports of goods and services or raising exports. As long as there are free economic exchanges, a decline in imports in the short term mainly requires that domestic demand falls. There is also the longer term possibility of substituting for imports with domestically produced goods and services, but unless protectionist measures are introduced, this implies the gaining or regaining of market share in turn implying improved competitiveness. Such improvements could in theory be through either higher quality or lower prices but in practice with incomes constrained are more likely to occur through cutting prices.

Raising exports would be the ideal way out of recession. The difficulty of vulnerable south European member states raising exports is intertwined with the difficulty of coming out of the vicious circle whereby attempts to reduce public and private sector deficits and debt weaken overall demand and tax revenue, thereby negating much of the impact of deficit reduction measures. If exports could be increased, they could offset declines in the domestic economy, and furthermore export earnings should feed through into the domestic economy.

One problem is that with the EU in recession, demand for exports is weak but the more fundamental problem is the export potential of the countries concerned due to the limited diversification of the economies and lack of brand recognition of most Greek and Portuguese merchandise products. Portugal and Greece are both well known as tourist destinations. There are however capacity limits at the more favoured tourist destinations during the peak season so expanding demand for holidays in Greece and Portugal would require increasing the range of favoured destinations and attracting visitors outside the peak season. While value for money is important a sharp reduction in prices would not necessarily boost demand by more than the loss of income from lower prices. Greece also has large earnings from shipping but much of these do not reach the domestic economy and the competitiveness of the Greek shipping industry is only to a limited extent dependent on conditions inside Greece.

The performance of exports of goods and services in the last few years puts Portugal in a much better light than Greece. Portugal has seen its exports rise in the last three years to €67.3bn from €60.7bn in 2008 while those of Greece have fallen €56.2 to €51.7bn. The increase for Portugal game mainly from goods while the fall in Greece’s case was entirely of services, though the latter still accounted for half of the country’s exports compared with just over a quarter in the case of Portugal. Judging from recent performance the opportunities for goods exports look better for both countries than for services.

The political situation is also hugely better in Portugal than that in Greece. It has a majority government and main opposition both committed to complying with the EU/IMF conditions in the financial rescue programme. Indeed the government in some respects wants to go further and certainly gives the impression in for example planned reforms of commercial law, competition and bankruptcy law—all currently major weaknesses—that it is taking the initiative rather than just doing what it is told to.

Nevertheless Portugal still has a long road to climb, which will not be helped by the impact on exports of recession across much of the EU this year.  Public debt continues to rise rapidly and the nominal government deficit of 4.2% of GDP in 2011 was highly misleading and would have been 7.7% without a credit being given by the state adding substantially to its pension liabilities. Portugal also has a longstanding overhang of private sector debt (higher than Greece’s)  which is a worry for its banking sector and there is little possibility that the Greek government could help the banking sector without making itself insolvent. EU negotiators have insisted that the write-down of private sector Greek government debt held by the private sector in the financial rescue package for the country, that was finalised in March 2012, was unique. Though Portugal is in a somewhat better position than Greece, it is not yet certain that it can pull through and get on top of its debt without any write-down.