25 March 2015

The Troika is eroding fiscal democracy in the eurozone


“We don’t change our policy according to elections,” insisted Jyrki Katainen, vice-president of the European Commission for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, after the Greek elections in January. Which, however much you may dislike the new radical-left government in Athens, is quite a statement for an unelected EU official. And which begs the question: how can voters actually change eurozone policy? Revolution?

Especially since that policy is conspicuously failing to deliver Katainen’s mandate of jobs, growth and investment. Unemployment in the eurozone is 11.2%, more than twice the rate in the United States, and 26% in Greece. The eurozone economy is still 2% smaller than its pre-crisis peak in early 2008, while Greece’s is down by 26%. Business investment is at a 20-year low in both cases. As for competitiveness – cutting costs to promote exports – it’s a wrong-headed, mercantilist objective; governments should instead aim to boost productivity.

The eurozone today is a very different beast to the monetary union that was launched in 1999 – and not just because it’s in crisis. For all its flaws, the initial design of the currency union was decentralised and largely market-based, allowing plenty of scope for national democracy. Elected governments retained ample fiscal discretion, provided their deficits did not exceed 3% of GDP. (Writing for The Economist at the time, we argued that the euro could do without fiscal rules altogether.) Government borrowing was to be disciplined by markets, with the safeguards that governments that got into trouble could be bailed out neither by their peers (the “no-bailout rule”), nor by the ECB (the ban on monetary financing). National governments also retained almost full freedom over other aspects of economic policy, such as which reforms they did (or didn’t do) and how they went about them. Only monetary policy was (necessarily) set centrally, by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

But since the crisis, the eurozone has become a much more centralised, much less flexible and scarcely democratic command-and-control system run from Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt.

The Greek case is most extreme. For years, successive Greek administrations borrowed too much and lied about it. In 2010, Greece was cut off from the markets because investors finally realised that it would be foolish to continue lending to a government whose debts were so huge that it would be unable to pay them back in full. Had eurozone authorities respected the Maastricht Treaty’s no-bailout rule, Greece would then have had to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF would have restructured Greece’s debts before providing a conditional loan for a few years to tide it over until it put its public finances in order, reformed its economy and regained market access.

But instead eurozone authorities decided to pretend that Greece was merely going through temporary funding difficulties. They then breached the no-bailout rule by lending the Greek government European taxpayers’ money, ostensibly out of solidarity but actually in order to bail out its creditors, notably French and German banks. That catastrophic decision fundamentally changed the nature of the monetary union.

For five long years, Greece has been administered as a quasi-colony by the hated Troika – the European Commission and the ECB, together with the IMF. Fair enough, you might say: if Greece can’t borrow from markets and relies instead on EU-IMF funding, they have a right to impose conditions on their loans. Yes, indeed, but why even now can’t Greece borrow from markets? Why, last year, long before the election of a left-wing government seemed imminent, when the government was running a primary surplus – a budget surplus excluding interest payments – couldn’t it borrow on a sustainable basis from markets, unlike every other eurozone government? After all, its EU creditors insist it is solvent.

Because Greece is still, in fact, insolvent. And because its EU creditors refuse to restructure its debts, and threaten (illegally) to force it out of the euro if it defaults unilaterally, it is trapped in a modern-day debtors’ prison. Weighed down by unpayable debts, it is unable to recover, unable to regain market access and thus unable to restore control over its economic destiny. So it’s not left-wing to demand debt relief for Greece –even the IMF’s former Europe chief, Reza Moghadam, who is such a radical leftist that he now works for the American investment bank Morgan Stanley, thinks its debt needs to be halved – it’s an economic and democratic necessity.

The bailout of Greece’s creditors and the subsequent loans to Ireland, Portugal and Spain – primarily to bail out local banks which would have otherwise defaulted on their borrowing from German and French ones – made northern European taxpayers fear that they would end up liable for all of southern Europe’s debts. So Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, demanded much greater control over other countries’ budgets – and the European Commission was only too delighted to oblige. As a result, the eurozone as a whole is now bound by a much tighter fiscal straightjacket: more stringent EU rules as well as the fiscal compact.

This is economically undesirable, because countries that share a currency – and so no longer have their own monetary policy or exchange rate – need greater fiscal flexibility, not less. And it’s politically poisonous, because whenever voters reject a government, as they have done at nearly every election since the crisis, EU officials such as Katainen pop up on television to demand that the new government stick to policies that voters have just rejected. That remote, unelected and scarcely accountable officials in Brussels should deny voters legitimate democratic choices about tax and spending decisions alienates people from the EU. And if voting for mainstream politicians doesn’t lead to change, it’s no surprise they turn to the extremes.

How could fiscal democracy in the eurozone be restored? One option would be to create an elected eurozone fiscal authority. But such is the anger and mistrust that now exists in the eurozone that steps toward democratic federalism are politically inconceivable. A better option would be to restore the no-bailout rule and with it elected governments’ freedom to respond to changing economic circumstances and political priorities – constrained by markets’ willingness to lend and ultimately by the risk of default. A mechanism for restructuring sovereign debt could be created, while the ECB would be mandated to step in to prevent panics. To enhance market discipline, bank capital-adequacy rules that ludicrously treat all government bonds as risk-free should be revised, as should the ECB’s collateral-lending rules. A more flexible, decentralised and democratic eurozone that restores governments’ policy freedom, while relying on markets, not arbitrary decisions by Berlin and Brussels, for discipline would be much better for everyone.

Stripping voters of the right to make legitimate economic and political choices is unsustainable. And as Weimar Germany’s tragic history shows, the imposition of unbearable payments to hated foreign creditors leads to political extremism. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has observed that the eurozone is meant to be a union of democracies, not an empire. Katainen and other eurozone officials should remember that.

Philippe Legrain, who was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and the author of European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right.