The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU) creates new opportunities for Europeans to unite around a common vision. The British played an important role in Europe both as a common market and as a political union. The challenge for the remaining member states will be to adapt to Great Britain’s absence. Last autumn, French President Emmanuel Macron launched an ambitious raft of proposals for reenergizing the European project. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel forged a grand-coalition government with a different pro-European agenda. Macron’s vision is more centralist and involves more institutionalized solidarity; Merkel’s vision is more intergovernmental and places more emphasis on political responsibility at the national level. The success of either approach will depend upon how other European member states respond to the call for unity. The next Italian government will play a critical role.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to have an exchange of emails with one of Italy’s leading financial journalists. This is part of a longer conversation we have been having over the past few years about the state of European financial markets and the role of Italy within them. The difference this time is that he published the exchange in gli Stati Generali, which is a project created to allow journalists to share stories or rely on formats that might not otherwise find their way into traditional media outlets. Knowing the journalist, the Italian version of our exchange is much more articulate than the English-language original I am reproducing here. The questions are in bold; my responses are in regular text.
When Italy’s voters went to the polls on 4 March, roughly 32.5 percent voted for the Five Star Movement (M5S) and another 17.5 percent voted for the Lega. If we add in the 4.5 percent who voted for the Brothers of Italy, well more than half of the electorate supported openly Euroskeptical movements whose leaders have flirted with the idea of leaving the euro. ‘Europe’ did not play a prominent role in the public debate during the run-up to the elections; according to pre-election polling done by SWG – one of the major national public opinion polling firms – cutting taxes and throwing out the ‘ruling class’ were more important. But the two big winners from the contest strongly advocated policies like rolling back pension reforms (Lega) or introducing a basic minimum income (M5S) that would quickly bring Italy into conflict with the European Commission over fiscal consolidation. Moreover, any future Italian government will have to draw support from one or both of these parliamentary groups. The question is what this means for relations between Italy and Europe.
Europe’s heads of state or government have launched a new conversation about reforming the financial structures of the European Union in order to prevent another economic and financial crisis like the one that consumed the last decade. They have a number of ambitious proposals on the table — to complete the European Banking Union, to strengthen the European Stability Mechanism, and to enhance political accountability at the European level. Not all of these proposals are sure to be adopted, and progress is likely to be incremental. The goal of ensuring financial market stability is nevertheless apparent.
Donald Trump is torn between two ambitions. One is to challenge the conventions that have underpinned U.S. foreign policy by replacing a commitment to global leadership with a determination to put America first. The other is to undo the legacy of Barack Obama. Neither ambition is easy to accomplish; taken together, the two ambitions constitute an enormous task. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they point in different directions. And sometimes they interact in a dizzying manner. Trump’s policy toward Asia is of the dizzying sort. Where Barack Obama pivoted to Asia from the Middle in a manner that both confirmed and defied U.S. foreign policy convention, Trump seems to twirl around Asia in an accelerating pirouette.
The voting in Catalonia was a trap for Spain’s political leadership in Madrid. They were going to be criticized if they ignored the vote and also if they tried to stop it. Moreover, shunting responsibility for dealing with the crisis on the courts and the police as institutions was no way out. Ultimately, institutions are about people and not just words on a piece of paper. The voters in Catalonia know that. Now the Spanish government will be held to account. Political leaders everywhere should pay attention.
Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech outlining his proposals to reform the European Union. And there were a lot of proposals in that speech. Surprisingly, though, not many of them focused on the euro area or on the process of European macroeconomic governance. Macron talked about creating some kind of common budget and naming a European Minister of Finance, but he did not touch on the major issues sketched in European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address or the letter of intent and reflection papers that the Commission has produced as well.
To understand what impact the Trump Administration will have on European economic performance you have to start by re-examining the lessons of the past. Almost 50 years ago, Richard Cooper published a ground-breaking book in the United States called: The Economics of Interdependence. He conceived this book during the early 1960s while he was working as an economic policymaker in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and he developed the argument as part of a high-level study group within the Council on Foreign Relations. These details are important because the message Cooper had to communicate was controversial, particularly coming from a member of the foreign policy establishment. No country, he argued, not even the United States, can ignore how other countries react to their economic policies. The problem is not good diplomacy (or good manners). It is structural. If policymakers ignore how other countries react to what they do, then they will never achieve their objectives – because the reactions of others can do much to offset any benefits a discrete policy action may deliver. Indeed, a country will be worse off going it alone than working with others. Compromise and cooperation are always better than having countries set their economic policies at cross-purposes.
The Belgian economist André Sapir used a background paper for the September 2005 informal summit of the European Union’s economic and finance ministers to make a provocative claim about the European social model: Europe’s heads of state and government do not need to choose between equity and efficiency or between a welfare state and a market economy; with the right reforms to welfare programs and market institutions, it is possible to have both equity and efficiency at the same time. The British held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and were quick to take up Sapir’s challenge. The quest to achieve both equity and efficiency moved to the heart of efforts to relaunch the Lisbon Strategy and to re-energize the European project. Unfortunately, these efforts were soon overtaken by events.
The Italian government passed a series of decrees yesterday to allow Intesa San Paolo to buy the healthy assets of two small banks from the Veneto region – Banca popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. The state will move the distressed assets into a ‘bad bank’ for orderly liquidation. This action closes a chapter on the Italian banking crisis that started in late 2015 when regulators made it clear that the two small Veneto banks needed more capital. Over the intervening period, investors threw good money after bad as the banks continued to haemorrhage deposits and mount up non-performing loans. The government did not want to step in because it did not want to impose losses on large depositors or junior bond holders. Ultimately, though, the situation for the two institutions was unsustainable. Now we know what the solution looks like. The question is what we learned from the process. The short answer is that Europe’s banking union is still dangerously incomplete.