The European Council will meet by video conference next Thursday. When it does, the three main items on the agenda will be to approve the recommendations made by the Eurogroup on 9 April, to push forward the conversation about a European Recovery Fund, and to restart and restructure the talks about the upcoming multi-annual financial framework. In English, that means the conversation will be about money. Like any conversation about money it will be difficult. The opportunities for misunderstanding are everywhere. Now is a good time to sort out some of the issues.
I am an American – an outsider – not a European. I have been studying and living in Europe for a while; I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Dutch politics; I spend more time now looking at politics in Italy. Alongside that political interest, I have spent much of the past thirty years looking at European monetary integration. Europe has taught me a lot, but there are still many things I find confusing. Top of the list right now is that the governments of the euro area would rather accept a higher shared risk in the ECB than they would face if they agreed to share risks through an institution specifically designed to raise credit in the markets. This strange choice about how to share risks matters because the risks the European face have never been greater.
Paolo Gentiloni began his tenure as European Commissioner today by giving an interview in Corriere della Sera. He spoke about a number of the major issues the new Commission has to face, but the part of the conversation that made the front page ran something like ‘the reform of the European Stability Mechanism is not a threat.’ Flip to page three and the title is even more explicit: ‘There is no plot in Brussels against Italy.’ European macroeconomic policy coordination is politically explosive. Gentiloni is the Commission’s first line of defence.
Central banks are never independent from politics. The bankers who run those organizations may have the institutional power to define their own objectives, the technical capability to adjust the settings on their monetary instruments, and strong legal protections around the terms and conditions for their employment. But none of that is enough to insulate them from politics. Determined politicians will find a way to exercise influence, no matter what the obstacles. More often than not, such politicians will do so without even implicating the legislative process. They do not have to rewrite the laws to violate central bank independence. Politicians only need to take advantage of the fact that central bankers come from society, they (and their families) have to live somewhere, and eventually they will also retire.
Central banks have been in the news a lot lately, with Mario Draghi’s dramatic decision to redeploy the full range of unconventional policies alongside Jerome Powell’s more obvious ambivalence about loosening the monetary spigots. In part this is a function of timing. The business cycle is turning and yet central banks have not quite managed to reset their instruments after the last crisis. Part is also due to overload. Central banks have been ‘the only game in town’ for a long time, they have expanded responsibility for prudential oversight, and politicians seem none too eager to assume responsibility for macroeconomic performance. It would be a mistake, however, to focus too much on short term explanations. Three recent books explore some of the deeper forces that have pushed central bankers into the spotlight.
The euro area lacks a framework for sovereign debt restructuring and it lacks a common risk-free asset. Both issues are important in looking ahead to the prospect of any future crisis. Of the two, however, the creation of some kind of sovereign debt restructuring mechanism appears to attract the most political attention. This briefing note outlines the issues that would need to be addressed to bring greater stability to the euro area.
International political economy used to be about wealth and power. Now the sources of influence and control are more subtle. Governments choose to follow rules that are not enforced, they sign onto policies recommended to them by foreign nationals (or even ‘citizens of nowhere’), and they invite powerful non-state actors to assume control over crucial economic sectors, finance in particular. Three recent books explain why this is so.
The turmoil that struck Italian sovereign debt and bank equity markets on Tuesday, 29 June, is a stark reminder that the potential for another crisis is real, even if not imminent. Important parts of the firewall that separates banks from sovereigns remain incomplete – and central bankers remain vulnerable to political influence as a consequence. Two recent books help illustrate why. One, by former Cypriot Central Bank Governor and Leicester University Professor Panicos Demetriades, reveals the limits of central bank independence. The other, by University of Denver Professor Rachel Epstein, explores the interaction between banks and markets.
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.
The German grand coalition agreement promises to breathe new life into the debate about European macroeconomic governance reform. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) will hold the ministries for foreign affairs and finance; SPD leader Martin Schulz has made it clear that he is in favor of further integration; and the bullet-point version of the agreement includes a number of eye-catching suggestions that seem to cross over a number of previous German red lines. Although emphasis on risk-reduction (and national responsibility) remains prominent, risk-sharing, stabilization, and some kind of common backstop for banking resolution and deposit insurance seems more likely now than ever in the past. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced. The problem is not whether the SPD rank-and-file will vote in favor of the agreement. That remains to be seen. My doubts arise from the categorical difference between engineering and ethics.