The European Council decided during a summit organized to address the COVID-19 crisis on 23 April to confirm a European Commission program to support national insurance systems. They also approved a program by the European Investment Bank to support lending to small and medium-sized enterprises, and another by the European Stability Mechanism to make loans available to national governments to pay for health care expenses related to the pandemic. Finally, the Council asked the Commission to set out a roadmap for the creation of a ‘recovery fund, which is needed and urgent’. Supporters of the decision hailed it as an unprecedented leap toward a Europe of solidarity; critics decried it as vague and insignificant. They are both wrong and right at the same time.
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.
Seasoned observers of Italian politics will tell you that there is a fairly consistent pattern to political crisis. The pattern starts with infighting among the governing coalition; it accelerates suddenly when one of the coalition partners ‘pulls the plug’ on the government; and then things slow down again as the various stakeholders realize how much is at stake for them personally if they let things fall apart. Parliamentary seats are prestigious, the salaries are high, and the pensions are generous provided the members just stay in post long enough to qualify. More important, real crisis comprises a lot of work with very uncertain pay-offs to be gained from an often-fickle electorate. Meanwhile, bad things can happen to the country’s economy, particularly vis-à-vis the banks and bond markets. In such a context, it is only reasonable to expect that cooler heads will prevail. Given the possible threat that an Italian meltdown would pose for the future of the euro (and hence also the European Union), we should all hope these observers are right. Nevertheless, there are four good reasons to believe that this time is different.