The Changing Relationship between Finance and Politics in Europe

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.

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Two Thoughts on Greece

As we approach another round of talks on the third Greek bailout package, I thought it would be appropriate to share two thoughts on the importance of debt forgiveness and on Europe’s preparedness in case this all goes wrong. My basic line is that debt-forgiveness is the only pragmatic choice. I also worry that Europe is not as prepared for the alternative as it should be.

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More than Just debt

Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt. By Martin Sandbu. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 313 pp. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-691-16830-2 (cloth).

The euro did not cause Europe’s economic crisis; policymakers did. By focusing too much attention on debt, by demanding that existing obligations be met in full (and creditors made whole), and by doing so against a backdrop of coordinated macroeconomic tightening, Europe’s policymakers ensured that the downturn in European macroeconomic performance would be deep, long, and destructive. These same policymakers only narrowly avoided disaster when they began to loosen monetary policy and to accept the need for some debt restructuring. Nevertheless, these efforts did not come soon enough, they were no comprehensive enough, and they were not applied consistently enough to prevent Europe from coming to the edge of disaster as elite macroeconomic ideology finally collided with the requirements for democratic legitimacy in Greece (and Germany) during the summer of 2015. This is the diagnosis Martin Sandbu offers to explain what went wrong.

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Lessons from Greece? Individuals Matter

European integration is a process that derives from broad social movements. We look for its origins in the terrifying experience of the twenty years’ crisis, bookended by two cataclysmic world wars. ‘Europe’ is not necessarily a rejection of the nation state, but it is an attempt to rescue the nation state from its inherent limitations and vices. It is a forum within which France and Germany can reconcile their differences; Britain can adapt to its relative decline; Southern Europe can find a bulwark for democracy; and Eastern Europe can emerge from communism.

But Europe is made by people and sometimes individuals can play a decisive role. The events of the past summer are a good example. There are many prominent scholars who have tried to cast the Greek crisis as some kind of clash of economic cultures or institutional path dependence gone wrong. Those arguments have merit. But they do not capture the essence of what happened; they fail to explain how Europe came so close to disaster; and they make it harder to anticipate what could still go wrong.

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Accusations of Arrogance

It is no secret that Europe is facing multiple crises. Migration, deflation, Greece, and Ukraine top the list, but the issues that come after are no less challenging for being less prominent. Let’s not forget, Europe was ‘in crisis’ at the turn of the century and before any of these headline issues emerged. That earlier agenda – which includes population aging, welfare state reform, energy security, industrial change, market competition, and connecting ‘Europe’ to ‘the people’ – still needs to be addressed. Then as now the two questions are whether Europe will hold together and whether European leaders will energize and focus that unity with a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, increasing accusations of ‘arrogance’ suggest that neither unity nor purpose should be expected.

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The European Political Centre Cannot Hold (But the EU Can)

Europe’s politicians have cleared the last hurdle in accepting Greece’s third financial bailout but the voting was uncomfortable for everyone. The left-wing populist government in Greece relied on representatives from the more traditional centre-left and centre-right to cover for defections from the ruling coalition; the German government used Social Democrats within the ruling coalition to cover for defections from the Chancellors own Christian Democrats; and the Liberal (VVD)/Party of Labour (PvdA) government the Netherlands got extra support from the left-liberal D66 party to add to its slender one-seat majority.

As a result of these different movements toward the political centre – and similar developments in other countries – the Greek government will get the money it needs to keep up with its debt payments and shore up its banks. That is a good thing for anyone who wants to see Greece have a reasonable chance at recovering from this ongoing crisis. Unfortunately, that centre cannot hold. A populist party like Syriza cannot govern easily with the old pillars of the Greek political establishment; Germany’s grand coalition is an historical anomaly; and the result of eight years of close cooperation between VVD, PvdA and D66 was bad for all. So the question is whether Europe’s political centre will splinter before the Greek situation becomes sustainable.

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Countries Do Not Borrow, They Are Bought

A lot of the criticism of peripheral countries in the euro area relies on an implicit comparison with households or firms. The argument goes like this: these countries borrowed excessively after they joined the euro at the end of the 1990s in order to live beyond their means and then got in trouble when they could not pay back the money. This argument is usually directed at the public sector in countries like Greece and Italy, at the private sector in Ireland and Spain, and at both the public and private sector in Portugal. These countries have all received their comeuppance and–like any firm or household in a similar situation–they now have to live within their means.

This analogy between countries on the one hand, and households or firms on the other hand, is misleading if not completely wrong. The reason is that countries do not ‘borrow’ in any conventional meaning of the term–at least not under normal circumstances. When things are going well, countries do not fill out an application with various lenders. They do not have to provide a business plan or show any bank statements. They do not offer up collateral or enlist the support of co-signers. These things only take place once a country gets into trouble and needs some kind of international bailout. ‘Borrowing’ for countries in a conventional sense means that something bad has already happened; it is the symptom and not the cause.

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