Blog Post

An Agenda for Europe’s Worn-out Magicians

BRUSSELS – Europe’s leaders will meet again at the end of June. The question they must answer this time is not whether they can rescue this or that country, but whether they can rescue the eurozone – if not the European Union in its current form. To see why, just review the last 12 months. […]

By: Date: June 25, 2012 Topic: Macroeconomic policy

BRUSSELS – Europe’s leaders will meet again at the end of June. The question they must answer this time is not whether they can rescue this or that country, but whether they can rescue the eurozone – if not the European Union in its current form.

To see why, just review the last 12 months. In July 2011, Europe’s leaders agreed on a (limited) restructuring of Greek debt, while at the same time making financial assistance nimbler and cheaper. A year later, Greece remains on knife-edge.

Throughout last autumn, they agonized over the rise of Spanish and Italian bond rates, until finally the European Central Bank decided to administer pain relief in the form of large-scale liquidity provision to banks. But, despite the arrival of new, reform-minded governments in both Italy and Spain, the relief proved short-lived.

Then, last December, they agreed on a new fiscal treaty, a more robust financial firewall, and new resources for the International Monetary Fund, so that it could intervene on a larger scale. But, by early spring, bond rates for Spain and Italy were again approaching unsustainable levels.

Finally, earlier this month, they decided to devote €100 billion to help Spain clean up its ailing banks. The market’s reaction was to send Spanish government bond rates even higher.

Contrary to some perceptions, Europeans have not remained inactive over the last year. But they have lost their touch. Like aging magicians, they still try tricks that used to impress, but that fail to deliver results – or, worse, prove counterproductive. Meanwhile financial fragmentation within the eurozone continues; Spain, and to a lesser extent Italy, suffers a seemingly irresistible rise in borrowing costs; and political strains grow more visible.

One summit will not result in decisions that take months to prepare. But Europe’s leaders nonetheless have a chance to impress and start turning the tide, provided that they are sufficiently bold, comprehensive, and forward-looking. Here is a five-point agenda.

1.      Accept a limited renegotiation of the Greek program. The bomb has not been defused. While Greece was having two rounds of elections, its recession deepened and policy action stalled. The EU-IMF program is off track, and more focus must be put on growth. The EU should streamline and front-load existing transfers to Greece, and it should help trigger capital injection into state assets slated for privatization.

2.      Agree on a risk-sharing scheme for Spanish banks. To lend more to Spain’s government so that it can recapitalize the country’s banks adds to its debt burden and scares markets, which fear future debt restructuring. To use the partner countries’ taxpayers money to rescue Spanish banks is neither economically justified nor politically acceptable. The way out is that Spain should incur the first losses, and the eurozone’s financial-rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism, should shoulder an increasing amount of the risk above a certain threshold (say, 5-10% of GDP).

3.      Map a scheme for a banking union. A banking union – consisting of common deposit insurance, supervision, and crisis resolution – would help to avoid the mutual contamination of banks and sovereigns, which is why the idea was endorsed at the recent G-20 summit in Mexico. But it is an ambitious endeavor that cannot be launched overnight. If Europe’s leaders want to show that they are seriously considering it, they should agree to launch concrete discussions on key parameters, giving their ministers a mandate to produce results by autumn.

4.      Explore options for Eurobonds. Financial assistance can conceivably help Spain, but not Italy. If Italy’s situation worsened, debt mutualization in one way or another would ultimately end up being the only alternative to large-scale default. But, while the European Commission has endorsed schemes for partial debt mutualization, there has never been a serious discussion about their conditions and implications. Europe’s leaders cannot decide anything at this stage, but they should task a group of “wise men” (and women) to evaluate and report on options by summer’s end.

5.      Create conditions for macroeconomic adjustment. Southern Europe needs to deflate to restore competitiveness vis-à-vis northern Europe. Yet, in addition to being horribly painful, domestic deflation threatens the sustainability of public and private debt. With lower nominal income and the same level of debt, the threat of default necessarily increases. Northern Europe should temporarily accept somewhat higher inflation, provided price stability is maintained in the eurozone as a whole. Fortunately, German policymakers have indicated that they understand this logic. Leaders must now forge a consensus around it.

Most importantly, the leaders should break the political deadlock. Germany does not want closer financial solidarity if not accompanied by political integration. France wants financial solidarity without closer political integration. Both camps have stuck to their positions for at least a quarter-century.

It is time to bridge the gap between them. The perception that Europeans can agree on abstruse technicalities, but not on essentials, is a fundamental reason why the euro’s magicians are losing their touch.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

Can the EU fiscal rules jump on the green bandwagon?

By and large, setting a new green golden rule would be a useful addition to the existing EU fiscal framework.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European governance, Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 22, 2021
Read article
 

Blog Post

European governance

Germany’s post-pandemic current account surplus

The pandemic has increased the net lending position of the German corporate sector. By incentivising private investment, policymakers could trigger a virtuous cycle of increasing wages, decreasing corporate net lending, which would eventually lead to a reduction of the economy-wide current account surplus.

By: Lionel Guetta-Jeanrenaud and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 21, 2021
Read about event
 

Past Event

Past Event

Monetary policy in the time of climate change

How does climate change influence monetary policy in the eurozone? What potential monetary policy measures should be taken up to address climate risks?

Speakers: Cornelia Holthausen, Jean Pisani-Ferry and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 20, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

Rethinking fiscal policy

A look at the past, present and future of fiscal policy in the European Union with Chief economist of the European Stability Mechanism, Rolf Strauch.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 20, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Nov
4
14:00

European monetary policy: lessons from the past two decades

This event will feature the presentation of “Monetary Policy in Times of Crisis – A Tale of Two Decades of the European Central Bank."

Speakers: Grégory Claeys and Wolfgang Lemke Topic: Macroeconomic policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article
 

External Publication

European Parliament

Tailoring prudential policy to bank size: the application of proportionality in the US and euro area

In-depth analysis prepared for the European Parliament's Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON).

By: Alexander Lehmann and Nicolas Véron Topic: Banking and capital markets, European Parliament, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 14, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

External Publication

Global Economic Resilience: Building Forward Better

A roadmap for systemic economic reform calling for step-change in global economic governance to increase resilience and build forward better from economic shocks, prepared for the G7 Advisory Panel on Economic Resilience.

By: Thomas Wieser Topic: Global economy and trade, Macroeconomic policy Date: October 14, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

Letter: Declining investment may explain why rates are low

Perhaps an analysis of the causes of the declining investment rate would bring us closer to explaining why real interest rates are so low.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: October 1, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

A green fiscal pact

How can the European Union increase green public investment while consolidating budget deficits?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: September 29, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Blog Post

Monetary arithmetic and inflation risk

Between 2007 and 2020, the balance sheets of the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, and the Fed have all increased about sevenfold. But inflation stayed low throughout the 2010s. This was possible due to decreasing money velocity and the money multiplier. However, a continuation of asset purchasing programs by central banks involves the risk of higher inflation and fiscal dominance.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: September 28, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

The pandemic’s uncertain impact on productivity

The pandemic has certainly permanently affected our way of working. Whether this is for the better remains to be seen.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: September 28, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

How to strike the right balance between the three pillars of the pension system?

In this event panelists will discuss the future of European pension schemes.

Speakers: Elsa Fornero, Svend E. Hougaard Jensen and Suvi-Anne Siimes Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: September 23, 2021
Load more posts