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Policy Contribution

High public debt in euro-area countries: comparing Belgium and Italy

This Policy Contribution looks at the evolution of public debt in Belgium and Italy since 1990 and uses the debt dynamics equation to explain the contrasting evolution in the two countries in the run-up to the introduction of the euro, during the early years of the euro and since the beginning of the crisis, arguing that the euro could have been used also by Italy to undertake sufficiently large fiscal adjustment.

By: Date: September 6, 2018 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

During the 1970s and 1980s, Belgium and Italy accumulated huge amounts of public debt. In the early 1990s, at the time of the Maastricht Treaty, public debt reached a peak of nearly 140 percent of GDP in Belgium and nearly 130 percent in Italy. After Maastricht, both countries made major fiscal efforts in order to qualify for membership of the euro.

When the euro was launched in 1999, public debt had been brought down substantially in the two countries, to roughly 110 percent of GDP. At the time Belgium and Italy were also identical in another respect: GDP per capita.

Today the situation is very different. The level of public debt is 130 percent of GDP in Italy against only 100 percent in Belgium. Worse, in GDP per capita terms, Italy is now 20 percent poorer than Belgium. No wonder Italians are dissatisfied with their lot.

This Policy Contribution looks at the evolution of public debt in Belgium and Italy since 1990 and seeks to explain the contrasting evolution in the two countries in the run-up to the introduction of the euro, during the early years of the euro and since the beginning of the crisis.

It finds that, after substantial fiscal efforts during a relatively brief period before the launch of the euro, Italy’s efforts tailed off, while Belgium continued to consolidate its debt at an impressive pace. Italy also did too little to improve its growth performance, which lagged significantly behind Belgium’s and that of all other euro-area countries.

When the crisis hit the two countries, Italy was therefore much more vulnerable to market sentiment than Belgium, especially when the sovereign debt crisis spread from Greece to other euro-area countries. Italy responded to the onslaught of markets with austerity measures, which made matters worse, sending GDP growth into negative territory and increasing the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Politics has been central to the contrasting debt dynamics in the two countries. Bad domestic politics prior to Maastricht were responsible for the huge accumulation of public debt in Belgium and Italy up to the early 1990s. Maastricht brought fiscal discipline to both countries, but the constraint proved more binding on Belgium than on Italy once the two countries joined the euro. During the crisis, Belgium fared better than Italy because its political class displayed an absolute commitment to debt sustainability and to euro membership that was at times lacking in Italy.

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Growth uncertainty, European Central Bank intervention and the Italian debt

European Central Bank intervention provides a buffer against the uncertainty faced by European Union economies in the face of COVID-19. For the time being, this intervention has alleviated concern about Italy's debt, but without it Italy is vulnerable to a debt crisis.

By: Andrea Consiglio and Stavros Zenios Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 28, 2020
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Covid-19 and emerging economies: What to expect in the short- and medium-term

This article was originally published in the Observer Research Foundation. As Brazil, Russia, India and Mexico record the fast spread of the Covid-19 contagion, a third wave of the pandemic is reaching the emerging world. As a result, business sentiment has decreased in March and April in the region. What’s more, as emerging economies gradually […]

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 3, 2020
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The Independence of the Central Bank at Risk

The ruling of the German Federal Constitutional Court (GFCC) of May 5 on the ECB’s monetary policy affects not only the relation of Germany to the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) but also the constitutional foundations of monetary policy.

By: Peter Bofinger, Martin Hellwig, Michael Hüther, Monika Schnitzer, Moritz Schularick and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 2, 2020
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EU debt as insurance against catastrophic events in the euro area: the key questions and some answers

European Union debt can provide comprehensive insurance against the COVID-19 pandemic and can enable a macroeconomic response, even though EU debt is a liability for taxpayers in EU countries and therefore indirectly for national budgets. To establish it, countries will need to give up control over some spending and some revenues. To be politically sustainable, that control should not be intergovernmental but be grounded in EU institutions. The EU Treaty offers some possibilities, but treaty change might ultimately be necessary. Democratic legitimacy is at the core of the debate.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: April 22, 2020
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Opinion

The perils of more debt

Europe must find the “Ways and Means”.

By: Maria Demertzis, Nicola Viegi and Bruegel Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: April 10, 2020
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Past Event

Past Event

CANCELLED: How adequate is the European toolbox to deal with financial stability risks in a low rate environment?

Bruegel is delighted to welcome the governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Gabriel Makhlouf. He will deliver a keynote address about how adequate the European toolbox is to tackle financial stability risks in a low rate environment. Following his speech, a panel of experts will further discuss the topic.

Speakers: Gabriel Makhlouf, Guntram B. Wolff and Agnès Bénassy-Quéré Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: March 31, 2020
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Opinion

Why OMT is not the solution for Italy right now

The Outright Monetary Transactions tool is not well suited for Italy right now. Italy needs fiscal support both by itself and by the EU. Italy and the rest of the EU need a fiscal bazooka. We should find a way of backstopping our economies immediately.

By: Maria Demertzis and Bruegel Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 16, 2020
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Faced with a difficult prognosis, the Italian government has prescribed a three-step strategy to treat the worse economic symptoms of the Coronavirus. The medicine is money and the dosage is €4.5 billion

By: Simone Tagliapietra and Bruegel Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 3, 2020
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As the Coronavirus spreads, can the EU afford to close its borders?

In 2018, 320 million trips were made between EU countries and almost 2 million people crossed Schengen borders to go to work. Stopping them would cause serious economic disruption.

By: Raffaella Meninno and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: February 27, 2020
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What is fuelling the Dutch house price boom?

Housing prices have been rising fast in the West of the Netherlands in the last five years. However, mortgages outstanding have remained flat, raising the question of what has driven the increase. Evidence suggests that housing supply constraints have, this time around, played a role in pushing the house prices up.

By: Sybrand Brekelmans Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: February 19, 2020
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Recent euro-area house price increases are dissimilar to earlier housing booms

Current housing markets relative to those pre-crisis seem to be far less driven by mortgage credit, and the size of the construction sector has not increased. This is possibly good news for financial stability because an eventual house price correction would transmit less into mortgage defaults and corrections in economic activity.

By: Zsolt Darvas, Marta Domínguez-Jiménez and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: February 17, 2020
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Policy Contribution

European Parliament

From climate change to cyber attacks: Incipient financial-stability risks for the euro area

The European Central Bank’s November 2019 Financial Stability Review highlighted the risks to growth in an environment of global uncertainty. On the whole, the ECB report is comprehensive and covers the main risks to euro-area financial stability, we highlight issues that deserve more attention.

By: Zsolt Darvas, Marta Domínguez-Jiménez and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, European Parliament, Finance & Financial Regulation, Testimonies Date: February 6, 2020
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