Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

The age of austerity is ending

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 28, 2013 15:35 UTC

Whisper it softly, but the age of government austerity is ending. It may seem an odd week to say this, what with the U.S. government preparing for indiscriminate budget cuts, a new fiscal crisis apparently brewing in Europe after the Italian election and David Cameron promising to “go further and faster in reducing the deficit” after the downgrade of Britain’s credit. But politics is sometimes a looking-glass world, in which things are the opposite of what they seem.

Discussing the outcome of Friday’s “sequestration” of U.S. government spending is best left to the month ahead, when we see how the public reacts to government cutbacks. But in Italy, Britain and the rest of Europe, this week’s events should help convince politicians and voters that efforts to reduce government borrowing, whether through public spending cuts or through tax hikes, are both politically suicidal and economically counterproductive.

In Italy, and therefore the entire euro zone, this shift is now almost certain. After the clear majority voted for politicians explicitly campaigning against austerity and what they presented as German economic bullying, further budget cuts or labor reforms in Italy are now off the agenda, if only because they would be literally impossible to implement. If Angela Merkel demands further budget cuts, tax hikes or labor reforms as a condition for supporting Italy’s membership of the euro, a majority of voters have given an unequivocal clear answer: Basta, enough is enough. Most Italians would rather leave the euro than accept any further austerity – and if Italy left the euro, total breakup of the single currency would follow with an inevitability that might not apply if the country exiting were Greece, Portugal or even Spain.

Merkel surely understands this, and she is determined to avoid a catastrophic euro crisis just before her own election in Germany on Sept. 22. She is therefore almost certain to heed Italian voters’ refusal to accept further tax hikes, budget cuts or labor reforms. From now on, the European Central Bank will have to offer its support to Italy without any tough pre-conditions. In fact, Italy can realistically be expected to make only one economic promise: to maintain the existing taxes and reform laws already legislated under Monti. That promise should be easy enough to keep, since Italy’s new parliament will be no more able to muster a majority for repealing old laws than for introducing new ones.

The European Commission, meanwhile, can move the fiscal goalposts in Italy’s favor. Once that precedent is set for Italy, similar flexibility should spread across the euro zone – and at that point the ECB would be able to offer effectively unconditional guarantees of financial support for all members of the euro zone, while Merkel and German voters turn a blind eye. Once investors work all this out, European financial markets can be expected to calm down and Italian politicians to return to what they know and love: plotting, backstabbing and Machiavellian intrigue.

The losers in Italy’s election are already clear

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 21, 2013 18:00 UTC

We don’t yet know the winner of Sunday’s election in Italy, but the losers are already clear. And in this election, who loses may be much more important than who wins.

The obvious loser is Mario Monti, the charming and eloquent economics professor who is widely credited with saving Italy from a Greek-style debt crisis during his one-year term as Italy’s unelected prime minister. Monti could have gone down in history as the most effective and intelligent Italian leader of his generation, had he decided to opt out of this weekend’s election and instead sought appointment as Italy’s president. That is a mainly ceremonial role that can become very important in times of constitutional crisis (which in Italy occur all too often), and Monti could almost certainly have won strong endorsements  from Italian politicians on the left and right.

Instead, Monti surprised everyone by founding a political party and running for Parliament at the head of a center-right grouping. This now looks like a big mistake. According to the last pre-election polls, Monti’s group is running a humiliating fourth, after the Italian Socialist Party, Silvio Berlusconi’s resurrected personal party and stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo’s anarchic Five Star Movement. Worse still for Monti, he seems to have helped his archenemy Berlusconi by splitting the opposition to the scandal-ridden former prime minister. If Monti’s party performs as badly as expected, it will be all too easy for his opponents to present the election as a clear rejection of the painful economic reforms he imposed on his long-suffering countrymen at the behest of the German government and the European Central Bank.

Can the rest of Europe stand up to Germany?

Anatole Kaletsky
Jun 20, 2012 19:02 UTC

As financial markets slide toward disaster, scarcely pausing to celebrate the “success” of the Greek election or the deal to recapitalize Spanish banks, the euro project is finally revealing its fatal flaw. One country poses an existential threat to Europe – and it is not Greece, Italy or Spain. Every serious proposal to resolve the euro crisis since 2009 – haircuts for bank bondholders, more realistic fiscal consolidation targets, jointly guaranteed eurobonds, a pan-European bailout fund, quantitative easing by the European Central Bank – has been vetoed by Germany, and this pattern looks likely to be repeated next week.

Nobody should be surprised that Germany has become the greatest threat to Europe. After all, this has happened twice before since 1914. To state this unmentionable fact is not to impugn Germans with original sin, but merely to note Germany’s unusual geopolitical situation. Germany is too big and powerful to coexist comfortably with its European neighbors in any political structure ruled purely by national interests. Yet it isn’t big and powerful enough to dominate its neighbors decisively, as the U.S. dominates North America or China will dominate the Far East.

Wise German politicians recognized this inherent instability after 1945 and abandoned the realpolitik of national interest in favor of the idealism of European unification. Instead of trying to create a “German Europe” the new national goal was to build a “European Germany.” Unfortunately, this lesson seems to have been forgotten by Angela Merkel. Whatever the intellectual arguments for or against German-imposed austerity or the German-designed fiscal compact, there can be no dispute about their political import. Merkel’s stated goal is now to create a “German Europe,” with every nation living, working and running its government according to German rules.

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