Europe frets over crisis exit strategy
Higher taxes? Lower public spending? Devaluation? Inflation? Investment in green growth?
European governments are pointing in very different directions as they debate an exit strategy from the global financial crisis. Despite European Union efforts to coordinate economic policy, there are clear signs that the main European economies will charge off in disarray towards separate exits.
Germany is stressing an early return to fiscal discipline despite economists’ warnings against a premature withdrawal of fiscal stimulus. Berlin has just amended its constitution to anchor a timetable for a balanced budget, and is holding down labour costs to promote an export-led recovery.
“This means that the German constitution now forces a very harsh austerity stance on Germany for the coming years,” economist Sebastian Dullien wrote on the Eurozone Watch blog.
“For the rest of (the euro area) this means that after the crisis, Germany will consolidate its budget much earlier and much quicker than the rest of Europe,” he said, arguing it would weaken domestic demand and hurt growth.
German and EU officials say the amendment merely enshrines existing European budget rules and note that a get-out clause allows parliament by a simple majority to set aside the target.
By contrast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy outlined plans last week to raise a big public loan to finance investment in “tomorrow’s growth”, despite warnings from the European Central Bank and the Bank of France against any increase in debt.
France’s deficit is set to remain higher than Germany’s. But with an eye to re-election in 2012, Sarkozy explicitly ruled out austerity or tax increases to pay off mounting public debt, although he talked of cutting wasteful spending, controlling health costs and possibly raising the legal retirement age.
In Britain meanwhile, the opposition Conservatives, scenting victory in a general election due within a year, are preparing to roll back public spending to curb a runaway deficit incurred partly to rescue wayward banks and combat the recession.
Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne has been quoted as telling business leaders: “After three months in power we will be the most unpopular government since the war.”
The Europeans face a common challenge — adapting to lower trend growth while coping with mass unemployment, an aging population and overstretched public finances after the deepest recession since the 1930s.
Different national economic cultures, as well as election timetables, explain the wide diversity of policy responses.
Britain has let the pound slide on foreign exchanges to help restore competitiveness after its banks were hard hit by the credit crunch. The British are more sanguine about the prospect of higher inflation after the crisis to work down public debt.
Influential French officials, such as Sarkozy’s political adviser Henri Guaino, see higher inflation as inevitable, and not necessarily unwelcome, and worry about too strong a euro.
Germany is allergic to inflation out of bitter historical experience in the 1920s and wants a strong currency.
Its Bundesbank president, Axel Weber, has said the ECB will not be influenced by politics in withdrawing liquidity once recovery is under way.
ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet has made clear that his institution, which defines its mandate of maintaining price stability as keeping inflation below but close to 2 percent, will not allow prices to surge.
Despite these deep-seated differences, there is one key area on which the Europeans ought to be able to agree.
The EU has taken global leadership in the last decade in moving towards a low-carbon economy based on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy. Under President Barack Obama, the United States is also pushing for the green economy as a source of growth and jobs.
If European leaders joined together in a continent-wide investment and tax incentive programme to promote clean energy, energy efficiency and low-carbon innovation, they could boost the growth potential on which sound public finances depend.
(editing by David Evans)