Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Cameron’s cack-handedness risks Brexit

Hugo Dixon
Jun 16, 2014 08:57 UTC

David Cameron’s cack-handed European diplomacy risks leading Britain out of the European Union.

The latest example is the way the UK prime minister has mishandled his campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Cameron is right to try to block the former Luxembourg prime minister’s candidacy – both because Juncker is not the right person to reform the EU and because the way he is being promoted constitutes a power grab by the European Parliament. But the British prime minister’s tactics have actually made a Juncker presidency more likely.

If Cameron loses this particular battle, the chances of a Brexit – Britain’s exit from the EU – will shoot up. This is partly because Juncker himself will presumably not want to help the British prime minister with his plan to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU. And if Cameron can’t secure many goodies from his renegotiation scheme, he won’t have much to show the electorate in a referendum he plans to hold on Britain’s membership in 2017. (This will only happen if he is still prime minister then, which is far from certain since there is a general election in 2015).

Cameron’s campaign against Juncker has lost Britain friends and allies inside the EU. The most important is Germany’s Angela Merkel, who was initially lukewarm about the Luxembourger. But after Cameron was perceived by the German media to have threatened to pull Britain out of the EU if Juncker wasn’t blocked, she had to rally round his candidacy. She even gave Britain’s prime minister a thinly-veiled ticking-off last week, saying threats were not part of the “European spirit.”

Other Europeans, too, are becoming exasperated about Britain. One former French prime minister, Michel Rocard, told the UK last week to quit the EU before it caused more damage. That’s an extreme position, but it shows Cameron’s diplomacy has backfired.

Don’t bet on EU treaty change

Hugo Dixon
Mar 31, 2014 09:14 UTC

Both continental European euro-enthusiasts and British Conservatives received a boost last week when the German and UK finance ministers called for a rewrite of the European Union’s treaties. The goal, outlined by Wolfgang Schaeuble and George Osborne, is to kill two birds with one stone: shore up the euro zone and keep Britain in the EU.

The entente is significant. German-UK relations have certainly warmed since December 2011, when London tried to block one of Berlin’s pet projects – a treaty that restricted borrowing by euro zone countries – unless it was given guarantees to protect the City of London.

But have the two countries really found a formula that simultaneously solves the EU’s two main problems? There are reasons to be sceptical.

Euro zone needs anti-boom activism

Hugo Dixon
Sep 23, 2013 09:11 UTC

A big problem with the euro zone’s one-size-fits-all monetary policy is that it risks fitting nobody. That, indeed, was a key cause of the crisis. Early in the century, countries such as Spain and Ireland were booming, while Germany was in the doldrums. Setting interest rates at a level that worked well for the euro zone on average had the effect of inflating the Spanish and Irish property bubbles while pushing up wages so their economies became uncompetitive. When the bubbles burst, the damage was devastating.

It would be hard to argue that any part of the euro zone is currently booming. Even Germany will eke out GDP growth of only 0.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. But it may not be long before the problems of a one-size-fits-all monetary policy are back to haunt the zone. Even though the German economy isn’t growing strongly, it is still outperforming the average. What’s more, labour is in short supply in Germany and house prices are rising at a moderate clip – a big contrast to the average, let alone recession-inflicted countries such as Italy.

The European Central Bank’s policy of keeping interest rates at the current 0.5 percent level or lower for an “extended period” is right for the euro zone on average. The weaker countries would benefit from even looser monetary policy. Germany, though, may already need something tighter. If the “extended period” of low interest rates goes on for years, it could experience a boom.

Successful summit didn’t solve crisis

Hugo Dixon
Jul 2, 2012 09:27 UTC

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.

How 50 bln euros might save the euro

Hugo Dixon
Jun 25, 2012 10:16 UTC

The break-up of the euro would be a multi-trillion euro catastrophe. An interest subsidy costing around 50 billion euros over seven years could help save it.

The immediate problem is that Spain’s and Italy’s borrowing costs - 6.3 percent and 5.8 percent respectively for 10-year money - have reached a level where investors are losing confidence in the sustainability of the countries’ finances. A vicious spiral - involving capital flight, lack of investment and recession – is under way.

Ideally, this week’s euro summit would come up with a solution. The snag is that most of the popular ideas for cutting these countries’ borrowing costs have been blocked by Germany, the European Central Bank or both.

Enough austerity, it’s time for reform

Hugo Dixon
Jan 9, 2012 02:47 UTC

Semantics could help save the euro zone. There is a crying need to distinguish between fiscal austerity and structural reform.  The endless austerity programs adopted by the GIIPS — Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain — threaten to crush their economies so much that they are socially unbearable. By contrast, reforming pensions, labor markets and the like would be good for long-term growth. A policy mix that emphasizes the latter and draws some sort of line under the former is needed to stop the euro crisis spinning out of control.

Europeans have become grimly familiar with austerity spirals over the past two years. A government that needs to cut its fiscal deficit embarks on a program of tax hikes and spending cuts. The snag is that this fiscal squeeze, in turn, squeezes the economy — partly via the direct impact of cash being sucked out of the private sector and partly because the private sector loses confidence. The depressed economy means the government’s tax take doesn’t rise nearly as much as envisaged. So the deficit doesn’t decline much and, as a percentage of shrunken GDP, it falls even less. The governments’ creditors, led by Germany, then demand another round of austerity to get the program back on track. With each round, the howls of pain from the population increase, belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel declines and the government’s political capital shrinks.

The Greeks, Irish and Portuguese have been trying to run up this down escalator the longest. Italy and Spain are now embarking on the same regime. Yet more doses will be required over the coming year if the policy mix is unchanged. After all, last year’s budget deficits are expected to be about 10 percent for Greece and Ireland, 7-8 percent for Spain and Portugal (if a one-off pension transfer is ignored) and 4 percent for Italy.

Euro Disziplin may store up trouble

Hugo Dixon
Dec 5, 2011 04:11 UTC

The euro zone will probably get another short-term fix at its summit this week. Exactly how the fix will work isn’t clear. But both Germany and the European Central Bank have softened their positions so much that some sort of solution is in the works. The ECB will probably cut interest rates and spray more liquidity at the troubled banking system; it may also step up its purchases of government bonds; and some scheme for assembling enough money to bail out Italy and Spain — probably by getting national central banks to lend money to the International Monetary Fund, which could then pass it on to Rome and Madrid – may be unveiled.

All this would be cause for celebration. The problem is the price that Germany and seemingly the ECB are demanding for their help: fiscal discipline, embedded in a treaty. Merkel wants the European Commission in Brussels to have the power to overturn irresponsible national budgets and for the European Court of Justice to fine governments that step out of line.

This idea for a treaty is stirring up all sorts of problems. One is that Britain, which is not part of the euro zone but is a member of the European Union, wants a quid pro quo for signing a revised treaty – probably in the form of returning powers over social and judicial affairs to London or getting some veto over the regulation of financial services, the UK’s largest industry.

Don’t leave Plan B too late

Hugo Dixon
Nov 28, 2011 10:00 UTC

It is fashionable for pundits outside Germany to lambast its government, the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank for being inflexible or stupid or both. Can’t they see that all that’s needed is for the ECB to fire its bazooka by printing unlimited money, and the euro crisis would be over?

After spending a couple of days in Frankfurt and Berlin last week, my impression is that these three institutions are neither stupid nor totally inflexible. That said, Germany is still determined to try its current plan for solving the euro crisis, though it has little chance of working. And by the time the trio get round to implementing a Plan B, the euro zone could be in deep recession or even have exploded.

The current plan has three elements. First, the governments of troubled countries such as Italy and Spain need to implement structural reforms and austerity. Second, the zone’s fire extinguisher, the European Financial Stability Facility, needs to be got in good working order in case the fires in Rome and Madrid become uncontrollable. Finally, governments need to agree a treaty committing them to long-term budgetary discipline.