Opinion

Hugo Dixon

How Greece can turn vice to virtue

Hugo Dixon
Apr 14, 2014 09:27 UTC

Most Greeks know the expression vicious cycle – or favlos kyklos. But when you ask them the Greek for virtuous cycle, they often struggle to find the term, or even deny it exists.

After six years of recession that have shrunk the economy by a quarter and left Greece with an unemployment rate of 27 percent, it is not surprising that vicious cycles loom large in the national psyche. But there is a Greek expression for virtuous cycle – enaretos kyklos – and the country may be beginning to enjoy one.

Athens returned to the bond market last week with the issue of 3 billion euros of five-year paper. The country’s banks are also able to raise equity on the market.

The challenge now is to take this positive momentum in financial markets and use it to build on the tentative signs of recovery in the real economy. Confidence can be infectious. It is not just financial investors who are giving Athens the thumbs-up. So are Greece’s euro zone partners, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, who was in Athens last Friday.

The main channel through which a virtuous cycle could operate is investment, which will create the badly-needed jobs. As Greek banks find it easier to fund themselves, they will start supplying more credit to local companies, which have been starved of cash. Foreigners are also starting to invest now that Greece has lower wages and cheaper property.

Renzi-Berlusconi pact gives Italy hope

Hugo Dixon
Jan 20, 2014 10:22 UTC

A weekend pact between Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi offers new hope to Italy. The constitutional reform deal between the leader of Italy’s largest party and the leader of the opposition addresses one of the country’s biggest problems: its ungovernability. Now Renzi, who runs the centre-left Democratic Party, needs to put his energy behind key economic reforms, especially jobs and public spending.

Italy, where I spent much of last week, has been plagued for years with unstable governments. In part this is because the voting system gives a lot of power to small parties and can lead to conflicting majorities in the two houses of parliament, which have equal power.

The Renzi-Berlusconi deal aims to reinforce the power of larger parties by changing the voting system. It also would demote the upper house so that governments will only need to secure a majority in the lower one. Meanwhile, the two leaders have agreed to cut the power of Italy’s regions – a move which should save money and lead to more stream-lined decision-making.

Italy has two chances post-Berlusconi

Hugo Dixon
Dec 2, 2013 09:43 UTC

Italy seems continually condemned to disappoint. The economy has barely grown in 20 years. The younger generation is languishing without opportunity: youth unemployment stands at 41 percent. So many chances to reform the country have been wasted – and many by Silvio Berlusconi, who was finally expelled from the Senate last week after being convicted of tax fraud.

The country now has two chances to reform. The first is that Enrico Letta, the prime minister, will be emboldened to push through changes now that Berlusconi has been sent packing. If he still can’t, Matteo Renzi – who is expected to be chosen leader of the centre-left Democrats on Sunday – should force elections and show he is as radical in deed as he is in words.

Look first at Letta. He is an intelligent centrist from the Democratic party. But, since he became prime minister in April after an indecisive election result, he has not achieved much. This is largely because his government had to rely on Berlusconi’s centre-right party. The two groups found it virtually impossible to agree on anything.

Greece’s reform job isn’t even half done

Hugo Dixon
Nov 11, 2013 09:51 UTC

Greece’s reform job is not even half finished. The government hasn’t done enough to root out the vested interests that strangle the economy. Nor has it cracked down fully on tax evasion or pushed hard enough to privatise state-owned properties.

On the other hand, Antonis Samaras’ coalition is so fragile that it could collapse if the troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – forces it to impose more austerity. That could lead to a new phase in the Greek crisis. The government’s best bet is to make a sharp distinction between structural reform and austerity – and persuade its lenders that it’s so serious about the former that more cuts and taxes aren’t required.

The atmosphere in Athens, which I visited last week, is tense. One reason is that two members of the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn party had just been murdered in a professional hit job. That followed the killing of a left-wing rapper by a member of Golden Dawn which, in turn, had triggered the arrest of the party’s leader. No one is quite sure whether this is the start of a cycle of violence which could destabilise the government, drive away tourists (the country’s main source of export revenues) and undermine business confidence.

Cameron, UK hurt by Syria vote fiasco

Hugo Dixon
Aug 30, 2013 09:26 UTC

Rarely has a UK prime minister done so much damage to himself in a single week as David Cameron has with his mishandling of a vote authorising military action against Syria. Cameron may cling onto power after his stunning parliamentary defeat on Thursday night, but he will cut a diminished figure on the domestic and international stage. In the process, he has also damaged Britain’s influence.

Cameron’s litany of errors began with his decision to recall parliament from its summer holidays in order to give the green light to British participation in a military strike designed to punish Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its people last week. The decision to get parliament’s approval was right, even if not constitutionally necessary. The mistake was to rush things before all the evidence of Assad’s culpability had been gathered and published. In France, which is also contemplating military action, the parliamentary debate is scheduled for next week.

To be fair, Cameron tried to achieve political consensus. He initially persuaded Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, to back military action. He also got Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, to sign up. Both of these are also partly to blame for the fiasco. They should have attached many more conditions to their support.

How to legitimise EU: decentralise

Hugo Dixon
Jul 22, 2013 08:41 UTC

The European Union is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This is evidenced in a decline in support for the EU among citizens in pretty much every member country. The most extreme manifestation is in the UK, where pressure is mounting to quit the EU.

There are two main schools of thought about how to restore trust in Brussels. One is to increase the direct say citizens have over what the European Commission does – say by giving yet more power to the European Parliament or by having a directly elected European Commission president. The other is to stop Brussels interfering in things best left to nation states.

The former school of thought is based on a misconception. The EU does not have a demos: few Europeans feel European rather than Italian, German, French or whatever. Witness the low turnout for European Parliament elections. Trying to construct a democracy without a demos is artificial and so won’t solve the legitimacy problem.

Italy’s Letta makes best of bad job

Hugo Dixon
Jun 24, 2013 08:26 UTC

Italy’s new prime minister, Enrico Letta, is making the best of a bad job. After February’s inconclusive election, it looked like Italy’s dysfunctional political system might drag the country further into the abyss. There was a risk that nobody would be able to form a government, new elections would be called and that even these would end in a stalemate.

In the end, a grand coalition was formed involving Letta’s centre-left Democrats, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL and Mario Monti’s centrist group. Putting together such a coalition was itself an achievement – given that the Democrats and Berlusconi hate one another and that the Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, refused to make deals with anybody.

Even after the coalition was formed – largely as a result of pressure from Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s respected octogenarian president – there wasn’t much hope that it could achieve anything. But Letta has been quietly getting on with reform, as I discovered when I spent a few days in Italy last week. Part of the explanation is that he is an intelligent, modest, consensus-builder rather than a charismatic figure with a big ego.

Brexit would be bad for Britain

Hugo Dixon
May 13, 2013 09:25 UTC

Quitting the European Union would be bad for Britain. Membership of even an unreformed EU is better than “Brexit”. Quitting would mean either not having access to the single market – at a huge cost to the economy – or second-tier membership.

The debate over Brexit has moved into high gear in the past 10 days, after the UK Independence Party – which wants Britain to pull out of the EU – performed well in English local elections. The Conservative party, which rules in coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats, has been thrown into turmoil because UKIP has been winning votes largely from the Tories.

What’s more, many Conservatives would like Britain to quit the EU too. Last week Nigel Lawson, one of Margaret Thatcher’s finance ministers, argued the case for Brexit. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London who is the Conservatives’ most popular politician, also shuffled a little further in a eurosceptic direction – although he stopped short of calling for an exit.

Austerity debate misses half the point

Hugo Dixon
Apr 29, 2013 09:36 UTC

The austerity debate misses half the point. It is true that governments, especially in the euro zone, shouldn’t chase an austerity spiral ever downwards. But they can’t just sit on their hands. They must drive even harder for structural reforms.

The last few weeks have witnessed a sea-change in the debate over fiscal austerity. A seminal academic paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which purported to show that economic growth was impaired if government debt levels exceeded 90 percent of GDP, has been discredited.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has softened its line on the merits of further deep budget cuts in peripheral economies. Spain, for example, looks like it will get until 2016 to bring its deficit down below the European Union’s magic number of 3 percent of GDP. Portugal, Greece, Italy and France are also being shown greater leniency by Brussels. One of the first things Enrico Letta, Italy’s new prime minister, said last week was that country needed to focus on growth not austerity.

Greece will probably pull through

Hugo Dixon
Apr 22, 2013 08:52 UTC

Greece is not yet out of the woods. But there is a credible path that could lead the country back into the sunlight. That’s the main conclusion of a week I have just spent in the country.

Although the economy will have a terrible 2013, next year should be better. But the outlook is fragile: political crisis could yet rear its ugly head, tax evasion is rife and there’s the risk of external shocks.

Look first at the good news. Antonis Samaras’ coalition government has held together surprisingly well since it came to power last June following a period of political chaos, despite pushing through extremely unpopular measures. Samaras’ centre-right New Democracy party is neck and neck in the opinion polls with the radical left Syriza, the main opposition party. Samaras hasn’t suffered the plunging support of Spain’s Mariano Rajoy or France’s Francois Hollande.