The EU-U.S. love-hate relationship
The elaborate gavotte between the American and European economies continues.
While the Federal Reserve has begun to wind down its controversial quantitative easing (QE) program, the European Central Bank (ECB) the federal reserve of the eurozone, has announced it is considering a QE program of its own.
It is a belated acknowledgement, if not an outright admission, from Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, that five years of the European Union’s austerity policy has failed to lift the eurozone nations out of the economic mire. The ECB has presided over a wholly unnecessary triple-dip recession in the eurozone and sparked a bitter rift between the German-dominated European Union bureaucracy and the Mediterranean nations that must endure the rigors imposed from Brussels. All to little avail.
If there are any “austerians” left standing, let them explain this. Ignoring the cries of the unemployed and those pressing for urgent measures to promote growth in Europe, the ECB blithely imposed its punishing creed, arguing that there would be no gain without pain. The result? Little gain, endless pain.
The eurozone economy endured growth at a miserable 0.2 percent year-on-year in the last quarter of 2013 (after an 18-month-long eurozone recession). Unemployment is at a wretched 11.9 percent. The eurozone is suffering from chronic “lowflation,” with inflation at an annual 0.5 percent, heading toward perhaps the most destructive economic condition of all — deflation.
In response to this dunce’s report card, Draghi is considering pumping money into the eurozone through quantitative easing. Even then, he has made clear he does not mean what he says. He sees this policy — which Washington abandoned when it was seen to be ineffective — as a last resort to push up inflation and avoid the spiraling collapse of prices and economic activity that threatened the world economy in the fall of 2008. But he hopes the mere threat of QE will be enough to lift prices and save Europe from the deflation that has dogged the Japanese economy for decades.
Once again, Europe has left it to the United States to pull it out of the ditch. President George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary hastily arranged a $700 billion bank bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief program in late 2008 to halt the impending Great Recession. President Barack Obama inherited and executed this policy, adding on a $787 billion stimulus package, against a barrage of abuse from Bush’s erstwhile supporters and without a single Republican vote in Congress. But then the Europeans reneged on the €200 ($274) billion stimulus they agreed would be their contribution to ending the malaise.
Instead, while the Americans were funding and fixing the world economy, the Europeans decided to belatedly address their under-regulated banking and financial sectors and reform their overly generous labor laws and welfare arrangements funded by high public borrowing they wrongly blamed for the Great Recession.
The Europeans’ clever plan was to let America take the financial strain while they prepared to take advantage of the boom in trade that would result from the U.S.-led recovery. European politicians regularly said that since Anglo-Saxon economics had plunged the world into recession, it was therefore right the Anglo-Saxon economies should put everything right.
Things did not quite turn out as the Europeans hoped. They slyly smiled as they let the United States pick up the check but have ended up with a painful hangover — which serves them right. The giant U.S. stimulus prevented an economic collapse all right, but the resulting recovery has been at best sluggish.
The American growth the Europeans were counting on to save them from destitution has not been nearly enough to take up the slack in the economies of the Mediterranean nations such as Spain, Italy and Greece. Their high unemployment – 25.6, 13.0, and 27.5 per cent respectively – appears permanent and socially corrosive. The Germans, who almost alone have benefited from the EU’s austerity regime — not least from the low value of the euro that makes German exports unnaturally cheap — are reaping the whirlwind in terms of lost authority and outright hatred from the Southern, poorer nations.
All this would amount to little more than private grief for the Europeans were it not for the wide-ranging effects of an economically weak and politically divided continent. With the Russian wolf knocking at the door in Ukraine, the Europeans are in no position to respond robustly to put an abrupt halt to President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s expansionist plans.
Instead, the European leaders, chief among them Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who, as a former citizen of East Germany, lived half her life under Russian rule, can only plead for caution from her North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and mercy from Putin. Having failed to build a robust European economy — and failed to wean themselves off cheap Russian natural gas — the Europeans can no longer afford to stand on principle.
There is little sign that Draghi, Merkel, and other EU leaders understand, let alone acknowledge, the errors of their ways. In the name of building a strong European economy, the stronger EU nations have beggared their poorer neighbors, leaving a generation of permanently unemployed young Europeans in their wake. In the name of European unity, they have successfully divided the rich European nations of the North from the poor nations of the South. In the name of a strong common defense through European unity, they seem impotent in the face of Russia’s lawless land grab.
Jean Monnet, the father of the modern European integration movement, said, “People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognize necessity when a crisis is upon them.” It may be that the Russian military threat will cause a rethink of the economic policies needed to bring all Europeans together in a common cause.
Right now, however, it seems EU leaders are biding their time, hoping something to turn up, in the belief that if all else fails, the United States will again save them from themselves. With more than half of Americans now ready to turn their back on the rest of the world, the highest figure for more than 50 years, that complacent belief is as foolish as it is dangerous.
Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage, and Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.
PHOTO (TOP): People enter a government-run employment office in Madrid, January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Andrea Comas
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, answers reporter’s questions during his monthly news conference at the ECB headquarters in Frankfurt, December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
PHOTO (INSERT 2): German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) speaks with the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, before the start of a meeting on the second day of the G20 Summit in Cannes, France, November 4, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Ratcliffe/pool