The high priests of austerity

To an EU elite determined to push harmful economic policies, democracy is an inconvenience.

Jean-Claude Trichet could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement after stepping down as president of the European Central Bank in 2011.  Commanding an annual salary of €370,000 in his old job, the Frenchman is now paid a pension of up to 70 per cent that amount.

Instead, Trichet has been kept busy playing a game of musical chairs with Italy's technocrat former prime minister Mario Monti. In one of his final acts as ECB chief, Trichet spearheaded the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi by insisting that the lascivious rogue introduce unpalatable economic "reforms" in Italy as a condition of emergency "assistance". 

The diktat helped Monti replace Berlusconi as prime minister (without an election). It also allowed Trichet to fill two posts that Monti had to vacate: those of European chairman with the Trilateral Commission, that secretive club for political and business leaders, and chairman of Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels.  Trichet combines these responsibilities with overseeing the Group of 30, a Washington-based institution dominated by bankers.  

All this hyper-activity might explain why Trichet has been sending out some muddled messages.  During an interview on French television earlier this month, he blamed mass unemployment for the killing of a far-left activist by skinheads before advocating deep cuts to public expenditure: a recipe for mass unemployment.

Suave and confident,  Trichet probably didn't realise he was contradicting himself.  So I'd recommend that he reads a paper published by his minions at Bruegel in May.  An assessment of measures taken in embattled eurozone economies, it stated that austerity has caused "very high unemployment" in Greece and "record unemployment levels" in Portugal.

This was a rare admission from Bruegel that its preferred prescriptions are counterproductive.

Funded by Goldman Sachs (another one-time Monti employer), Deutsche Bank, Pfizer and Microsoft, the think tank has helped cloak the crude politics of austerity with intellectual gravitas. It is treated with reverence among the elite in Brussels and beyond. Top-ranking EU officials regularly attend its events, while opinion pieces by its staff grace such newspapers as Le Monde and The Financial Times.

Bruegel was established by Jean Pisani-Ferry, who was hired as an economic adviser by François Hollande, the French president, in April. The appointment indicates that Hollande, nominally a socialist, is shifting  to the right. In a syndicated column from December 2012, Pisani-Ferry parroted Margaret Thatcher's argument that "there is no alternative" to eviscerating the welfare state. "Rather than flirting with illusions, governments should confront the hard choices ahead of them," he stated.

Pisani-Ferry's new responsibilities have not caused him to be more reticent. When flaws were recently pinpointed in a by now infamous paper from the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, he claimed it was "never a celebrated piece of economic research". The shortcomings did not undermine the case for austerity, he suggested.

One common misperception is that the EU's most powerful figures have made up their response to the economic crisis as it went along. The truth is that they have exploited the situation to dust down plans hatched earlier but which would have been difficult to implement under less straitened circumstances.

André Sapir, a senior fellow at Bruegel, was tasked with drawing up a series of recommendations for the European Commission nearly a decade ago.  The 2004 Sapir report advocated that the Brussels authorities be given greater powers to monitor the budgets of EU countries. 

Known to policy wonks as the "European semester", his proposal urged meddling in areas of responsibility that national governments guarded jealously.  The concept has been turned into reality over the past few years, leading to a situation where details of Ireland's budgets are sent to other European capitals before law-makers in Dublin get to see them.

Bruegel is part of a mushrooming network of corporate-financed think tanks dedicated to influencing debate.  A video posted on Bruegel's website about Latvia's bid to join the euro illustrates this point.  It tells the viewer that there is "wide consensus" that signing up to the single currency would be "the right move for the country". 

That must be news to the people of Latvia, most of whom don't want the euro, according to opinion polls. Such inconvenient details can, of course, be glossed over. More than likely, the Riga government won't be calling a referendum on this matter.

Democracy does not gatecrash the cheese and wine receptions that happen almost nightly in the world of think tanks. Without scrutiny, their "experts" can mould the outside world in the way that the wealthy and influential want. 

David Cronin's "Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War" will be published by Pluto in August. Follow him on Twitter @dvcronin

A recent debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. (Photo: Getty.)
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.