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.)
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.