What Hollande should do now

How the new French president can oblige the Germans to play their part in Europe's growth strategy.

Francois Hollande comes to power at an interesting conjuncture, with Europe in crisis and the political mood on the move. It is a shift of mood not just amongst the electorate - most of whom have long been opposed to austerity (all we saw last Sunday was their chance to express their views in elections) - but amongst the political class and the technocratic elites. Voices arguing that Europe needs a growth strategy as well as a fiscal consolidation strategy are finally emerging from the IMF, from the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, as well as from a growing number of European leaders.  Angela Merkel swept everyone before her when she demanded a new European Fiscal Compact only months ago, but today is beginning to look surprisingly isolated with calls for a re-think coming not just from Greece and France, but also from Belgium, Spain and Italy.

Politically, Hollande therefore has more potential clout than might initially appear. Despite this the reality remains that, financially, virtually all the economic power in Europe lies in German hands and, hardly surprisingly, the German Chancellor has rapidly stated that as far as she is concerned, austerity rules. At the same time Hollande can hardly go off on a spending spree of his own. The markets would pulverise him. 

What then can Hollande do?  Pre-election, he was hardly a radical on curbing the calls for deficit reduction, merely saying that France should go slower and have a further year to consolidate. But there is one significant other possibility. In consultation with like-minded colleagues, he should turn the discussion on its head and say to Germany: we fully support the need for fiscal consolidation, but, as good Europeans, we all expect equality of treatment. In particular, you will understand that 2+2 must equal 4 and so if there are to be no deficits there must be no surpluses either.

More precisely, he should direct attention to the current text of the Fiscal Pact. Title III, Article 3, sub-clause 1 (a) reads as follows:

the budgetary position of the general government of the Contracting Parties shall be balanced or in surplus*

*[emphasis added]

The removal of these last three words would make a fundamental difference. Not only is it the case that, economically, the removal of deficits will in any case require the removal of surpluses - but more importantly, it would place on Germany the obligation to play its part in financing the growth strategy without which such fiscal consolidation is impossible.

To underline his point, Hollande might add some history. The error in the current European Fiscal compact is identical to that made at Bretton Woods in 1944. That discussion was about balance of payments surpluses and deficits, but apart from this shift of focus, the problem is identical. Those at Bretton Woods insisted on countries acting to correct deficits but without placing a reciprocal obligation on surplus countries. There is still the widespread view that Bretton Woods worked smoothly from the start. It did not. It was massively breached by the UK in 1947, when as the Bretton Woods arrangements required, we liberalised capital flows - but then, against the rules, had to re-impose them virtually straight away to prevent a forced devaluation. The system was only saved when in 1948 the US launched Marshall Aid, a stimulus of a kind not even contemplated by the Bretton Woods agreement.

Reminding Germany of this history would be salutary; at least some of their current prosperity stems from how their post-war recovery was financed. And Hollande’s pressure in this direction can hardly be too uncomfortable for the German Chancellor. Asking for less taxation and more spending is not the most difficult of messages to deliver to a politician – even in Germany.

 

Photo: Getty Images

 

Andrew Graham is the former Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and from 1988 to 1994 was Economic Adviser to the shadow Chancellor and Labour leader, John Smith.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle