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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Article 50: Theresa May tries to charm the EU but danger lies ahead

As the Prime Minister adopts a more conciliatory stance, she risks becoming caught between party and country. 

She may have been a "reluctant" one but a Remainer Theresa May was. The Prime Minister's first mission was to reassure her viscerally anti-EU party that Brexit meant Brexit. Today, by invoking Article 50, she has proved true to her word.

In this new arena, it is not Britain that has "taken back control" but the EU. When Brussels drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising its influence. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.

While keeping her famously regicidal party on side, May must also charm her 27 EU counterparts. In her Commons statement on Article 50, she unmistakably sought to do so. The PM spoke repeatedly of a new "deep and special partnership" between Britain and the EU, consciously eschewing the language of divorce. In contrast to Donald Trump, who pines for the EU's collapse, May declared that "perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe" (prompting guffaws and jeers from Tim Farron's party and the opposition benches). Indeed, at times, her statement echoed her pro-Remain campaign speech. 

Having previously argued that "no deal is better than a bad deal", the Prime Minister entirely ignored the possibility of failure (though in her letter to the EU she warned that security cooperation "would be weakened" without an agreement). And, as she has done too rarely, May acknowledged "the 48 per cent" who voted Remain. "I know that this is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others," she said. "The referendum last June was divisive at times. Not everyone shared the same point of view, or voted in the same way. The arguments on both side were passionate." 

Having repeatedly intoned that "we're going to make a success" of Brexit, May showed flashes of scepticism about the path ahead. She warned of negative "consequences" for the UK: "We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that." May also acknowledged that any deal would have to be followed by a "phased process of implementation" (otherwise known as transitional agreement) to prevent the UK falling over what the PM once called the "cliff-edge". 

In Brussels, such realism will be welcomed. Many diplomats have been stunned by the Brexiteers' Panglossian pronouncements, by their casual insults (think Boris Johnson's reckless war references). As the UK seeks to limit the negative "consequences" of a hard Brexit, it will need to foster far greater goodwill. Today, May embarked on that mission. But as the negotiations unfold, with the EU determined for the UK to settle a hefty divorce bill (circa £50bn) at the outset, the Prime Minister will find herself torn between party and country. Having delighted the Brexit-ultras to date, will she now risk alienating the Mail et al? The National Insurance debacle, which saw the government blink in the face of a small rebellion, was regarded by Remainers as an ominous precedent. May turned on the charm today but it will take far longer to erase the animosity and suspicion of the last nine months. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.