Alternatives to austerity

The inevitable "structural reforms" Italy faces won't drag the eurozone's third-largest economy out

Silvio Berlusconi's last few days as Prime Minister find him overseeing the introduction of extraordinary austerity measures, passed through the Italian Parliament yesterday on the back of wheedling promises made to EU leaders. Berlusconi's exit will doubtless come as a blessed relief to many millions of Italians. The clown is to be replaced - without, naturally, recourse to elections - by a European Commissioner, Mario Monti, hastily sworn in as senator-for-life. A new government of technocrats will oversee implementation of austerity, assisted by the IMF officials now taking up residence in Italy's finance ministry. Those austerity measures, in turn, will be backed up by the usual demands for "structural reforms" - deregulation and privatisation chief amongst them.

This will not end the crisis in Italy - and, with that failure, the prospect of a global slump is opened. Austerity across Europe has already driven economies deeper into the mire, Ireland and Greece chief amongst them. The mechanism is widely known: as government spending falls, it drags demand down still further. As demand falls, firms cut wages and make redundancies. A vicious circle kicks in. With Italian consumers and businesses keeping their wallets closed, and no real hope of a recovery in export markets, it is spending by government that could sustain economic activity. Yet the scorched-earth economics of austerity are now being forced onto Italy.

Deregulation and the loosening up of labour markets are the second leg of the EU and IMF plans. The hope is that by freeing capital to operate as it sees fit, it will recover its dynamism. But "structural reforms" have taken place in Italy over the last decade or more. On OECD measures, Italy's product and labour markets are now as deregulated as Germany. In conditions of stagnant demand, the chances of further assaults on employment and consumer protection prompting growth are slim.

Italy's economic malaise runs deeper. The rot set in decades ago. A post-war miracle, with growth rates averaging over 5 per cent from 1951-73, halted with sharp recession in the early 1970s. Growth never truly recovered, and for the last 15 years has averaged less than one per cent a year. Businesses and government acted in concert to casualise labour, promoting labour-intensive export industries at the expense of capital investment. Economic activity became increasingly concentrated in the centre and the north, leaving the south lagging still further. Rising public debt initially helped cover the costs of wider stagnation.

Recent governments have targeted that debt, at the expense of public spending - and those without Berlusconi at the helm most successfully. The burden fell from 120 per cent of GDP in 1996 to around 100 per cent by 2007. But the financial crisis of 2007-8 led to a sharp rebound. A decade of debt reduction was wiped out in two years. The combination of a seriously weak economy and sharply rising indebtedness is what has now panicked markets into pushing Italy's current borrowing costs above 7 per cent.

If there is a hope of recovery in the eurozone's third-largest economy, it cannot come through the standard IMF package of austerity measures and market-led reforms. Nor will it come through the erosion of democracy. Quite the opposite is required: supporting public expenditure to sustain demand; industrial transformation, led by public intervention; and an expansion of democracy against the rule of finance - including, ultimately, a recognition that odious and unpayable sovereign debts need not be honoured.

James Meadway is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.