The austerity vs. growth argument is hotting up

The G8 and eurozone summits show that leaders still have a long way to go.

With a G8 summit one week and an EU summit the next we have the latest act of a seemingly interminable eurozone crisis. The solutions needed now are almost exactly the same as a year ago: Europe's banks, particularly in Spain and France need to be re-capitalised; the European Central Bank needs to maintain its presence in the bond market; and, most importantly, we need a concerted stimulus programme aimed primarily at southern Europe to prevent a deep recession.

So, what’s new, you might ask.

Well, the G8 summit saw the first serious growth vs austerity battle, with Obama and Hollande leading the pro-stimulus camp against Angela Merkel. Although Merkel’s refusal to cave in to demands for, amongst other things, a relaxation of deficit reduction targets, Eurobonds and quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, is clear from the summit communique, she is becoming increasingly isolated. Later this week EU leaders will meet in Brussels for a mini-summit convened by Herman Van Rompuy, and it will be interesting to see whether Merkel’s stance softens or hardens.

The election results in France and Greece made it inevitable, but it is clear that the terms of debate have shifted in the last few weeks as politicians realise that the immediate priority is to escape recession rather than cut deficits.

This is not deficit denial but common sense. A sustainable debt and deficit reduction programme cannot be achieved in countries with shrinking output, and it is an economic nonsense to suggest otherwise. A quick glance across the Atlantic should offer some guidance. Things are not exactly rosy in the US, which is still wrestling with high debt and deficit levels, but, unlike the eurozone, US economic output is rising and unemployment falling. A report published last month by Oxford Economics and the rating agency Fitch claimed that President Obama's stimulus package has been worth an extra 4% of GDP and that, without it, the US economy would still be "mired in recession".

There is also a bit of wriggle room for a targeted stimulus. European Commission officials have been talking about providing an extra €10 billion to the European Investment Bank and allocating about €80 billion in unused structural funds to fund infrastructure projects in the EU. There is also widespread support for setting up joint liability EU ‘project bonds’.

Unfortunately putting these policies into action is still not quite that straight-forward. The G8 communique, with its telling phrase that “the right measures are not the same for each of us”, reveals the divide that still exists on how best to respond.

In fact, had that line been used two years ago Europe would probably have avoided the mess it now finds itself in. The biggest mistake made by the EU’s predominantly conservative leaders has been to insist that austerity and nothing else is the “right measure” for everybody.

But a closer look reveals that the EU countries facing difficulties all have different problems. Ireland was brought down by a property binge financed by its banks which were then left horribly exposed to sub-prime mortgages. Spain does not have high government debt but its banks hold multi-billion euro losses from real estate alongside dangerously high unemployment particularly among young people. Italy has one of the lowest budget deficits in Europe but a high debt to GDP ratio. Only Greece has deep-rooted structural problems. All of them would benefit from a targeted stimulus package which, unlike a diet consisting solely of cuts, would give them the economic stability needed for fiscal consolidation.

The main questions facing the EU are not about the fate of the euro. They are on how eurozone countries can generate the economic output to move towards balancing their books and, secondly, about the democratic legitimacy of applying the terms of the rescue packages.
A situation where unelected technocrat governments push through unpopular economic reforms is a dangerous recipe for civil unrest. Without a democratic mandate to implement the terms of their rescue programmes it is hard to see how they will be successful.

As yet, no country has had a referendum on the rescue programmes their leaders signed up to. Only in Spain and Portugal can it be argued that the governments have a mandate for cuts, while Ireland will vote on the fiscal compact treaty later this month. It might be in everyone's interest - both the creditor and debtor countries- for all the countries needing emergency support to hold national referendums on whether to remain in the euro. This would force politicians at national and European level to candidly weigh up the pros and cons of the recovery programmes and their membership of the euro.

The euro is - as it has been from the start - in the hands of Europe's leaders, who have so far been unwilling or unable to spell out the reality of the options open to their electorates. They need to be clear on three points: the structure of the single currency requires reform if it is to work; debt reduction is not optional; and austerity without growth is a road to ruin. The sooner politicians from creditor and debtor countries swallow their pride and correct their mistakes the better.

The G8 summit Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.