Eurointelligence’s news briefing this morning (the professional edition) had a really excellent comment regarding the news that Jeroen Dijsselbloem is proposing that the stability pact be reformed, so as to link flexibility on deficit correction to “economic reform”. The question is, of course, what constitutes “economic reform.” Says Eurointelligence:
We recall that the expression „economic reforms“ had the exact opposite meaning in the 1970s – a reduction in market liberalism, more regulation, more workers rights. Economic reforms is always a political process. Is Dijsselbloem saying that decision on labour market organisations, for example, should be done at central level, and if not, who decides what reforms are desirable, and what constitutes reform? Say, the Commission enters into a “contract” with a country on certain types of reforms, what would stop a newly elected parliament in that country from breaking such a contract? In German constitutional law, for example, the parliament’s sovereignty would always rank above such contracts. One of the lessons of the eurozone’s short history is that one should not put currently fashionable ideological positions into a treaty or a law.
It is one thing to say that monetary policy should be the preserve of technocrats. You can also make a case that the same should be true of governments’ overall fiscal stances (although as soon as you get into questions of taxation and expenditure, you are beginning to trespass on matters that should properly be dealt with by democratically elected parliaments; and there are also the questions of whether the beurocrats in charge know what they are doing, and whom they are listening to). But the balance between expenditure cuts and tax increases in a deficit reduction programme? The composition of taxes or expenditures in normal times? Microeconomic regulations influencing the balance of power between employers and workers? These are political matters, on which the right and the left have legitimate disagreements (and, besides, economists know a lot less about a lot of this stuff than they sometimes pretend). Sorting out these disagreements is a core function of any modern democracy.
If, as a technical matter, the Eurozone requires at least some degree of fiscal union, and if, as a political matter, a big obstacle to this is citizens’ distrust of “Europe”, then measures which can be seen as attempted power-grabs by the centre at the expense of voters would seem to be directly counter-productive. Not everything in the economic life of a nation is a purely technical matter; we should be trying to convince voters that the Euro, and the EU itself, are compatible with the principle that our votes count for something, and that we can change policies that we don’t like, no matter how “technically desirable” they are thought to be in 2013 by the OECD or IMF or EC or whoever it is. Make the electorate feel disenfranchised, and you play into the hands of the populists.