Some thoughts on Brexit

Although I was a member of the Centre for European Reform’s Commission on the UK and the Single Market, I declined to sign a resultant letter to the newspapers on what the UK ought to do, as well as similar subsequent efforts. There were two reasons for this. First, I’m not British, and I know how irritating it is to have foreigners tell you what to do. Second, it wasn’t at all clear to me that economists’ letters were all that helpful. On that score at least, I think I was right.  But Thursday’s vote is going to have implications for all of us, and especially for Ireland, so we all need to start thinking about what happens next.

Oxford vote 70% to 30% in favour of remaining in the EU, and I have lots of colleague who are absolutely devastated this weekend. It’s hard for people outside Britain to understand just how sad so many people are at what has happened. This isn’t just about economics, or even mainly about economics: it’s about identity, and a great many English people feel, profoundly and sincerely, that they are both European and British. Both identities are under threat today.

Of course, a healthy majority of English people are happy with the outcome, including some friends of mine, and I’m pleased for them. And presumably we all wish England well. But it’s also true that the English voted without paying the slightest heed to what was in the interests of Ireland, including that part of the island which remains part of the United Kingdom.  It was ever thus, for perfectly understandable reasons having to do with the relative sizes of the two countries, which is why Irish independence was always both inevitable and desirable. But that is another matter.

One of the truly extraordinary features of the British political landscape today is that neither the Leave campaign, nor apparently the British government, knows what it wants to happen next. But it is perfectly obvious what we in Ireland should want to happen next. England and Wales have voted to leave the European Union, and hence the Single Market. The reality therefore is that, as things stand, the UK is headed out of the Single Market that it was always such a keen supporter of. And that would be bad for Ireland in a whole host of ways that are by now well understood.

Of course, the British may decide to reapply for Single Market membership, as part of the process of negotiation which now has to take place on the terms of their exit from the European Union. They are perfectly entitled to do so.  If they do reapply, they should be granted membership of the European Economic Area on the usual terms: Ireland, and Britain’s many other friends in the European Union, should insist on this, and indeed it would be in everyone’s best interests. But only the British can decide if this is what they want. Given that labour mobility will be part of the deal, I would have thought that such a decision would require another referendum on both moral and political grounds. I don’t view that as an insuperable obstacle, since I don’t see why such a referendum could not be won — especially since this may well be the key to avoiding a hard border with Scotland. And if the English don’t want to join the EEA, we need to know that too.

The rest of Europe should resist the temptation of a “fuite en avant”, attempting to move full speed ahead towards a fiscal and political union that nobody wants. (Yes, that has implications for the survival of the euro, at least in the long run. So what? The single currency was always a terrible idea.) Far better to accept the reality of a multispeed Europe, which better reflects the diverse opinions of its many citizens.  If the United Kingdom, or England and Wales, were to become firmly embedded in the European Economic Area, while remaining outside the European Union, not only would economic disruption be kept to a minimum, and Ireland’s best interests be protected; this would be an important move towards a looser and more shock-resistant economic architecture for Europe as a whole. And there would actually be a certain upside to that.  Too much rigidity, and the entire European project risks implosion. This is not so much a case of “reculer pour mieux avancer”. It is a case of “reculer pour survivre.”


“No recovery here”

One of the really interesting outcomes of the last election was the rejection by voters of the Fine Gael strap line: let’s keep the recovery going. As measured by GDP growth, Ireland was rebounding from its period of austerity very strongly, with the fastest GDP growth in Europe.

A household sector which had just received an income tax cut, child benefit increases, pension increases, social welfare increases, public sector pay increases (or restorations, whatever), threw the main party’s ‘recovery’ line back in its face at the doorsteps–what recovery, they asked. No recovery here.

This was taken to mean that there was no recovery outside of Dublin. Dan O’Brien’s series of columns have dispelled that myth. There is a recovery in rural Ireland, it’s just not happening as quickly as in the capital, where employment levels are now 96% of their 2008 peak. In the Mid-West employment levels are at 88% of their peak.


Then a long and rambling discussion on the corporate tax element of Ireland’s apparent rebound took place, largely on twitter. The volatility of the corporate tax take in Ireland is exceptional.

Yet another strand of the argument is given by thinking about Ireland in relation to Europe. Philip Connolly of the times in Ireland showed me these data of GDP per capita in purchasing power parity adjusted euros compare it with an actual income for consumption measure. The graph below is from Eurostat and shows the difference in the two measures  with Ireland and Luxemburg showing a very large difference between these two measures of household welfare. Using the AIC measure, Irish households are closer to Italian than Danish levels of welfare.

Source: Eurostat
Source: Eurostat

This may give a clue as to why we see such large differences between official rhetoric and the popular reaction to that rhetoric.




Slow train wreck

Why is anyone shocked at the political news from France this morning? Everyone is saying that the FN got a boost from the November 13 atrocities, and perhaps they did, but there are far longer run forces at play here.

One is the corruption and sleaze that characterises Parisian politics. But there are also economic factors that are having a predictable impact on attitudes (and if they are predictable, then economists don’t have the right to ignore them). Globalisation creates losers as well as winners, for example, and if no-one really cares about the losers, and we just pay lip service to the problem, then it is predictable that there will be a backlash. The Euro has not only locked in a set of distorted real exchange rates, but a macroeconomic policy mix with a pronounced deflationary bias. If times remain tough enough for long enough, and politicians hear your pain but don’t actually do anything about it, some people will eventually respond by voting for candidates who reject existing constraints on policy making. “Europe” is increasingly experienced as a set of constraints preventing governments from doing what their people want them to do, rather than as a means of empowering governments to collectively solve problems.

So why would anyone be surprised that Mme Le Pen has done so well; and is it not likely at this stage (though 2017 is a long way away) that absent major policy shifts she will come first in the first round of the Presidential election? And let there be no mistake: if she actually won the second round, either then or in 2022, this would mean the end of the EU as we currently know it.

What is so frustrating about all this is that it has been so predictable. Here are some links dating back to 2010, a year that risks being viewed by future historians as a fateful one:

Adam Posen

And me, with apologies for the self-indulgence, writing for Eurointelligence.

I am pretty sure Martin Wolf was saying similar things back then, and that many others were too.

The good news is that, as recent Irish experience shows, the populist vote stops rising when the economy recovers. (The decline in the independent vote share is quite striking, and SF have clearly stopped rising. And no, I’m not saying that anyone is like the French National Front, but support for these parties is the closest Irish equivalent to the French anti-establishment protest vote that is benefiting the FN so much.) And 2017, and even more so 2022, are a long way away. But Eurozone monetary and fiscal policy, and social policy too I would think, need to start taking into account the fact that the entire European project, the good bits as well as the harmful bits, is now facing an existential threat.

Update: Paul Krugman weighs in here.

A dangerous union for small countries

Here are three papers I have read recently.

1. Reinhart and Trebesch on the way that external debts can hollow out local democracies. No need to elaborate on this I think.

2. Avdjiev, McCauley and Shin on cross-border banking: well worth a read for people not familiar with this stuff. They are talking about complicated transactions, but as we know in Ireland, much simpler transactions (banks borrowing overseas) can have dangerous consequences.

3. Athanasios Orphanides on the highly politicised nature of crisis decision-making in the Eurozone.

From 3, and from everything that we have observed during this crisis, from Ireland in 2010 to Greece in 2015, I infer that a small country is much more vulnerable inside the Eurozone than outside, if it gets into trouble. Outside, you will deal with the IMF on its own, and they have a standard policy template: debts will be written down, currencies will be devalued, and yes, there will also be austerity. Inside the Eurozone creditor countries will sit alongside the IMF at the table and you may find that neither of the first two policies will be feasible, which will make the austerity far more harmful than it would otherwise be, both economically and politically.

From 2, I infer that a small country needs to watch its banks like a hawk, especially if it is inside the Eurozone, because (from 1, and 3, and from what we have experienced since 2010) the political consequences of not doing so are just too damaging.

And from 1 and 3, I infer that government debts are something that small countries inside the Eurozone also need to be very concerned about. Especially in a monetary union without a banking union, like ours.*

So I find myself in agreement with Colm McCarthy. As was the case 15 years ago, we need to worry about the possible real exchange rate consequences of expansionary fiscal policy at this point in the cycle. And to be fair to the Irish economics profession, lots of people did worry about that then. But the main concern for me is no longer about economics, but about the risks to our Republic’s democracy. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


*What is a banking union? If Arizona elects a bunch of communists or survivalists to run the state, and the state budget explodes as a result, local banks will still be backed up by the Fed. My money will still be safe. I will still be able to withdraw it if I choose. This is what a banking union looks like, and don’t let anyone in Brussels or Frankfurt tell you any different.


Garret FitzGerald Lecture and Autumn School

UCD College of Social Sciences and Law will host the Garret FitzGerald Lecture and Autumn School on Monday 19th October, in the UCD Sutherland School of Law. The daytime School (from midday) will focus on the significance of the social sciences. The evening Lecture will be delivered by Professor Cass R Sunstein,Harvard Law School, on the theme ‘Is Behavioural Science Compatible with Democracy?’. More details and bookings here.

New York Times: A Migration Juggernaut is Headed for Europe

Eduardo Porter, one of the most highly respected economic analysts in the US media, has an interesting, thoughtful new article on European immigration pressures. He argues that European economies and societies need to prepare for large-scale immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. These regions are close to Europe, are notably poor by world standards, and have a forecast population increase of three billion in coming decades, on top of the large increases which have already occurred in the recent past. Porter argues that attempts to stop completely this migration pressure will not succeed, and instead Europe should try to adjust to an inevitable large inflow.