Critical Quarterly columns

I’m writing an economics column in Critical Quarterly, a humanities journal, which is a bit of fun. They are supposedly free to view for 12 months after publication. I already posted a link to the first, on the European democratic deficit, but neglected to link to the second, on migration. The third, on secular stagnation, is available here.

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.

 

J.A. Hobson on the Eurozone crisis (sort of)

Philippe Legrain points out that, far from creating the sort of European-level democratic space that would allow citizens to choose between political and economic alternatives, closer European political union is likely to place more even restraints on the power of politicians to respond to voters’  demands for alternative policies. This is because ever more rules proscribing what others can do, and made up by Germany, is what Germany wants (not that she has historically felt bound by rules when fundamental national interests are at stake, as inter alia the collapse of the EMS and the scrapping of the excessive deficit procedure inform us; and quite right too in my view).

But why does Germany want this?

Harold James has one view here.

And here is J.A. Hobson:

Moreover, while the manufacturer and trader are well content to trade with foreign nations, the tendency for investors to work towards the political annexation of countries which contain their more speculative investments is very powerful.

 

More miscellaneous irritations

1.  “We averted the plan of a financial choking and banking system collapse.” (Tspiras)

You are the prime minister Mr Tspiras. Did you not have a plan B to deal with ECB blackmail? If not, why not? Did you really think that the others would back down because of the possibility of Grexit, when it was so clear that you would be willing to do almost anything to avoid it?

2. The new (and conveniently self-interested) German doctrine that defaults are impossible within the Eurozone. Remember the no bailout clause? Ashoka Mody is surely right: these negotiations will kill the entire European project sooner or later. Better to let countries default when that is what is required.

3. Nice to hear Merkel saying that Greece may win back her trust. If I were Greek I might not trust European promises regarding debt rescheduling. Have we not heard those before?

4. How high is Greece’s debt to GDP ratio going to be now? Over 200%? Even if there is some reprofiling, does anyone think this makes sense?

All in all a great day for Golden Dawn. As for the rest of us: I don’t suppose that any other left wing party that may come to power in the future seeking to challenge the current European economic policy mix will be as feckless as the Tspiras government. The lesson that they will draw from this debacle is: negotiating with Germany is a waste of time; be willing to act unilaterally, be willing to default unilaterally, have a plan for achieving primary surplus if you haven’t already achieved it, have a hard default and euro exit (now possible, thanks to the Germans) option in your back pocket, and be willing to use it at the first sign of hassle from the ECB. A deal could have been done today that would have strengthened the Eurozone, but instead it has just become a lot more fragile.

Update: Wolfgang Münchau is well worth reading, here.

Update: this is also well worth a read.

Update: Charles Wyplosz is well worth reading here. Good to see someone pointing out the obvious about this extraordinary programme, and also taking on the (to my mind bizarre) argument that the headline debt/GDP ratio is irrelevant.

Update: Dae Woong Kang and Ashoka Mody offer a historical perspective here.

Miscellaneous irritations

1. I see that Juncker is saying that it is a shame that the Greeks walked out of the negotiations last week; and yet the creditor negotiating stance seems to have been “give us everything we want, and maybe we will discuss what you want (debt relief) at some later date”. For an account of the negotiations, see here.

2. I see that Hugo Dixon was describing the parties that got Greece into this mess over the course of several decades as “pro-European”, implying that Syriza is anti-European. Come again? Since when does opposing a particular policy mix (in this case one that has failed disastrously over the course of several years) make you anti-European?

3. I see that Martin Schulz is now denying having said that a no vote meant that Greece would have to leave the euro.

4. I can’t count the number of times I have heard French friends tell me that the problem is that the Greeks don’t pay taxes. (All Greeks, you understand.) What about Troika officials?

5. Aside altogether from the immense catastrophe of the last several years, Greece’s GDP shrank 0.4% in the last quarter of 2014, before Syriza got to power. Just saying.

6. Like Paul Krugman, I gave a cheer when I read Wolfgang Münchau’s stating the obvious:

What I found most galling was the argument that Grexit would bring about an economic catastrophe, as though the catastrophe had not already happened.

Some of the crocodile tears being shed on Sunday night about the humanitarian catastrophe that the Greeks were now supposedly bringing down on themselves (as if the ECB’s refusal to ensure financial stability in that country is irrelevant) I found pretty hard to take. Where have these humanitarians been hiding for the last seven years?

7. No comment necessary:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Herr Fuest, angenommen, Sie wären wahlberechtigt, wie würden Sie am Sonntag beim griechischen Referendum über die Reformpolitik abstimmen?

Fuest: Mit Ja. Nachdem Ministerpräsident Tsipras sein politisches Schicksal an den Ausgang der Wahl gebunden hat, wäre mein primäres Ziel, ihn und seine Regierung loszuwerden.

8. Faymann: “Europe is known for compromises. Renegotiation until the last minute. Greece didn’t do this when it walked out of negotation.” The Greeks have been making compromises for months; where is the German compromise on debt relief?

There, that feels better.

On the bright side, it seems that around 80% of young Greek voters voted no.

 

 

McCarthy and Mody on what the Greek fiasco tells us about the ECB and IMF

Here, and here.

Three questions arise. Why would any non-European country be willing to accept another European IMF head? Would it not be better for the Europeans themselves if a non-European IMF head provided us with an “adult in the room” at times of crisis? And why would any European be happy living in a monetary union in which a politicized central bank cannot be relied upon to act as a lender of last resort, and in which their guns could be turned on any (sufficiently small) member state in a time of crisis?

A moment of truth for the European project

I thought that an appropriate way to celebrate Syriza’s victory was to do what I should have done a long time ago, and finally read Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void on the journey from Dublin to Oxford this morning. It’s a terrifically insightful (and readable, and short) book that had me nodding in agreement throughout, and you could base a whole series of blog posts on it. So let me just pick up, on the day that is in it, on one of the very last points made in the book:

…we are afforded a right to participate at the European level…and we are afforded the right to be represented in Europe, even if it is sometimes difficult to work out when and how this representative link functions; but we are not afforded the right to organise opposition within the European polity. There is no government-opposition nexus at this level.  We know that a failure to allow for opposition within the polity is likely to lead either (a) to the elimination of meaningful opposition, and to more or less total submission, or (b) to the mobilisation of an opposition of principle against the polity — to anti-European opposition and to Euroscepticism

Democratic political systems need oppositions which can force policy reversals if voters decide that that is what they want. Kicking the bums out is not enough, we have to be able to kick out their policies as well.

Syriza is opposed to European macroeconomic policy, and won the elections on that basis. They speak for lots of Eurozone voters, not just Greek ones. If the EU have any sense they will not play hardball with the new Greek government, especially since just about everyone agrees that Greece’s debt is unsustainable. Nor should anyone be hoping that the new Greek government will be “pragmatic”, and forget its opposition pledges once in government. The Greeks want fundamental change, and have voted for a democratic pro-European party to express that desire — which, you might think, is a lot more than the Troika deserves. If Syriza doesn’t deliver, for fear of upsetting its Eurozone partners, voters may turn to parties that really are anti-European. In the Greek context, that could be very ugly indeed.

How the EU responds to last night’s election will tell us a lot about the actually existing European project.

Quote of the day

 “One must prevent the dealings of the ECB from easing the pressure for improvements in competitiveness.” 

(Angela Merkel, according to the FT.)

It is very good to see this sentiment being openly expressed by the German leader, since it is what we believe the German government thinks, and confirmation is useful. But, really, it is intolerable. Where in the treaties does it say that Eurozone monetary policy should be run in a sub-optimal and deflationary manner, thus increasing unemployment, putting the public finances under pressure and worsening economic distress more generally, so as to force other peoples’ governments to do things that the Germans think are good for them, but that have nothing to do with monetary policy?

No democrat should accept a Eurozone run along those lines.

Sinking, fast and slow

For well over a year now some of us have been pointing out that the Eurozone crisis was entering a very dangerous phase, in which slowly increasing unemployment would eat away at the foundations of Europe’s societies, while short-sighted politicians and excitable journalists proclaimed that the Euro was saved. The invaluable Eurointelligence has been doing a great job recently tracking the apparently inexorable deterioration in the economic fundamentals of the Eurozone, with Germany itself now apparently affected. But for both political and personal reasons I find myself worrying most about France.

Twiddling their thumbs and hoping that something (the economy) will turn up, flawed macroeconomic policy notwithstanding, seems to have been the French government’s master plan up till now. As a result it is hard to see Francois “Say” Hollande, or any other Socialist for that matter, getting through to the second round in 2017.

You may think that Paul Krugman is being too alarmist when he raises the possibility of President Le Pen, and I hope you are right. But Sarokozy’s apparent return to the political fray does worry me. Of course, you may think that if he wins the UMP nomination, the Left will rally round and vote for him when it comes to the second round.

How confident are you about that?

Balanced budget tax cuts

In his press conference yesterday, Mario Draghi said the following:

Within the Stability and Growth Pact, one could do things that are growth-friendly and also would contribute to budget consolidation, and I gave an example of a balanced budget tax cut. Reducing taxes that are especially distortionary, where the short-term multipliers could be higher, and cutting expenditure in the most unproductive parts, so mostly, actually not mostly, entirely, current government expenditure.

There are at least three possible interpretations of this statement.

1. Draghi genuinely thinks that balanced budget multipliers are negative, which I find hard to believe. A balanced budget tax cut under current circumstances would be contractionary, not expansionary; at least, that is what we teach our students.

2. Draghi genuinely thinks that the Eurozone’s problems right now are on the supply side, and that tax cuts will help address these problems. I also find that hard to believe. The major problems facing the Eurozone right now are pretty clearly on the demand side.

3. Despite its nominal independence, the ECB is in fact the most politically constrained of the major central banks. If Draghi is going to push the ECB towards QE, and question the overall fiscal stance of the Eurozone, he has to come out with this sort of stuff from time to time, to appease the Germans.

I find the last of these three explanations entirely plausible, and it helps explain the ECB’s poor performance in the crisis to date. But why should a nominally independent central bank feel that its hand are tied in this way? Ultimately, perhaps, because the Eurozone is not a political union, and because democratic legitimacy resides at the level of the member states. This means that exit from the Eurozone is always an option, even if it is not openly acknowledged.

Another reason to think that monetary union without political union is a bad idea.

Just gimme some choice

The Irish Times this morning describes the increased vote for independents as an expression of anti-politics sentiment.

Anti-establishment-politician sentiment, certainly, but anti-politics? That depends on how you define politics.

My definition of “politics” is all about choice over policies: citizens in a democracy can choose to fundamentally change their country’s economic and social policies, if that is what they want to do. In 2011 Irish voters voted for change, and got none: the new government faithfully implemented the Troika programme, just as the previous government had done, and presumably would have continued to do had they been re-elected. (And now that they have been let off the leash they are coming up with bubble-era proposals to increase mortgage lending. Not much change there either. And consequently not much real choice.)

Democracy without choice is not democracy. Politics without choice is not politics.

A lot of people in this country, and right across Europe, want real change. Some in Ireland voted for Sinn Féin, the big winner in the election. Some voted Independent. This isn’t anti-politics. It’s anti-anti-politics.

The FT is on a roll

In an otherwise unremarkable editorial about the upshot of the elections, the FT comes up with this quite remarkable statement:

The only viable path for France is to press ahead with tax cuts and spending reductions that can sustain growth.

Is the FT really saying that in a Keynesian short run, such as we find ourselves in just now, the balanced budget multiplier is negative? Really? Or that the spending multiplier is negative? Or is it perhaps denying that the Eurozone currently finds itself in such a Keynesian short run, in which a lack of demand is the key constraint on growth? (Let’s not even get into the debate about the long run relationship between growth and the size of the state in Europe, although I can’t help writing down one word: Scandinavia.)

And is the FT really claiming that continuing with this programme would make all those FN voters switch to the socialists and UMP?

Really?

Canaries in the coal mine

The European election results are coming in, and in France they are catastrophic.

There are two obvious points to be made which work in opposite directions.

First, the vote for the FN and similar parties is an under-estimate of eurosceptic opinion, since these parties come with so much baggage that many voters who hate what Europe has become would never, ever dream of voting for them. And quite right too.

Second, it may well be that these parties would have done less well if there had been national elections last weekend: voting for the EP is one thing, voting for national governments another. (But who really knows.)

Expect many mainstream commentators to point out that the centre has held, that the EPP have won, that Juncker is the people’s choice for EC President, and all the rest of it. This strikes me as exactly the wrong response.

My big worry this Monday morning is that Hollande and others (but I am mainly thinking of Hollande) will continue with their current economic strategy, which as far as I can see consists of crossing their fingers and hoping that something will turn up. Yes, some day this recession will end, since all recessions do, but the timing of this will depend (probabilistically, since life is uncertain) on policies: monetary and fiscal policies, obviously, but also policies to fix the European banking sector. Right now, given Europe’s policy choices, there is no good reason for the French government, or any other government, to expect that the real Eurozone economic crisis (which has to do with growth and unemployment, not yields on government paper) is going to end any time soon. And certainly not by 2017.

M. Hollande and his like may believe that sticking to the programme is their only option, and that any other course of action would be far too risky. They should ask themselves what the political landscape will look like if the Eurozone crisis continues for another 3, 5 or 10 years. It’s not impossible. Perhaps something will turn up, and perhaps the status quo merchants will get away with it. But perhaps it won’t, and perhaps they won’t.

People who argue that there is no alternative presumably see themselves as prudent and responsible. But you could just as easily regard them as drunken gamblers on a losing streak, forever doubling up.

Gosh, isn’t that exciting!

In a recent post, we read that

With the Social Democrats (S&D) and the conservatives (EPP) neck-and-neck in ever more refined EU wide opinion pools, the lead up to the European elections has never been more exciting. It’s down to one seat whether the next Commission president is Social Democrat or Conservative.

I am sure that there are some in Brussels who think that giving voters an indirect say in who becomes Commission President is exactly what we need to boost interest in the forthcoming European elections, and give the European project some democratic legitimacy.

By the way, does anyone know what the EPP or Social Democratic position on the Eurozone crisis is? (I think I know what Marine Le Pen wants.)

I have another proposal to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the project: allow voters to fundamentally change the direction of policy, should they so choose. Reverse the “treaty-isation” of particular economic policies. Stop trying to make the commitment to austerity democracy-proof.

Any takers?

The future of the euro

I have a piece on the subject in the most recent issue of Finance and Development, available here.

Production lags being what they are, I wrote the article in mid-December. Since then, Wolfgang Münchau has declared the Eurozone policy debate over (and not in a  good way); the German Constitutional Court has issued a ruling on OMT that is potentially much less benign than is commonly assumed; and Italy has installed its third non-elected Prime Minister in a row, with a notorious multiplier denier as Finance Minister thrown in for good measure. None of this has cheered me up.

Class divides and European integration, yet again

This morning’s Eurointelligence briefing put me on to this article in Les Echos, which in turn led me to this Ipsos opinion poll. It contains several sobering findings, notably with respect to foreigners. But the finding that struck me most — since this is something I have been writing about for years now — is that a majority of French working class voters now want to leave the Euro. Indeed, only 34% of French workers think that EU membership is a good thing.

Isn’t it amazing how short run blips in various economic indicators can lead powerful people to assume that all is well with the EMU project? It is slow moving variables — long term unemployment, gradual shifts in public opinion, and so on — that pose the greatest threat to the Euro’s survival. If the far right does as well as people now seem to think it will in the European elections, this will presumably be presented in the media as a “shock” to the system, but has it not been obvious since 2010 at the latest that something like this was likely, given Eurozone macroeconomic policies? And has it not been obvious for years that actually existing EMU is harming the broader European project?

Europe’s political leaders should remember what Ernest Hemingway said about bankruptcy.

The Eiffel group: for a Euro community

Here.

I dare say it will strike most people as pie in the sky, but it makes sense that people who want to preserve the Euro start formulating proposals such as this. Two reasonable conditions attaching to any such proposal seem to me to be that: (a) entry to any such community be decided by popular referenda in each country; and (b) that there be some sort of Connecticut compromise in place so that the rights of small states are protected.

‘Hardball’ v ‘Equity Sale’

The Irish Times today features two contrasting strategies for dealing with the debt legacy created by the Irish bank bailout.

An interview RTE’s Sean Whelan did with Willem Buiter is available here.

L’offre crée même la demande.

I can’t quite believe that he said it, but he apparently did. Go tell it to the small businesses in my favourite French village who have had to close since 2008.

Arguing against Say at a time like this is like shooting fish in a barrel, so let’s not even bother. The more alarming point is what this tells us about the European left: to all intents and purposes, in many countries there is none. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard puts it well, I think:

Trade unions in the West are strangely silent, pushed to the margins by the atomised structure of modern work. Europe’s political Left is so compromised by ideological defence of monetary union – a Right-wing project, or “bankers’ ramp” as the Old Left used to say – that it cannot muster any articulate policy.

Hollande’s extraordinary statement that supply creates its own demand, at a time when the Eurozone economy is up against the zero lower bound, and unemployment is terrifyingly high in several EMU member states, is just an extreme, self-satirizing, example of the phenomenon. If what Europe needs is for France to make Germany an offer it can’t refuse — allow the ECB to seriously loosen monetary policy, or we may not be able to stick with EMU — then we’re not getting it any time soon.

Now, if you’re on the right I suppose you might welcome the fact that the left is committing hara kiri on the altar of European orthodoxy, but you shouldn’t. For the reality is that orthodoxy is letting the people badly down, as Martin Wolf pointed out today, and the people aren’t stupid. If the left is not going to offer them an alternative, then Eurosceptic parties will. And unfortunately most of those are on the extreme right.

(H/T Mark Thoma.)

Economic policy: voters versus men in white coats

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.

Where in Donegal?

This document reached me by way of the European Commission. It shows that some people are working hard to convince the Commission that Bogtec is a transnational infrastructure project of European importance (and thus qualifies for subsidies). It also shows that the Spirit of Ireland refuses to die.

There is mention of a glacial valley near Kilcar, Co Donegal. A dam, 1300 meters wide and 120 meters high (in the middle), would create an upper reservoir with a surface of 4 squared kilometers; assuming that the valley is triangular, the reservoir would be 6150 meters long. The sea would be the lower reservoir. Surplus wind power would pump the water from the sea into the reservoir. Releasing the water back into the sea, power would be generated when there’s demand.

I’ve been hiking in Donegal only a few times. Is there a glacial valley near the sea, of the above dimensions, uninhabited, and not full of archaeological treasure?

UPDATE: I’ve had one vote for Glenaddragh River Valley, which is a good way from the sea.

UPDATE2: Another correspondent forwarded this map, discussed by Donegal County Council. The hydro plan was apparently rejected as it failed to meet the requirements of the SEA Directive on procedural grounds.

Swords v DCENR

The case of Pat Swords versus the Department of Energy etc continues. See here and here for its history. The media is strangely quiet. At stake is an injunction to halt the National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP), but this case has ramifications for all relations between the rulers and the ruled, and for Ireland’ sovereignty.

There have been two sessions of the High Court, one on April 12 and one of April 16.

State argued that the case should be thrown out because the Aarhus Convention does not apply as it had not been ratified at the time the NREAP was accepted by the European Commission in 2010. This argument was rejected. Even though Ireland did not ratify the Aarhus Convention until 2012, the European Union had ratified it in 2005. Therefore, Ireland must comply with Aarhus.

Read that again: Ireland is subject to an international treaty it did not ratify.

The session is adjourned till June. State now has to engage substantively with the ruling of the Aarhus Compliance Committee, which has that Ireland failed to properly inform its citizens about NREAP and its impact and did not allow them sufficient time to engage with policy making.

Political asymmetries and EMU

In a must-read article, Chris Pissarides states that “far from the currency bloc acting as a partnership of equals, it is a disjointed group of countries where the national interests of the big nations stand higher than the interests of the whole.”

This sums up perfectly where the European project is today. Indeed, there isn’t even solidarity among the smaller countries, as Malta and Luxembourg seek to distance themselves from Cyprus, reminding us of many similar protestations by individual PIIGS in the past, Ireland included. Not that it did any of them any good.

Was it not bizarre to see so many anti-German posters in Nicosia last week, when by all accounts it was the Cypriot President (among others) who wanted to see small depositors hit? Actually, no, it wasn’t. We have seen several statements by German politicians saying that the Cypriot business model is dead, and I’m sorry, but irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue this is simply unacceptable. The IMF has the right, and duty, to opine on such matters. So does the ECB, which is supposed to care about financial stability, whatever about how it behaves in practice. Perhaps one could find a rationale for the Commission, or maybe even the Eurogroup, to express an opinion on matters such as this. But an individual member state? Formally speaking, and in any club such formalities matter, it’s none of their business. Even if it is an election year.

The EU is supposed to work according to a set of well-understood principles. If we want to re-regulate the banking sector, and we should, then the recent decision to cap bankers’ bonuses is an example of how the system is supposed to work (again, irrespective of the merits of the issue). There are proposals, there is a vote, there is a decision. Fine. I’ll have more of that please.

But that is not what we are seeing here.

It might be less difficult to swallow if the German government were caped crusaders seeking to bring the entire European financial system to heel. But we all know who has been undermining the drive to have a meaningful European system of banking supervision, and it isn’t Cyprus. And is Mr Schaüble really going to try to prevent German banks from touting for business in that island, as the FT recently reported? I don’t think so. None of this means that Merkel and Schaüble are any worse than anyone else’s politicians, but if you are the arbiter of other countries’ fates, and you aren’t any better either, then there’s going to be a backlash. Which is terrible news for Germany in the long run.

My quote of the week is from another must-read article, this time by Wolfgang Münchau, who says that

I have believed for some time that it is impossible for Germany, Finland and the Netherlands to be in a monetary union with Cyprus, Greece and Portugal. Either the two sides agree to adjust more symmetrically, politically and economically, or this experiment should end.

The argument about economically asymmetric adjustment has at this stage been done to death, and almost everyone understands it, although the German government remains resolutely, proudly, and vocally, macroeconomically illiterate. Another reason why anti-German posters at mass demonstrations are something that we will have to get used to, which is tragic. But Wolfgang’s point about politically asymmetric adjustment is just as important, and gets to the heart of the matter.

When the EU club works according to its rules, people accept the outcomes, but in crises policies are made on the hoof, and it is the powerful who call the shots. This is inevitable, but it is also very dangerous, especially since the decisions that are made at times like this have a much bigger impact on peoples’ lives than anything that typically comes out of Brussels. We have been in crisis mode for much too long now, the crisis shows no signs of going away any time soon, and the political asymmetry is becoming intolerable.

A meaningful banking union, that had the power to stick its nose into the German banking system, and had a set of ex ante mutually agreed principles regarding how to resolve banks in all member states, would help reduce political asymmetries. More expansionary monetary and fiscal policies would help make economic adjustment more symmetric. I suspect we’re going to get neither, in which case we need to end the EMU experiment before it drags the broader European project down with it.