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Selective Amnesia on Debt Relief in today’s EU

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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In the ongoing Euro Zone drama, the sovereign debt held by Greece is the crux of the issue occupying centre stage. The economy of Greece has seen its debt-to-GDP ratio increase from around 120 per cent in 2010 to nearly 180 per cent today.

Greece, as is well known, belongs to a polity which calls itself the European Union and in theory conceived of itself as a community based on democratic ideals and political solidarity in the spirit of shared responsibility and distributive justice.

All that in theory or on paper. The practice however, is a different story. Germany, the main creditor of Greece, is still insisting, as we speak, that Athens must agree to more painful austerity measures and reforms, and be made to pay for past profligacy before any sort of debt relief can be put on the table. There seems to be a sort of selective amnesia at work here, given that Germany benefited not so long ago from more lenient terms from its Western allies (which included Greece) than it is now prepared to offer. The photo below is revealing: it was taken in 1953, some eight years after the end of World War II, a destructive unnecessary war provoked by Germany itself.

It is an undeniable historical fact that Germany has been the major beneficiary of debt write-off in the 20th century, not excluding Greece as a creditor, and not to speak of the Marshall Plan which helped the whole continent get back on its economic feet. This is a fact often overlooked by Greek bashers of all stripes and conveniently forgotten today.

It is also a fact that Greece’s present financial situation is the result not only of profligacy but also of a toxic combination of austerity policies that have caused its GDP to fall by more than a quarter and continuous increases in debt. These do not reflect new resources coming into the economy, but loans extended to enable Greece pay on the interest on previously incurred debt, which then get piled on to the earlier principal amount and further compounded. Almost everyone but the Germans now recognises that this level of debt is simply unsustainable and some of it must be written off.

It bear mentioning that this was a common practice in the ancient world till the Romans at the height of their imperial power put an end to it. But the German leadership and most of the people protest that this is unacceptable use of taxpayers’ money (ignoring the fact that most of the debt has gone to repay banks in their own and other “core” European countries) and will create moral hazard problems, leading other debtor countries in Europe to try and do the same. In reality is concern is more political than economic; a misguided fear that left-leaning groups may resurface in a Europe; in reality what has resurfaced are fascist leaning parties (usually anti EU) who promise law and order devoid of social justice.

But beyond serving as a reminder of German hypocrisy, the photo above offers a more important lesson: These sorts of things have actually been dealt with successfully before. “I’ve seen this movie so many times before, it is very easy to get hung up on the idiosyncrasies of each individual situation and miss the recurring pattern.” said Carmen M. Reinhart, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on sovereign debt crises. She is convinced that it is a general lesson about the nature of debt that crises end and economies improve only after the debt is cut.

And what is “the recurring, historical pattern?” This: major debt overhangs are only solved after deep write-downs of the debt’s face value. The longer it takes for the debt to be cut, the bigger the necessary write-down will turn out to be. Nobody should understand this better than the Germans. It’s not just that they benefited from the deal in 1953, which underpinned Germany’s postwar economic miracle. Twenty years earlier, Germany had defaulted on its debts from World War I, after undergoing a bout of hyperinflation and economic depression that helped usher Hitler to power. Indeed, nations in economic depression will often look for a savior who usually turns up to be a tyrant. This is a lesson that one would have hoped the Germans had not forgotten so fast.

The next two charts are instructive here:

cdb1

cdb2

The 20th century offers a rich road map of policy failure and success addressing sovereign debt crises. The good news is that by now economists generally understand the contours of a successful approach. The bad news is that too many policy makers still take too long to heed their advice — insisting on repeating failed political policies first that end up harming economic solutions.

I would preface this piece by mentioning that not being an economist myself, I have culled the economic facts from various public documents and statistics as mentioned throughout. In any case, let us consider two crucial 20th century economic events: one in the 1930s, in which Germany unilaterally defaulted on its external debt; and another in the 1950s when, as the above photo illustrates, Germany was granted substantial debt relief on very generous terms that enabled it to recover and grow into the powerful economy that it now is.

The first story has its origins in the peace conference after the First World War, leading to the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed 132 billion gold marks ($33 billion), of reparation payments on Germany. This was the “transfer system” famously excoriated by economist John Maynard Keynes in his Economic Consequences of the Peace, who presciently warned that this would create economic and social devastation in Germany and fuel the rise of a dictatorship bent on revenge.

The US provided credit to Germany and also reduced the amount of these debt through the Dawes Plan over 1924-29, which enabled Germany to make these reparation payments by borrowing from abroad. However, when Wall Street crashed in 1929, the US demanded full repayment of its loans, which rapidly became impossible and generated the forces leading to the fall of the Weimar Republic. In 1931, as the external public debt to GDP ratio reached 100 per cent, fiscal austerity to make transfer payments and service the debt pushed the country into Depression. Reparation payments were cancelled in August 1932, but the creditor payments remained in the form of short term debt that was continuously rolled over.

In 1933, the Nazi government in Germany declared unilateral default on all its sovereign debts and instituted capital controls. Interestingly, this default paved the way for a major debt write-off by the US and UK, cancelling a significant proportion of debts of 19 of their World War I allies in 1934 (see Chart 1 above). Of these countries only Finland repaid its debts in full. A recent study by Reinhart and Trebesch (Sovereign debt reduction and its aftermath, Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper, June 2015) has shown that this led to significant improvement in the economic landscape of these countries. They also note that debt write-offs are much more effective in generating economic growth and higher credit ratings than softer options like maturity extensions and interest rate reductions.

The second episode, initially mentioned in this piece, is even more relevant to the present times: I refer to the London Debt Agreement of 1953 that saw the abolition of all of Germany’s sovereign external debt. This was the outcome of negotiations of Germany with 20 of its creditors (including Greece and Italy, and even Pakistan). The conference was the outcome of lessons learned by the US and other creditors in the interwar period, particularly the economic and political dangers of forcing countries into depression through austerity generated by the need to repay debts.

Germany at that time held a significant amount of pre-war debt (mostly incurred for reparation payments and taken on by the Nazi government) as well as slightly more than half of the total debt that was the result of US Marshall Plan soft loans to revive the economy, which had already contributed to infrastructure reconstruction. As Chart 2 above indicates, there was significant write-off of both kinds of debt: the pre-war debt was reduced by 46 per cent and the post war debt by 52 per cent. The remaining debt was converted into very easy terms: DM 2.5 billion carrying no interest; DM 5.5 billion at 2.5 per cent annual interest; and DM 6.3 million at 4.5-5 per cent annual interest. No compound interest was charged for the long period when debt had not been services (since the default of 1933, and a five year grace period was provided until 1957, during which only DM 567.2 million would have to be paid each year.

As one German economist has noted, “The result of this debt-trade-link was a substantial contribution to Germany reaching full employment very quickly, thanks to a strong export performance”. (Jurgen Kaiser, One made it out of the debt trap: Lessons from the London Debt Agreement of 1953 for the current debt crisis, FES International Policy Analysis Paper June 2013)

Greeks are now justifiably shocked that the country that they had treated so generously when they were its creditors is now choosing to take such a hard and punishing line with them. It is true that the London Agreement took place in a Cold War context in which it was politically important to strengthen West Germany as an alternative to the Communist East. Nevertheless, the recognition of shared responsibility that was originally the underlying philosophy of the agreement was crucial in making it so effective and its outcomes so satisfactory.

Obviously the spirit of shared responsibility does not exist any longer even if the group continues to consider itself a community and a union that cares for the common good. Perhaps even more than German selective amnesia, this lack of genuine solidarity is the present real problem of the EU. The urgent question “what kind of political community are we?” remains to be answered, and not only on paper but in practice.

 

Note: this article, slightly modified has already appeared in Ovi Magazine

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.

What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?   

An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.

In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.   

Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?  

Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.

Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.

According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”

It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.

Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.

Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.

The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.

To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.

The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.

This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”

Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.

Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?

Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.

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Bureaucrats’ Crusade: The European Commission’s Strategy for the Western Balkans

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The European Commission set a target date of 2025 for some of the Balkan countries to join. However, Brussels sees only Serbia and Montenegro as actual candidates. The door formally remains open to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, but these countries have been put into a grey zone with no time frames and road maps. They have been put on hold with no tangible prospects for membership, left without any explanation of what makes them less valid candidates than Serbia and Montenegro, with these two being as poor, illiberal and undemocratic as the remaining four.

With a dose of instant cynicism, one might conclude that Serbia and Montenegro have been rewarded for their military aggressions on Bosnia and Kosovo, and Serbia’s permanent pressures on Macedonia, whereas the latter ones have been punished for being the former’s victims. However, a more careful look at the population structure of the four non-rewarded countries reveals that these, unlike Serbia and Montenegro, have a relative excess of Muslim population. So far, there have been dilemmas whether the European Union is to be regarded as an exclusive Christian club, bearing in mind the prolonged discriminatory treatment of Turkey as an unwanted candidate. After the European Commission’s new strategy for the Balkans, there can be no such dilemmas: the countries perceived by Brussels bureaucrats as Muslim ones – regardless of the actual percentage of their Muslim population – are not to be treated as European.

The resurrection of this logic, now embodied in the actual strategy, takes Europe back to its pre-Westphalian roots, to the faraway times of the Crusades or the times of the Siege of Vienna. It also signals the ultimate triumph of the most reactionary populist ideologies in the contemporary Europe, based on exclusion of all who are perceived as „others“. It signals the ultimate triumph of the European ineradicable xenophobia. Or – to put it in terms more familiar to the likely author of the strategy, the European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn – the triumph of Ausländerfeindlichkeit.

Now, what options are left to the practically excluded Balkan countries, after so many efforts to present themselves as valid candidates for EU membership? There is a point in claims that some of their oligarchies, particularly the tripartite one in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have never actually wanted to join the EU, because their arbitrary rule would be significantly undermined by the EU’s rule of law. It is logical, then, that the tripartite oligarchy welcomes the strategy that keeps the country away from the EU membership, while at the same time deceiving the population that the strategy is a certain path to the EU. Yet, what about these people, separated into three ethnic quarantines, who believe that joining the EU would simply solve all their political and economic problems, and who refuse to accept the idea that the EU might be an exclusive club, not open to them? What are the remaining options for them?

They cannot launch a comprehensive revolution and completely replace the tripartite oligarchy by their democratic representatives. Still, they can press it to adopt and conduct a multi-optional foreign policy, oriented towards several geopolitical centers: one of them may remain Brussels, but  Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Ankara, Tehran, and others, should also be taken into account. For, a no-alternative policy, as the one which only repeats its devotion to the EU integrations without any other geopolitical options, is no policy at all. In this sense, the presented EU strategy has clearly demonstrated the futility of such a no-alternative approach: regardless of how many times you repeat your devotion to the EU values, principles and integrations, the EU bureaucrats can simply tell you that you will never play in the same team with them. However, such an arbitrary but definite rejection logically pushes the country to look for geopolitical alternatives. And it is high time for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s people and intellectual and political elites to understand that Brussels is not the only option on the table, and that there are other geopolitical centers whose interests might be identified as convergent with the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, all of them should first demonstrate the ability to identify the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which means that they should first recognize it as a sovereign state with its own interests, rather than someone else’s proxy.

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