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Thinking about Germany

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What is Germany’s current role within the EU and in the global economic system? Which game is it playing? These are questions which cannot be answered in an unambiguous and simplistic way, as often happens today.

First and foremost, we shall wonder whether Germany is the cause or the solution of the European political and financial crisis.

Certainly, the current negative economic situation in the EU comes at a time when global financial markets are losing confidence in Greece’s ability to repay its debts.

The contagion of mistrust forces also other peripheral nations, but certainly not Germany, to seek bailouts of their sovereign debt in the framework of the international community, namely the EU itself and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

It is the time when – as was the case in the Toronto G20 Summit of June 2010 – the absolute priority of fiscal consolidation, and hence of the squeeze on public spending, is set.

However, if we make an in-depth analysis, we realize that financial deregulation and the lowering of interest rates have been the primary causes of the Eurozone crisis.

It was precisely the new availability of funding from banks – as also happened in the United States – to excessively stimulate consumption and generate a series of financial “bubbles”, especially real estate ones, which apparently increased tax revenues and hence public spending. Those bubbles, however, quickly deflated and burst out, thus creating a structural imbalance which today makes the difference between Germany and the EU “peripheral” countries.

It is also worth recalling that the Euro introduction made the intra-European banking exchanges increase by 40%, with a relative increase in real estate and commodity prices.

Too much credit and at low interest rates “doped” both South European consumers and their governments.

Nevertheless, in the current crisis situation, the EU central countries and Germany, in particular, have maintained a greater competitive margin, mainly resulting from the relatively low wage growth.

Hence, also in the recent crisis, Germany could increase its exports to the EU peripheral countries, while its banks lent money to the EU marginal countries for them to buy German goods and services.

Therefore Germany must be seen both as the cause and the solution of the economic depression of the Euro zone peripheral countries.

However is Germany currently suffering from an invisible crisis, as some analysts note?

Even in this case, the issue is more complex than it may seem.

It is worth noting that Germany is the fourth world economy and the G20 third largest exporter. It depends on its export economy as Saudi Arabia depends on oil sales.

Currently German exports account for 45.7% of the country’s GDP. Therefore Germany is forced to face the imbalances and liquidity crisis of the countries buying German goods and services.

However, are the strategies adopted so far by Germany to support and stabilize its growth through exports still sustainable?

This raises some doubts in my mind.

Furthermore, all the traditional exporting countries, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, are in crisis.

Hence Germany could press ever more with its exporting model, thus preserving the EU as a free trade area, but fiercely competing with the European peripheral countries, which also live on exports and would see the German economy burn up the land under their feet, as currently already happens in many sectors.

We experienced so also with the 2008 crisis: the recession made the sovereign debt of many EU peripheral countries unmanageable and Germany, as net creditor, has always required public spending cuts and a quick repayment of the loans granted.

However, while Germany holds most of European debt securities, and particularly of the countries under crisis, if the South European economies collapse (and this possibility cannot be still ruled out) Germany will no longer have a sufficiently large market for its exports, because it cannot offset the losses in Europe with the corresponding increase in exports to China, the rest of Asia or the Arab countries – all nations which, at different levels, are recording an economic downturn.

Hence if Germany stimulates the growth of the Euro zone which owes money to it, the debt of the EU peripheral countries will increase. However, if the debt owed to Germany by the countries already in crisis rises, the latter will experience a very severe banking crisis and a possible default on their sovereign debt.

This adds to an unemployment rate which, in various ways, amounts to 20% in Southern Europe – a rate similar to the one recorded during the Great Depression in the United States.

Hence, against this background, the German economy cannot shrink up to making impossible to preserve the German export economy model also in the EU “economic locomotive”.

Furthermore, in this situation, the South European countries in financial crisis could not even replace Germany as to exports.

A productive and financial trap of which it is extremely hard to get out.

Moreover Germany has no interest in changing its development model.

It is the model which has produced all German comparative advantages since the introduction of the single currency.

Today the signs of the German crisis, which Germany will project onto the whole EU, are already evident.

The foreign market share for the “made in Germany” products is falling and the return on investment has declined. Many German companies are lowering prices to preserve their traditional market share.

If Germany shifts from an export economy to a productive system linked to the internal market growth, the German high savings rate, which allowed the companies’ technological upgrading, will no longer be possible.

France, for example, is no longer the first EU market for the goods produced in Germany.

In 2015 German exports to China fell by 4%.

Some German exports to the United States are increasing (19%), but the US market share cannot be a substitute for a long period of time.

Currently also the United States are a low-growth country and the US savings are increasing.

On average, the US economic crisis cycle is approximately seven years – hence we shall expect that, in a year or two, the North American market will tend to shrink again.

Therefore the bubble-boost cycle is now embedded in the US economy.

Incidentally, this should make us rethink – in a new way – about Marx’s theory of the inevitability of capitalist crises.

Furthermore, as already mentioned, the return of capital on investment in Germany is ever lower.

Over the last two years, the large German groups have seen a drop in the profitability of the capital employed from 13% to 3%.

Moreover the prices throughout the Euro zone are declining.

Last January prices decreased by an average 3% and the downward trend of average prices is increasingly evident and stable.

Hence, if Germany were to fall into recession, the German solution will likely be to quickly recover the Southern Euro zone’s debt, even with some discounts, and then fiercely eradicate competition from other EU exporting countries, also with unfair or dangerous business practices.

It is worth recalling that the German exposure to Italian banks amounts to 120 billion euro and our credit institutions have a share of non-performing loans (NPL) exceeding 17%.

In absolute terms, the German exposure to Italian banks alone is worth 3% of its GDP.

Hence how long will the German patience last in a phase of economic crisis?

It is also worth considering that this year the Commerzbank profit has fallen by 52%, while Deutsche Bank has recorded a fall in profit by 58%, with a German banking system which has as many as 41.9 trillion derivatives entered in the budget.

It is worth recalling that if Deutsche Bank collapses, the Euro will follow suit.

Moreover, if Germany “bails out” Deutsche Bank, everybody will note the different treatment reserved for the German credit institutions compared to the Greek banks.

It would be a sort of “anything-goes attitude” inside the Euro and the EU proclamations would turn into all talk and no action, as well as window dressing which serves no purpose.

If the German banks (and not just Deutsche Bank) are bailed out by the government, the German debt/GDP ratio will rise from 71% to 110%.

There would be no more room for preaching on austerity by Germany, which could not but accept the Italian, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese debt “overshooting”.

It is worth noting that Deutsche Bank funds most of German exports – hence, if it collapses, the German economy will soon fall into a severe crisis.

Therefore, the following can be predicted: if Germany falls into recession, the first reaction will probably be to quickly recover credits from the Euro zone and then follow a scorched-earth approach as to exports in the rest of Europe.

On the contrary, if Germany succeeds in “standing fast”, it will have every interest in refinancing the Southern Euro zone for it to buy its goods.

In any case, however, the EU situation is neither good nor stable and, in the future, we shall see to what extent the single currency will hold firm or whether Germany, or even Italy, will try to exit from the Euro in one way or the other.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Uber & the Neoliberal State

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Everyday in my local papers, I read stories with headlines like “Subway Ridership Dropped Again in New York as Passengers Flee to Uber.”  AMNY, in its daily Tweet compilation section, generally devotes at least half of its selections to posts bashing the subway and bus system.  In the midst of the hangover that was last week’s Uber IPO (in which it immediately lost 8% of its value), it would be appropriate to contemplate the intersection of Uber (and its ugly stepsister Lyft) and the government.

In the shadow of the Great Depression and WWII, under the Administrations of the multimillionaire Franklin Roosevelt and the no-nonsense Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the federal government invested the equivalent of football fields full of cash on infrastructure projects like the Interstate Highway System (which cost half a trillion in today’s dollars).  States and cities likewise undertook great transportation schemes.  Between the 1920s and 1960s, Robert Moses funded 413 mi. of parkways and 13 bridges for NYC through, among other things, local tolls. 

This spirit of investing in the mobility of American citizens and goods gradually died off with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s; federal spending for transportation infrastructure spending has been in decline since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  The sea change was most spectacularly evidenced on Oct 22 1981, when President Reagan fired and blacklisted 11,345 striking federal air traffic controllers. Cue to the present… The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure a dismal grade of D+ since 2013.  Trump on the 2016 campaign trail said that, “Our airports are like from a third world country.”

Governmental abdication in regards to public transportation has created a vacuum that the private sector is now trying to fill. This is problematic for many reasons. Bereft of the full-time employee status and union membership of public transit employees, Uber and Lyft drivers, as “independent contractors”, are treated like sharecroppers, with no minimum wage or pension/healthcare plans.  Infrastructure underfunding leads to lost opportunities for construction companies and their suppliers, which costs the economy money and jobs.  Uber and Lyft, by contrast, contribute nothing to the roads, tunnels and bridges that they use, other than tolls and the income that they don’t shield via elaborate tax evasion schemes… That and a nearly threefold increase in congestion, which hurts shipping and personal drivers’ commutes. Safety laws are frequently broken by Uber and its drivers, who undergo nothing more than a basic background screening, and receive no substantive training, prior to being hired.  The secluded, close-quarters nature of the rideshare template has led to many incidences of sexual assault and harassment for drivers and riders alike (by contrast, bus and yellow-cab drivers are generally shielded from their clients by bulletproof glass).

The privatization of transit also creates a commuter caste system, in which affluent citizens can spend $20 on a quick Uber ride to work, while poorer people must rely on perpetually-delayed trains, anxiously waiting on train platforms that are often literally falling apart due to neglect.  This problem extends far beyond rideshare apps.  For years, Elon Musk has been unsuccessfully trying to sell various municipalities on the concept of the experimental hyperloop, a pricier, less efficient version of a subway.  Hyperloop trains of the future will supposedly be able to travel at 700 mph… but they can only carry 28 people at a time!  So Musk wants cities to potentially invest billions to construct underground tunnel networks that only a couple hundred people a day max would be able to use, let alone afford, considering the pricy ticket fees that would probably be necessary in order to generate electricity for the hyperloop’s futuristic maglev-vacuum operating system.  Bullet trains also operate on a maglev system, but the cost gets spread out to over a thousand customers per trip, instead of just 28.  Emulating Musk, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos just unveiled his space exploration company Blue Origin’s lunar lander prototype.  The fact that NASA is, due to chronic underfunding, being outpaced by Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is not only a national disgrace, but a matter of concern for the welfare of humanity as a whole.  If space travel becomes monopolized by a handful of billionaires, it could eventually lead to the scenario envisioned by sci-fi dystopias like Elysium, wherein only the rich will be allowed to escape our dying planet, while the poor masses are left behind.

In regards to public transportation (and many other fields), the US is quickly falling behind China.  The Middle Kingdom has over 19,000 mi. of high-speed rail (much of it built just this past decade); the US has just 2% of that total and much of it is contained to an old NYC-DC Acela line that is woefully obsolete. Eight new airports get built in China every year, meaning that China’s total stockpile of airports will double by 2035.  The last American international airport was built last century and many existing airports, like the infamous LaGuardia, are falling apart due to underfunding.  The nation famous for its cyclists also boasts the world’s largest elevated bike lane; by contrast, bike lanes are a very controversial issue in American cities, where its staunch-individualist detractors decry them as Communist plots.

This growing disparity is being fuelled by the two nation’s different appropriations models.  China realizes the importance of central planning in regards to major infrastructure projects.  Investing in high-speed rail might not be “profitable” if measured solely by ticket revenue, but it pays for itself in the long-term by spurring urban development, construction contracts and employment, and increased tax revenues from workers now able to access better jobs and commerce.  Not to mention that traffic accidents, often the result of crumbling and obsolete road infrastructure, is the #8 cause of fatalities worldwide, including 32,000 a year in the US.  The American mindset is more myopic, focused only on short-term viability for investors.  This was encapsulated by Trump’s infrastructure plan, which focused on subsidies for corporations and localities… the same model that has been failing America’s infrastructure for decades.

It’s clear that the Uber-ization of public transportation is an inadequate and unsustainable solution.  The corporate model is solely predicated on short-term growth and the exploitation of its workforce.  In order to keep up with fellow superpower China, the US must take a centralized approach to maintaining and upgrading its faltering subways, trains, airports, bridges, roads and waterways.  Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration employed about 9M Americans in the construction of some of the world’s most successful infrastructure projects, such as 29,000 new bridges, at the height of the US’ greatest financial crisis. People like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are looking to emulate this past success by enacting a Green New Deal, which would employ millions of Americans in constructing sustainable infrastructure.  Likewise, it would be a boon for construction firms, industrial goods suppliers like Caterpillar, shipping-oriented companies like Amazon and urban-based businesses as a whole.  America must invest itself, in its people, in its future.

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Convergence Of Competitive Markets And Indian Elections

Joseph Abraham

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If competition is a key component of a flourishing economy, it is equally true that competition in electoral politics and elections is a powerful force for the healthy growth of a vibrant democracy enhancing legitimacy of political parties and their responsiveness to the aspirations of the electorate.

Viewed from the Indian perspective, there is a striking identity between the rights of consumers in the free market economy and the rights of voters in our political democracy. Equally noteworthy is the identity of the fundamental principles governing the rule of law in the free market system, the institutional arrangements for safeguarding consumer rights and the rule of law of elections and the regulatory environment for monitoring the functioning of a free and fair electoral democracy. The free market system ensures the best available goods and services are offered to the consumer at the optimal price following the principles of free market competition without restrictive and unfair trade practices enforced through the Consumer Protection Act1986 and the Competition Act 2002. 

 In the democratic system, the voters are given the right to elect the best available persons as people’s representatives through conducting elections in a free and fair manner which forms the bedrock of democracy. This is ensured by the Election Commission through the enforcement of the Guidelines of Model Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates during elections mainly with respect to speeches, polling day, polling booths, portfolios, election manifestos, processions and general conduct. Thus, while the role of a Referee in the free market system in India is played by the Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum and Competition Commission of India, the rules of  free and fair elections in  political democracy are enforced by the Election Commission of India.    

In a market economy, competition facilitates a host of benefits: awareness and market penetration, higher quality at same prices, increase in demand and consumption through competitive pricing, product differentiation, upgradation and innovation, improvements in efficiency of production at optimal levels by minimising cost and losses and increasing customer service and satisfaction. Competition in politics and elections elevates the voter to a pivotal role in democracy as that given to the consumer in a market driven economy. Electoral candidates vie for votes by promising reforms such as better governance, greater socio-economic equity and positive measures for poverty alleviation.

Each political party through its campaigns, manifesto and other propaganda machinery strives hard to win the maximum number of voters in electoral democracy transforming it as a political free market system with fierce competition  between the players similar to the efforts of sellers in the  free market economy to attract the maximum number of customers.

A   free market system across the globe,  is characterised by the existence of not only the  most efficient firms but also several  inefficient ones who are unable to produce the best quality goods and services  at lowest prices and even  those resorting to fraudulent ,  restrictive and unfair trade practices. Similarly, in political democracy and elections around the world,  besides politicians and parties with high degree of integrity and democratic values, there are those with criminal records, adopting ideologies prejudiced by notions of  race,  caste, colour, gender and religion based politics, and those charged with allegations of vote buying etc. which continues to undermine the democratic process.

Consumer Rights in a Free Market Economy

In India,  the interests of the  consumer in the market economy from restrictive, unfair and anti-competitive trade practices by firms  is safeguarded through several strong legal provisions which inter alia includes  the enactment of the  Consumer Protection Act 1986  and the Competition Act 2002. In addition, consumers rights in the economy are further protected through The Indian Contract Act, 1872, The Sale of Goods Act, of 1930 and  The Agriculture produce Act of 1937.   This is further strengthened by the establishment of supportive quasi-judicial institutional arrangements i.e the Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission at the National, State and District level as well as the Competition Commission of India.

The main objective of the competition law of India is to promote economic efficiency using competition as one of the means of assisting the creation of market responsive to consumer preferences. The advantages of perfect competition are three-fold: allocative efficiency which ensures that costs of production are kept at a minimum and dynamic efficiency which promotes innovative practices.

To achieve its objectives, the Competition Commission of India endeavours to do the following:

  • Make the markets work for the benefit and welfare of consumers
  • Ensure fair and healthy competition in economic activities in the country for faster and inclusive growth and development of the economy.
  • Implement competition policies with an aim to effectuate the most efficient utilization of economic resources.
  • Develop and nurture effective relations and interactions with sectoral regulators to ensure smooth alignment of sectoral regulatory laws in tandem with the competition law.
  • Effectively carry out competition advocacy and spread the information on benefits of competition among all stakeholders to establish and nurture completion culture in Indian economy.

Voters Rights in a Political Democracy

As a free market economy cannot sustain consumer rights without supportive legal and institutional framework, there is little doubt that for the survival of a free and fair democracy, the rule of law should prevail and it is necessary that the best available persons should be chosen as people’s representatives for proper governance of the country (Gadakh Yashwantrao Kankararao v Balasaheb Vikhepati lAIR 1994 SC 678). India isa sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic. Democracy is one of the inalienable basic features of the Constitution of India and forms parts of its basic structure (Kesavanand Bharati v State of Kerala and Others AIR 1973 SC 1461). The concept of democracy, as visualised by the Constitution, pre-supposes the representation of the people in Parliament and State Legislatures by the method of election (N.P.Punnuswami v Returning Officer Namakka lAIR 1952 SC 64).

 Accordingly, in India,  in the  realm of political democracy and elections, the interests of the voters and electorate  is safeguarded through the Constitution of India,  Representation  of the People’s Act 1950 and 1951,Presidential and Vice Presidential Elections Rules 1974, Registration of Electors Rules 1960 and Conduct of Elections Rules 1961.

In India, the above legal provisions of elections and voting under political democracy    are administered and further supplemented by the Election Commission’s directions and instructions on all aspects. The underlying principle of  parliamentary democracy enforced by the Election Commission of India  is to ensure free and fair elections for which there are three pre-requisites: (1) an authority to conduct these elections, which should be insulated from political and executive interference, (2) set of laws which should govern the conduct of elections and in accordance whereof the authority charged with the responsibility of conducting these elections should hold them, and (3) a mechanism whereby all doubts and disputes arising in connection with these elections should be resolved. The Constitution of Indi has paid due attention to all these imperatives and duly provided for all the three matters.

The Constitution has created an independent Election Commission of India in which vest the superintendence, direction and control of preparation of electoral rolls for, and conduct of elections to, the officers of president and Vice President of India and Parliament and State Legislatures (Article 324). A similar independent constitutional authority has been created for conduct of elections to municipalities, panchayats and other local bodies (Articles 243 K and 243 ZA) along with legal and institutional provisions for  settlement of disputes relating to elections.

Model Code of Conduct in India

Election Commission of India  has laid down a set of guidelines for conduct of political parties and candidate during elections. The main points of code of conduct are:

  1. The government may not lay any new ground for projects or public initiatives once the Model Code of Conduct comes into force.
  2. Government bodies are not to participate in any recruitment process during the electoral process.
  3. The contesting candidates and their campaigners must respect the home life of their rivals and should not disturb them by holding road shows or demonstrations in front of their houses. 
  4. The election campaign rallies and road shows must not hinder the road traffic.
  5. Candidates are asked to refrain from distributing liquor to voters.
  6. The Code hinders the government or ruling party leaders from launching new welfare programmes like construction of roads, provision of drinking water facilities etc or any ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
  7. The code instructs that public spaces like meeting grounds, helipads, government guest houses and bungalows should be equally shared among the contesting candidates. These public spaces should not be monopolized by a few candidates.
  8. On polling day, all political party candidates should cooperate with the  poll-duty officials at the voting booths for an orderly voting process. Candidates should not display their election symbols near and around the poll booths on the polling day. No one should enter the booths without a valid pass from the Election Commission.
  9. There will be poll observers to who any complaints can be reported or submitted.
  10. The ruling party should not use its seat of power for the campaign purposes.
  11. The ruling party ministers should not make any ad-hoc appointment of officials, which may influence the voters in favour of the party in power.
  12. Before using loud speakers during their poll campaigning, candidates and political parties must obtain permission or license from the local authorities. The candidates should inform the local police for conducting election rallies to enable the police authorities to make required security arrangements. 

Conclusion

In a wider sense, both free markets and democratic elections are run on the basis of a set of rules with respective regulatory bodies enforcing the rules of the game. While there is a strong element of political centralization in the decision making process of elections, free market system is tilted more towards the principle of economic decentralisation. However, the consumer and the voter whose rights are legally and institutionally safeguarded remain as the principal beneficiaries of both systems- the economic and political. Thus free markets and democracy have identical underlying objectives of maximising welfare of the people. The convergence of the political economy of free markets and elections therefore highlights the democratic principles governing the welfare of citizens.

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Euro – 20 years on: Who won and who lost?

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The common European currency – the euro – came into being 20 years ago. Since January 1, 1999, the euro has been widely used in cashless money transfers. On January 1, 2002, banknotes and coins were introduced into circulation. How did the European countries benefit from the single currency? How many profited from its introduction?

In the early 1990s, the European Community entered a new stage of development which was characterized by a transition to a higher level of integration within it and expansion to include more members. This was provided by the Treaty on European Union, which was signed on February 7, 1992 in the Dutch city of Maastricht and entered into force on November 1, 1993. The Maastricht agreements and the subsequent decisions of the EU’s governing bodies – the European Council and the Council of the EU –formed a groundwork for a gradual, stage-by-stage creation of a monetary union and the introduction of a single currency, the euro.

At the time the decision on the introduction of the euro came into effect it was believed that the main objectives of the transition to a single monetary policy and the replacement of national banknotes with a single European one were the following. First of all, a monetary union was supposed to put the finishing touches to the formation of a common market and was to transform the EU territory into an economic space with equal opportunities for all players. A single currency was expected to facilitate the transition of the EU to a common economic policy, which, in turn, was seen as indispensable for moving to a new level of political integration. Many also viewed a single currency as vital for cementing European integration and a symbol of the economic and political integrity of the region. It was assumed that the euro would keep European countries “in the same harness” even in times of crisis and would help them to overcome differences and even resist outbursts of nationalism.

The second goal was to prevent losses caused by continuous fluctuations in the rates of Western European currencies. Once the euro was established, risk payments for possible losses in different-currency transactions became a thing of the past. It was assumed that stable and low interest rates would bring down inflation and stimulate economic growth. Thirdly, it was thought that fixed exchange rates within the euro zone with no more fluctuations would boost investment activity and, as a result, would improve the situation on the labor market. In addition, a better economic performance was to make it easier for countries to enter the EU and adapt to the new reality. A better economic performance was supposed to make European products more competitive in world markets.

Fourth, a single currency was supposed to significantly cut circulation costs. At the end of the 1990s, the existence of various national currencies cost the EU countries 20-25 billion ECU (26-33 billion dollars) annually, including the cost of keeping records of currency transactions, insuring currency risks, conducting exchange operations, drawing up the price lists in various currencies, etc. Finally, fifthly, the initiators of the single currency hoped that the euro would become one of the international reserve currencies. The introduction of the euro was supposed to change the balance of strength between the United States and united Europe in favor of the latter. In the long run, it boiled down to ensuring more independence of the EU economic policy since interest rates on long-term loans would be less dependent on American ones.

What is happening at present? Not surprisingly, the greatest difficulties emerged  while grappling with the most pressing and large-scale agenda involving the ambitious plans of the political and economic transformation of the EU and the strengthening of its global geo-economic role. Indeed, since the late 1990s, the economic and financial spheres of the EU have undergone dramatic changes. In 2004 and 2007, the majority of Central and Eastern European countries joined the Union (an increase in social dumping). The current EU “bears little resemblance” to that of 20 years ago. “Not only the currency has become different, but the entire European economy has changed.”

Nevertheless, as predicted by those who criticized the approved version of transition to a single European currency, chances for meeting the criteria of eurozone membership in case the global economy followed an unfavorable scenario are pretty slim for most countries of the eurozone. As economic and financial crises sweep Europe one after another, the presence of the euro and the unprecedentedly high level of the European Central Bank’s autonomy and its extensive powers are restricted by the “possibility of influencing the economy” of separate states. Since inflation rates vary from country to country, the interest rate suggested by the ECB (about 2%) turns out to be too low for countries with high inflation (which leads to financial bubbles) and too high for countries with low inflation (which has a negative impact on investments).

As a result, the economic slowdown in European economies in the 2000s through 2010s led to increases in budget deficits. According to the requirements of the eurozone, governments have to raise taxes or cut spending, even if it damages national economy. Formally, there exists a procedure to tackle economic upheavals in this or that country of the eurozone to minimize their consequences for other members. From the point of view of abstract macroeconomic indicators this procedure is functioning well. But, judging by what happened in Spain, and then in Greece and Italy, its social, economic and subsequently, political costs are too high. In the first place, we talk about social upheavals, which became one the main reasons for the rise of “right-wing populists” across Europe.

The euro is running into problems mainly because it hinges on politics, rather than economics. On the one hand, it is this that largely keeps it from the collapse. The EU leadership is ready to sustain any financial or economic losses to preserve the single currency.  However, from the economic viewpoint, the ECB’s readiness for currency interventions has ruined market discipline. In March this year the German Wirtschafts Woche stated that the euro had failed to become either an effective currency or an EU stability enhancing tool. What proves it is the fact that without “billions and billions in financial injections on the part of the European Central Bank and European governments to save the euro the single currency would have long sunk dead”. The 2008 financial crunch quickly triggered the crisis of the eurozone which culminated in the Greek debt crisis of 2010. As a result, “the dispute over how to save the single currency laid bare purely political differences across Europe”.

As skeptics forecast, membership in the eurozone, sought by countries with different levels of economic development regardless of the tough requirements and selection criteria, resulted in a situation in which a setback in the global economic performance hit weaker members the hardest. Citing the IMF, Le Figaro points out that “the euro exchange rate is too high for France and Italy (which deals a blow on their competitiveness), and is too low for Germany (by about 20%)”.  This provided the German economy with a clear edge over other EU members and secured a “huge foreign trade proficit”. Moreover, in the course of the eurozone crisis in 2009 there emerged a vicious circle: Germany’s domineering position in the EU enabled Berlin to dictate its policy of austere budgetary measures to the greater part of the rest of Europe, which, in turn, gave rise to an outburst of anti-German sentiment in a whole range of countries, including Greece and Italy.

Therefore, in 20 years of its existence the euro has made Germany yet more powerful economically than it used to be. Simultaneously, it has become a major factor that contributed to Germany’s isolation in Europe. Critics say that while drafting the euro project its authors meant to weaken Germany. Instead, the single currency “strengthened it, providing it with competitive advantages through a “weak” euro”. Central Europe has become a supplier of spare parts for German businesses thereby putting into practice the Mitteleuropa Doctrine in the 21st century. The rest of the EU countries have become a market for German goods. Meanwhile, Germany has to pay for economic failures of an ever greater number of its EU partners. In such a way, Germany’s economic might has all but become a major threat to European integration. Pessimists fear the current economic and geopolitical trends will sooner or later push the Germans into pursuing a more “egoistic” and “aggressive” policy, in every sense of the word. Everyone remembers what this kind of policy ended with in a period from the mid19th to the mid20th century.

As for the second and third points of the objectives of a single currency, the results are contradictory. Inflation in the eurozone is indeed at an all-time low. There has occurred a unification of the common market of goods, capitals and workforce. At the same time, measures which are being taken by the European Central Bank to fight low inflation have more than once driven a number of EU countries into recession and sovereign debt crises. Living standards in EU countries have not been growing steadily over the past few years. A rise in wages has turned out to be much smaller than predicted in the late 1990s.  Most European banks still prefer holding debt obligations of their countries only, which, in case of financial crisis, is fraught with banking problems and could ruin national economy. As for competitiveness, the appearance of a single market “in the first place, aggravated competition between  EU countries”. Simultaneously, the introduction of the same standards and requirements for all countries of the eurozone “cemented their differences, rather than brought them together”.

The fourth point can be considered fully implemented. Economic transactions have been simplified, cost less and have got rid of exchange-related risks. According to the British The Economist, three out of five residents of eurozone countries consider the euro useful for their country. And 75% of Europeans are sure that the single currency benefits the EU. Meanwhile, the removal of barriers to capital movements has led to a significant imbalance in investments, especially in the industrial sector. The main benefits went to countries located in the center of the EU while the geographical “periphery” of the eurozone has lost some of its former investment attractiveness. But the presence of the euro makes it impossible for the less fortunate countries to stimulate the economy by bringing down the currency value.

As for the fifth point, some of the ambitious plans have been implemented. The euro has already made a significant contribution to the weakening of the position of the US dollar in the global economy. According to the European Commission, one-fifth of the world’s currency reserves are denominated in the single European currency. “340 million citizens use it daily, 60 countries and territories link their currency to it”. On the other hand, 10 years of 20 years of its history the eurozone has devoted to the struggle against an “unprecedented crisis”. By now, experts say there has been a “fragile recovery.” Nevertheless, unlike its main competitors, the dollar and the yuan, the euro has no solid foundation. The EU budget is used mainly for paying subsidies to member countries, while the years-long disputes over prospects for creating a common EU ministry of finance all but fuel differences between 19 eurozone governments.

Thus, according to optimists, criticism of the euro is first of all the result of profound differences on the fundamental issues of European economic policy. The single currency consolidated the leaders of Europe, provided them with the common goal of creating a more integrated, a more attractive for trade and business, and a globally competitive, economy. However, a further stable existence of a single currency mechanism in Europe calls for urgent reforms, which European politicians are either not ready for or are not capable of. According to critics, the single currency has driven the different economies of the EU countries into the Procrustean bed of all-fitting standard format. The single currency mechanism completely ignores, if not completely denies, the geographical, historical and cultural specifics of the member states. Overall, the current model of economic and monetary integration in the EU mindlessly forces countries whose national economies do not match the general format “to carry out endless reforms,” which all but aggravate their long-standing inherent problems.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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