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What to do about the Euro

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]fter the North American subprime crisis, European countries suffered two simultaneous shocks: the customers of those “toxic” assets – mainly European assets – discovered that most of their assets were completely presumed, while the US economic crisis made the substantial EU exports to that market decrease significantly.

As usual, recession leads to an increase in public deficit, because tax revenue decreases while, in time of crisis, public expenditure for subsidies and welfare cannot but increase.

Hence the global recession of 2007, caused by the United States, led to the first real crisis of the Euro.

When adjustments of exchange rates are no longer possible, in the Eurozone the mitigation of imbalances is entrusted to the EU structural funds for low-income regions – funds scarcely suitable for specific needs and too complex to be used by local governments.

Hence the Euro was born as an intrinsically deflationary currency and the only nation winning the single currency battle was Germany which, shortly before the start of the European single currency phase, had depressed wages severely and had created the well-known “mini-jobs”.

With an inflation rate and a labor cost already lower than those of the other future Euro members, it immediately created an optimal and stable differential as against the ”South’s Euro”.

Currently the Euro conceals, but not solves this asymmetry.

Hence very low inflation in Germany and a related very low interest rate, which have further increased German competitiveness compared to the South’s Euro area.

Therefore the EU Member States which had not prepared themselves for the single currency recorded inflation rates much higher than the German ones but, thanks to the single currency, recorded lower interest rates, thus financing the cost of crisis with debt.

The Euro was a good currency for incurring debt, but a bad currency for exporting.

Furthermore, this was the reason why the public debt increased also in Italy but, unlike the lira time, the Italian debt securities were held in the Eurozone surplus countries and not by the Italian customers of public debt securities.

At that juncture, the crisis broke out in Greece which, with the then Prime Minister Papandreou, had overtly and naively “cooked the books”.

Instead of funding Greece immediately at a low cost, so that it could overcome the crisis, and then allowing it to redress its accounts, the Sarkozy-Merkel axis imposed very harsh “austerity measures” on Greece which had to pay very high rates on the market. Hence, for international markets, the Greek default became a very concrete possibility.

If Strauss-Kahn had not been unfairly defamed by a special relationship between Sarkozy and Obama – who was afraid of a brave EU showing guts – the low-interest loan to Greece would have been a reality and there would not have been the first “Euro-branded” default. A default which paves the way for others.

It will be the project in progress for other “weak” economies, the rush towards bankruptcy and default.

International markets have got so accustomed to gain money quickly and easily from a national default of the Eurozone that they are rubbing their hands in view of the next country falling into that spiral.

Hence the Euro is a currency which amplifies internal crises between high rates and rising national deficits. It also signals to financial markets that there exists a great chance of short-term high profits – almost usurious ones, if usury were not a criminal offense also on international financial markets.

Hence while the Euro, as conceived today, is a sign of the end for the weakest countries of the single currency area, it is not true that over-spending by the countries already weakened by the Euro has worsened the crisis, as the current economic theories make us believe.

Data shows that, after 2007, the countries called PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) had a debt/GDP ratio fully comparable with the one preceding the Euro introduction. Hence we do not accept explanations on “immoral” countries which “spend beyond their means.”

The crisis broke out and expanded because a currency created for the monetarily strongest countries, with remarkable trade surpluses, was not suitable for nations having different productive configurations and very little surpluses.

Therefore the crisis of the single currency and its economies does not result from the “non-restrictive” and profligate policies of some PIIGS governments.

A that juncture, the quite unusual idea emerged among European bureaucracies that deficit spending of the public sector – the only known driver to stimulate the economies under crisis – had the immediate effect of increasing taxes, thus leading to an increase in savings and a reduction in consumption.

This is the expansionary austerity school of thought, which is currently the best known one in contemporary economic analysis.

It is generally based on subjective (and psychologically questionable) assessments which are transposed into the macroeconomic environment, where everything is very different from the people’s spending or saving attitudes.

You cannot infer the behavior of an entire organism from one single cell, as it is well-known that all organisms are not simply clusters of similar cells.

Again according to the expansionary austerity school of thought, it is believed that deficit reduction will be interpreted by taxpayers as a reduction in taxes to pay.

It is a shaman-style reasoning – however, without avoiding media influencing citizens or without thinking they save or not for reasons other than the irrational bet on the reduction in State deficit, which anyway depends on a political choice.

Hence as long as the governments’ interest rates to refinance their debt are set by unspecified “markets,” which are interested in increasing interest rates to enhance their gains, there is no way out.

So, what can be done? If the Euro countries were funded directly by the ECB, at rates similar to those used by the private banking system, financial resources equal to 5% of GDP would be released.

Even a uniform tax system among the Euro countries would be essential for this purpose.

However, neither the first nor the second option is possible in the current Euro regulatory framework. Hence what can be done?

This is the reason why the exit of some countries from the Eurozone and their return to national currencies must be considered without making an issue of it and overdramatizing.

By calculating the loss of competitiveness of a post-Euro lira or peseta, we record a comparative loss of approximately 14% – hence nothing very severe.

Provided, however, that the Bank of Italy has well-designed plans already available for the possible exit from the Euro – something in which we do not believe at all.

Unfortunately Guido Carli passed away.

Hence, it is worth reiterating that Euro crisis was generated by excessive private and public debt held by non-European hands.

Therefore, as from 2010, all the countries hit by the Euro crisis had accumulated current account deficits while, coincidentally,   those which had current account surpluses did not record financial crises.

In fact, the crisis materialized with a sudden stop of capital flows between the Eurozone countries.

A stop which took the form of a generalized increase in risk premiums.

The end of flows immediately raised doubts on the solvency of banks and governments which depended on foreign loans from abroad, for example those who were accumulating current account deficits.

Inevitably the crisis also increased the debt/GDP ratio.

The monetary union enabled global imbalances to expand rapidly without anyone noticing it, because the Euro “conceals” the differences between the countries using it.

Hence, also as a result of the inefficient European bureaucracy, the loss of trust vis-à-vis the countries recording deficits increased.

Hence, without a “lender of last resort”, each monetary shock tends to be amplified and the Euro is precisely a currency without a lender of last resort.

A currency in which no international investor believes, unless it represents the individual economies and the single public debt of the Eurozone countries.

Therefore the crisis is bound to get worse, considering that the increase in risk premiums and interest rates produces a budget deficit which, in turn, increases the risk premium and interest rates.

It is worth adding that the countries’ typical and natural response to this situation would be devaluation which, obviously, is not possible with the Euro.

Has a currency which cannot be devalued ever existed?

It is still the “Napoleonic myth” of the single currency for the whole Europe which, however, the French Emperor supported with bayonets, just as the US dollar is currently backed with the North American Armed Forces’ global rayonnement.

Therefore, the debt denominated in Euros is increasingly similar to a foreign currency debt, as in those sudden stop crises which often occurred in Third World countries.

Hence the link between banks and governments in the Eurozone has amplified the crisis.

The cost of financing the deficit increased and this made the deficit rise.

Only Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” at the end of July 2012 made the Euro a “safe haven currency”, because he made it clear that the “lender of last resort” existed and was the ECB Governor. In the meantime, however, the other major international currencies had been depreciated by 30%.

Furthermore, the proposals to solve the single currency crisis are often paradoxical.

They range from Joseph Stiglitz, who wants Germany to leave the Euro so as to enable the old remaining single currency to devalue.

With the same current rules? It is impossible.

Hence shall we wait for a courtesy by Germany, which would have no interest in leaving the single currency, which deprives it of European competition?

Naivety of the New World. Germany will never leave the Euro, which enables it to bring dangerous competitors for exports into line (such as Italy).

While President Ciampi – an extraordinary man who has recently passed away and whom I still regret – was visiting the Great Wall, the German Prime Minister, Schroeder, arrived in China to sign the agreements for the expansion of the German car-making industry in China.

Better and more autonomous intelligence would be needed to defend ourselves from competitors-allies.

According to Paolo Savona and Luigi Zingales, two Euros should be created, one for the “rich” North and the other for us poor countries of the South.

Furthermore, sometimes Zingales speaks of various Euros. Would they all have the same value?

Possibly becoming quasi-national currencies? Nevertheless also the countries in the South have significant budget and debt differences, as well as different production logics.

Certainly better than before, with the Euro, but not much better.

Conversely Basevi thinks of a European Debt Agency (EDA) purchasing – on the secondary market (where raiders have already made good profit) – up to 60% of debt in relation to each EU country’s GDP.

On the basis of these securities, it issues its own bonds, the blue bonds, while for the part exceeding their debt over the 60% acquired by EDA, the countries issue their red bonds autonomously.

The blue bonds would be “liquid” and safe (Why? Where is the EDA underlying fund?), while the red bonds would have a higher risk profile and thus would pay a higher interest rate.

However, the global market of financial securities is not made up of fools.

And it is not clear from where the premium for the blue bonds would come.

And where the red bonds would be sold, with such an interest as to rapidly recreate the old huge public debt.

Hence if we leave the Euro and a new lira is recreated, devaluation would be approximately 27% as against the European currency.

The price of raw materials could rise by the same rate, but we should consider the length of contracts and the specific role played by ENI for oil and energy.

Bank deposits could still be denominated in euros – the law permits to have bank deposits in foreign currencies – and the new lira could have legal tender as the old currency designed by Silvio Gesell which the more stood “still”, the greater value lost.

The drive towards exports would be important, but there would be enough euros available to buy technologies or other items abroad.

In short, we need to think rationally to an upcoming withdrawal from the Euro, without pro-European myths and with an accurate analysis of our national interest in the short and medium term.

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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