“One of Germany’s most acclaimed experts” in economic risk analysis, Marcus Krall, “predicts the collapse of the German banking system and the eurozone by the end of 2020.” Krall describes the euro as an “erroneous structure,” whose existence is maintained for political reasons. According to Krall, the euro has a negative impact on Germany’s competitiveness and “weakens the country’s banking system”. Most eurozone countries would “have gone bankrupt” long ago if the European Central Bank did not support them by lowering interest rates. “At the end of next year, Europe may face a dramatic decline in the availability of loans.” There will be massive bankruptcies of businesses, and the unemployment rate will soar. In an attempt to save the situation, the ECB will resort to emissions, which, in turn, will provoke a leap in inflation and “loss of savings not only of the Germans, but also of everyone who invested in euros.” The crisis in the European economy will undermine political support for the euro, “and countries will return to their national currencies.” It sounds threatening, but let’s try to look at the details.
The slowdown of the German economy has been in place for several years. According to the returns of the year 2018, the GDP growth dropped to its lowest in the past 5 years and amounted to 1.5%, which is a decline of 0.7 compared to 2017. The largest EU economy “narrowly escaped a recession”. In the second quarter of this year, German GDP decreased by 0.1% against the same period the previous year; which, in annual terms, reduced the growth rate to 0.4%. Official forecasts for the results of the current year have been reduced to 0.5% – more than three times, compared with last year’s expectations. By early autumn, forecasts for a further decline in exports amid fears of a general slowdown in the global economy led to more expectations of a further slowdown of the economy. The government of Angela Merkel, after expressing optimism about growth prospects for the current year, began to acknowledge the problem.
The economy of Germany is to a large extent dependent on exports, and any serious turmoil in international trade will cause Germany more damage than any other EU country. An important factor is the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, which is on the verge of a new escalation. What also creates a negative outlook for the entire European economy is the prospect of Brexit without an agreement between London and Brussels. Finally, the Chinese economy is slowing down, which has caused a decrease in demand for German export products, primarily cars. According to The Financial Times, in the first half of this year, the output in the car-manufacturing industry dropped by 12 percent. Also, the anti-Russian sanctions are hitting “the German farming sector and processing industries; German companies are losing jobs and profit,” – reports Gazeta.ru. Meanwhile, consumer spending and domestic investment continue to grow. Unemployment is at its lowest since the reunification of Germany. Reports of September 9 say that in July German exports rose again by 0.7%, rather than fall, as most observers had expected. Nevertheless, entrepreneurial confidence continues to decline in almost all sectors of the economy. Thus, the GDP growth rate in the 3rd quarter will make the key factor: in case of a decrease, we will be able to talk about a recession in Germany in the formal sense of the word.
Like most European banks, German comapnies have long been fighting a fierce battle to maintain the profitability of business amid the long-running period of ultra-low interest rates. Meanwhile, bond yields, especially long-term ones, continue to decline throughout Europe. The yield on German government bonds is negative for all securities with a validity term of up to 10 years inclusive. For 30-year bonds, the yield fluctuates around zero. The rate difference between short-and long-term borrowings – the main source of income for banks under normal conditions – is close to zero. As investors rush in search for safer assets, the forecasts are disappointing: negative rates will persist “for several more years.” Another negative prospect for the German banking system is the de facto negative rates on ECB deposits. In fact, banks have to pay the Central Bank for keeping their capital in its accounts. The prospect of a new drop in the ECB interest rate in the near future is causing more anxiety among investors.
The ECB is signaling its willingness to lower interest rates in order to neutralize the slowdown in the entire eurozone. Experts predict that the ECB will either keep rates at the current low level or lower them even more, at least until mid-2020. In these conditions, the German government is likely to resort to tough measures to secure a deficit-free budget, at least in 2019. However, the policy of cutting the state debt could be revised. At the end of this summer, German Finance Ministry officials publicly spoke about a “package of economic incentives” that could be put into effect in the event of a recession in Germany. Depending on the extent of such stimuli, the balanced annual budget policy may be put at risk.
In 20 years, the euro has turned Germany into a key EU economy, critical for the economic stability of the entire union. At the same time, it has become a major factor that cemented the isolation of Germany in Europe. As skeptics had predicted, the admission to the eurozone, despite tough selection criteria, of countries very different from the economic point of view, led to the fact that a deterioration in the global economic situation hits the weakest member countries the hardest. According to critics, “the euro exchange rate is clearly too high for France and Italy (this becomes a blow to their competitiveness), and too low for Germany.” During the Eurozone crisis of 2009, there appeared a vicious circle: the dominance of the Federal Republic of Germany’s economy in the EU allowed Berlin to dictate its conditions for strict budgetary savings to most of Europe. This, in turn, gave rise to an outbreak of anti-German sentiment in a number of countries on the continent, including Greece and Italy.
By now, Central Europe has turned into a supplier of semi-finished products and spare parts for German enterprises. The rest of the EU countries are a market for German goods. Simultaneously, Germany is forced to pay for the economic failure of an increasing number of its partners in the eurozone. Thus, the economic power of Germany, while being the backbone of the entire economic system of the EU, has become almost the main threat to the European integration project. Even though the German economy boasts a significant amount of strength, “weak domestic credit performance, the risk of a global trade recession and the slowdown in China” will continue to “push” Germany to recession, – SaxoBank analysts quoted by Gazeta.ru said in the middle of the year. According to the June results, industrial production went down by 5% year-on-year. The ZEW economic sentiment index has reached its lowest level since December 2011. According to Eurostat, published in early September, the total GDP of the euro area countries grew by only 0.2 percent in the second quarter, which is two times lower against the first three months of this year.
In late August, The Economist made a prediciton that Germany would follow the path of Japan, which has been waging an incessant struggle against the threat of stagnation for decades. Like Japan, present-day Germany is rich, burdened with a large state debt, as well as an aging population. Trends in the German bond market also signal “endless stagnation.” Concerns are growing that politicians have “forever” lost their ability to improve the state of the economy. Moreover, the decline in consumer prices “pushes” discount rates yet lower. As a result, many experts believe that Berlin may be faced with the need for a more “self-oriented” policy, at least in the economic sphere.
Meanwhile, considering EU membership criteria, the majority of the eurozone member countries are in no position to take any significant steps in the event of a genuinely unfavorable turn in the global economic situation. The presence of the euro and the “unprecedentedly” high degree of independence of the ECB with its extensive powers put severe restrictions on the possibility of influencing the economy of individual states. In accordance with the current requirements of the eurozone, governments have to either increase taxes or reduce government spending – even if it harms the national economy. Formally, there is a monetary mechanism to counter economic upheavals in a particular eurozone country to minimize their consequences for other participants. From the point of view of abstract macroeconomic indicators, this mechanism has been functioning well up to now. But, judging by what we witnessed in Spain, and then in Greece and Italy, its socio-economic and political costs are extremely high.
Also, the ECB itself is pretty hard-up at the moment. In the spring, it extended the program of preferential lending to the banking sector. However, inflation is steadily below the 2 percent target, and interest rates, as mentioned above, are fluctuating around zero. The government bond retirement program, especially in the case of Germany, is already approaching the limit established by the current legislation. Given the situation, economists fear that in the event of a new economic shock, there may simply be “no room left” for monetary policy measures. According to pessimists, “Europe has already reached this point.” Thus, for the first time in the past decade, we can talk about the need to use fiscal stimuli. And it is completely unclear whether the decisions, which are likely to be the result of numerous political and bureaucratic compromises, will prove effective. Thus, the recently announced plans in the fiscal sphere of individual countries indicate, according to economists, the high probability of an increase in the eurozone budget deficit – up to 0.8 percent of its total GDP in 2019, The Economist reports. While the budget deficit keeps growing in Italy and France, Germany does not lose hope for a small economic growth in annual terms. In the absence of a common eurozone budget, “general” fiscal measures can again turn out to be only the arithmetic average of the diverse decisions taken at the national level. Optimists expect fiscal stimuli to add 0.2-0.3 percent to eurozone GDP growth by the end of this year. Yet again, much depends on Germany with its extremely significant “space for maneuver”.
However, Berlin is still in two minds about it, probably, because in the case of fiscal stimulus measures, consensus is important, along with a good coordination of actions of the governments of different countries. Only in this case could fears of stagnation disperse. Finally, the scope of necessary incentive measures requires a high degree of political credibility. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that an economic recession in Germany could introduce substantial changes to the plans or dates of the transit of the supreme power scheduled for 2021. For Germany it took more than for other European countries to stop resisting the idea of fiscal stimulus for the economy. Now, observers argue whether the German authorities could go too far. In any case, they have yet to agree on such key parameters of the general budget of the eurozone as its size and permissible applications. Meanwhile, as pressure on the European economy keeps growing, a collapse of the eurozone can no longer be ruled out.
At present, there are still chances for Germany to avoid a recession, if not in the technical, then in the practical sense of the word. And even if it starts, the Federal Republic of Germany will enter it with one of the lowest unemployment rates among all countries of the world. By their nature, most factors that push the German economy “down” can be considered temporary. Nevertheless, more and more experts come to the conclusion that the economy of Germany “is balancing on the brink of recession.” The banking sector of Germany is busy struggling to maintain business amid zero or negative yield on assets, just like most banks in other countries of the euro area. Every day, it becomes clear that, in order to save the eurozone, the participating countries will have to make the difficult choice between delegating some part of fiscal sovereignty in favor of the hypothetical “common” supranational “finance ministry”, on the one hand, and on the other, going on with their attempts, which are increasingly costly, if not utterly useless in the current conditions, to withstand cyclical fluctuations in the economy with the help of the ECB monetary measures alone.
From our partner International Affairs
The European Green Deal: Risks and Opportunities for the EU and Russia
The European Green Deal approved by the EU in 2019 is an economic development strategy for decoupling and for carbon neutrality by 2050 . The plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. In pursuit of this policy, the EU is setting the goals of increasing resource use efficiency and of advancing toward a circular economy, restoring biodiversity and curbing pollution.
While obviously having an impact on the EU economy, the implementation of the Deal will also concern the economies and foreign commerce of its trading partners through the anticipated re-structuring of energy markets and reduced carbon-intensive imports. In the next decade, the European Green Deal will mostly affect coal imports, possibly followed by oil and gas imports after 2030. By 2030, coal imports are expected to reduce by 71–77% of the 2015 level, coupled with a 23–25% decrease for oil imports and a 13–19% decrease for imports natural gas. Post-2030 plans envision a virtually complete abandonment of coal and significant reductions in the EU’s oil and gas imports—by 78–79% and 58–67% of the 2015 level, respectively.
The border carbon tax (BCT) is one of the mechanisms envisioned by the European Green Deal with a view to covering the expenses of European manufacturers in their commitment to reduce emissions. The tax will be based on the carbon-intensity of a particular product and its foreign trade share in EU market sales.
Why does the EU want The European Green Deal?
The EU and Russia offer quite different reasoning for the European Green Deal and the ВСT.
European regulators believe the European Green Deal and the ВСТ will help “force” the nations (primarily the EU’s partners) trying not hard enough to reduce their emissions and to mount a stronger climate policy. The EU has declared its historical responsibility for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, while believing that it will not be able to resolve the issue of global climate changes on its own.
Along with enhancing supply security by making the EU less dependent on imports of a vast number of raw materials from one single country, other arguments suggest boosting the efficiency of resource use and curbing pollution. The EU is largely dependent on the deliveries of several natural resources, since it imports 87% of the oil it consumes and 74% of the natural gas. Proponents also note greater dependence on deliveries from a limited number of countries, including Russia. In 2019 and the first half of 2020, Russia’s share in the value of natural gas supplies to the EU was 44.7% and 39.3%, respectively. Norway, the second biggest supplier, had a share of some 20%, or about half of Russia’s. In reality, the degree of dependence is even greater, since long-term contracts are commonplace in this field and no allowances for delivery route flexibility are made as shipments are transported by pipeline. In 2019 and the first half of 2020, dependence on oil imports from Russia was less pronounced and amounted to 28% and 26.4%, while still being way higher than the share of the second biggest supplier, the U.S. (9.2%).
COVID-19 and the subsequent 6.2% contraction of the EU’s economy were additional factors weighing with the European Green Deal. Economic recovery has come to be considered in connection with achieving carbon neutrality. The 2020 global economic meltdown has become a driver for stepping up the environmental—and climate, in particular—ingredient in the aid packages offered by many developed and a number of developing countries.
From Russia’s perspective, the new deal is intended primarily for preemptively boosting competitiveness on global markets through advancing new technological sectors, which is mainly justified as a solution to the climate problem. Moreover, Russia believes that the deal is driven by political considerations that, among other things, have to do with reducing the EU’s dependence on imported raw materials. The environmental sector in the EU economy is already a global leader. According to Eurostat, the environmental goods and services sector grew by 2.3% already in 2017, while its gross added value amounted to $287bn, or 2.2% of the EU-27’s GDP.
Another proof that the task of making Europe-made goods more competitive is high on the agenda lies in the fact that the ВСТ will be based on the foreign trade share of carbon-intensive products, which will help stimulate sales of Europe-made goods. At the same time, European officials acknowledge that no significant carbon leakages have so far occurred; however, they cannot be ruled out in the future. Russia believes that exporters from other countries will hardly be able to compete once the tax is introduced.
Like the EU, Russia presumes that the BCT is an additional source of revenue for the European treasury amid the crisis brought about by the pandemic as well as a way to cover the significant expenses involved in implementing the new deal.
From Russia’s standpoint, one of the “unfair” aspects of levying such a tax is the fact that the EU’s policy-makers are playing up the advantage of the Union’s higher level of economic and technological development, making particular use of the historically broad resource base and the accumulated volume of greenhouse gas emissions. The EU-28’s Accumulated Emissions for 1751–2017 were estimated at 22% of global emissions, which makes the EU the next to largest emitter after the US (25%), while Russia accounts for only 6%.
Both parties concur that the main goal of the European Green Deal is to maintain the EU’s competitiveness amid the radical restructuring of the global economy. It is claimed that the ВСТ could prompt a shift of manufacturing into the countries with less stringent carbon emission standards (“carbon leakage”) due to the fact that outlays on de-carbonizing businesses in several carbon-intensive sectors will significantly increase.
For the EU and Russia, the European Green Deal carries both risks and rewards
The main risks for the EU lie in the high costs of making the European Green Deal a reality as well as in the fact that some manufacturers being tipped into unfavorable conditions, all of which is coupled with a price hike for consumers, retaliatory measures to be undertaken by other countries and energy security risks. Apart from some technological difficulties in introducing the BCT, other challenges include the tax’s ineffectiveness in resolving the climate change problem, since the BCT is non-existent in other countries.
The European Commission estimates the additional annual investment required to achieve these goals by 2030 at €260bn. Yet the unprecedented funding envisioned by the new deal for the purpose is not enough to achieve these goals. The roadmap entails allocating at least €1 trillion for “sustainable” investment. Besides, the Next Generation EU fund, established to boost the recovery of the European economy after COVID-19, earmarks another €750bn for this purpose. A staggering €600bn shall be provided for climate action funding alone, as stipulated by the Green Deal and the pertinent part of the recovery plan. Additional investment is expected to come from companies, households and national governments.
Ultimately, the ВСТ will have a negative impact on the competitive edge of all European manufacturers, concerning, above all, those sectors where imported raw materials with a high carbon footprint account for a significant chunk of the costs.
Transitioning to new power sources will require higher carbon prices, which might ultimately result in a hike in consumer prices and a drop in the quality of life across the EU.
The European Green Deal might result in new threats to the EU’s energy security, since a significant import expansion of metals and minerals—used in manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, ion-lithium batteries, fuel cells and electric cars—is needed for a large-scale de-carbonization of the economy. As of now, no substitutes for these raw materials are to be found.
Should the ВСТ be introduced, the EU’s trade partners may well, contingent on specific policies, initiate trade disputes. The European Commission has to ensure that the BCT is compliant with the WTO’s rules, which, however, does not eliminate the risk of retaliation on the part of other countries, which may take the shape of their mounting resistance to the adoption of the tax. In 2012, the plans to introduce the ВСТ for foreign air transport companies encountered particular pushback from other states, such as the US, China, India, Japan or Russia, which forced the EU to abandon the idea.
Several experts point out that this tax is ineffective in resolving the global climate change issue, since it does not exist in other countries.
There are also technical difficulties in introducing the tax. These have to do, in particular, with calculating the carbon component in imported goods in consideration of greenhouse gas emissions along the entire value chain of the product.
At the same time, the European Green Deal could benefit the European companies that bear the high costs in de-carbonizing their manufacturing. The tax will allow production to be expanded in energy-intensive sectors as well as in sectors with high-intensity trade, as about 20% of the drop in manufacturing will be offset by payments for CO2 emissions.
Russia, in turn, may face the dire prospect of losing its energy and carbon-intensive markets as well as encounter challenged posed by the BCT. Most of the profound consequences will stem from a gradual loss of oil and gas markets following a drop in demand and prices, which may additionally be exacerbated by the carbon tax. Oil and gas revenues play a key role in the Russian budget, with their share being in the ballpark of a third and a half of it. In 2018 and 2019, the figures stood at 46% and 39% respectively. In 2020, they fell to 28% owing to the slumping demand and prices amid the pandemic and OPEC agreements.
No significant drop in oil and gas imports is expected before 2030. However, in the longer run, the EU aspires to significantly reduce its supplies from Russia. In the meantime, 45% of Russia’s fossil fuel exports go to the EU. Russia might lose a significant chunk of the EU market to European manufacturers or foreign competitors whose oil production has a smaller carbon footprint: take Saudi Arabia, for instance.
The ВСТ will be conducive to the EU’s demand for Russia’s finished products falling as well, primarily when it comes to a number of steels manufactured with carbon-intensive technologies. The BCG company estimates Russian exporters’ losses, once the tax is introduced, to be some $3–5 bn annually; KPMG’s estimates are somewhat higher.
De-carbonization practices in other countries will also inform the demand for Russian fuels and carbons. Many countries have set the goal of radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some countries plan to introduce a ВСТ, while the US, China and the EU are now discussing possible cooperation in this field. It is worth noting that the global pace of de-carbonization and ВСТ introduction is hard to predict, but this should not justify a setback in Russia pursuing a more active climate policy.
At the same time, Russia could stand to benefit from the European Green Deal. Before 2030, a significant reduction of emissions will demand that the use of coal be rapidly phased out, which will result in an increased demand for natural gas, as the latter is seen as a “transition fuel” on the way to a low-carbon economy. This will allow Russia to expand its short-term and medium-term gas exports.
Technological restructuring of the economy and export diversification might emerge as the main potentially positive outcomes for Russia. The point at issue has ultimately to do with transforming the energy industry towards greater use of renewable energy sources (RES), whose cost tends to gradually decrease, as well as towards enhanced reliance on the new types of energy, such as hydrogen, which may, at the very least, partially replace fossil fuels and be exported to foreign markets.
Timely introduction of climate regulations will allow Russia to avoid having the ВСТ applied to its products. It remains unclear what kind of regulations could help resolve this matter, though.
Russian companies, now transitioning to low- and zero-carbon technologies, will be able to benefit from the price to be put on carbon and avoid paying the special tax, much as able to engage in trading quotas, depending on the instrument to be potentially used at the state level. They will likely be required to monitor greenhouse gas emissions along the entire product value chain.
The European Green Deal and the pertinent part of the EU’s economic post-pandemic recovery plan earmark about 10% of the climate action funding for “internationalizing” the Deal, which effectively means providing aid to trade partners in the form of grants, loans and guarantees for transitioning to “sustainable” energy industries and restructuring their economies and exports. Therefore, there is a theoretical possibility that some of the investment will be channeled into joint “green” projects.
The ‘green’ avenues for fostering EU–Russia bilateral relations
The European Green Deal affords opportunities for the parties to cooperate. This should not be limited to climate issues alone, although restructuring the energy sector remains a priority. Such cooperation should also include addressing the whole set of measures needed to transition to a “green economy”, with circular economy being one of its ingredients. The latter’s share in the global economy is estimated at some 9%.
Investment cooperation might become a key area, primarily encompassing investment in research, manufacturing and infrastructure, since restructuring the economy means taking it to a new technological level. Amid falling oil and gas revenues, Russia needs to explore new areas. Legally, there are no sanctions-related restrictions in climate matters.
The world already possesses a large number of the technologies to facilitate transitioning to a zero-carbon development track. Above all, these are the RES, “green” hydrogen and state-of-the-art bioenergy. Combining these sources will help implement this development track. Additional academic assessments are required to identify the efficiency and environmental acceptability of specific technologies to be used in joint projects, while taking the entire value chain into account.
Investment in hydrogen energy might become an important cooperation avenue, since its global market share is pegged at $2.28 trillion already by 2027. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicts that hydrogen will account for 12% of global energy consumption by 2050. Other experts put hydrogen’s share in global final energy consumption at 18%.
Hydrogen energy is seen as an important element in achieving the EU’s carbon neutrality, as the hydrogen’s share in Europe’s energy balance might reach 14% by 2050. Gazprom estimates Europe’s hydrogen market at $153bn as of 2050, while the Ministry of Energy suggests it will amount to $32–164bn. The Hydrogen Strategy approved by the European Commission in 2020 as part of the European Green Deal encourages the development of hydrogen energy. In Russia, it may be driven by the Strategy for Hydrogen Energy Development, which is currently being drafted. This strategy provides for collaboration with other states, including the EU. Plans for 2021 include presenting incentive measures for hydrogen exporters and consumers.
Supplies of “blue” and “turquoise” hydrogen could be a promising cooperation area. This hydrogen is produced from natural gas and it might be a particularly viable option, since this is generally perceived as being profitable economically and having the smallest negative environmental impact. Another prospective area is to encourage “green” hydrogen projects . Hydrogen cooperation is of interest to both Russian and European companies, including Gazprom, Rosatom and NOVATEK. Rosnano and Enel Russia plan to jointly produce “green” hydrogen at the Enel Russia wind power plant, which is currently under construction in the Murmansk Region, and subsequently export the hydrogen of some $55m worth to the EU. Besides, NOVATEK signals its intentions to commence production of “blue” and “green” hydrogen together with Germany’s Uniper.
Another potentially conducive to cooperation factor is that, as far as the EU is concerned, Russia has a competitive edge in its geographical proximity, large gas deposits, production facilities and robust infrastructure. Small-scale pilot projects may become the first step to determine their benefits and costs for both parties. Building business partnerships may be another prospective path.
Cooperation is also promising in the areas of increasing energy efficiency, reducing methane leaks, supplying electricity, adapting to climate change, preserving biodiversity as well as in the fields of waste management, sustainable agriculture and forestry, electric car manufacturing, introduction of trading quotas, etc. The big take-off of digital technologies makes it possible to create databases in order to transparently select the most promising projects, boost their efficiency and achieve positive outcomes, and improve management systems.
Predicted development of EU-Russia economic and political relations amid Europe’s increasingly stringent environmental standards
The BCT tax will clearly have a negative impact on the bilateral relations and, most importantly, serve to breed deeper distrust between the parties, triggering a further re-orientation toward enhancing economic links with Asian nations, primarily China, for whom Russia, along with Saudi Arabia, is one of the biggest suppliers of oil and where Russia is stepping up its natural gas exports.
To avoid a deterioration in relations, it would be preferable for the parties to engage in constructive cooperation in their mutual interests, especially since the framework for this is already in place. In 2021, Russia intends to adopt its own Climate Strategy as well as a number of environmental laws in other areas. In order to facilitate Sakhalin’s path to carbon neutrality, there has been proposed a bill introducing a mechanism for selling greenhouse gases emission quotas on the island. Russia’s leading energy companies have already embarked on climate-related plans, with some companies devising climate strategies of their own.
In fact, the European Green Deal is an issue where Russia and the EU have common approaches as much as differences of opinion. At the same time, divergent opinions are no crucial obstacle to environmental cooperation between the parties.
The implementation of the European Green Deal is fraught with major risks for both parties, the principal ones for the EU being the high costs of the strategy and retaliatory steps to be undertaken by other countries. Russia faces the dire prospect of losing markets and lagging behind in re-structuring the energy industry, its key economic sector. At the same time, new opportunities are opening up, such as bolstering the parties’ global competitiveness by entering new markets.
Environmental cooperation between the two parties could be mutually beneficial to become one of the principal areas for negotiation and implementation. In order to fulfil this potential, dialogue—based on an open and balanced approach to assessing areas for collaboration and possible rapprochement—is needed. As a first step, the EU and Russia could develop a roadmap outlining every step of such cooperation and the parties’ commitments as well as specifying the market segments where projects could be carried out.
- Breaking down the proportionate relations between development and resource consumption.
- Produced by using RES to power water electrolysis.
From our partner RIAC
Eastern Balkans Economic update: Romania’s and North Macedonia’s new data for 2020
When governments around the world started reacting to the pandemic, they induced a vast and unpredictable crisis. The ensuing recession struck in decidedly variegated ways both we looking at different countries and multiple social strata. Many economies fell in a downturn that has compromised access to income in certain States, although elsewhere these effects were risible. Such inequalities stand out in worldwide comparison, but they happen to be huge in structurally-alike, bordering States as well.
Recently, a varied pack of heavyweights and some smaller countries has rebounded strongly in relation to both GDP and employment. China and the US are at the forefront of this recovery for diverse whys and wherefores and in dissimilar manners. Like trucks on a difficult mountain road, the two are accelerating as they overcome the crisis helping the world economy.
Still, something is absent in this rubicund montage of rebounds and development: the European Union. Being the wealthiest market in human history, the EU may support other countries’ recovery tremendously. Yet, inner imbalances, organisational feebleness, and lack of resolve are restraining the Union. There have been serious consequences for some unconsolidated EU economies and on the many other States bound to the block. Following up a previous article, new data reveal how two very different country on the EU’s periphery fared in 2020.
Romania — The worst seems over
Over 20 million inhabitants and yearly exports worth about $80 billion make Romania a little giant in the Eastern Balkans. It joined the EU In 2007 in tandem with Bulgaria, and since analysts then to bundle the two countries together. However, this article’s approach is different as it compares Romania with the least populous country in the region: North Macedonia. The latter is not an EU member either, making them possibly the most dissimilar cases in the Eastern Balkans.
Romania’s economy suffered badly in the beginning of 2020, with its GDP collapsing 33% in the first quarter. These figures could be considered the worst since the onset of the post-socialist transition in the 1990s.The trend only got partially more positive in the following three months (April–June), when the economy started recovering somewhat. Yet, by the end of 2020 only 128,800 people had lost their job, or 1.49% on the previous year. The fact that the economy seems to be performing well has kept swaths of them in look for a new job. This explains rather discomforting unemployment statistics.
Gross Domestic Product
Romania’s economy only managed to get out of a steep slump in the summer quarter (July–September) of 2020. The figures reveal a strong V-shaped rebound, with GDP recovering almost 20 percentage points on its 2019 levels (Chart1). In the last three months of 2020, Romania’s GDP rose by a further 13%, reaching slightly above last years’ estimates. At the end of 2020, total production was 100.39% of its 2019 levels, whereas the Euro Area stopped at 96.86%.
Curiously, unemployment data for most of 2020 diverge from Romanian economy’s overall impressive performance — and significantly so (Chart 2). Unemployment rose in the first three months of 2020, and started growing even faster in the ensuing nine months. In spite of a positive GDP dynamic, employment decreased by almost 130,000 units in 2020Q4due to the pandemic-induced crisis.
True, unemployment statistics do not say much about the structure of the Romanian labour market, a key factor in these processes. Unlike most of their Eurozone peers, Romanian enterprises deal with a greatly flexible manpower with fewer rights and protections. Thus, they can lay off and hire staff much faster than competitors and partners in the richest EU economies. Yet, one should not interpret unemployment’s as a consequence of new people entering the job market during 2020Q2–Q3. After all, in those six months the number of employed people fell by 2.4% compared to 2019Q3 or 207,500 units. Meanwhile, unemployment ‘only’ grew by 1.3 percentage points indicating that some laid-off workers became inactive. In a word, ordinary Romanians did not get a fair share of the recovery’s gains.
RNM — It couldn’t get much worse, so it got better
As anticipated, the Republic of North Macedonia (RNM) is very different from Romania in many respects. First, its population is a fraction of the latter’s, only about two million people according to questionable official data. Furthermore, the RNM is not a member of the EU despite the fact a markedly asymmetric dependence from the Union. In effect, its economy is mostly reliant on trade with and tourism from three EU member States: Bulgaria, Germany and Greece. The country averted a civil war in 2001 by appeasing its Albanian minority, but its economy has struggled ever since.
One could argue that the situation before the pandemic hit was so dire that worse performances were rather unlikely. When the economies of Bulgaria and Greece slowed down and tourism came to a halt, the RNM’s suffered as well. In the first quarter of 2020 the RNM’s GDP fell by 14%, and shrunk further in the following three months. New figures show that about 17,000 people lost their job in April–June 2020, which became 21,000 in December. This means a 2.66% decrease in employment for a country where unemployment was 17.3% in 2019.
Gross domestic product
The RNM’s economy took the biggest hit in the second quarter of 2020, after having already suffered somewhat in January-March. In 2020Q2, North Macedonian GDP was about 23% lower than in 2019 (Chart 3), against the Eurozone’s 17%.Yet, the slid is nothing like the recession the RNM experienced during the Yugoslav Wars and the 2001 civil war. With the summer, both Bulgaria and Greece as well as the entire EU reopened their borders and started growing again. There were positive ripple effects on the RNM’s economy in the third quarter, with GDP growing by 448 million euros. The 20% increase of the summer became the base for further growth in the October-December 2020. By the end of the fourth quarter, the RNM’s GDP increased by another 10%— converging on its 2019 levels.
Unlike in Romania’s case, inconstant performances did not affect unemployment statistics visibly in the RNM (Chart 4). Actually, and counter intuitively, in comparison to 2019 unemployment decreased by 0.6% to 16.7% in the first two quarters of 2020. In total, during the first half of 2020, the RNM’s economy lost4,200 jobs or 0.5% in comparison to 2019 levels. The National Statistical Agency recorded similarly inconclusive fluctuations all year round, suggesting a deep disconnect between GDP and unemployment. All in all, one could justify these findings with the ignominious state in which the RNM’s labour market is. The population is not very active, yet unemployment has never fallen below 15%in the past 20 years. Therefore, ordinary people fail to reap sensible benefits even if the economy overall is growing.
Conclusion: Pandemic management matters
There are two lessons that one can draw from these figures and by comparing the cases of Romania and the RNM. One, regards the pandemic and the ways its management interact with key economic indicators. While the other speaks volume on the differences between these two countries on the EU’s periphery.
Arguably, the data may comfort the thesis that not only lockdown fuel recessions, but less lockdowns spur economic growth. In fact, Romania performing better than most EU and Eurozone economies in terms of GPD growth suggests that less lockdowns favour growth. After all, authorities in Bucharest have been and remain remarkably consistent in their refusal to shut down the economy. Conversely, the rather trendless fluctuation in the RNM’s data and performance results at least partly from the government’s inconsistency. Actually, Skopje went from minimal anti-contagion restrictions to declaring a full-scale, countrywide lockdown virtually overnight— a behaviour that fuels uncertainty.
Additionally, these figures dispel some of the cloud surrounding the EU’s and its peripheries’ path out of the crisis. On the one hand, the EU is trying to dig its escape route by investing billions of euros over the coming years for countrywide Recovery plans. True, Romania’s share of grants is not as bis as Bulgaria’s, Greece’s or Italy’s, but the government is thinking big. On the other hand, the RNM is amongst the “poorest countries in Europe” never to be part of the USSR. Unemployment figures could cause vertigos even before the pandemic hit and the population is shrinking at impressive rhythms. Not being a member of the EU, Skopje will get only a fraction of the money Brussels has earmarked. Paradoxically, dependence on the EU was the transmission belt of the crisis, but lack of integration will hinder the recovery.
Biden should abolish corporate tax for small business, and make Big Tech pay what they owe instead
If Biden wants to increase tax revenue, create jobs and protect the American Dream, he should abolish corporate income tax for startups and small businesses.
In America, mom and pop businesses pay the same tax rate as multinationals. Individual income tax has seven tax rates, depending on how much an individual has made. We need the same system for corporate income tax, instead of a flat rate that strangles small businesses. Small businesses that are essential for our post-pandemic recovery.
For companies to pay their fair share of tax, corporate tax rates need to be fair. Individuals have a progressive tax system – the more you earn, the higher rate you pay – but for companies it is a flat rate. That’s not fair, especially when the US, like many countries, is committed to the idea of corporate personhood: that a corporation is a legal person.
For small businesses – which are the majority of American businesses – there is really no difference between corporate and individual income. If the mom and pop store does well, so do Mama and Papa. This is what makes the current system even more unfair.
The inherently fair idea of progressive taxes (where the more you earn, the higher rate you pay) has deep roots in Western civilization. The famous economist Adam Smith wrote about this concept centuries ago. Even John Locke, a man who famously hated taxes, was in favour of progressive taxation. The idea originates in Ancient Greece and in the arguments of Aristotle and is intimately linked with democracy itself.
We can all agree that this makes sense for individuals. So why does this same principle not apply to business? I think it should, especially because I believe every individual has an entrepreneur within them. Anyone can – and should – be a CEO, a builder of opportunity and wealth. But government policies have to encourage that, and protect capitalism from the threat of increased social divides.
Two individuals, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos now have more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. The share of total wealth of the upper class in the US has increased from 60% to 79% in the last 40 years, while the lower class share has decreased from 7% to 4%, and the middle class’s share has dropped from 32% to 17%.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to raise more corporate taxes – we should. Out of $3.46 trillion revenue income realized by the US government only about $230 billion or close to 6.6% was contributed by corporates.
Some corporates can afford to pay more – especially Big Tech, because they don’t even pay the low flat rate they should be paying. In the UK, for example, Amazon paid £293 million in tax, even though it made £13.73 billion in sales in 2019 or about 2%. This is in stark contrast to the 21% corporation tax it is supposed to pay.
We need more fairness, to protect true capitalism. Fairness isn’t just a socialist value, it is about providing equal opportunity for all citizens to prosper through wealth creation.
It’s unfair that those small businesses and start-ups end up paying proportionally more than their multi-national counterparts. But this is also economically stifling: Instead of allowing founders the space to breathe, grow and make new hires, they are faced with big, strong competitors who pay effectively lower taxes (because they can afford the best tax attorneys).
The American Dream is predicated on the idea that one can start a new business, work hard and be the master of his or her own destiny. A regressive corporate tax policy, which we have now, flies in the face of this ideal.
In 2020, 804,398 new businesses were started in the US. We have to give these businesses a fair opportunity to grow. By taxing them at the first hurdle, we stifle the chance of the next Facebook and Google being born, which could equally lead to much less tax revenue down the line.
Lowering, or abolishing, start-up business tax can counter-intuitively increase tax revenue for the federal government in the long-term.
More importantly, it can remind us what America is really about, and bring our communities and generations together at a time when we need unity, growth and innovation more than ever before.
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