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US vs EU: A new transatlantic trade war looming?

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In an article, carried by the newspaper Handelsblatt, a group of German MPs from the Social Democratic party describe the possible new US sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project as a “threat to European sovereignty.” Earlier, Bloomberg reported that the German authorities are mulling retaliatory sanctions against the United States if Washington continues to dial up pressure on the participants in the project to bring Russian natural gas to consumers in Europe. Moreover, Berlin is reportedly willing to add a pan-European dimension to its possible pushback against Washington. Meanwhile, the US has withdrawn from OECD-held talks on digital tax. France, one of the main proponents of increased income taxation of US IT companies operating in Europe, slams Washington’s actions as “provocative,” and is all set to continue applying the digital tax. Many observers warn that worsening transatlantic trade relations could lead to a new trade war.

On the outside, the United States remains the EU’s main trading partner, with European exports to the US last year amounting to 384 billion euros. The United States is also the second biggest provider of goods and services to Europe, after China.  However, by the close of 2019, most EU countries were already balancing between stagnation and recession – not least due to Washington’s economic policies, as the Trump administration kept threatening to slap additional duties on European exports. In addition, Europeans feel the pinch of declining world trade caused by Washington’s trade war with Beijing.

Donald Trump won the presidency on the strength of his promise to maintain America’s leading position in the world, which he sees as the scene of tooth-and-claw competition between states. From this standpoint, all countries not ready to accept Washington’s terms, especially those pursuing an independent policy, are viewed as a “legitimate” target for pressure, primarily an economic one. Since 2018, Washington has been ramping up sanctions and trade restrictions against many leading world powers, including in Europe and, hating as the Europeans are to avoid a politicization of their trade relations with the US, almost each new trade dispute demonstrates geopolitical undertones that are hard to ignore.  

For example, Washington regularly threatens to impose a 25 percent tax on imported European cars and spare parts, above all German.   Amid Washington’s isolationist policy, Germany is now seen by many Europeans as a potential new leader of the Western community and apparently the primary target of Donald Trump’s attacks against Europeans. Indeed, it was Angela Merkel who, after the first NATO summit attended by Trump, said that Europe can no longer rely on America. Since then, Berlin has been increasingly vocal in pointing, more than anyone else in the EU, at cardinal changes in Washington’s interests in the Old World, above all its desire to undermine Europe’s global competitiveness. On July 1, Germany took over the EU Council’s rotating chair for the next six months, which is likely to further intensify these disagreements.

In October 2019, the United States imposed tariffs on a number of imported European goods, formally justifying this by a WTO ruling that the European Union had not complied with an order to end illegal subsidies for its plane-maker Airbus.

The Americans and Europeans have long been at loggerheads over who violates the WTO rules by providing state assistance to their aviation industry. However, now that Washington is trying hard to limit the supply of high-tech products to the “wrong” countries, transatlantic bickering over subsidized airplane exports is becoming extremely important in terms of foreign policy. And in light of the colossal damage the global aviation industry may suffer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this could put the entire technological future of the European Union on the line. 

A similar situation has been developing also around the idea, actively promoted by the EU leadership and a number of EU countries, to impose the so-called “digital tax” on services provided to European consumers by major US technology companies, above all Amazon, Facebook and Google. Meanwhile, in the United States, the geostrategic motives behind the European initiatives is becoming clear not only to observers, but to the White House as well.

Europe is lagging far behind the US and China when it comes to companies providing services in social platforms, e-commerce and cloud computing. Experts warn that the “alternative” to the general strategy is more than just a further reduction of the EU’s role in the development and implementation of advanced software and technical solutions. If the EU countries fail to adapt to the changing technological paradigm, they may be faced with rising unemployment and falling tax revenues across the board. 

According to experts interviewed by The Economist Intelligence Unit, any of the abovementioned topics may set off a destructive trade war on both sides of the Atlantic. Well, Germany will certainly not be the sole victim of jacked up US tariffs on European car imports, as the auto industry accounts for up to six percent of all EU jobs. In addition to the direct damage from falling exports to the United States and third countries, new US sanctions would seriously undermine the overall business climate in the European Union. Brussels would have to impose retaliatory sanctions, which, in turn, would set the stage for a global trade war that would not leave any country untouched. The costs of doing business will go up, while profits will go down. Due to a falling demand in domestic markets, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, companies will not be able to pass their losses to the consumers, and will suffer ever new losses.

It took Europeans quite a while to realize that growing transatlantic disagreements “constitute an essential debate” over the priorities and goals of “Western policy in the world in the wake of the late 20th – early 21st century globalization.” A sizeable portion of the American establishment is no longer interested in dominance per se, as US national interests are now realized “in confrontation with major rivals,” including Europe. 

The Trump administration insists that the situation can only be changed by America acting in such a way as to reap direct and immediate benefits measured in dollars. “Friendship” with America should pay off right away, providing economic concessions for Washington is just a way of monetizing one’s allied relations with the United States. While during the Cold War, tactical economic differences were smoothed out by shared strategic interests amid a bipolar confrontation, these days, if “there are no shared  fundamental interests between them” the United States and Europe “are simply competitors on many tracks” – something Trump never tires of repeating.

The outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic has led to a serious new discord between Europe and America, with the shock from the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic proving strong enough to force the nominal allies to start fighting each other for resources. Everyone is on his own now. The situation with the pandemic and its socio-economic impact on the United States has been so bad that it now threatens to undermine Donald Trump’s chances for reelection. Meanwhile, trade policy is one of the political levers that the US president can use quickly and without having to ask for Congressional approval.

Previously, this approach often worked with the European Union, usually ready to give up some of its economic sovereignty. The Europeans’ reaction was restrained and “asymmetric” in nature. This is how they reacted to Trump’s increasingly aggressive attacks just a year of two ago. Experts from the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Europe and on the INF Treaty believe that although the EU’s domestic market and combined GDP are roughly similar in size to America’s, “Europe’s economic dependence on the US is much higher than America’s dependence on the European Union, which still makes Brussels extremely vulnerable to economic pressure from Washington.” 

That being said, the hard-hitting socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Europe to realize the need to protect and advance its economic interests. A pessimistic forecast is based on the notion that the pandemic will bring about a long-term economic downturn and even exacerbate it. The Eurozone economy is projected to post a seven to 10 percent drop this year – twice as much as during the crisis of 2009. Even the “hundreds of billions of euros” that European politicians are talking about may not be enough to overcome the consequences of the coronacrisis any time soon, largely due to the global nature of its impact on the entire system of global economic relations. This may prove a serious problem. As [French President] Emmanuel Macron often says, “If the crisis widens the split between the economies of the bloc, the European project could explode.”

Meanwhile, much now depends on the position of Germany where almost all parliamentary factions see the threat of new US sanctions as “a violation of international law and, above all, an infringement of European sovereignty.” Europe needs to push back against America’s “aggressive attacks.” Well, in the midst of a pandemic and a deep recession caused by it, “a trade war is the last thing that Americans and Europeans need. However, a positive partnership is possible only on an equal basis which, among other things, means respect for the sovereignty of each partner.”

Against the backcloth of extremely worrying forecasts for the European economy, Chancellor Angela Merkel told The Guardian that it is in the best interest of all EU countries to fully support the European domestic market and act as one in the international arena. Faced with “extraordinary” circumstances, Berlin expects all EU member states to focus on “what brings us together.” Moreover, “much” depends on the stability of the European economy. For example, a sharp spike in unemployment can have devastating political consequences, and even “increase the threat to democracy.”

“For Europe to survive, its economy must survive,” Merkel emphasized.

According to numerous forecasts, in the post-coronavirus world, almost all countries will focus on internal problems, on increasing their economic self-sufficiency and even autonomy. The world may become “poorer and more cost-effective,” and the process of globalization will, at best, come to a halt and stay so for several years. Right now, faced with multiple crises, Europe, may be tempted to take its time and wait, at least until after the November presidential elections in the US. By then, the scope of the economic damage from the pandemic will become clearer. What is obvious, however, is that only by resolutely standing up to America, especially if this resistance ultimately results in a “deal” more beneficial to Europeans, will the EU be able to restore its geopolitical weight in international affairs.

From our partner International Affairs

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Free-Market Capitalism and Climate Crisis

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Free market capitalism is an economic system that has brought about tremendous economic growth and prosperity in many countries around the world. However, it has also spawned a number of problems, one of which is the climate crisis. The climate crisis is a global problem caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These externalities are chiefly a consequence of day to day human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and conventional agriculture. The climate crisis is leading to rise in temperatures, sea levels, and more erratic weather patterns-The floods in Pakistan and depleting cedars of Lebanon are vivid instances for these phenomena, which are having a devastating impact on the planet.

One of the main reasons that free market capitalism has contributed to the climate crisis is that it prioritizes short-term economic growth over long-term environmental sustainability. Under capitalism, companies are primarily motivated by profit and are not required to internalize the costs of their pollution. This means that they are able to pollute without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. Additionally, the capitalist system is based on the idea of unlimited growth, which is not sustainable in the long-term. As long as there is an infinite demand for goods and services, companies will continue to produce them, leading to ever-increasing levels of pollution and resource depletion.

Another pressing issue that free market capitalism is recently going through is that it does not take into account the externalities of economic activities. Externalities are the unintended consequences of economic activities, such as pollution and climate change. Under capitalism, companies are not required to pay for the externalities of their activities, which means that they are able to continue polluting without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate” Naomi Klein argues that the current system of capitalism is inherently incompatible with the urgent action needed to address the Climate crisis.

To address the climate crisis, it is necessary to put checks and balances over the free market capitalism and/or make a way towards a more sustainable economic system. This can be done through a number of different effective policies, such as:

Carbon pricing: This can be done through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which would make companies pay for the carbon emissions that they are producing. In the article “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” authors suggest that revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce the carbon emissions.

Increasing renewable energy investments: an increment in the investments in clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, can result in the reduction in  the use of fossil fuels.

Regulating pollution: Governments can regulate pollution to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere.

Encouraging sustainable practices: Governments can encourage sustainable practices, such as recycling and conservation, to reduce the use of resources.

It is remarkable that evolving Capitalism can be harnessed to address the climate change. The private sector has the resources and innovation to develop and implement new technologies and sustainable practices, but they need the right incentives and regulations to do so. Finding the balance between economic growth and environmental protection must be a priority for capitalists.

The free market capitalism has been the driving force behind global economic growth, but at the same time, it has contributed to the ongoing climate crisis. The solution to this problem is not to reject capitalism, but rather to reform it to the societies’ suitable demands. Government should consider providing a level playing field so as to make the probable transition from fossil-based energy systems to Green energy technologies possible. The capitalists should not consider short-termism over long term environmental sustainability. Government intervention to put a price on carbon emissions, invest in renewable energy, regulate pollution, and encourage sustainable practices is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for all. However, here is the catch:  Is achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by mid-century a probable target? The answer is quite uncertain, however it is critical point to strive for in the face of  escalating Climate Crisis.

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Egypt’s “Too Big to Fail” Theory Once Again at Test

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Authors: Reem Mansour & Mohamed A. Fouad

In the wake of 2022 FED’s hawkish monetary policy, the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, saw an exodus of about USD20bn of foreign capital.  A feat that exerted pressure on the value of its pound against the dollar slashing it by almost half.  This led to USD12bn trade backlog accumulating in Egypt’s ports by December 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst foreign debt nearing USD170bn, inflation soaring to double digits, and a chronic balance of payment deficit, Egypt became structurally unfit to sustain global shocks; the country saw its foreign debt mounting to 35% of GDP, causing the financing gap to hover at USD20billion. 

While it may seem all gloom and doom, friends from the GCC rushed to inject funds in the “too big to fail” country, sparing it, an arguably, ill-fate that was well reflected in its Eurobond yields spreads and credit default swaps, a measure that assesses a sovereign default risk. 

For the same reason in early 2023, the IMF sealed a deal worth of USD3bn, with the government, which unlocked an extra USD14bn sources of financing from multilateral institutions, and GCC sovereign funds, to fill in a hefty portion of the annual foreign exchange gap, albeit  a considerable amount averaging USD6bn per annum is yet to be sourced from portfolio investments.  

With the IMF stepping in, the Egyptian government agreed on a structural reform program that requires a flexible exchange rate regime, where the Egyptian pound is set to trade within daily boundaries against the US dollar, rationalize government spending, especially in projects that require foreign currency; and most importantly the program entails stake-sales in publicly owned assets, paving the way for the private sector to play a bigger role in the economy.

In due course, through its sovereign fund, Egypt planned initial offerings for shares in companies worth about USD5-USD6bn, and expanded the sale of its shares in local banks and government holdings to Gulf investment funds. 

Through the limited period of execution of these reforms, the EGP hit a high of 32 against the greenback, and an inflow of portfolio investments amounting to USD1bn took place, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. 

Simultaneously, Citibank International, cited a possible near end of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar.  Also, in a report to investors, Standard Chartered recommended to buy Egyptian treasury bills, and pointed to the return of portfolio flows to the local debt market in the early days of January, 2023. Likewise, Fitch indicated the ability of the Egyptian banking sector to face the repercussions of the depreciation of the pound, and that the compulsory reserve ratios within Egyptian banks are able to withstand any declines in the value of the pound because they are supported by healthy internal flows of capital.

While things seem to be poised for a recovery, the long term prospects may lack sustainability.  The Egyptian government needs to accelerate its plans to shift gears towards a real operational economy capable of withstanding shocks and dealing with any global challenges. Egypt, however has implicitly held the narrative that the country is ‘too big to fail”. This is largely true to the country’s geopolitical relevance, but even this has its limitations when the price to bail far outweighs the price to fail.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration popularized the “too big to fail” (TBTF) doctrine notably during the 2008 financial crisis. The Bush administration often used the term to describe why it stepped in to bail out some financial companies to avert worldwide economic collapse.

In his book “The Myth of Too Big To Fail” Imad Moosa presented arguments against using public fund to bail out failing financial institutions. He ultimately argued that a failing financial institution should be allowed to fail without fearing an apocalyptic outcome. For countries, the TBTF theory comes under considerable challenge.

In August 1982, Mexico was not able to service its external debt obligations, marking the start of the debt crisis. After years of accumulating external debt, rising world interest rates, the worldwide recession and sudden devaluations of the peso caused the external debt bill to rise sharply, which ultimately caused a default. 

After six years of economic reform in Russia, privatization and macroeconomic stabilization had experienced some limited success. Yet in August 1998, after recording its first year of positive economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was forced to default on its sovereign debt, devalue the ruble, and declare a suspension of payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors.

In Egypt, although the country remains to face a number of challenges, signs remain relatively less worrying than 2022, as global sentiment suggests that leverage will be provided in the short-term at least. Egypt’s diversified economy, size and relative regional clout may very well spare the country the fate of Lebanon. However, if reforms do not happen fast enough, the TBTF shield may become completely depleted.

Hence, in order to avoid an economic fallout scenario a full fledged support to the private sector’s local manufacturing activity and tourism is a must.  Effective policies geared towards competitiveness are mandatory, and tax & export oriented concessions are required to unleash the private sector’s maximum potential and shift Egypt into gear.

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Sanctions and the Confiscation of Russian Property. The First Experience

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After the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, Western countries froze the assets of the Russian public and private sector entities which had been hit by blocking financial sanctions. At the same time, the possibility that these assets could be confiscated and liquidated so that the funds could be transferred to Ukraine was discussed. So far, only Canada has such a legal mechanism. It will also be the first country to implement the idea of confiscation in practice. How does the new mechanism work, what is the essence of the first confiscation, and what consequences can we expect from the new practice in the future?

Loss of control over assets in countries that impose sanctions against certain individuals has long been a common phenomenon. The mechanism of blocking sanctions has been widely used for several decades by US authorities. A similar methodology has been adopted by the EU, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and some other countries. Russia and China may also resort to these tactics, although Moscow and Beijing rarely use them. In the hands of Western countries, blocking sanctions, however, have become a frequent occurrence. Along with the ban on financial transactions with individuals and legal entities named in the lists of blocked persons, such sanctions also imply the freezing of the assets of persons in the jurisdiction of the initiating countries. In other words, having fallen under blocking sanctions, a person or organisation loses the ability to use their bank accounts, real estate and any other property. Since February 2022, Western countries have blocked more than 1,500 Russian individuals in this way. If you add subsidiary structures to them, their number will be even greater. The volume of the property of these persons frozen abroad is colossal. It includes at least 300 billion dollars in gold and foreign exchange reserves.

This is not counting the assets of high net worth Russian individuals worth $30 billion or more which have been blocked by the G7 countries. However, the freezing of property does not mean its confiscation. Although the blocked person cannot dispose of his assets, it formally remains his property. At some point, the sanctions may be lifted, and access to property restored. In practice, restrictive measures can be in place for years, but theoretically, the possibility of recovering assets still remains.

After the start of the special military operation (SMO), calls began to be heard in Western countries to confiscate frozen property and transfer it to Ukraine. Confiscation mechanisms have existed before. For example, property could be confiscated by a court order as part of the criminal prosecution of violators of the sanctions legislation. However, such mechanisms are clearly not suitable for the mass confiscation of property. Blocking sanctions are a political decision that do not require the level of proof of guilt that is required in the criminal process. To put it bluntly, the hundreds of Russian officials or entrepreneurs put on blocking lists for supporting the SMO did not commit criminal offenses for which their property could be subject to confiscation. The sanctions have spurred the search for such crimes in the form of money laundering or other illegal operations. But the amount of funds raised in this way would be a tiny fraction of the value of the frozen assets. To implement the idea of confiscation of the frozen assets of sanctioned persons and the subsequent transfer of the proceeds for them, Ukraine needed a different mechanism.

Canada was the first country to implement such a mechanism. The 2022 revision of the Special Economic Measures Act gives Canadian authorities the executive power to order the seizure of property located in Canada which is owned by a foreign government or any person or entity from that country, as well as any citizen of the given country who is not a resident of Canada (article 4 (1)). The reason for the application of such measures may be “a gross violation of international peace and security, which has caused or may cause a serious international crisis” (Article 4 (1.1.)). The final decision on confiscation must be made by a judge, to whom a relevant representative of the executive branch sends a corresponding petition (Article 5.3). Furthermore, the executive authorities, at their own discretion, may decide to transfer the proceeds from the confiscated property in favour of a foreign state that has suffered as a result of actions to violate peace and security, in favour of restoring peace and security, as well as in favour of victims of violations of peace and security, or victims of violations of human rights law or anti-corruption laws (art. 5.6).

The first target of the new legal mechanism will be the Canadian asset of Roman Abramovich’s Granite Capital Holding Ltd. The value of the asset, according to a statement by Canadian authorities, is $26 million.

Roman Abramovich is on the Canadian Blocked List, i. e. his property is already frozen, and transactions are prohibited. Now the property of the Russian businessman will be confiscated and, with a high degree of probability, ownership will be transferred to Ukraine. This is a relatively small asset (from the standpoint of state property), but the procedure itself can be worked out. Further confiscations may be more extensive.

The Canadian experience can be copied by other Western countries. In the US, work on such a mechanism was announced back in April 2022. although it has not yet been adopted at the legislative level. In the EU, such a mechanism is also not finally fixed in the regulatory legal acts of the Union, although Art. 15 of Regulation 269/2014 obliges Member States to develop, inter alia, rules on the confiscation of assets obtained as a result of violations of the sanctions regime. The very concept of violations can be interpreted broadly. So, for example, Art. 9 of the said Regulation obliges blocked Russian persons to report to the authorities of the EU countries within six weeks after blocking about their assets. Violation of this requirement can be regarded as a circumvention of blocking sanctions.

There are several consequences of the Canadian authorities’ initiative.

First, it becomes clear that the confiscation rule is not dormant. Its use is possible and is a risk. This is a serious signal to those Russians and Russian companies that have not yet come under sanctions, but own property in the West. It can be not only frozen, but also confiscated. This risk will inevitably be taken into account by investors and owners from other countries, which could potentially be the target of increased Western sanctions in the future. Among them are China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others. It is unlikely that the confiscation of Russian property will lead to an outflow of assets of these countries and their citizens from Canada and other Western jurisdictions. But the signal itself will be taken into account.

Second, the Russian side is very likely to take retaliatory measures. Western companies are rapidly withdrawing their assets from Russia. The representation of Canadian business in the Russian Federation was small even before the start of the operation in Ukraine. If the practice of confiscation becomes widespread, then the Russian side can roll it out in relation against the remaining Western businesses. However, so far, Moscow has been extremely hesitant to freeze Western property. While the US, EU and other Western countries have actively blocked Russians and their assets, Russia has mainly responded with visa sanctions. The confiscation could overwhelm Moscow’s patience and make the retaliatory practice more proportionate.

Finally, the practice of confiscation modifies the very Western idea of sanctions. It currently implies, among other things, that the “behavioural change” of sanctioned persons would result in the lifting of sanctions and the return of property. The freezing mechanism was combined with this idea. However, the confiscation mechanism contradicts it. Sanctions now become exclusively a mechanism for causing damage.

From our partner RIAC

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