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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

January 3, 2014
by James Clive-Matthews
5 Comments

Lessons from writing about the Habsburgs for writing about the EU

A review of a book I’ve been meaning to pick up (Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe,  by Simon Winder)  has some useful passages:

“Austria-Hungary seems rarely to be taken seriously, appearing as ‘genial, backward and ineffectual, in a cake-and-waltzes way’ (p.8), in stark contrast to the Prussian seriousness of Germany under Bismarck and the Kaiser. This sort of exculpation-through-romanticisation appears quite frequently in fiction about the First World War: think of the innumerable novels portraying aristocrats (of a variety of nationalities) in the ‘golden summer’ of 1914. In this case, it pulls off for the Austro-Hungarian Empire the same trick that Gone with the Wind manages for the Confederacy, the feeling that a society with such good manners, polished dancing and frilly dresses might be doomed to defeat by their dour, factory-owning neighbours, but can never really have deserved it. The reality of course was quite different. As Simon Winder explains in this fascinating and engaging book, not only was the Empire in different configurations a serious political power in central Europe for close on five hundred years, it was also the crucible where many of the worst events of the twentieth century were forged.

“In 1914, the Empire consisted of what are now Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, with parts of modern Poland, Romania and Italy. However, the continuity of the Empire was less about its geography than it was about its rulers. The Empire, when it came down to it, was always at base the lands that the Habsburg family happened to control. As a result of this, it can be tempting to reduce the history of this large part of central Europe to the history of this one bunch of inbred aristocrats… To Winder’s credit, however, this sort of grotesquerie is not the point of this book. This is history angled not from the perspective of the ruler, but of the ruled. In particular, this includes those who were disinclined to be ruled by the Habsburgs, which was at one time or another pretty much all their subjects. As he sets out in the introduction:

“‘Europe is filled with groups of all kinds who refuse to do as they are told, and they should be celebrated a bit more … Generations of Viennese officials would bang their heads on their cherry-wood desktops with fury: why won’t these people just do as they’re told?… A Styrian farmer, Transylvanian serf or Adriatic pirate each saw Vienna in a different way, and that view was not necessarily wrong’.”

Understanding different people’s perspectives on Europe, both from within and without (and, yes, including those of the most fervent euroscrptics) is likely to be the major theme of the revived version of this blog. After all, the strapline to this place was ‘in search of a European identity”, and identity is formed as much by other people’s perceptions as one’s own.

The EU is a vast and madly complex beast. It’s not only natural for there to be competing opinions of it, but vital to ensure it gets properly scrutinised. Just because opinions are different, even contradictory, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong.

At the same time, by focusing on high politics – the Brussels Bubble and national squabbles being the equivalent of historians homing in on the ruling classes – one can end up blind to what really matters, which is how the people oc the time (and of generations to come) are likely to be affected by what’s going on.

I’ve never really been interested in micro-history, so will likely continue to take a macro-approach. It’s necessary to move beyond mere politics to understand that politics.

January 2, 2014
by James Clive-Matthews
4 Comments

Stiglitz on the failure of nations (and globalisation)

Nicely depressing piece for the start of the year.

“As in previous years, the fundamental problem haunting the global economy in 2013 remained a lack of global aggregate demand. This does not mean, of course, that there is an absence of real needs — for infrastructure, to take one example… But the global private financial system seems incapable of recycling the world’s surpluses to meet these needs. And prevailing ideology prevents us from thinking about alternative arrangements.

“We have a global market economy that is not working. We have unmet needs and underutilized resources. The system is not delivering benefits for large segments of our societies. And the prospect of significant improvement in 2014 — or in the foreseeable future — seems unrealistic. At both the national and global levels, political systems seem incapable of introducing the reforms that might create prospects for a brighter future

Emphasis mine.

January 2, 2014
by James Clive-Matthews
3 Comments

Background reading for a European Parliament election year

One of the more useful pieces I found over the festive period,  thanks to Craig Willy – a rare outsider to the European system who actually understands how it works, and as such an excellent guide who comes with limited baggage (and some occasionally forceful and thought-provoking opinions):

The Eurozone’s “Democratic Deficit”: A Reading List for the Perplexed

“Most everyone today acknowledges that the European Union is becoming…  a “post-democratic” regime… But most people, including many EU professionals, are largely ignorant about the actual workings of the EU’s core, the Economic and Monetary Union (eurozone), and why it is so problematic…

“At best you’ll get some criticism of the “Monnet method” born in the 1950s of elitist market integration through the discrete work of diplomats and transnational bureaucrats in Brussels. Ultimately however this method largely preserved the primacy of democratically-elected national governments and its authority was mostly restricted to technical market regulation and an agricultural budget which, though often wasteful and dysfunctional, represented less than 1% of GDP.

“In fact, there is a huge break in the history of European integration with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty which put European nations on the path to fusing their currencies to form the euro, creating a regime which transfers regalian economic powers crucial to managing economic crises and social problems to a non-democratic transnational elite which is, by design, unresponsive to public opinion and electoral politics.

“So for the curious citizen or observer, this list explains how Maastricht gave primacy to the euro-regime over national democracies and why this regime has proven so undemocratic.”

January 1, 2014
by James Clive-Matthews
2 Comments

The Myth Of Western Civilization

What is ostensibly a review of Tony Judt’s astounding Postwar ends up something rather wonderful: http://m.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/the-myth-of-western-civilization/282704/

“Nations seem to require myth… the European super-nation has long needed to believe itself above the world, above native America, above Asia, and particularly above Africa. The truth is more disconcerting: The dark continent has never been South of the Sahara, but South of Minsk and East of Aachen in the jungles of the European soul.

“I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: … I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.”

January 1, 2014
by James Clive-Matthews
3 Comments

Anaximander and the importance of finding new perspectives

From Jerry Brotton’s promising A History of the World in Twelve Maps (got for Christmas, currently reading, good so far, but too soon to properly rate it):

“virtually all Greek wtiters point to Anaximander as the first thinker to provide a compelling account of what he himself is believed to have called ‘the order of things’. Anaximander offered a variation on Hesiod’s originating Chaos by proposing that in the beginning was eternal boundlessness, or aperion. The boundlessness somehow secreted a ‘seed’ which then produced flame… As the earth began to form, the enveloping ‘flame’ broke away to create ‘rings of planets, stars, the moon and the sun…’ As a naturalistic explanation of the creation of the universe and humanity, this was a significant development on earlier accounts, but it is Anaximander’s explanation of the earth’s place in this cosmogony which is particularly original… Anaximander argued that ‘the earth is aloft, not dominated by anything…’ From this cosmogony came a new cosmology – the study of the physical universe. Abandoning Babylonian and earlier Greek beliefs that the earth rested on water and air, Anaximander introduced a purely geometrical and mathematical cosmology, in which the earth sits at the centre of a symmetrical cosmos in prefect equilibrium. It is the earliest known scientifically argued concept of a geocentric universe.

“Anaximander’s rational claims for the physical origins of creation defined all subsequent Greek metaphysical speculation.”

And, as such, Anaximander’s perception-shift came to define all subsequent Western Philosophy. This is where the quest for rationalism began, somewhere in Miletus (Milet in modern Turkey), sometime in the 6th century BC. Wikipedia page for the guy here. Well worth a read.

This kind of shift in perception is, I guess, what I’m always looking for with blogging, tweeting, and randomly acquiring seemingly useless historical knowledge: How to see familiar things in totally new ways? How to shake preconceptions, remove ingrained biases? How to approach something old from a completely new angle in such a way that the old way of seeing seems so backward as to be incomprehensible?

The last time I had one of these kinds of revelations was a good decade and a half ago, when I made the shift from hardcore eurosceptic to moderate europhile (not a term I’d apply to myself, but by British standards…). I’m now in need of a new one – and think I’m starting to get there, largely thanks to the day job which, for the last four years, has seen me constantly having to try and see things from a non-Anglophone, non-European perspective, while finding the similarities of interest between the peoples of 70+ countries and 27-odd languages.

After a decade of blogging as a Brit attempting to see things from a European perspective (while very much still being shaped by my British roots), in other words, I reckon it’s high time to try and see things from a non-European/British perspective.

This presents any number of challenges that one simply doesn’t encounter within Europe, where so much culture is shared (at least, until you get to the European borderlands – and even they often share aspects of the outlook of the European mainstream, simply by being, in global terms, so damn nearby…).

I’ve spent a moderate amount of time in the Far East in recent years, and have visited the States a few times – both things I’d not had the opportunity to do when I started this blog almost 11 years ago. It’s very different out there, yet in many ways very similar. The US is, in its way, as alien to a European as Japan.

But while I’ve always been interested in the differences – they’re what make life interesting – I’m also always seeking similarities. In that, I can’t help thinking that, in some ways, Britain has more in common with Japan than with America. The roughly shared language blinds us to the differences – the obvious obscures the important.

So, time to explore cultures beyond Europe, and hunt for how they relate back. Time, too, to fill in the gaps in my European knowledge – the chunks of history I don’t know, from the Baltic to the Balkans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the rise (and fall) of the Portugese Empire.

Why? Because context is all important – the present makes no sense without the past; no country’s attitudes can make sense without knowing its culture or its relationship with its neighbours; no attempt to understand one continent can succeed without understanding how it interacts with all the others. To understand Britain’s place in Europe and Europe’s place in the world, it is necessary to take a holistic approach, a global approach.

As with Anaximander starting with trying to understand creation, it’s necessary to start with first principles to understand international relations today – a global approach, with no bounds in time, place or culture. To take just two examples, Japan’s creation myth sees the country as unique, the centre of the universe, the focus of divine creation; England’s sees itself as founded by a descendant of Aeneas of Troy, the legendary founder of Rome, and as such the inheritor of the greatness of the Roman Empire. Both of these foundation myths, centuries old, have their reflections in Japanese and British attitudes towards international relations to this day.

So, there may be a lot of random stuff on here, if I keep this up again. But it’ll hopefully all be random stuff looking for a purpose or connections that will build to make some kind of sense. I hope… It may just end up random things I find interesting. But hopefully some of you will too.

January 1, 2014
by James Clive-Matthews
2 Comments

New year, new attempt at blogging revival

Not sure what approach to take yet, but I don’t get to write as much in the day job as I’d like and an getting rusty.

Will likely be a bit random to begin as I work it all out again. And I’d be amazed if it still ha such a strong focus on the EU / politics – because, frankly, it’s not good for my sanity or blood pressure, and I never have the time for the research / writing of the sorts of solid posts I’d be interested in contributing. Plus I’ll often be writing on a phone / tablet – not ideal for long-form…

So, expect snippets of things that interest me for a while. Hopefully a theme may start to emerge.

Next post likely to be representative…

July 14, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
26 Comments

Why the UK’s “audit” of EU law is a waste of time

So, supposedly in a bid to allow any future in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU to be based on facts rather than ideology (fat chance), Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced an “audit” of the influence of EU law on the UK.

The promised audit has, of course, got a lot of anti-EU types rather excited, as they’re all convinced that any such study will show the EU to be the pernicious, all-pervading menace they’ve always claimed it to be.

Leaping to their own conclusions, no matter what the real conclusions may be

See posterboy for the Tory anti-EU right Dan Hannan on his Telegraph blog for a prime case in point, in a post that reads almost like a parody:

“In 1973, the United Kingdom ceased to be a sovereign democracy. EU law has primacy over British law, and we are largely ruled by unelected Euro-functionaries”

He has some good points to make in places (I’m no fan of the Common Agricultural Policy or Common Fisheries Policy either), but as he so often does, mixes up assertion with opinion with unreferenced “facts” like the claim that:

“on the EU’s own figures, the costs of regulation outweigh the benefits of the single market by five to one (€600 billion versus €120 billion)”

Actual numbers, Mr Hannan? Why thank you! Let’s see how justifiable those are, shall we?

With a bit of digging, it turns out (surprise surprise) not to be quite that simple, and that the figures dear Mr Hannan has chosen are not what he presents them as being. By which I mean that Mr Hannan is either ignorant about the figures he’s quoting to illustrate his point, which is surprising for a man so keen to portray himself as a great intellect, or is deliberately misleading his audience. (i.e. Lying.)

Thanks to the Tory MEP defector to UKIP Roger Helmer for asking the question and receiving a reply that points out that the €120 billion figure dates from 1992 (when the EU had 15 members), the €600 billion figure from 2006 (when it had 27), and therefore the two are not fair comparisons (even without mentioning inflation).

Thanks in turn to Open Europe for tracking down the details surrounding the €600 billion figure, which Hannan and others attribute to former Commissioner Günter Verheugen. The explanation can be found in a footnote on page 12 of this (PDF) Open Europe study, Out of Control? Measuring a decade of EU regulation:

“this figure has been widely misunderstood, as it has been described as the total cost of EU regulation. In fact, this estimate captures the administrative burden stemming from EU regulations and domestic regulations combined. Furthermore, on 10 October 2006, the Financial Times wrote “The bureaucratic cost to business of complying with European legislation could be up to €600bn a year – almost twice the original estimates – the European Union’s Enterprise Commissioner admitted on Monday.” However, what Gunter Verheugen – the Commissioner in question – actually said in the interview about reducing regulation, was that “I’ve said that in my view it must be possible to get a 25 percent reduction, and that means a productivity gain of €150bn.” The journalist took this to mean that €150bn represented 25% of the total cost of regulation. However, Verheugen’s office has subsequently confirmed that the €150bn figure referred to the extra benefits that would be generated (as opposed to saved) by a 25% cut in the administrative burden of EU and domestic regulations combined.”

And so we see, once again, that Hannan’s numbers are far from accurate. If his own opinions about the EU’s malign influence are based on such misunderstandings, it’s understandable for him to be hostile. But it also means he’s wrong.

Misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and selective quotation

If it’s that hard to track down the source and true meaning of just *one* cost/benefit estimate, how much harder is it to track down the costs and benefits of the many thousands of pieces of legislation and regulations that have come out of the EU over the years?

And, more to the point, if misunderstandings like the one above are so simple, what are the chances of anyone actually understanding what the findings actually mean?

Another case in point, the House of Commons Library’s 2010 study (PDF) into the percentage of UK laws that stem from the EU concluded – with provisos – that the true figure was likely somewhere near 15%.

At least, that’s how I read it (partially because this tallies with the figure I’d come to, a figure that has since been backed up by a German study that came up with 15.5% for the UK).

But if you’re of a eurosceptic bent, you’ll argue – as did, for example, the Telegraph – that the actual conclusion was that up to 50% of laws come from Brussels. How is this possible? Simple – in *some* areas, EU law has far more influence than others, so for *some* government departments, around 50% of laws really do come from the EU.)

The HoC Library study itself actually concluded that “All measurements have their problems… The answer in numerical terms lies somewhere in between the two approaches, and it is possible to justify any measure between 15% and 50%”. So those of us who tend to the pro- side look low, those who tend to the anti- side look high, and both can feel justified.

What’s wrong with facts?

Of course, no one in their right mind could object to basing arguments on facts – and facts have long been in short supply when it comes to working out the EU’s influence and impact. Hague himself, after all, ran a general election campaign back in 2001 based largely on EU scaremongering, and his old euroscepticism can be revealed in his own assumptions of what such an exercise might achieve as he anounced this audit on Thursday:

“less cost, less bureaucracy and less meddling in the issues that belong to nation states”

If this audit really could get proper facts on the EU’s influence, I’d be all for it.

The trouble is, there have been plenty of similar studies conducted in recent years (most of which I’ve now rounded up in my old “What percentage of laws come from the EU?” post). And the most rigorous and respectable of them have all concluded the same things:

1) It’s practically impossible to work out the impact of EU laws, per se, due to:

a) the wild variation in the way they can be implemented
- directives vs regulations etc. etc.

b) the interconnectedness of policy areas
- knock-on effects of legislating in area A on areas B, C and D, both in terms of dilution of impact and exacerbation, are extremely hard to track (to put it mildly)

c) the tendency towards gold-plating
- UK officials and politicians adding additional clauses onto EU-originated laws that weren’t required by Brussels

d) the cumulative impact of almost 40 years of EEC/EU membership
- which British-originated rules/laws/regulations have been influenced by previous EEC/EU rules/laws/regulations
- has UK legal/legislative culture changed as a result of EU membership, leading to laws that are more “European” than they would have been without membership?

e) the incredibly obtuse methods by which most laws enter the statute books in the UK
- statutory instruments, which bypass parliament, can be used for both UK and EU law. There have been an average of c.1,800 of these passed per year since 1987 (and, incidentally, there’s been a huge spike in the number since the Coalition came to power: 2010 and 2011 the two highest numbers ever)
- there’s no “track changes” function on legislation, so it’s often extremely hard to tell precisely where a law originated (you basically need to cross-reference all UK laws/regulations with all EU directives/laws and try to spot similarities – but just because there are similarities doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a causal relationship, so this method will result in a lot of false positives)

f) the impossibility, in most cases, of tracking down the origin of the *idea* of a law
- was it actually from the EU? (it’s often impossible to tell, as in point e)
- was the EU itself the original source (laws that stem from the EU are, after all, almost always first proposed by EU member states – including the UK)
- what percentage of EU laws/regualtions applied in the UK were proposed to the EU by the UK, and what difference (if any) does that make to our perception of them?

g) which EU-originated rules *replaced* existing British ones more or less 1:1?
- the whole point of legislating at EU level is to harmonise laws and regulations between EU member states; it’s very rare for the EU to legislate in a new area, as EU legislation and regulations are almost always designed to replace existing rules in the member states
- most important, this, if you’re trying to work out how much the EU costs/saves its member states – because there is a strong case to be made that a law/regulation set at EU level by definition saves money, as otherwise it would have been introduced in 27 different ways by the 27 member states (not to mention in other countries, like Norway and Switzerland, that abide by EU law in numerous areas despite not being members) – this is why it’s possible to argue that legislating and regulating at EU level is almost always a good thing

h) which would the UK have introduced anyway?
- again, EU rules, regulations and legislation are (in principle) always guided (more or less) by the needs of the member states; the UK may have chosen slightly different forms for many EU-originated rules had she been left to her own devices, but if she really weren’t happy about a majority of them, she would have left ages ago.
- this is, of course, impossible to tell without an alternate universe in which the UK didn’t join…

i) which would the UK have to maintain if she were outside the EU?
- with estimates of the EU’s importance to the UK’s external trade varying between 40 and 60% (infinitely more detail here), to continue trading with the EU as a non-member would require a certain level of compliance with EU rules and regulations. What would the cost of this be to UK businesses, and would the cost saving advantages outweigh the disadvantages of no longer having any input into those rules and regulations in the first place?

2) A cost-benefit analysis of EU membership is pretty much impossible

a) we have no control group by which to measure the relative economic benefits/downsides
- no way to tell what would have happened to the UK (or any other member state) had they *not* joined
- no way to tell how each member state would have fared had the EEC/EU not existed

b) the whole point of the EU is its interconnectedness, so to understand its true impact you need to analyse the entire EU economy, not just that of one member state
- Britain, for example, imports from other EU states more than it exports (something eurosceptics are always fond of bringing up) – what impact has the EU had on the pricing structure of those imports due to the changes it has brought about in those other member states?

c) the sheer volume of laws tells you nothing about their impact
- the EU tends towards tiny trade regulations to maintain consistent product standards, which tends to push up their volume; how many pieces of regulation about the permissible ingredients in fruit jelly would it take to have a similar impact to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 or Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (for example)?

d) there remains a considerable degree of policy area overlap between EU and national law
- even if it were possible to definitively identify a law as originating from the EU, there may be other, non-EU-derived national laws operating in the same general policy area
- how is it possible to tell the impact of law x over law y or law z when they’re all about more or less the same thing, and will all be interconnected?

e) the impact of laws and regulations goes far further than simple cash cost/benefit
- is it possible to put a monetary value on the benefits/disadvantages of the reduced stress of travelling that’s come thanks to the right to free movement between EU member states? Or of the pleasure that’s been brought by European cultural organisations more easily being able to travel the continent to entertain? Or the more ready availability of more interesting and varied foodstuffs from around the continent due to the (supposed) reduction in cost of trading between EU member states? Or of the granting of a recourse to law that’s beyond the power of the nation, giving ordinary citizens that little bit more security in their freedom (even if they don’t even realise this)?

And all that’s just off the top of my head on a lazy Saturday, after only half a cup of coffee.

Selective quotation, ignoring the inconvenient, and ideological blind spots

But this is the problem with any EU audit or cost-benefit analysis: there are infinite ways to poke holes in any figures that are derived at, both from the anti- and the pro-EU sides. Because the EU is simply too complex to divide up into costs and benefits. Not least because what may count as a benefit to some (personally I *like* having more European immigrants around the place, and feel that the increased diversity of experience and attitude such immigrants bring is a benefit to the economy and society at large) will be a bitter cost to others (not just xenophobes, but also UK citizens who may end up competing for jobs with those immigrants – or even just *feel* that they’re competing).

And then there’s the added issue that *everyone* suspects the current government’s motives for this audit, meaning that left, right, centre, pro-EU and anti-EU will *all* be looking to pick holes in it as soon as it appears. And if any of them don’t like the result, they’ll simply pick a number from a study they *do* like – which is why dear old Dan Hannan keeps on using the utterly discredited claim that 84% of laws come from the EU, old Nigel Farage of UKIP keeps using the 75% of laws come from the EU line, which has been equally rubbished on numerous occasions.

Why do Hannan and Farage keep using discredited figures, and ignoring studies they don’t like the results of? Because neither of them are actually interested in the truth – and I suspect that the government aren’t either. This smacks strongly as yet another excuse to delay the resumption of hostilities between the Conservative party and the eurosceptic fringe that would kick off as soon as a referendum campaign is started. Because even former arch-eurosceptic William Hague has come to realise that although the EU is far from perfect, the UK’s other options are even less appealing – and in the process has started to come under attack as an EU stooge from some of the more excitable (and delusional) quarters of the anti-EU crowd.

And herein lies the glorious irony – it’s taken the EU’s worst crisis in its history, with the entire organisation standing on the brink of potential collapse, to convince some of the UK’s most vocal opponents of European integration of the EU’s benefits. Hell, even long-time eurosceptic campaigners Open Europe are starting to come out to argue the benefits of membership.

But many hardcore eurosceptics will never be convinced. For them, costs and benefits are irrelevant. This is not about money or trade or economics – this is about idealogy, sovereignty, independence. Better to be a poor free man than a rich slave and all that. No amount of audits or numbers will ever convince them that allowing a bunch of foreigners to have any say in the way we run our country can be right – even if we get a say in how they run *their* countries in exchange. It is the psychological cost of this perceived loss of freedom that is the most important for them, and even were the streets of Europe paved with gold it wouldn’t be enough to convince them otherwise.

As for the people as a whole? As per usual, the vast majority simply won’t care.

July 9, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
4 Comments

Post-Council, what next for the eurocrisis?

(Sorry for blogging silence – I’ve been asked to write a book on the eurocrisis and European integration, so have been deep in research working out if I understand the current situation enough to do so.)

It’s been a bit over a week since the European Council’s shock announcement of some kind of deal – which means it’s been just about long enough to work out what the hell it all means in practice.

One of the best articles I’ve seen in the last few days is the following from VoxEU (an increasingly indispensible resource).

The key issue, the argument (which I’ve seen elsewhere) runs, is the vicious cycle of bank debts being linked to the finances of the state in which the bank is based. Multi-national financial organisations, running into problems worldwide, being supported by the single nations in which they are based.

Banks get in trouble, and under the current system states are expected to bail them out, increasing risk in government bonds, weakening the state’s ability to pay, which weakens the banks yet further, and so on ad infinitum (or, at least, until bankruptcy/default for either bank or state or both – which would in turn trigger fresh crises elsewhere).

The European Council’s decision to bypass governments and bail out banks direct via the European Stability Mechanism, then, is designed to break this cycle. However, as always there’s a problem…

“The ESM has financial resources amounting to €500 billion. Compare this with the total government bonds outstanding of close to €2,000 billion in Italy and of about €800 billion in Spain and it is immediately evident that the ESM will be unable to stem a crisis involving one of these two countries, let alone the two countries together.

“In fact it is worse. As soon as the ESM starts intervening, it will quickly destabilise the government bond markets in these two countries.”

Why? Because as soon as it’s used, the argument runs, the European Stability Mechanisms’s already inadequate funds will become even less adequate to bail out additional bank liabilities, making those liabilities instantly less attractive and prompting investors to flee to safer harbours.

The answer, according to the article, is simple: the European Central Bank needs to come into play, with an last-ditch ability to print more euros to pay off bank liabilities:

“The ECB is the only institution that can prevent panic in the sovereign bond markets from pushing countries into a bad equilibrium, because as a money-creating institution it has an infinite capacity to buy government bonds. The fact that resources are infinite is key to be able to stabilise bond rates. It is the only way to gain credibility in the market.”

Both the ECB and Germany, however, are unwilling to go down this route. Partially, as far as I can tell, due to German fears of a repeat of the hyperinflation of the 1930s (print more euros to pay off bad debts, will this push down the value of the euro? No one seems sure…), partially – the argument in the article runs – because the ECB is acting like a regular bank, not a central bank:

“It is surprising that the ECB attaches such an importance to having sufficient equity. In fact, this insistence is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of central banking. The central bank creates its own IOUs. As a result it does not need equity at all to support its activities. Central banks can live without equity because they cannot default. The only support a central bank needs is the political support of the sovereign that guarantees the legal tender nature of the money issued by the central bank. This political support does not need any equity stake of the sovereign. In fact it is quite ludicrous to believe that governments that can, and sometimes do, default are needed to provide the capital of an institution that cannot default. Yet, this is what the ECB seems to have convinced the outside world.

“All this would not be a problem were it not that the ECB’s insistence on having positive equity is in conflict with its responsibility to maintain financial stability. Worse, this insistence has become a source of financial instability.”

And so the only institution that can solve the eurocrisis is the least reluctant to act. No change there, then…

(Of course, the way the crisis has been unfolding of late, there’s probably been an announcement since I started typing this post that’s rendered all the above obsolete…)

By the way: If you want to dig deeper on this, I strongly recommend this from Edward Hugh at A Fistful of Euros, which digs into much more detail on this whole issue – including the intriguing recent suggestions that the ESM “direct bank bailout” concept may actually be nothing of the sort.

June 19, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
3 Comments

The eurocrisis: Politics without policy choice

This piece on Crooked Timber really is superb. A few highlights – but do read it in full:

“the fuzzy compromise between supposedly depoliticized trans-national rules (run by the ECB), and national-level responsibility for compliance, is now increasingly problematic. Countries in loan programmes find their national capacity for choice dwindling to nothing. National autonomy is subordinated to the requirements of the transnational official lenders. What gets squeezed out is the democratically determined policy choice at national level. They are in Rodrik’s ‘golden straitjacket’. It’s politics without policy choice…

“Secondly, although the country-by-country approach clearly isn’t working, we don’t have any real capacity to generate a politics of common interest across the Eurozone. ‘Austerity’ is clearly having seriously deflationary effects across the Eurozone. Krugman regularly advocates a coordinated Keynesian stimulus programme to prioritize growth, led by a Germany willing to bear higher inflation and more domestic consumption.

“But while this might seem like an attractive solution from afar, we don’t have either the political capacity or the economic space to get anywhere near this at the moment. It is far from clear how we could have proper debates about alternative policy options, nor is it clear in what political forum new ideas could gain traction.”

June 18, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
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The FP Twitterati 100 – including me, it seems…

I appear to have been listed among prestigious company in Foreign Policy magazine’s Twitterati Top 100. I’m rather flattered, it must be said – not least because Foreign Policy’s been rather good of late. In fact, I have a draft post based on one of their articles from last week that I was planning to polish off tomorrow… Now I’ll just look like I’m brown-nosing… Also, note to self: stop swearing on Twitter… (On this blog – bar some of the swearier earlier years – I try to remain a bit more restrained than I do on Twitter. It’s something about the 140 character limit that makes 4-letter words so useful on there…) P.S. Apologies for quietness. Flat hunting…

June 14, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
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New answers to an old question: the EU’s influence in member states

This blog’s most popular post ever remains one from June 2009 on the percentage of laws that come from the EU. It’s won me an award and been quoted in numerous follow-up studies, including one by the House of Commons Library, which was nice.

Now a new German study has revisited this topic, focusing on Germany, the UK, Denmark, France, Austria and Finland. Its onclusions can be found in more detail here. Short version:

The UK – 15.5% (in line with my 10-20% estimate)
Denmark – 14%
Austria – 10.6%
France – between 3% and 26%
Finland – between 1% and 24%
Germany – 39.1%

But note the qualifiers – all of which are points I’ve made in the past (both in the post linked above and nmerous follow-ups), but which are very neatly summarized here (emphasis mine):

“Do these numbers tell us that the impact of European policy making is by and large minimal, while at the same time there are some interesting variations between member states? No – in fact, these figures can tell us very little about the impact of EU-policy-making.

“First, looking at overall numbers on all policy fields make little sense…

“Second, one has to be aware that all such studies in this area are based on two assumptions: first that a policy is shaped to a relevant degree by legislation (this is the case in most policy fields except for external relations and defense); second that a European impact can be identified in this legislation…

“Third, the low values that most studies show about do not indicate a low level of European level influence but are the result of a rather parsimonious measurement of Europeanization. For these studies a Europeanized piece of national legislation is a law that serves to implement a European directive. Apart for the many problems involved in identifying such legal acts this is a much too narrow a way…

“Fourth, the identification of a European impact is based on a purely formal argument (if a national legal act serves to implement a directive, it will most probably be influenced by it) while the causal impact as such is not certain. What is more, we can say nothing on the intensity of this impact. We cannot tell if a notational law is influenced by a directive only at the surface, or if it introduces a completely new policy due to the directive.

“Finally, the focus of the research tends to reduce the complexity of multi-level politics and to bias the results. The question of Europeanization research is on the domestic impact in Europe, and the focus is on the Member States and how they are influenced, which tends to make us see Member States as victims of EU-policy-making while widely neglecting that without the activity of the same Member States on the European level there would be no European policy at all.”

June 14, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
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A rare non-hyperbolic take on the likelihood of a Grexit

Good stuff from European economics think tank Bruegel:

“Commentators, especially from North America, take it for granted that Greece will exit the euro area and will be followed by others… But is a Greek exit really inevitable?

“…If we look at the export performance of EU15 countries since 2008, Spain is the best, followed by Germany, Ireland and Portugal – they outperform even the UK and Sweden, the only two EU15 countries which benefitted from sizeable nominal exchange rate depreciations. Therefore, even if the unemployment situation is miserable in Spain, Ireland and Portugal, their export sectors show signs of hope. But Greek exports look hopeless…

“Consequently, euro-area partners should recognise two major issues and act on them decisively if a cooperative government is elected in Greece:

“1. Greece’s economic outlook is hopeless. A real programme for supporting Greek growth should be put together with very significant investment from Europe…

“2. Greece’s public debt is still too high. The Greek fortune cannot be turned to good without properly addressing the public debt overhang. Greeks were irresponsible in accumulating such a huge debt, but it was a major mistake of official lenders to start the first programme in 2010 without a sizeable debt reduction.

“If a cooperative government is elected [in the Greek elections this weekend], but Europe fails to offer a prospect for Greece, the country will likely subsequently fall back to its current state. Then the scenario of Greek exit and the disorderly and destructive dissolution of the euro area could follow, unless all of the flaws in the euro’s design are corrected promptly, which does not seem to be realistic.”

June 12, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
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Excellent teacherly putdown in this post from thinktank Bruegel’s blog:

“Europe has already expressed its intention to focus [the upcoming G20 summit] on growth and jobs; the deliverable should foreseeably be yet another ‘plan’ without specific deadlines or commitments, along the lines of previous summit discussions. Growth and jobs are obviously fine in principle, but adopting such broad focus is likely to divert attention from the immediate challenges and even more from the actions to be undertaken. It is a pity, because Europe, while being ultimately responsible for its own actions, badly needs to explain itself and convince the global community that it is doing its best to resolve its problems.”

Reads like many a school report*: “It is a pity… Must try harder… We wouldn’t mind if it were only himself this behaviour was affecting, but he’s disrupting the whole class…” (etc. etc. etc.)

* Not one of mine, obviously… *ahem*

June 12, 2012
by James Clive-Matthews
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An American view of Europe the UK would be sensible to note

Once again, no one knows what’s going to happen – yet everyone knows it’s going to be bad. This from The Atlantic makes some good points amidst the “eurogeddon” worst-case scenario act – but this time from an American perspective, which is a handy alternate view, now that our American friends are starting to wake up to the problem and sound like they know a little of what they’re talking about:

“Last year, the European Union was America’s second largest export market. It wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic if we sold them fewer goods. But consider this: the EU is also China’s biggest export customer. It’s one of Brazil’s top buyers as well. In turn, China is our fourth largest partner, Brazil is our eighth. If Europe stops buying as many Chinese flat screen TVs and Brazilian beef, those economies will have less to spend on American medical equipment and tractors. Not to sound too much like a T. Rowe Price commercial, but it’s all deeply connected.

“‘Whatever happens in Europe has truly systemic implications,’ when it comes to trade, said Domenico Lombardi, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. What we sell directly to Germany, Italy, Spain, and France is only part of that picture. The real worry is that a deep European recession would sink world trade across the board.

“…The U.S. economy might be able to sustain all of these body blows if our government had all of the possible tools at its disposal. But we don’t… Our defenses are down. Our economy already appears to be wobbly. It’s not hard to see how a Italian or Spanish exit would knock it over. At this point, our future depends on the ability of Europe’s leaders to get their house in order.”

And remember, this is an American analyst talking. If America has that much reason to be worried (with only 3 eurozone members among the US’s top 15 trading partners), then how much more does the UK (with 7 out of our top 10 trading partners being euro countries).

(Please also note a brilliant name hidden in the middle of that article – Jacob Funk Kierkegaard. I can’t wait for his next album – a glorious mix of New Orleans jazz and Scandinavian existentialist metaphysics)