It’s up to Europe’s Leaders now -Bryan Gould

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It’s Up to Europe’s Leaders Now

From Bryan Gould, previously published here: 

Like so many others, I long ago got used to being pilloried as “anti-European” for daring to say that the “Europe” we were urged to sign up to was no such thing, but was a particular arrangement cooked up by the powerful and foisted on the people of that often benighted continent without bothering either to consult them or to take count of their wishes.

As the Greek crisis unfolds, and as it strips bare the pretensions of those powerful forces who talk with less and less conviction of the European ideal and of democratic rights, we can surely no longer be in any doubt. The “Europe” in whose service so much sacrifice is now demanded is a cartel of bankers, financiers and right-wing politicians who have no interest in democracy, or jobs, or the living standards of ordinary people. As the Greek people suffer, and plead “no more”, it is not the travails of the Greeks – or, for that matter, the Spanish, or the Portuguese, or the Italians – that weigh with Europe’s powerful; their sights are fixed on maintaining austerity and discipline, on adhering to ideology and doctrine.

Above all, they are determined to protect the euro, because it is the one weapon that ensures that there can be no backsliding. The euro was put in place so that, whatever temptations – or even imperatives – there may be, there can be no going back. The grim and unrelenting disciplines of neo-classical economics demand nothing less.

For many of us, this imposition of a single monetary policy and discipline on a hugely diverse European economy was always destined to fail. There was no way that small and underdeveloped economies like Greece could survive competition from a powerful German economy, especially when it was the Germans who had the power to decide on the monetary policy that should be put in place – and no prizes for guessing whose interests that policy turned out to serve.

The irony is that is those powerful interests – represented by the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission and obliged to follow the dictates of the German Finance Minister – who now find that, despite the disparity in power between them and a bankrupt and demoralised Greece, it is they – and not the supposedly feckless Greeks – who have the responsibility for saving the euro.

With the power of the referendum result behind him, Prime Minister Tsipras can now say that there is nothing more he can do. Ravaged by austerity, Greece has no resources left. Unless they are helped by a bail-out package that does not drive them deeper into collapse but instead gives them a chance, over time, to begin to grow again, they will be forced – since there is no other option – to leave the euro and seek their own salvation.

The Greeks have, in other words, taken their decision. There is nothing left for them to decide. The ball is now in the court of Europe’s leaders. It is not for them to give up entrenched positions. It is up to them to decide whether to refuse to help, with the result that Greece will have to leave the euro whether they like it or not, simply to survive, or to relent and offer a more acceptable and realistic package that will keep Greece afloat and allow them to stay in a re-shaped common currency.

We know what they want to do. They have stuck to the current stance in the hope that the Greek government will fall and “regime change” will be brought about. There has even been talk of a government imposed on the Greek people from outside or of a government of “technocrats” that will do the bidding of the financial establishment. The referendum result, though, seems to have put paid, for the time being at least, to that disgraceful objective.

But, for a brief period, the Greek crisis has given us a glimpse of the mailed fist and doctrinaire rigidity behind the “European” ideal. Rarely can there have been such a stark demonstration of the inherently undemocratic nature of the European power structure and of the interests it truly serves.

It may be that the Greeks, by forcing an “agonising re-appraisal”, will end up having done the true adherents of a united Europe a favour. It may be that, at long last, we will begin to contemplate a Europe based on agreement freely given by the continent’s governments and peoples, an agreement to build a Europe by learning from each other how to work together and to cooperate more closely, a functional Europe that will do those things that are best done together rather than separately, a “bottom-up” Europe that will develop as a result of, but not getting ahead of, a growing sense of European identity and the wishes of its peoples.

We need a Europe, in other words, that is not just a vehicle for advancing powerful interests, and riding roughshod over everyone else, but that understands that the Greek poor and unemployed are just as important, and just as essential, to Europe’s future, and that enabling them and millions like them to live a better life is both a united Europe’s true purpose and its only real chance of success.

Bryan Gould 

Related:

The Real Greek Crisis, – Bryan Gould

The Real Greek Crisis

By Bryan Gould

Most people will feel that they don’t need to look far for an explanation as to what lies behind the Greek crisis. Lazy reporting and racial stereotyping will persuade them that the Greeks – a feckless lot, no doubt – have spent more than they should, got into debt, taken out loans from the hard-working Germans and now won’t repay the loans because they refuse to tighten their belts.

But there is another narrative that tells a somewhat different story. That story is one of a powerful economy enforcing its will on its weaker neighbours and refusing to acknowledge that it has thereby made it impossible for them to dig themselves out of a hole.

The story begins at the turn of the century when the Greeks, along with many others, were persuaded that being part of Europe required them to give up their own currency and accept the euro. A single currency meant a single monetary policy and a single central bank – and guess who decided what that policy should be and what the central bank should do?

Germany, by far the most powerful economy in the euro zone, ran it to serve its own interests, but life wasn’t so easy for the weaker countries. The Greeks, for example, with their smaller and less developed economy, had no chance of surviving the competition from efficient German manufacturing. We do not need the benefits of hindsight to make this point, since many commentators, myself included, foresaw the inevitability of this outcome at the time.

As things began to go wrong, and they had to borrow to keep their heads above water, the Greeks were assured that they could look to the Germans and others to help them out. But this was in the days of cheap and plentiful credit; when the Global Financial Crisis struck and the cheap credit dried up, the creditors who had happily lent to the Greeks wanted their money back.

The Greeks didn’t have the money. But the price they had to pay for borrowing yet more from the IMF and the European Central Bank was to accept a programme of savage austerity. The cuts they have already been forced to make have meant that 25% of the Greek economy has simply closed down and 60% of young people are without a job. Again, as some commentators observed at the time, it was impossible to see how the Greeks could ever – from an already weak economy that is now so much smaller and still going backwards – find the resources needed to repay their debts.

And so it has proved. The price that creditors insist upon for a continued bail-out is yet more austerity which can only mean yet more closures and unemployment. Leaked papers show that the creditor institutions themselves recognise that more austerity will make it even less possible for the Greeks to pay back their debts.

So why are the Germans and other creditors determined to force the Greeks into such a damaging dead end? The answer is that they care little for the travails of the Greek people. Their focus is on those countries that are watching the Greek situation closely – countries like Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, even Italy, that have faced similar problems, and suffered similar penalties, but that have not yet been compelled by pressure from their populations to resist a further descent into even more austerity.

The fear from the financial establishment and from the Germans in particular is that the Greeks might find a way to demonstrate to other similarly afflicted countries in the euro zone that there is a way out – and that those other countries would then follow a similar course. The rational course for the Greeks to take, after all, would be to leave the euro zone, restore their own currency and then print the drachmas needed, as monetarily sovereign countries are able and entitled to do, and repay their debts in devalued drachmas.

The difficulty that Greek Prime Minister Tsipras faces is that he has committed to resist austerity but also to retain the euro. It is doubtful that he can achieve both. In the forthcoming referendum, no one can be sure whether the dislike of austerity or the fear of leaving the euro zone will prevail. The poor and the unemployed – those who have suffered most from austerity – will vote to reject the new bail-out offer; the holders of assets and the pensioners will vote to stay with the euro.

Either way, the outlook for the euro looks bleak. In the long run, the attempt by the financial establishment to over-ride the wishes and interests of ordinary people and to negate the power of a democratic government to protect them will fail. The only question is as to how many more crises there will be and how much more suffering has to be endured before common sense prevails.

Bryan Gould 

“I once contested the Labour party’s leadership myself. The answers to the dilemmas facing British politicians today seem to me to be more clear-cut than was the case in 1992. It is easier now, with a longer perspective on the orthodoxy that has prevailed for so long, to see what has gone wrong, and to see what is needed to put it right. What is needed now is to unlock the intellectual straitjacket in which Labour has been shackled for too long. Where is the leader to deliver that?” Since Bryan Gould wrote these words,  Jeremy Corbyn agreed to stand as leader, and there is hope for a change from the intellectual straitjacket Bryan speaks of.

The deepening European Crisis

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First posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013 at Socialist Economic Bulletin

THE DEEPENING EUROPEAN CRISIS

By Michael Burke
The economies of the European Union and the Euro Area both contracted in the 1st quarter of 2013.  The renewed contraction in GDP began in mid-2011 and has now run for 18 months on both cases.  But, as Chart 1 below shows, the recovery from the depths of the recession in both cases was short-lived and at no point was the previous peak in activity of the 1st quarter of 2008 recovered.
In reality, the European economy has been in a slump which stretches all the way back to the beginning of 2008 and is now entering its sixth consecutive year.
Chart 1

13 05 21 Chart 1

The cause of the crisis remains unaltered.  Full data for all the components of GDP in the EU and Euro Area are not yet available.  But comprehensive data is published up to the 4th quarter of 2012.  No substantial turn in events took place at the beginning of 2013, simply an extension of previous negative trends.

In that period from the 1st quarter of 2008 to the 4th quarter of 2012, GDP in the Euro Area has contracted by €288bn in real terms.  In the European Union, it has contracted by €310bn.  However, if the components of GDP are examined it is clear that the decline in investment more than accounts for the entire fall in GDP in both cases.

Investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) has fallen in the Euro Area over the same period by €362bn and fell by €461bn in the EU.  In both cases this is far in excess of the total decline in GDP, and is shown in Chart 2 below.

Chart 2

13 05 19 Chart 2

Since the slump in both the EU and the Euro Area is driven by the fall in investment, the slump itself and all its economic symptoms (unemployment, falling real incomes, strained government finances, and so on) cannot be resolved without increasing the level of investment.

This would be impossible if the mantra that ‘there is no money left’ were true.  But it is very far from being true.  The aim and purpose of capital in a capitalist economy is the accumulation of capital.

Where that cannot be achieved capital will simply remain idle as cash balances accumulating in banks.  In the latest monthly report from the ECB the currency and bank deposits of non-financial firms in the Euro Area banking system are €2,073bn and short-term bills are a further €83bn (p.143). They are considerably more when the EU cash deposits of firms in non-Euro Area are added.

The accumulation of these assets has been more or less equivalent to the slump in investment.  From the end of 2007 to December 2012 currency, bank deposits and bills held by non-financial financial firms has increased by €350bn in cash terms.  The refusal of firms to invest has led to a rise in their cash holdings.

Credit direction

These are assets which could be directed towards productive investment.  Firms refuse to do so because they are cannot be confident about returning sufficient  profit.  But the European governments could direct these assets into productive lending at both the national and supranational level.  Before the era of financial liberalisation credit direction, which is the central bank or other authority directing the commercial banks’ lending, was widespread in industrialised economies.

It cannot be seriously argued that this would interfere with market’s efficient allocation of resources, not after the crisis of 2008 and 2009.  The authorities also have numerous levers to ensure that credit is direct towards productive investment in infrastructure, de-carbonisation, transport, housing, education and so on).

The banks operating in Europe can only do so because their deposits are guaranteed by the state.  The state also issues banking licenses.  The ECB is effectively a state body and supplies all banks with needed liquidity.  The authorities could direct credit by altering capital rules to favour state-guaranteed investments.  Many banks are also now effectively owned by the state.  Only the political will to compel bank lending to the productive sector is lacking. 

EIB & EBRD

In addition, both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and European Investment Bank (EIB) have increased their net equity in the recent past, but cut their lending just when it would have most beneficial effect.  The EBRD’s equity has risen by €133bn since 2010 but its lending has fallen by €89bn (p.5).  In 2012 alone, the EIB’s lending fell by €8bn even though its own funds increased by €13bn (pp.7 &8).

Taken together a prudent rise in the level of lending to infrastructure and other projects in both Eastern and Western Europe based on previous lending/capital ratios could provide significant funds towards an investment-led recovery.

The question of the Euro

As the crisis in Europe is determined by a refusal of the private sector to invest, and which is compounded by cuts in government investment and the investment of entities like the EBRD and EIB, it follows that only a significant increase in state-related bodies can resolve the crisis.

The latest GDP data show that the crisis is reaching into the ‘core’ of Europe.  France and the Netherlands were among the countries whose economies contracted once more.  Austria, Belgium and Germany only avoided recession by the narrowest of margins.  This is a crisis that is engulfing the whole of Europe.

It is frequently suggested that leaving the Euro would provide a panacea for this crisis.  Yet it is self-evident that not all countries can devalue against one another.  Further, the argument that devaluation without increased investment will not produce a recovery requires only a one-word proof:  Britain.  Sterling devalued by approximately 30% in 2008 and 2009, without much of a rebound since.  Yet the current account deficit has widened from -0.2% of GDP to 3.6% of GDP over that period.

Returning to earlier data on GDP growth, investment (GFCF) in the Euro Area and EU, we can now add further points on the growth of government spending and net exports.  These are shown below for the Euro Area and for the EU economies outside the Euro Area as a separate group. The results are shown in Table 1. below.

Table 1. Key Economic Variable in Europe, Q1 2008 to Q4 2012, €bn

13 05 21 Table 1

The economies outside the Euro Area have contracted just like those inside the Euro Area.  Government current spending has risen in both.  But non-Euro countries have not had higher levels of investment.  They have, on a net basis, simply gained in terms of net exports.

In this sense, the question of in or out of the Euro is a secondary one, which would not resolve the crisis either way if the investment slump is not addressed.  Of course, there is a severe structural crisis in the Euro Area, which the crisis has exposed.  The US has built a continental scale economy and so too has China.  India appears to be heading in the same direction.  The European Union has the potential to create the same.

But the Euro is an attempt to graft a 21st century monetary unity onto a 19th century patchwork of small nation states.  What is required to supplement a monetary union is a fiscal union.  Since that must be democratically controlled that also requires political union.  In the United States, which is very far from the EU’s former attachment to the ‘social model’ fiscal transfers vary but generally comprise 12% to 15% of GDP.  In the European Union they amount to around one-tenth of that.  If the single currency is to be maintained then its principal beneficiaries will need to contribute to its maintenance, led by German capital.