Rehn, left, with President José Manuel Barroso at Wednesday's press conference
It may have appeared that Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic chief, today was siding with Washington in the going transatlantic tussle over Germany’s current account surplus by launching an inquiry into whether the surplus was harming growth in the rest of Europe.
But Rehn went out of his way to make clear that he was no fan of the US Treasury department report that pushed the dispute into overdrive last month.
Speaking at a press conference announcing the European Commission’s decision to launch the “in-depth review” of Germany’s surplus, Rehn said the US Treasury’s report was “to my taste somewhat simplified and too straight forward”.
Rehn, right, consults with Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble at last month's IMF meetings.
Over the last few weeks, the normally über-dismal science of German economic policymaking has unexpectedly become stuff of international diplomatic brinkmanship, after the US Treasury department accused Berlin of hindering eurozone and global growth by suppressing domestic demand at a time its economy is growing on the backs of foreigners buying German products overseas.
The accusation not only produced the expected counterattack in Berlin, but has become the major debating point among the economic commentariat. Our own Martin Wolf, among others, has taken the side of Washington and our friend and rival Simon Nixon over at the Wall Street Journal today has backed the Germans.
Now comes the one voice that actually can do something about it: Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic tsar who just made his views known in a blog post on his website. Why should Rehn’s views take precedence? Thanks to new powers given to Brussels in the wake of the eurozone crisis, he can force countries to revise their economic policies – including an oversized current account surplus – through something soporifically known as the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure.
On Wednesday, Rehn will announce his decision on whether Germany will be put in the dock for exactly what the US has been accusing it of: building up a current account surplus at the expense of its trading partners. And if Rehn’s blog post is any indication, he’s heading in exactly that direction.
Did tight-fisted budget policies in Germany help make the eurozone crisis deeper and more difficult for struggling bailout countries like Greece and Portugal?
That appears to be the conclusions of a study by a top European Commission economist that was published online Monday – but then quickly taken down by EU officials.
Our eagle-eyed friend and rival Nikos Chrysoloras, Brussels correspondent for the Greek daily Kathimerini, was able to download the report and note its findings before the link went dark (Nikos kindly provided Brussels Blog a copy, which we’ve posted here).
Shortly after being contacted by Brussels Blog, officials said they would republish the 28-page study, titled “Fiscal consolidation and spillovers in the Euro area periphery and core”, once a few charts were fixed. And as Brussels Blog was writing this post, it was indeed republished here.
Still, the paper’s day-long disappearance looks suspicious given the hard-hitting nature of its findings. For some, they may not be surprising. Many economists have argued that it was the simultaneous austerity undertaken by nearly all eurozone countries over the course of the crisis that pushed the bloc into a deeper recession than predicted, hitting Greece and other weak economies particularly hard.
But coming from the European Commission’s economic and financial affairs directorate – which was responsible for helping administer Greek and Portuguese bailouts as well as provide semi-mandatory policy advice to other eurozone economies – the criticism of Berlin is unexpected, to say the least.
What has become an increasingly touchy EU-Russia trade relationship took another tit-for-tat turn on Thursday when Brussels escalated a WTO case against Moscow over vehicle recycling fees.
The EU believes a recycling fee Russia charges on imported cars is less about good environmental policy and more a way to squelch foreign competition. The fee does not apply to cars built in Russia or its closest trading partners,Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Brussels complained to the WTO about the levy in July, marking the first case against Russia since it joined the global trade body with much fanfare in 2012 – 19 years after its initial application. On Thursday, the EU asked for a panel to rule on the matter after – to little surprise – settlement talks with Moscow proved fruitless. A result could take months.
“We’ve used all the possible avenues to find with Russia a mutually acceptable solution,” said Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner. “As the fee continues to severely hamper exports of a sector that is key for Europe’s economy, we are left with no choice but to ask for a WTO ruling.”
My big fat Greek presidency it will not be. When Athens takes the reins of the EU’s rotating presidency in January, the government will manage the event like a family throwing a frugal wedding.
That is only to be expected since Greece’s crisis-hit economy is now enduring its sixth year of recession, the public coffers are bare and unemployment is nearing 30 per cent. Dishing out huge amounts of cash to impress visiting diplomats would likely provoke outrage from a citizenry that is increasingly unhappy with the EU, as it is.
So how frugal is Greece planning to be? The government has set a €50m budget for the six-month affair, down from the €60m to €80m spent by predecessors like Ireland,Cyprus,Denmark and Lithuania. Officials say they are hoping that the final bill comes to even less.
The Greeks have found a few simple ways to cut costs. They will limit the number of ministerial meetings that will be held in their country to just 13 – keeping as much of the work in the EU’s Brussels headquarters as possible. All of the Greek meetings will be hosted in Athens.
It’s hard enough to get 27 member states to agree unanimously on a seven-year, €1,000bn budget – as anyone following the latest EU summit wrestling match can attest. But completing an EU budget deal requires one more thing: the consent of the European parliament.
Martin Schulz, the German social democrat and parliament president, reminded EU leaders and the Brussels press pack of this fact on Thursday evening. In a mildly foreboding press conference, Schulz re-stated his threat that leaders should be prepared for MEPs to block any budget proposal that strays too far from the €1,033bn proposal submitted more than a year ago by the European commission, the EU’s executive arm.
“Yes, we are prepared to make savings, but we are not prepared to have the European Union budget simply amputated,” he said.
Schulz declined to say whether the latest €960bn proposal being considered by Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, crossed the line from extreme weight loss to amputation. But he was clearly displeased.
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, during this morning's news conference in Tokyo.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s declaration this morning that Greece should be given two more years to hit tough budget targets embedded in its €174bn bailout programme – coming fast on the heels of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s highly symbolic trip to Athens – are the clearest public signs yet of what EU officials have been acknowledging privately for weeks: Greece is going to get the extra time it wants.
But what is equally clear after this week’s pre-Tokyo meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg is there is no agreement on how to pay for those two additional years, and eurozone leaders are beginning to worry that the politics of the Greek bailout are once again about to get very ugly.
The mantra from eurozone ministers has been that Greece will get more time but not more money. Privately, officials acknowledge this is impossible. Extending the bailout programme two years, when added to the policy stasis in Athens during two rounds of elections and a stomach-churning drop in economic growth, means eurozone lenders are going to have to find more money for Athens from somewhere.
IMF's Blanchard unveils report at Tokyo gathering of finance ministers and central bankers.
[UPDATE] After a meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg, Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, said he would read the IMF’s analysis on the way back to Brussels. But he cautioned that while the impact of austerity on growth was important to consider, it was also essential to take into account the “confidence effect” budget consolidation has. He pointed to Belgium, which has gone from market laggard to nearly a safe haven after implementing tough austerity measures earlier this year.
Although the headlines generated by last night’s release of the IMF’s annual World Economic Outlook focused on the downgrading of global growth prospects, for the eurozone crisis the most important item in the 250-page report may just be a three-page box on how austerity measures affect struggling economies.
The box – co-authored by IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard and staff economist Daniel Leigh – argues in stark language that the IMF as well as other major international institutions, including the European Commission, have consistently underestimated the impact austerity has on growth.
For a eurozone crisis response that has piled harsh austerity medicine on not only bailout countries but “core” members with high debt levels –Italy, France and Belgium, for instance – the IMF finding could shake up the debate on how tough Brussels should continue to be on eurozone debtors. As French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, tweeted yesterday:
Greek protesters prepare for Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit this morning in central Athens.
Since coming a surprise second in June’s Greek elections, Syriza, the radical left-wing coalition, can point to at least one (admittedly modest) success in addressing the country’s monstrous unemployment problem: It has found a job for Aphrodite Babassi.
Babassi, a Syriza supporter who appeared in the FT’s pages in May, had been jobless for three years before she took a post in July on the staff of one of the party’s new members of parliament, Afrodite Stapouli, researching science policy.
We bumped into Babassi, 27, at Syntagma Square on Monday night, where – as she prepared to protest against the pending visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – she recalled the joy of receiving her first pay check.