The pre-summit caucuses of leaders in their party groupings have begun, and one of the surprise guests at the centre-right European Peoples’ Party meeting is Pedro Passos Coelho, the head of Portugal’s opposition Social Democrats and the country’s likely next prime minister.
If you’re a European policymaker and you’ve become exhausted by the idea of austerity, then you might consider a new report by Charles Roxburgh of the McKinsey Global Institute.
The report, “Beyond Austerity: A path to economic growth and renewal in Europe”, is an attempt to skip past the discussion about how drastically governments should slash spending to look at ways they can stoke growth. It coincides with a growing complaint among some Brussels diplomats that months of economic crisis fire-fighting have caused the EU to neglect policies that create jobs.
On the job-creation front, Europe’s record is actually better than many people might suspect. Between 1995 and 2008, the European Union generated slightly more jobs than the US – 23.9m to 20.5m. (For statistical reasons, the study only includes the 15 countries that were EU members before its 2004 enlargement).
“There’s quite a good story on job growth,” Mr Roxburgh said. “The flipside is in productivity.”
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, on Wednesday formally kicked off what is now known as the “European Semester” – a new six-month process of reviewing national budgets and reform programmes to make sure the countries are getting their fiscal acts in order.
The Commission considers the process so important to pulling the continent out of the current crisis that it organised a day-long conference in Brussels to discuss its role in the post-crisis world.
But at the first panel of the day, two of the most influential economists in town – Marco Buti, the powerful head of the Commission’s economic and financial affairs directorate, and Daniel Gros, director of the respected Centre for European Policy Studies – got into a heated tussle over whether the whole process was just one big waste of time.
Gros played the skunk at the garden party, saying that all the attention being paid to the European Semester – essentially another round of austerity recommendations – was taking time and energy away from the real task at hand: fending off the bond market’s attack on one eurozone country after another.
By Jo Johnson, British MP and former editor of the FT’s Lex column
As it’s prediction season, here goes… My crystal ball, for what it is worth, foretells political and economic union between France and Germany, perhaps within the next 12-24 months. Europe needs a gamechanger, one that creates an insurmountable firebreak against the speculators. Crises have historically been the motor of European integration and a full union, much like the panicky one Britain offered France in June 1940, might look tempting. It would provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies, finally fulfilling the founding fathers’ dream of “ever closer union”.
The opening feature of any EU summit is the gathering of heads of government at their partisan caucuses. These days none is more important than the European People’s Party, the right-wing EU coalition that includes Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi.
George Soros thinks that all of Europe is becoming fiscally Germanic, and he’s not happy about it.
The famed financier and philanthropist was in Brussels Tuesday to discuss the plight of Europe’s Roma population, which made headlines last month when France began deporting large groups of Roma back to Eastern Europe.
But he took some time during a lunch with a small group of journalists to criticise Germany’s insistence on fiscal austerity, which he believes is being imposed continent-wide through Berlin’s influence over the EU’s economic institutions.
“They have emerged as the hegemon of euro-land, who set the policy for euro-land; they write the operating instructions for the new common fiscal policy,” Mr Soros said. “Europe, because of the fiscal rectitude imposed by Germany, faces I think a prolonged period of economic stagnation, conceivably decline.”
Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, made headlines Wednesday after he warned of the potential for a currency war – or, to be more precise, a “competitive non-appreciation” – if China did not allow the renminbi to appreciate more freely.
What was less noticed in his address was some equally tough talk for Europe, where he seems to see a danger of continent-wide austerity measures stifling the nascent global economic rebound.
Three days of summitry between EU and Asian leaders wraps up Wednesday in Brussels with the only “deliverable” – diplo-speak for a concrete achievement – of the entire event: the signing of a free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea.
But frequently, these international talkfests are more interesting for the atmospherics than any deals that are struck, and this week the mood has been more telling than most.
Brussels got a welcome burst of colour today as tens of thousands of trade unionists converged on its boulevards to express outrage at planned public spending cuts.