Europe

The global beating shares just took had many causes, no doubt. Still disgusted by the US debt-ceiling fiasco, I am apt to give that masterclass in malice and incompetence more of the blame than it really deserves: the talk in markets today was more about signs of stalling growth in the US and mounting anxieties over Europe than about US fiscal impotence. Still, it can’t help to know at such a time that the US government is clueless and paralysed–or that any US fiscal policies one might recommend (extended payroll-tax relief and unemployment benefits) would have to be taken up by the US Congress. Once it gets back from vacation.

That leaves the Fed and quantitative easing. Weeks ago I said I thought the case for QE3 was strong. At that point, there seemed little chance of it: inflation hawks on the FOMC were asserting themselves. The bad growth numbers for the first half surely ought to be changing their minds. QE3 looks like necessary insurance against a second dip and possible deflation. Now, unlike then, you can accept most of the inflation hawks’ way of thinking and still be in favour of QE3. The facts have changed, sir.

David Gardner draws my attention to this Letter from Dublin by Kevin O’Rourke, one of Ireland’s most distinguished economists. It might be the best single thing I’ve read on the Irish crisis. Analytically astute, and moving too. Just how profound a blow this has been comes through. It is not just an economic and political crisis, but a full-blown constitutional crisis. And the European Union has made it all so much worse than it needed to be.

[W]e are about to have a general election, and if Brussels thinks that this deal is not going to be the big issue in that election, then they are even more out of touch than we already think they are. It is no longer even certain that the budget will be passed in December. Brussels may not have a Plan B, but they had better prepare one nonetheless.

Irish citizens may bring down the bailout of foreign bank creditors by voting at the ballot box, but if they do not, they will bring about a default of some kind by voting with their feet. We now face a negative spiral in which austerity causes emigration, which increases the burden of the debt, which ultimately leads to more austerity. We need a game-changer to break the cycle, but what might it be? Since the fundamental problem is that Ireland is insolvent, the smart thing to do is to tackle our debt burden head-on, but the Europeans have vetoed this.

A week ago I criticised the US media for childishly demanding that President Barack Obama “just do something” about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, observing there was much to be said for a leader who stayed calm in a crisis. Next day, no doubt as a result, Mr Obama became pointedly less calm. He called for some “ass to kick”, a very Bushian sentiment, and dialled up the invective against BP – which he likes to call by its old name, British Petroleum, to underline the company’s alien perfidy.

Continue reading “Britain should back down over BP”

The remarkable thing about the European Union is how far this project has come without its partners ever deciding what it was for — or, more precisely, where it would stop. The crisis now facing the EU demands answers to those questions. But this is not the first time that circumstances have demanded such answers. The European way is not to provide them, which would be hard, but to keep on muddling through.

It has always worked before. As I say, the Union has come this far, and it has been a stunning achievement. Governments will doubtless try the same approach once more. This time, though, I wonder if they will finally hit the wall.

For reasons I explain in this column for National Journal, I think they will.

Goodbye to Europe as a high-ranking power, says Richard Haass in a column in the FT. The European project is failing, he writes. The euro could break apart. Greece is the immediate problem, but the sickness has spread much wider.

Even before this economic crisis, Europe was weakened by a political crisis. Many Europeans have been preoccupied with revising European institutions, but repeated rejections of the Lisbon treaty demonstrate that a united Europe no longer captures the imagination of many of its residents. Lacklustre leadership of European organizations is both a cause and a result of this loss of momentum.

Lacklustre leadership? I’d say Europe got into this mess because its leadership was far too lustrous for much too long.

When did a united Europe ever capture the imagination of many of its residents? The European project was an elite-driven, top-down affair from the outset. Its leaders took the view, often explicitly, that Europe’s voters did not know what was good for them and would have to be led to enlightenment. There was never any willingness to let public indifference or outright hostility moderate the pace. For the most part, voters were not consulted. When they were, and voted No in the occasional referendum on further transfer of power to Brussels, governments resolved to keep on asking until voters got it right. Germany adopted the euro despite a sustained majority opposed to monetary union. (Surely this helps to explain German anger over the bail-outs. “We were against this in the first place. Now see what’s happened.”)

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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