The public media and European mainstream parties’ politicians are unisono lamenting the rise of populism as manifested by the strong showing of Beppe Grillo in Italy’s parliamentary election last weekend. They decry, as they did earlier in the case of Greece, when the “populist” Syriza party nearly won the election, the irresponsibility, the negativism, the “against-it-all” attitude of these parties’ leaders. Let us add to these election results the street demonstrations and battles in Greece, in Spain, in Portugal, in Bulgaria, in Slovenia – all these before the background of people jumping to death from windows of their to-be-repossessed apartments, of soup kitchens, of soaring unemployment rates (especially, and even more tragically, of the young), and of the horrifying increase in poverty rates in many of these and other countries.
It does seem, that in spite of these politicians’ lamentoes, that European citizens are no longer accepting the crisis resolution policies imposed on them by politicians – at the bidding of financial markets. Yes, Mario Monti, the unelected and now defeated prime minister, managed to calm “market fears”, yes, Mario Draghi, the ECB president, managed to do the same – and more – by last fall promising to “do everything necessary” to enable European states’ return to the financial markets, yes, some of the Southern states (plus Ireland) were able during the past months to place bond auctions at “sustainable” yields (i.e. below the benchmark of 6%). But the concomitant “aid programs” by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, the dreaded “troika” are what the restive populations are no longer willing to swallow. Since governments took over bank debt, the citizens have been called upon to foot the bill, by having their taxes increased, government expenditures, especially social expenditures, cut and losing their jobs as a result of the persistent recession which these programs (and the similar, if less stringent “debt brake” conditions imposed on all EU countries. There is already talk about a “lost decade” for Europe.
With all this austerity (which is portrayed as without alternative) it is completely unclear where future growth should come from even after this decade. The mainstream recipe that balanced budgets (and their corresponding structural reforms) guarantee growth has been proven false, not only in theory, but also in empirical practice. If the second largest economic block in the world (with about 18 trillion $ in GDP, about one fourth of the world economy) reduces public sector demand in addition to falling demand in the private sector, this affects the whole world. This is different from the frequently cited more recent cases, where one individual country managed to export its way out of recession, when all other countries were growing and thus increasing their demand.
In this situation, the EU parliament has achieved a spectacular success, by agreeing (also with EU Finance Ministers) to limit bankers’ bonus payments to 100% of base salary (in exceptional cases to 200%). This is part of a hard-fought package setting new rules for European banks’ equity and liquidity requirements. There are widespread “populism” cries by especially English bankers, but also their colleagues around Europe that this would drive out banking from Europe, that this is a Continental coup to transfer banking business from London to Paris or Frankfurt (??), that this is “unfair”. The more sanguine bankers say (see eg. Financial Times March 2, 2013) that this just means that their base salary will have to be doubled as a consequence. Tory MPs are fuming and using this as an additional argument that the UK should leave the EU as soon as possible. Of course, they do not mention the fact that it was their leader, David Cameron, who pulled the Tories out of the European Peoples’ Party group, which – in the form of the Austrian Othmar Karas – was leading the negotiations of the European Parliament with the Finance Ministers. They also forget to mention that banking lobbies (led by the English) have delayed and watered down the other parts of the Banking package to be concluded.
The Greek and Italian elections, the street protests, the events in many other European countries should lead to a realization by the EU policy makers, both in the Central Bank, in the Commission and in the Council, that it is not just “clowns” (@ Peer Steinbruck, the Social Democratic candidate for the German premiership) who say “no more” to this oppressive economic policy recipe, but it is large parts of the European populations who have not only lost confidence that these recipes will work, but actively are against them – because they see that as in the Great Depression of the late 1920s – they lead to impoverishment and political disaster. Politicians should listen more closely to their populations, and less to the financial sector lobbyists, who have caused this crisis and refuse to play their part in shouldering their part of the burden. It was the lobbyists’ close connection to the politicians who made banking debts into government debt, it was their whisperings which had told politicians fairy tales about the financial markets being the most efficient markets in the world, thus self-regulation and “light-touch” regulation was all that was needed.
What are the alternatives?
The primary policy objective should not be to “return countries to financial markets’ access”, but to have indebted states return to a sustainable economic and social policy path which improves the welfare of their populations. To this end, government debt financing should be taken away from financial markets and turned over to a publicly accountable public institutions (the ECB or the ESM with a banking licence).
As far as bank debt is concerned, a European plan must be developed with a medium-term view of how the European Financial sector should look like in 10-20 years. This would counter-act the present “re-nationalization” trends where every country attempts to save its banks (frequently at the expense of others) at high costs to the taxpayers. Some banks will need to be closed, others restructured, and effective regulation set up. It is clear that (some) debts will need to be repaid, but much of bank debt should be paid by bank owners and their bondholders, not by taxpayers. For highly indebted bank sectors, a European bank resolution fund could take over some of the debt.
It is true that a number of “problem countries” in the EU have pursued wrong policies in the past, e.g. waste of public (EU and national) funds, neglect of innovation and R&D policies, high military expenditures, neglect of industrial policies, neglect of modern education systems, neglect of building up sustainable energy systems (both on the supply and demand side), and many more. Each country needs to develop a positive vision of where it wants to stand in 10 years’ time, and then select the appropriate instruments, and convince its EU partners of its way.
The major political task will be to convince the populations that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that some sacrifices are necessary, but that these will be distributed equitably, that there are positive prospects for this and the next generation, that the social system will cushion the inevitable burdens. To generate the confidence that “we are all in this together” will not be credible, if voiced by those politicians who have gotten us (knowingly or unknowingly) into the present mess. This is the task for new, and credible politicians who not only know what possible alternatives are, but can also muster enough support, both political and technical, from the populations who voted for them. This may and will require new communication methods – as they have been employed during the recent elections.
At a European level, a new more comprehensive economic policy umbrella must be opened. The nearly exclusive attention to budget consolidation was geared to placating the financial markets – who also are getting cold feet seeing what “their” policies do to growth (see the most recent downgrade of the UK). It must throw off the yoke of financial market dictate and turn itself to strengthening the European model, with a view to balance social, economic and environmental requirements for the future.
European civil society is growing together. Public institutions, like the labor movement, are not. In the face of the crisis, labor unions are re-nationalizing, attempting to save jobs for their own members at the expense of their foreign colleagues. They should learn from the business lobby, which has been much more successful in convincing European and national policy makers of their own interests.