On May 29, die EU Commission (as well as OECD) published its assessment of the budgetary and reform programs of its member states and issued its “country-specific recommendations” – with the exception of Portugal, Greece and Cyprus which had already received their “adjustment programs” earlier. Media reporting focused on the extension (by 2 years) of the time by which some countries have to achieve their medium-term objectives, and on President Hollande’s rebuke of the EC’s recommendations for France. Commission President Barroso spoke of the need to loosen the consolidation efforts and to start combating unemployment, especially for youths. 6 bill EUR should be available for this purpose. Suddenly, promoting growth is no longer a taboo. The recent Franco-German announcement of an impending “gouvernement economique” or “verstärkter Koordinierungsmechanismus” also give some hope.
Still, Barroso (and the EC) thinks that ”structural reforms” in goods and labor markets are the key to growth, and thus need to be speeded up. His (marginal) slowing down of austerity is not based on the recognition that the EU crisis strategy has proven to be a complete failure, but “only” on the lack of political acceptance by the unemployed citizens of the EU. A turnaround in policy, a necessary change in the policy paradigm, this is not.
It seems to be impossible for politicians, both national and supranational ones, to admit past mistakes. But this would be the pre-requirement for a turnaround. Barroso and the others act as if everything so far had been going according to plan, had been successful, and that now one just adds another element to the heretofor successful strategy. This behavior, repression of facts, has been analyzed extensively by my late compatriot Sigmund Freud. It prevents new insights from coming onto the radar screen, a requirement for a new direction.
Technically, the EC assessed the Stability Programs and the Reform Programs. In its own words, by assessing them jointly, the EC purports to assess the complete economic policy of its member states. Let us look at the Austrian assessment as a case in point.
Economic growth is mentioned only with respect to the Austrian forecasts which underlie the programs – which are seen as being too optimistic. The prime objective of the analysis is, as usual, the positively assessed path of budget consolidation. The medium-term objective (as structural deficit of 0.45% of GDP) should be achieved 2 years earlier than originally (2017) planned. But Austria’s public expenditure share path again is seen as too optimistic. With respect to the tax system, the EC tells the Austrians that the least growth-damaging real estate taxes are far below the EU average, and thus could be increased.
The most important points of criticism concern the labor market: the participation rates of females and seniors are by far too low, income differences between genders too high, the pension age for women creeps only marginally towards that of men, early retirement is still to prevalent; education achievements are under par, at the same time costs of the system too high, migrants are left behind. All this against the background of the recognition that (measured) unemployment in Austria is the lowest in the EU. The EC criticizes also inadequacies in financial market supervision between home and host countries, as well as too many barriers for professional services and for personal services in health and care sectors.
For all these areas, EC gives recommendations to speed up reforms. All these points are well taken (by me, not necessarily the authorities), but: their implementation alone, while important, does not generate growth. There is not enough emphasis on promoting innovation, on real problems with the tertiary education system, no mentioning at all about a positive growth expectation – which would require an increase in effective demand in Europe. The structural problems of the financial sector are largely ignored, with the exception of the possible budgetary consequences of winding down one of the nationalized banks.
Macropolicy is not mentioned, not in the Austrian assessment, not in the assessment of the Eurozone. There EC mentions the need to achieve an adequate policy mix by better coordination of budget consolidation and structural policies, but no word is lost on coordination between the fiscal stance of the Eurozone and ECB’s monetary policy. This shows once more that macroeconomic policy is a foreign concept to the EC, that economic policy consists of budget policy cum supply side (micro) economics. Briefly, imbalances in foreign trade are mentioned, plus its necessary “rebalancing”, but that is it. When reading the documents, one sees that the focus on individual countries’ assessment virtually crowds out the assessment of the Eurozone and the EU as a whole. They are seen as the sum of the individual countries, but not as an objective of macroeconomic policy.
Conclusion: Nothing much has changed in the EU’s policy orientation. While the soaring youth unemployment is – finally – seen as a major (mainly political) problem, austerity is slowed down and youth training programs are encouraged. But this is not a change in the mainly austerity-driven paradigm. It does appear that the requirements of the financial markets still drive EU economic policy, rather than the life expectations of the EU citizens. The recent news about the watering-down and delay of the Financial Transactions Tax are only one indicator of this. The objective that the EU should pursue the welfare of its populations, enshrined in the Treaty, seems to have been forgotten.