Friday, February 26, 2010

It’s the economics, stupid

by Simon Tilford

There was always a risk that a one-size-fits-all monetary policy would lead to big divergences in inflation and competitiveness across the eurozone. This, in turn, would result in trade imbalances which would be difficult to reverse. Proponents of the single currency dismissed such concerns, arguing that the single currency was a political project, and that the economics would fall into place once the currency became a reality. The consequences of this line of reasoning are now clear. The eurozone faces a severe test. Greece – the member-state in the tightest spot – is far from unique. A number of other member-states could easily find themselves fighting to retain the confidence of the financial markets.

The crisis that has erupted within the eurozone has been brewing for a long time. The problems of the southern member-states – Greece, Spain and Portugal – were disguised by the credit boom, which underpinned economic growth (and tax revenues), while investors were happy to lend them money to cover their current account deficits. But when the financial crisis hit and economic growth collapsed, the underlying weakness of their public finances and trade positions were exposed.

The external deficits these countries are running with the eurozone’s surplus members – principally Germany and the Netherlands – are a huge drain on their economies, and will make it all but impossible for them to put their public finances on a sustainable footing. They need to devalue and rebalance their economies away from domestic consumption to exports. However, unlike in the case of Britain, which shares quite a few of their characteristics, they no longer have that option.

Many eurozone governments do not seem to have understood the implications of membership. When they signed up to the euro they effectively committed themselves to liberal economic policies. There is no eurozone government to transfer funds from stronger to weaker member-states. So if a country loses competitiveness it has no option but to cut its costs relative to the rest of the currency bloc. The best way of doing this is through higher productivity. The governments of the southern member-states have shown no urgency to improve their dire productivity performance. That leaves cuts in wages. To do this, countries need flexible labour markets, so real wages can fall as fell as rise. Unfortunately, they have shown similarly little enthusiasm for reforming their highly regulated labour markets.

However, the southern member-states should not shoulder all the blame for the fault lines within the eurozone. Germany is often cited as the country which understands how to flourish within a currency union. Germany has certainly shown discipline. Wage restraint has been relentless, boosting the country’s export competitiveness and producing a yawning current account surplus. Even after the crisis – which caused its exports to contract by nearly 20 per cent – Germany still has an external surplus of around 6 per cent of GDP and rising, over half of which is with the rest of the eurozone. But Germany’s strategy is hardly one that other countries can follow, because one country’s surplus is another’s deficit.

Despite the much-vaunted strengths of Germany’s exporters, the country’s economic growth performance has been poor since the introduction of the euro. And there is no sign of change. The only real impetus in the German economy comes from exports; private consumption remains chronically weak. After escaping recession earlier than most eurozone countries in 2009, Germany’s economy ground to a halt in the final quarter of 2009 and is likely to contract in the first three months of this year. Private consumption is all but certain to fall this year.

The weakness of Germany’s domestic demand will no doubt lead to renewed falls in real wages and to a further decline in Germany's trade-weighted exchange rate within the eurozone. Exports will again keep an otherwise stagnant economy afloat. But it will be all but impossible for the likes of Spain and Greece to put their public finances in order unless they can get their economies growing. For this, they must rebalance their trade with the rest of the eurozone. They need Germany to grow under its own steam.

Germany’s structural mercantilism may be little short of a beggar-thy-neighbour strategy, but the struggling member-states of the eurozone can hardly claim they were not warned, not least by Germany itself. The Germans were hardly cheerleaders for the euro, and were decidedly lukewarm about the southern Europeans joining. They were certainly not the ones holding the shot-gun at the wedding. They reluctantly accepted a broad membership, but on the condition that countries understood what they were getting themselves into.

Neither the Germans nor the other countries running big surpluses are taking steps to rebalance their economies. In order to retain the confidence of lenders the eurozone’s hard-hit governments will make big cuts in public spending. In the absence of strong exports, this will depress demand and with it economic growth, in turn undermining the attempt to strengthen public finances. Germany will agree to support a member-state which finds itself unable to tap the bond markets, in order to prevent contagion to other struggling member-states. But it will resist pressure for economic union, as this would involve the "stronger" economies transferring money to the "weaker" ones on an ongoing basis. Does this mean the eurozone is destined to unravel? No, but the future certainly looks decidedly troubled.

Simon Tilford is the chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How to build an EU energy market

by Katinka Barysch

Unbundling the supply of energy from its transport, moving Europe towards a low-carbon energy system, and getting the Nabucco pipeline built – these were the priorities of the last energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs. His successor, G√ľnther Oettinger, will write his own to-do list. The EU now has a dedicated climate change commissioner, Connie Hedegard, with whom Oettinger will have to work closely. When it comes to the EU’s internal energy market and security of supply, Oettinger will also have to rethink.

Twelve years after the EU passed its first law to open up gas markets, and seven years after adopting a second package, there is still no EU-wide market for gas (electricity looks a little better). In France, Germany and other EU countries, big, vertically integrated energy companies have resisted the Commission’s successive attempts to create real competition. The last big push to break up these companies ended in a truce: the third energy package, adopted in 2009, allows gas companies to keep their pipelines, provided they run them as truly separate entities.

Oettinger and his team in the EU directorate-general for energy will have their hands full to make sure that EU countries implement the third package by the 2011 deadline. There is little appetite for re-opening the unbundling debate for now. If and when Europeans start talking about the fourth gas package, their focus will probably shift towards infrastructure and market regulations.

It has become clear that passing laws on liberalisation will not in itself deliver a European energy market. The physical links between national markets are missing. Moreover, the 2009 gas crisis illustrated that a functioning internal market is not only needed to deliver reliable, low-cost energy to European households and factories. It is also the EU’s main tool for improving security of supply. Gas links allow countries to switch suppliers in case of emergency.

The EU budget allocates only around €250 million a year to energy infrastructure (under the trans-European networks for energy, or TEN-E, programme). The EU’s economic recovery programme from last year earmarked €2.4 billion for energy projects, parts of it for the so-called interconnectors between national power grids and gas pipeline networks. Now the Commission has suggested that the EU should set up a new fund for the next EU budget period, which starts in 2014. This ‘energy security and infrastructure instrument’ could dispatch €1-2 billion a year.

Energy experts disagree whether public money is needed to build interconnectors, and if so, how much. The market alone will probably not deliver all the links needed for a Europe-wide network. But it should deliver most of it. The Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think-tank, reports that over the last decade, Europe has added a mere 1,000 kilometres to its trans-national pipeline network. In the US – where unbundling was completed by the early 1990s – private companies have built around 30,000 kilometres of new pipelines over the same period (in response to approximately the same gas demand growth).

The difference between the European and the American gas market is not only its size and the degree of liberalisation but also the way the market is regulated and run. Even if EU companies were fully unbundled, different regulations and licensing procedures in the various EU countries would still make it unnecessarily hard to build infrastructure that straddles borders. Harmonisation is needed here. Moreover, the EU may have to allow those companies that build cross-border links higher returns on their investment. To figure out which connections would make most sense for the EU as a whole, a Union-wide infrastructure plan is needed.

The EU has asked a new group of network operators (called ENTSO) to draw up a European infrastructure priority plan. And it is establishing a new ‘agency for the co-operation of energy regulators’ (ACER) in Slovenia. However, ENTSO’s plan may well be subject to the same national horse-trading that has characterised the allocation of previous EU infrastructure money. And it will not be binding on companies or governments. For economic and energy security considerations to take precedence, ACER should be given a stronger say in defining infrastructure priorities and driving harmonisation of licensing regimes forward. Only then could the EU justify setting up a new multi-billion euro energy infrastructure fund.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Britain explores sharing defence equipment with Europe

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

With its public finances under growing strain, Britain may soon be forced to look at saving defence costs by pooling its military assets with those of its allies. The decision will not be taken until after the next general election (which will probably be held in May 2010). In the meantime, however, the issues at stake have been set out in a report published by the ministry of defence on February 3rd.

The ministry of defence’s green paper lays out the main questions for the forthcoming strategic defence review. It is the first British government document to put such a strong emphasis on exploring the possibilities for integrating defence forces amongst allies. The proposals reflect the extent of the financial constraints on the British defence budget. Indeed, the report warns that the UK “cannot proceed with the activities and programmes [it] currently aspires to, while simultaneously supporting [its] current operations and investing in the new capabilities [it] needs.” While restating the importance of bilateral relations with the US, the paper also, unusually, highlights the possibility of pooling assets and specialising in certain equipment within the EU, in addition to NATO.

Because of smaller defence budgets, other European countries have already had to start integrating capabilities and specialising. The Czechs notably have chosen to focus on developing expertise against chemical and biological warfare. But to date Britain has been able to maintain the full spectrum of capabilities autonomously and only shares common equipment for space. (The UK is also somewhat dependent on the US for its nuclear deterrent, because it uses US technology.)

Over the last decades, the only cooperative efforts in which Britain has participated have been joint programmes to develop equipment which Britain has then owned nationally. For example, during the Cold War, the UK teamed up with France to develop the Jaguar aircraft and a series of helicopters, and it worked with Germany and Italy to develop the Tornado aircraft. Today, Britain, Germany and Spain are developing the Eurofighter and the UK is part of the European effort to build the A400M military aircraft. Britain is also a leading partner in the transatlantic initiative to build the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. And through the EU’s European Defence Agency, the UK takes part in efforts to explore further common procurement programmes.

The CER has long argued that Britain could increase the cost-effectiveness of its defence procurement by working more closely with its allies – be it through sharing assets or less ambitiously through more co-operation on logistics and training. For some collaborative efforts, working through NATO or the EU can be a useful umbrella (such as conducting research for a next generation of unmanned air vehicles). A large group of countries will provide larger funds and ensure more defence ministries adopt the capabilities developed. This in turn strengthens interoperability and increases the amount of capabilities across Europe. But large groups of countries also make cooperative efforts more cumbersome. So for big ticket items, like aircraft carriers, it makes more sense for Britain to explore possible synergies with only one or two likeminded countries. France is an obvious partner with whom to explore sharing assets. It is the only other country in Europe to have maintained a full spectrum of capabilities and it has a defence budget similar to the UK’s. (While the US is Britain’s closest ally, it is not under the same pressure to pool resources because of its large defence budget.)

If Britain were to pool assets or rely more on allies to provide certain capabilities, its autonomy could be affected – if Britain and France shared a fleet of carriers, France might not agree to send them on a mission to which Britain wanted to contribute. But faced with the prospect of having to abandon some capabilities completely, sharing appears less daunting. (For more on the benefits and costs of pooling assets, see Clara Marina O’Donnell, Britain must pool defence capabilities,CER bulletin October/November 2009.)

To what extent might a Labour or Conservative government explore the possibilities of deeper co-operation with various allies in the forthcoming strategic defence review. The fact that the current government has presented the green paper is an encouraging sign, and more than one defence minister has voiced interest in re-exploring collaborations with the French on aircraft carriers.

The Conservative shadow cabinet supports closer collaboration on capabilities with certain allies, in particular the US and France. Conservatives are less keen on strengthening defence co-operation within the EU. Shadow Secretary of State for defence Liam Fox still toys with the idea of withdrawing Britain from the European Defence Agency, if the Conservatives win the next elections.

It would be unfortunate if a Conservative government withdrew from closer EU defence co-operation. Britain stands to benefit from collaborative efforts under the EDA’s umbrella, not least because it can be used to encourage other European countries to develop some badly needed equipment, including for Afghanistan. In addition, France might be less keen to work bilaterally with the UK on big ticket items, if London undermines EU defence efforts in which Paris has invested much political capital over the last decade.

Britain has dared to ask itself the right questions, now it must explore the answers. The defence review will force the UK to reflect on the role it wants to play in the world and how it develops the means to play that role. The next government should explore all avenues of co-operation, from shared maintenance to pooling assets, and it should explore them with all its allies – be it bilaterally, particularly with France, or through NATO and the EU. Such co-operation might somewhat reduce Britain’s autonomy, but it might be the only option for the UK to remain a global player.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.