Thursday, February 17, 2011

The EU’s new politics of movement

by Hugo Brady

The freedom enjoyed by EU citizens to live and work in each others' countries is a unique liberty. It is the basis around which European governments have tried to build a single border, a compensatory system of co-operation between police, judges and immigration officers and a common refugee policy. But hardening attitudes towards immigration in many countries and widening policy disagreements between governments and the EU's institutions are exposing fault-lines in this structure. As the cracks threaten to widen over the coming months, policy-makers face some tricky dilemmas.

For a start, some EU governments are struggling with the very concept of free movement. The Dutch government – prodded by far-right politician and coalition kingmaker Geert Wilders – recently announced that it wants to renegotiate the free movement directive. At first sight, the Dutch demand does not seem that outrageous: change the law to allow governments to deport EU nationals with criminal records back to their home countries. The problem is that any re-opening of the 2004 directive risks sparking a plethora of demands from France, Italy or Britain to restrict free movement in other ways. The law was also at the centre of last year's spectacular row between the European Commission and France over arbitrary deportations of Roma. Poorer countries like Poland, Hungary or Romania would be livid, leading to a bitter split between east and west and, possibly, north and south.

Second, the Schengen area – the passport-free travel zone that incorporates most countries where free movement applies – is showing signs of strain. The most startling example of this is the partial takeover of Greece's border with Turkey by Frontex, the EU's border agency, due to a spike in illegal arrivals across the Evros river. Schengen is a bit like the euro, where countries share the benefits of a common good but largely trust each other to run a tight ship at home. However Greece already appears to view the Frontex mission as permanent, throwing up questions of moral hazard amid years of under-investment in its border services. With Italy appealing for similar intervention to help with migratory pressures from Tunisia, we could be witnessing the de facto creation of a European border guard. That development will take many EU countries by complete surprise.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria and Romania are adamant that they should join the Schengen area this year. But despite diplomatic bluster from both governments, neither is yet truly ready to cope with the kind of situation currently evident in Greece. For example, the Romanian port of Constanta risks becoming a Baltimore-on-the-Black Sea if traffickers and smugglers operating in the region can access the Schengen area there under current conditions: organised crime and corruption are commonplace. Moreover, Schengen entry is probably the last piece of leverage the EU has left to encourage both countries to cleanse corruption, reform their judiciaries and step up the fight against serious crime, as they solemnly promised to do in 2007. To argue that these issues are irrelevant to the maintenance of a common border is to dwell on niceties: they are all inherently linked to the rule of law.

Third, the EU's common asylum system is broken. Its cornerstone principle – that those fleeing persecution must apply for refugee status in whatever EU country they first reach – has been undermined by a recent judgement of the European Court of Human Rights on sub-standard refugee conditions in Greece.* The court exposed publically what governments and the European Commission already knew: despite the theoretical existence of common asylum rules, EU countries apply these more according to their national administrative traditions than the spirit of European law. Sadly, there is little agreement between Northern Europeans, the Mediterranean member-states or the Commission about what direction reform should take. While the Commission wants to raise standards and create some exceptions to the first-country-of-arrival rule, most governments oppose any liberalisation on the grounds of cost or moral hazard or both. Indeed the Netherlands wants the rules toughened to make it more, not less, difficult to claim refugee status; Sweden has tightened its own system in response to a rise in support for the far-right; and the UK has opted out of most of the new legislation proposed. This matters because no common border can work without an agreed approach to refugees: asylum seekers have special rights under international law to cross national frontiers. And with a fresh refugee crisis brewing in the EU's North African neighbourhood, it is imperative that the current system be replaced with something workable.

Fourth, the EU is about to embark on a complex and difficult debate about the sharing of police data across borders. EU countries have responded to the loss of control over their borders by creating ever more IT systems for sharing information like fingerprints, DNA records and criminal convictions. Later this year, Viviane Reding, the EU's justice commissioner, will unveil a robust new regime for protecting personal privacy in such cases, as well as an overall agreement with the US on data exchanged for the purposes of counter-terrorism and other serious crimes. The problem here is that the Commission is attempting to regulate the exchange of police files for the first time, using new powers under the Lisbon treaty. The issue is full of potential pitfalls. Given the disparity between national regimes for handling police data, an over-zealous proposal from the Commission would set it on a collision course with national security establishments across the EU and possibly provoke fresh tensions with the US. It is also questionable whether – as the Commission intends – a single EU system covering both commercial data and police records is feasible. It is important that information on private citizens shared across borders between police forces with different cultures and levels of professionalism is subject to credible restrictions. So too is the need for law enforcement bodies to work effectively together across borders. The Commission must exercise subtlety and good judgement.

The EU has a new politics of the interior. Failure to address any of the aforementioned issues correctly would undoubtedly have consequences for free movement and passport-free travel given the current political climate in Europe. It is no co-incidence that both France and the Netherlands have already recently attempted to step up police checks at their borders, in contravention of EU rules. As with the original system underpinning fiscal stability in the eurozone, some EU policies to do with border management, refugee protection and police co-operation were poorly designed. Their consequences, flaws and inherent contradictions will trigger much political and diplomatic confrontation in the months ahead. Many will say this is healthy: policies that have hitherto enjoyed years of cozy consensus and relative anonymity are now subject to proper scrutiny and debate. That is true enough. But the battles ahead are not for the faint-hearted.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the centre for European Reform

* M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece,

Friday, February 11, 2011

Eurozone governance and the Berlin consensus

by Philip Whyte

A broad consensus appears to have emerged across northern Europe on what ails the eurozone. The region's current predicament, on this view, is the result of fecklessness and irresponsibility in geographically peripheral member-states. Countries in the periphery ran into difficulty because they mismanaged their public finances and lost 'competitiveness'. The road to redemption, on this analysis, is for the peripheral countries to consolidate their public finances and embrace supply-side reforms. The task at EU level is to keep member-states on the straight and narrow by making sure that they comply with the fiscal rules and do what is required to remain 'competitive'. This view, which is having a decisive influence on reforms to the way the eurozone is run, coincides with that of the German government. Let us, then, call it the 'Berlin consensus'.

As an analysis of what ails numerous economies across Europe, the Berlin consensus has much to commend it. There is no question that some countries have mismanaged their public finances. Greece, where governments disguised their profligacy by cooking the data, is the most egregious example. Nor is there any question that many 'peripherals', particularly across Southern Europe, face daunting supply-side challenges: low productivity, high drop-out rates from secondary education, inflexible labour markets, insufficient competition in services markets, rapidly ageing populations and low effective ages of retirement are a toxic brew. All these countries are on unsustainable paths and must push through thoroughgoing economic reforms. Depressingly, their reform efforts have been among the most pedestrian in the EU.

So far, so uncontroversial. Is it right, however, to say that the eurozone would have averted crisis if countries had complied with the Stability and Growth Pact and taken the Lisbon agenda of economic reforms more seriously? Nothing is less certain. France and Germany, which violated the Stability and Growth Pact in 2004, do not face funding difficulties in the government bond markets; Ireland and Spain, which complied with the rules until the crisis broke, do. Nor is it clear that macroeconomic imbalances can be pinned on divergences in national 'competitiveness'. Ireland, a flexible economy that scores highly on many indicators of 'competitiveness', is arguably the most troubled (because the most indebted) country in the eurozone. Italy, which scores worse than Ireland on most indicators of competitiveness, is far less indebted.

The problem with the Berlin consensus is that it does not pay enough attention to the demand-side factors that gave rise to the crisis. The cause of the eurozone's macroeconomic imbalances lay on the demand side. In essence, the problem was that demand grew broadly in line with output at eurozone level, but failed to do so at national level. While demand grew faster than output in the periphery, the reverse was the case in the 'core'. Profligacy in the periphery was funded by thrift in the core. This arrangement suited both sides – for a while. Countries in the periphery enjoyed debt-fuelled booms, while countries like Germany could rely on exports to keep growing (in the face of weak demand at home). Export-led growth in the core and rising indebtedness in the periphery were linked: they were reverse sides of the same coin.

Given the amount of capital that was flooding into the deficit countries, there was always a risk that some of it would be wasted on unproductive investments. And so it was. In Greece, the main agent of waste was the government. But the antics of the government in Greece pale in comparison with those of the private sector elsewhere. In Spain and Ireland, the private sector misallocated capital on a truly epic scale. The agents were over-leveraged banks, in both peripheral and core countries, that funded increasingly speculative investments in the property sector. When the property bubble burst and banks' assets turned sour, the direct and indirect costs blew a hole in the public finance. Ireland's deficits and debt exploded because the government guaranteed the liabilities of highly leveraged banks that were too big for the state to save.

At root, the eurozone crisis boils down to an argument about money. Who should pick up the bill for all the capital that was misallocated in the peripheral countries: feckless borrowers, or reckless lenders? Creditor countries, who are currently in the political driving seat, believe the bill should fall on taxpayers in the deficit countries. But it is not clear that this demand is viable – either economically or politically. Some countries in the periphery are probably insolvent, and the medicine they are currently being prescribed risks pushing them into an ever deeper debt trap. It is hard to see how governments in the periphery can indefinitely push through structural reforms if their economies are contracting and their debt burdens are rising. In the end, therefore, some element of forbearance in the creditor countries appears to be inevitable.

What bearing does all this have for the reform of eurozone governance? First, fiscal consolidation and structural reforms in the periphery may be desirable objectives, but they will not restore the most indebted countries to solvency. Second, extending loans on less than generous terms, as Ireland's partners are doing, will buy time but is unlikely to stave off the inevitable: a default on, or restructuring of, peripheral government debt. Third, it is wrong to portray the eurozone crisis as a problem in the periphery alone. The sovereign debt crisis and the banking crisis are inextricably inter-twined. In the peripheral countries, the link is overt. In the core countries it is suppressed. German banks, for example, are under-capitalised and highly exposed to default in the periphery – a fact that the German government is not keen to discuss.

Since a sovereign debt restructuring in the periphery would have repercussions for the solvency of banks in the core, the eurozone needs a crisis management framework to deal with both eventualities. The eurozone needs to establish a framework for orderly sovereign debt restructuring, which would ensure that private-sector creditors share in the pain. And since sovereign debt restructuring would push some European banks into insolvency, the EU needs to develop plans for dealing with this prospect. Solvent sovereigns in the core, such as Germany, will have to decide whether they want to recapitalise their weaker banks, or allow them to survive in their current vegetative state. And countries across the EU must implement resolution regimes that would allow them to wind up insolvent banks in as orderly a fashion as possible.

Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform