Monday, February 27, 2012

Europe’s growth strategy: All supply and no demand

To say that Europe has a growth problem is an understatement. Almost four years since the outbreak of the global financial crisis, only a handful of EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden and Poland) have seen their economic output return above pre-crisis levels. In all the others, output is still below its peak in 2008 – in some cases dramatically so. Greece, Ireland and Latvia have endured catastrophic declines. But even in Italy, Spain and the UK, where the downturns have been less dramatic, output has already taken longer to return to pre-crisis levels than it did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. If this were not bad enough, many economies contracted in the final quarter of 2011 and will fall back into recession in 2012. How to explain this debacle?

Ask European policy-makers what their growth strategy for the region is, and chances are they will identify two ingredients. First, they will say, countries across the EU must push through structural reforms to improve the supply-side performance of their economies. Labour markets must be reformed; goods and services markets opened to greater competition; spending on research and development boosted; the EU’s single market deepened (notably in areas such as the digital economy); and so on. Second, they will argue, governments must restore confidence and lift ‘animal spirits’ in the private sector by consolidating their public finances. In combination, structural reforms and fiscal austerity will restore the region to long-term ‘competitiveness’, and consequently to economic growth.

The problem with this story is two-fold. The first is that supply-side reforms, though necessary over the medium to long term, are mostly irrelevant in the short term. Few observers doubt that EU countries, particularly those across southern Europe, would be well-advised to take supply-side reforms more seriously than they did under the Lisbon agenda. If they did, their productivity and living standards would rise over the medium to longer run. But to propose such reforms as an answer to Europe’s immediate growth problem is to miss the point: it is to provide a long-term (supply-side) answer to a short-term (demand-side) problem. Deepening the EU’s single market is a perfectly sound idea. But it will do nothing to offset the immediate impact of private-sector ‘deleveraging’ on demand.

If the first prong of Europe’s growth strategy is beside the point in the short term, the second is positively damaging. For the past two years, policy-makers across Europe seem to have persuaded themselves that fiscal consolidation will boost growth. Jean-Claude Trichet, for one, repeatedly dismissed claims that budgetary austerity would depress growth, arguing that “confidence-inspiring measures will foster and not hamper recovery”. Similar claims were made by other policy-makers, inside and outside the eurozone. The trouble is that these assertions had little evidence to support them. As a careful study conducted by the IMF concluded in 2010, “fiscal consolidations typically lower growth in the short term”. In other words, their net effect on demand is contractionary, rather than expansionary.

It is important to be clear about the short-term impact of fiscal policy because several EU countries are now in a very special kind of downturn: they are in ‘balance sheet recessions’. Such recessions are what follow when debt-financed asset price bubbles burst. Since asset prices fall but liabilities do not, households and firms trim spending as they scramble to reduce their debts. In balance sheet recessions, monetary policy loses its potency because households and firms are less inclined to borrow and spend (even with short-term official interest rates close to zero), while banks (which have balance sheet problems of their own) are reluctant to lend. When the financial health of the private sector is so weak, fiscal policy is the only macroeconomic policy instrument left with any kind of traction.

When Lehman Brothers failed, governments across Europe allowed their budget deficits to rise sharply. But the Greek sovereign debt crisis has since persuaded all of them to reverse course. Greece is paying the price for its past profligacy, and every country is desperate to persuade the financial markets that it is not the ‘next Greece’. Austerity is now the order of the day. But synchronised austerity is the opposite of policy co-ordination. And it is self-defeating. Tightening fiscal policy when monetary policy has lost traction depresses GDP more than would otherwise be the case. And when numerous governments are cutting spending at the same time, the contractionary effect on GDP is further magnified. Countries across the EU are cutting their budget deficits, yet still seeing their ratios of debt to GDP worsen.

A key question is whether governments have any choice. Many think they do not. The British government, for example, believes it has avoided Greece’s fate only because of the ambition of its fiscal consolidation plans. The problem with this explanation is that Japan can issue government debt more cheaply than the UK, even though its public finances are weaker than Greece’s. This suggests that the UK could, if it so wished, slow the pace of fiscal consolidation without losing the confidence of the bond markets. But it also suggests that members of the eurozone enjoy no such choice. Because they are not the sole masters of the currency in which they issue their debt, some are effectively being forced to tighten fiscal policy even when, as in Southern Europe, this is economically self-defeating.

The short-term problem for Europe, then, is that demand across much of the region is chronically weak – and that fiscal policy is making matters worse. In balance sheet recessions, when households and firms cut spending and become net savers, governments must step into the breach by borrowing and spending. People who worry about the resulting deterioration of public finances should remember three things. First, large fiscal deficits are merely the counterpart of the increase in net savings among households and firms. Second, in balance sheet recessions fiscal deficits do not ‘crowd out’ private spending. And third, if governments cut spending when the private sector is ‘deleveraging’, activity will contract (unless foreigners come to the rescue by borrowing and spending more themselves).

The case against Europe’s growth strategy, then, is that it is all supply and no demand. There is no question that structural reforms are urgently needed to boost long-term growth. But fiscal policy is being tightened too rapidly. Europe has turned what should have been a marathon into a sprint. Governments are cutting public spending before private-sector balance sheets have been repaired. The result is that the more certain EU countries do to balance their budgets, the more output contracts. Fiscal virtue, in short, has become an economic vice. Not only does it risk pushing economic output in countries such as Spain the way of Greece, Ireland and Latvia. But it also risks discrediting much-needed structural reforms by associating them in voters’ minds with collapsing activity and rising job losses.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pressure and tact are the right response to Victor Orban

Viktor Orban's FIDESZ party won a constitutional majority in the Hungarian parliament two years ago on a promise of purging the country’s politics of the remnants of communism. The prime minister had a point: unlike neighbouring Central European states, Hungary had moved from communism through compromise, not revolution, so many of the old system’s worst traits including rampant tax evasion and addiction to debt have been preserved or worsened. When Orban promised to “complete regime change”, he had the backing of most Hungarians, even if many suspected the prime minister’s political instincts, and worried that he lacked a clear programme and a team with the expertise to reform the country.

Two years later, Orban is in open conflict with his country’s opposition and much of the West. Critics hold him responsible for a series of confusing, counterproductive and sometimes contradictory economic measures, such as the de facto nationalisation of the private pension system. They also suspect him of trying to build a one-party state. The EU, too, is alarmed, and the European Commission initiated court proceedings against Hungary, chiefly over measures that curb the powers of the country’s central bank. But the West should resist the urge to isolate Viktor Orban, as it does with Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko. Orban has genuine support from the majority of Hungarians, who believe that the country is on the wrong track and needs deep reforms. While many of the prime minister’s steps have been undemocratic, Orban has proven to be a pragmatist, capable of adjusting course. The EU’s goal in Hungary should be to steer his government away from damaging undemocratic ideas towards needed reforms.

Orban inherited a country in terrible economic and political shape. The brief period of reforms of the 1990s improved living standards, brought in foreign investment and generated some growth, but not enough to repair the country’s finances. The Socialist government that immediately preceded Orban's increased debt from 53 per cent to 80 per cent of GDP during eight years in power – this was before the economic crisis, so the growth in debt cannot be attributed to Keynesian measures to stimulate the economy. Shortly after Orban had assumed power, the global economic crisis hit Hungary hard, eroding the value of the forint and plunging thousands of holders of foreign-denominated mortgages into insolvency.

Orban's response, similar to that of other governments west of Hungary, has been to protect the middle classes from the effects of the economic crisis, and to find a better economic model for Hungary. He sees that Europe is in a profound crisis, and is trying to make the economy more 'national', less dependent on outside investment (that is why the prime minister imposed one-off taxes on mostly foreign-owned big banks). In foreign policy terms, Orban sees Hungary as firmly within the EU and the West; he is no Vladimir Putin. The prime minister simply thinks that Hungary needs to be more self-reliant, as the West is facing tremendous challenges. Orban assumes that the EU’s influence – and possibly its borders too – will be shrinking for the foreseeable future, so he is trying to position Hungary for existence in a buffer zone, outside Europe’s core and close to its eastern fringe. He would like to have a stronger Central Europe, but the Poles reserve their time and attention for the Germans and the French and ignore Hungary. Orban, for his part, ignores Slovakia, another natural would-be partner, preferring to act as spokesman to the latter country’s large Hungarian minority rather than a partner to the Slovak government.

The trouble with Orban’s reforms is that, good intentions notwithstanding, many have been wrong-headed. Economic measures such as the de facto nationalisation of private pension funds or ‘windfall’ taxes on banks have scared foreign investors without renewing economic growth or reducing the country’s large debt. Given that the Hungarian economy greatly relies on exports to the rest of the EU, Orban is bound to fail to completely insulate it, and it is probably fruitless to try. Moreover, the prime minister is deliberately shirking from taking the necessary measures, which would be required to make Hungary truly self-reliant. He should be making serious budget cuts to reduce dependence on foreign lenders. But while Orban has made some savings by reducing the number of public servants and the defence budget, most of his energy is spent elsewhere, such as on forcing the banks to allow the middle classes to repay foreign currency-denominate mortgages at rates below market ones.

Besides a dubious list of priorities, Orban also has a profoundly undemocratic tendency to equate his own government and party with the state. FIDESZ thinks and acts like a clan; it is suspicious of other parties and opinions and seeks to minimise the opposition’s input into law-making, using expedited procedures to pass laws even though FIDESZ holds a comfortable two-third majority in parliament. The EU has rightly criticised him for curbing the freedom of media and packing government institutions with party cronies. Critics worry that in addition to finishing the ‘revolution’ by reforming the economy, Orban has also chosen to cement the power of his party, where his control is unquestioned, over democratic institutions.

But the EU and Orban’s domestic opponents need to tread delicately. FIDESZ’s policies are deeply rooted in the Hungarian society, and Orban remains one of the few Hungarian politicians with a vision of how to reform the state, even if it is in parts dangerous. Indeed, while voters have grown dissatisfied with Orban’s conduct, support for the opposition has barely increased. Hungarians are unhappy with the prime minister’s implementation of policies rather than his broad goals. They want Orban to do better, not necessarily to go.

The European Union’s best response to Orban’s excesses is to ‘play the ball, not the man’: to make a principled argument against those policies that deserve criticism, not to attack the prime minister personally. Orban is fundamentally a pragmatist. Behind the bluster hides a man capable of adjusting course, even if he never states so openly. Upon heavy European criticism, Hungary’s constitutional court annulled some provisions of the media and criminal procedure laws, because “certain passages in the laws contravened the constitution and international agreements”. The government also withdrew its controversial law on religion before the Constitutional Court could decide on its legality. The constitution will almost certainly be amended again to avoid a showdown with the European Commission over independence of the Hungarian central bank. Although the FIDESZ public relations machine hailed these changes as great victories, they were above all retreats. And they suggest that Orban will respond to pressure, as long as he is given the possibility and time to ‘save face’. The reverse is also true: the more the EU attacks Orban personally, the more each policy change looks to the Hungarians as a defeat for the prime minister, and the less incentive Orban has to compromise.

EU countries must also take care not to overstate their case lest they fuel nationalism and euro-scepticism in Hungary. The policy of giving passports to Hungarians living outside the country is a good example: some EU countries such as Slovakia (though not the EU institutions) criticised it. They should reconsider. The policy is not necessarily against European law; Romania practices it and Poland has introduced the Polish card for its minority. Until 2005, Slovakia too gave passports to people even if they did not reside in the country.

The EU governments and institutions are right to devote so much time and energy to Hungary: of all EU countries, Hungarian democracy seems most imperilled. The EU’s best way to check Victor Orban’s undemocratic tendencies is through principled and well informed pressure. But it needs to handle Hungary with care: if it attacks Orban personally, the EU risks losing influence over the prime minister, with Hungary sliding into certain isolation and possible poverty. That would be a terrible outcome for the country, its neighbours and the European Union as such.

Balázs Jarábik is associate fellow at FRIDE; he also heads the Kiev office of Pact, Inc., an NGO supporting civil society and media projects in Eastern Europe.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Russia is not completely wrong about Syria

Russia has been roundly criticised for vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution aimed at stopping the violence in Syria and ousting President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow is reluctant to give up on the al-Assad regime for the moment: it has a direct interest in the survival of the regime, which buys its arms and provides a naval base; it is strongly opposed to Western-led interventions, on principle; it believes that Arab revolutions are likely to lead to takeovers by Islamic fundamentalists; and it is still fuming that, after it refrained from vetoing UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya – about the protection of civilians – the West abused the resolution by using it to justify regime change.

However, Russian diplomats concede that change is inevitable if the violence in Syria is to be contained. Russia wants a managed transition that preserves its influence. The draft UNSC resolution called for the confinement of the Syrian army to barracks and endorsed the Arab League plan for al-Assad to hand over power to his vice president prior to the holding of elections. Russian diplomats are right to say that such a resolution would have been unenforceable and, if implemented, would have led to the sudden collapse of the Syrian government without a credible alternative to take its place. Anarchy could have ensued. The Kremlin may be playing realpolitik and taking pride in blocking the West, but it has a point.

Western leaders have been sincere in expressing revulsion at the continued crackdown by the Syrian military upon largely peaceful protestors. But their diplomacy has been ineffective. Preferring to issue ultimatums from afar, they have given up on dialogue with the Syrian regime when there is no other viable alternative.

A number of diplomatic rules have been ignored by Western governments in Syria. First, never rule out force publicly even if you have done so privately. The numbers killed in Syria are beginning to dwarf those murdered by the Gaddafi regime prior to the NATO intervention in Libya. The brave political decision by European leaders to come to the aid of the Libyan people should have reverberated throughout the region, sending a warning to Syria and other dictatorships in the region. The message should have been clear: nothing is off the table if you murder your own people. Instead, from almost the moment the protests in Syria began, Western leaders fell over themselves to tell Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he had nothing to fear, since military intervention was simply unthinkable no matter what he did. Western diplomats say that this was necessary in order to secure Chinese and Russian support at the United Nations. That is correct, but such assurances could have been provided discreetly, while the regime in Damascus was left to guess about NATO's real intentions.

Second, the main function of an embassy is to act as a liaison with a host government, even one as odious as that in Damascus. The closing of Western embassies has had little effect upon regime behaviour but has blocked channels of communication. Despite ruling out military intervention or the provision of assistance to defectors from Syria's armed forces, Western diplomats have not managed to do much about Syria other than criticise the violence and call on President al-Assad to stand down.

Western leaders have painted themselves into a corner. They have misread the situation on two counts: firstly, they have assumed that the removal of al-Assad is critical towards ending the violence and issued ultimatums to that end. Secondly, they have also over-estimated the weakness of the Syrian regime and the willingness of the military to turn upon its leaders. The President of Syria is no Gaddafi – power is distributed more horizontally among the elite in Syria, and the President's control over the security services is by no means absolute. The removal of al-Assad by itself would not solve much unless accompanied by a broader commitment to reform. Syrian military leaders have now gone too far to turn back. As in Spain at the end of the Franco dictatorship, they will want assurances that a transition will not mean prison or worse for them and their supporters. Moreover, they are not being defeated – on the contrary, defections have so far been minimal and they believe that they have groups such as the Syrian Free Army on the back foot.

Third, do not encourage regime change without any concept of how, and with what means, such a revolution might come about. The West should have learned this lesson after the slaughter of Iraqi Shia rebels who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991 – when the insurgents received nothing more than words of support despite expectations of financial aid and military equipment. Also, if political and economic sanctions are to be the exclusive means of weakening the Syrian regime, it is essential that neighbouring countries are on-side. Here the West has put too much faith in the Arab League. The Arab League may have become more vocal, supported by countries such as Saudi Arabia that have long resented Syria's ties with Iran, but it remains incapable of enforcing its resolutions.

The Syrian government knows that Arab League resolutions are toothless, and that they have supporters in key neighbouring Arab countries, notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and leading figures in the Lebanese government. Economic sanctions may yet prove to be fatal, but like Chinese water torture, they will need time to take effect. Iran is increasing its support while Turkey, after a brief period of sabre-rattling, has gone cool on the idea of military intervention. Damascus also knows that calls by the Qatari government for intervention by an Arab peacekeeping force will come to nothing.

The West should try to rein in efforts by Gulf countries to arm a range of insurgent groups, many of which are deeply mistrusted by important minority groups such as Syria's Kurds and could do significant damage to the credibility of the opposition movement. Syria badly needs a credible shadow government to negotiate with external parties. Until one emerges, Western diplomats should discourage the distribution of weapons to disparate groups feuding for leadership.

Given the enduring strength and resistance of the Syrian regime, and the lack of any immediate military means to weaken it, it is disappointing that Western countries have all but cut off diplomatic contacts with Damascus. The West should re-start diplomatic dialogue with Syria without pre-conditions. In the end an unsavoury deal such as that made with President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen – granting him immunity from prosecution – may be appropriate for key members of the Syrian elite. Western leaders need to grapple with what an acceptable deal could look like. Issuing statements that condemn a regime is easy; but it is tough diplomatic negotiations with the government in Damascus that can best help the Syrian people.

However, there are limits to the role Western diplomacy can play. Although the West can embark on a supportive dialogue, it is now impossible for the West to play a leading role as an intermediary in the conflict. A trusted interlocutor is urgently required to negotiate a credible transition in Syria. Such leadership cannot come from Europe, the United States, the Arab League, or Russia – none of whom are trusted by all sides. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been content to sit on the side-lines, choosing not to deploy his 'good offices' in the manner of his more courageous predecessors. It is time to appoint a UN Special Representative to engage with the regime and opposition alike. Even if his or her proposals are ultimately rejected by Moscow or Washington, some options are better than none.

Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, February 10, 2012

France: Why the self-flagellation?

President Sarkozy wants France to become more like Germany. In a recent speech he made 15 positive references to the German economic model. Unlike France, he argued, Germany had reformed its economy and was reaping the rewards in terms of improved competitiveness and superior economic performance. He bemoaned the alleged decline in French industrial prowess and praised Germany’s success at defending its industrial base. Is Sarkozy right to be so critical of French performance? And would it make sense for France to emulate the German model?

Sarkozy is certainly right that Germany is a more industrial economy than France. The share of the French economy accounted for by industrial output is as low as in Britain (a country Sarkozy likes to deride as ‘having no industry’) and lower than the US. Germany’s share of world export markets has also held up remarkably well over the last ten years, whereas France’s has fallen steadily. However, the relative size of a country’s industrial sector has no bearing on its economic success. Just look at Italy, which has a comparably-sized industrial sector to Germany, but which is easily the worst performing large developed economy. Japan also has a very large industrial sector but has stagnated for much of the last 20 years.

France actually has a decent economic record relative to Germany’s. Between 1992 and 2001, France managed annual GDP growth of 2.1 per cent compared to Germany’s 1.6 per cent. Over the subsequent ten years – 2002 to 2011 – both countries grew by (an admittedly poor) 1.1 per cent per year. Although the German economy performed better in 2010 and 2011 than its French counterpart, the two countries’ growth prospects are very similar, at least according to the European Commission, the IMF and the OECD. All three forecast growth of around 0.5 per cent in 2013 and 1.5 per cent in 2013. Perhaps the best measure of economic performance is productivity. Productivity per French worker is somewhat higher than in Germany, while productivity growth averaged 0.7 per year in both countries between 2002 and 2011.

As recently as mid-2008, rates of joblessness were the same in the two countries. But Germany’s labour market performance has been superior to France’s over the last three years. By the end of 2011 the rate of unemployment had fallen below 6 per cent in Germany, whereas it has risen to almost 10 per cent in France. There is a demographic element to this – because of its very low birth-rate Germany has far fewer people entering the labour market than France. But there is clearly something else at play. The so-called Hartz reforms under the previous German government undercut the bargaining power of labour, and succeeded in pricing workers back into employment, albeit often on very low wages. Adjusted for inflation employee wages fell by 2 per cent in 2002-2011, compared with a rise of over 10 per cent in France. This, in turn, had an impact on private consumption. Over the same period, private consumption grew by just 4 per cent in Germany, against 17 per cent in France.

To the extent that Germany has become more ‘competitive’ this reflects wage restraint, not superior productivity growth. Wage restraint (and the resulting weakness of inflation) meant that Germany’s so-called real effective exchange rate within the eurozone fell by 17 per cent between the beginning of 1999 and the third quarter of 2011, making its exports much more price competitive. Over the same period, France’s real effective exchange rate rose by 4.4 per cent. Germany’s internal devaluation contributed to a big divergence in the two countries’ relative trade positions. Whereas ten years ago France and Germany both had small current account surpluses, France is now running a deficit of around 3 per cent of GDP, while Germany is running a surplus of 6 per cent. This is understandably causing anxiety in official circles in France.

France and Germany have similar levels of public debt, at just over 80 per cent of GDP. But France is running a bigger budget deficit. Whereas Germany’s fell to a little over 1 per cent of GDP in 2011 (compared with 4.3 per cent in 2010), France’s stood at 5.7 per cent (down from 7.1 per cent the previous year). There is no doubt that France needs to strengthen its public finances, but it is worth making a couple of points. First, the French government has been more concerned with maintaining growth in domestic demand than its German counterpart. Second, over a third of the difference in the size of the deficits in 2011 was accounted for by much higher levels of public investment in France – 3.2 per cent of GDP compared with 1.7 per cent in Germany (the second-lowest level in the EU).

The French president is right to be worried about France’s economic performance. In common with most of Europe, the country is in a rut. But it is important that the second biggest economy in Europe draws the right lessons from what has happened across the Rhine. France undoubtedly needs to reform its labour market. At present, so-called insiders – those with full-time jobs – enjoy comprehensive rights and generous entitlements. But this acts as a disincentive for firms to hire people on full-time contracts, condemning the young to a precarious existence on temporary contracts. However, Germany’s labour market reforms might not be the best blue-print for France. Germany has only been able to pursue such a strategy because others have not. If France really does attempt to emulate German wage restraint, it could prove a largely zero-sum game, depressing domestic demand in France (and hence across Europe), in the process worsening the eurozone crisis.

There are plenty of things that other EU countries, including France, can learn from Germany. But they need to be clear about what those things are. A large industrial sector and a big trade surplus are not necessarily signs of economic prowess. And for every country running a trade surplus, there has to be one running a deficit. France has its share of weaknesses. But in some important respects the French model – where the economy is largely propelled by domestic demand – holds out better prospects for a return to economic growth across the eurozone than does the German one.

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

Friday, February 03, 2012

Greece's real challenge

The German idea of sending Athens a ‘budget commissioner’ was daft. Berlin itself could not tolerate such interference in its fiscal sovereignty (the constitutional court would never allow it). But to restrict such budgetary oversight to Greece alone would be disdainful and a political non-starter. The idea predictably caused outrage in Greece. Chancellor Angela Merkel has quietly dropped the proposal but the underlying problem persists: Greece’s donors – not only Germany but also other EU governments and the IMF, no longer trust Greek politicians to turn their country around.

Greece desperately needs a deal on a new bail-out package before March 20th when €14.4 billion in debt repayments are due. The IMF and eurozone governments insist that new money will only be forthcoming if there is a realistic prospect of Greek debt becoming sustainable in the foreseeable future. The IMF says that ‘sustainable’ would mean a debt level of 120 per cent of GDP by 2020 – although most economists think that 60-80 per cent is the most that a weak economy like Greece could cope with.

Even to reduce the debt level to 120 per cent from the current 160 would require a deep cut in existing debt, more fiscal austerity, lots of further outside help and a return to economic growth. Media attention has focused on the debt restructuring talks between Athens and it private creditors. But for Greece’s future prospects, the question of whether bond holders get 3.8 per cent or 4 per cent interest on their restructured portfolios is insignificant compared with the much bigger question of whether and when Greece emerges from its devastating recession.

There is now broad agreement among eurozone donors and the IMF that Greece will not be able to squeeze more revenue out of an economy that is in its fourth year of recession. The IMF forecasts GDP to fall by a further 3 per cent this year but private sector forecasters, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, think that the economy may contract at twice this rate. In 2010, Greece went through the most savage austerity programme ever implemented by an OECD country. Yet the budget deficit at the end of 2011 stood at around 10 per cent of GDP, so adding to the already unsustainable level of debt.

The emphasis of Greece’s negotiations with the troika (IMF, ECB and European Commission) has shifted to structural reforms designed to boost growth. The good news is that there is lots of room for improvement: by many measures, Greece is the EU’s least efficient economy. The National Bank of Greece has calculated that a comprehensive reform package could boost the annual growth rate by 1.5 per cent over the medium term, although the OCED thinks an additional 0.5 per cent is more realistic.

The previous government of George Papandreou started making headway in various areas, for example by removing some of the protection enjoyed by truckers, lawyers, pharmacists and 140 other ‘closed shop professions’, by simplifying licensing procedures, making life easier for small businesses or giving workers and their bosses more wiggle room to set pay and conditions in Greece’s over-regulated and union-dominated labour market. Papandreou’s technocrat successor, Lukas Papademos, has continued along those lines.

The bad news is that most of these reforms so far only exist on paper – and even here they are often timid and riddled with loopholes. In many cases, the biggest obstacle to real progress is Greece’s bloated and inefficient state administration. According to an OECD analysis published in December, the central government is simply not capable of designing and implementing the growth-boosting reforms that Greece so desperately needs.

The ILO counts 390,000 civil servants in Greece. But add the 660,000 working for public corporations and other semi-state entities and the number swells to over 1 million – more than one-fifth of the workforce. Even that number may be too low since there are all manner of quasi-civil servants on outsourced or temporary contracts who enjoy similar pay levels and perks as full civil servants.

For many years, public sector salaries had outstripped those in the private sector; before the crisis they were on average 60-70 per cent higher. Public sector workers also enjoyed plenty of extra benefits, in addition to job security. Since the onset of the crisis, labour costs in the public administration, defence and social security have fallen by about 6 per cent, according to Greece's National Institute of Labour. In some parts of the private economy, such as hotels and restaurants, labour costs have fallen by 30 per cent. And unemployment has predominantly hit the private sector, too. “The real conflict is not between Greece and its donors. It is between the public sector and the rest of the population”, says one Athens think-tanker.

The troika demanded early on that Greece shrink the public sector by only replacing one of five of those retiring. But between early 2010 and mid-2011, the government added 20,000 people to the public sector payroll (which still amounts to 13 per cent of GDP). Now the troika insists that the government get serious about cutting the headcount by up to 150,000 over the next three years.

The December OECD report found that the main problem with Greece's state administration was not its size but the fact that it adds too little value. There is little sensible policy-making because ministerial bureaucracies do not collect or use data on which to base their policy designs. Moreover, ministries communicate badly with each other, if at all. And even within ministries most departments work in “silos” – they produce rules and regulations without much of an idea how they fit into any broader policy plans. The average Greek ministry has 440 different departments or administrative units. One in five of these do not have any staff other than the head of department and only one in ten have 20 staff or more. The central government alone is spread over 1,500 different buildings.

The OECD also found that civil servants care little if new rules and policies are implemented, monitored and enforced. The result is a state administration that is top-heavy, inflexible, obsessed with process and is basically busy having “a conversation with itself”, as the OECD puts it. Having watched the government’s laboured efforts to improve matters, the OECD now thinks that only a “big bang” reform could give Greece a public administration capable of planning and implementing meaningful change.

Similarly, a white paper that came out of a brainstorming at London Business School last year suggests that in some government areas a completely new start is needed. The most urgent is probably the tax administration. The authors of the white paper (Michael Jacobides , Richard Portes and Dimitri Vayanos) are sceptical whether the cronyism and corruption that pervades local tax offices can ever be tackled. Although the government has told its tax collectors to get tough on evaders (some €60 billion in taxes are outstanding), many have simply failed to heed orders to, for example, conduct audits on big tax debtors. Even former finance ministry officials admit that Greece would probably be better off to abolish the 300 local tax offices because they cost more than they collect. Instead, Greece should set up an independent central tax and social security collection agency.

The white paper suggests similar independent bodies in other areas: buying medicines and equipment for the healthcare sector (here, Greece’s spending per head has been the highest in Europe for many years); public procurement more generally (public contracts amount to 11 per cent of GDP but it takes on average 230 days to award such a contract); a corruption watchdog (although graft appears to be declining, according to Transparency International, one in ten Greeks said they paid a bribe in 2010, with public hospitals and tax inspectors being the most greedy); and a central steering group to supervise structural reform – a proposal also dear to the OECD’s experts.

Such independent bodies could potentially be established quickly and make a noticeable difference. However, the few new bodies that the government has so far set up, such as the privatisation agency and the parliamentary budget office, have been woefully understaffed. And they have encountered much political resistance when trying to carry out their assigned tasks.

Greece’s donors know that there are no quick fixes for the country’s deep-seated malaise. But they no longer trust the political class to carry out a sustained reform programme. Both big parties, Papandreou’s social-democrats (Pasok) and the conservative New Democracy, draw much of their support from public sector workers and other molly-coddled groups that resist change.

The new ‘technocrat’ government will hardly make a difference: Papademos has been given only five months before the next election is due. And unlike Mario Monti in Italy, who was free to fill ministerial posts with experts and other non-political types, Papademos is lumbered with 45 cabinet ministers, most of whom are career politicians from Pasok and New Democracy.

EU politicians now insist that all party leaders must commit to the new troika reform programme beyond the April election. But both Pasok leader Papandreou and New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras are opposing chunks of the troika programme while suggesting that there is an easier way out of the crisis than radical reform.

The negotiations for the new support programme are a good opportunity for a new deal: the troika eases demands for rapid fiscal consolidation and finds additional money for growth-boosting investments, for example from Greece’s €15 billion unspent EU funds or the EIB; Greek political leaders, in turn, get serious about public sector reform and opening up the economy. Ultimately, only the Greek people – not any kind of outside watchdog – can hold the country’s often self-serving politicians to account. To help the Greek people, Greece’s donors must make a bigger effort to improve their image in Greece and explain to the Greeks what needs to be done to put the country on a sustainable growth path.

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

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Why France is leaving Afghanistan

The decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan has re-awakened suspicions that Paris is not to be trusted as an ally. Sarkozy responded to the deaths on January 20th of four French soldiers by ordering the return of all France’s combat troops in 2013, a year before NATO plans to end major operations in Afghanistan. Defence officials in London and Washington have privately condemned the decision as poorly-timed or, worse, a cynical political ploy ahead of France’s presidential elections in April and May 2012. This belittles genuine concerns in France about the conduct of the war. A closer analysis shows that the French government is ahead of other allies in recognising that NATO's strategy has not worked.

French officials believe that the alliance is rewarding a profoundly corrupt government in Kabul that has shirked its commitment to reform. French thinking on Afghanistan is in line with that of David Galula, a French military strategist, who wrote what the US military itself regards as the definitive treatise on counterinsurgency. The lesson of the French war in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s, Galula wrote, is that military accomplishments are meaningless unless accompanied by a process to establish legitimate and broadly accepted political order. In Algeria, the French won the tactical battle against the insurgency but failed to offer a credible government to run the country – and in the end, the French public turned against what it saw as a hopeless problem requiring an expensive military commitment. In Afghanistan, the Americans are repeating France’s mistake from Algeria: they have put too much faith in a government that is so self-serving and corrupt that it stands no chance of increasing its credibility with the Afghan people. A recently leaked NATO report buttresses French views: it suggests that many Afghan officials have been actively working with the insurgency in order to distance themselves from the Karzai government.

The French have bitter first-hand experience with corruption and double-dealing on the part of Afghan officials. When Barack Obama launched an Afghan ‘surge’ in 2009, Sarkozy raised France’s contingent to just short of 4,000, and the French assumed a lead military role in Kabul and the neighbouring Kapisa province. Despite minimal consultations from Washington, Sarkozy decided to give Obama’s strategy the benefit of the doubt and refused to rule out additional troop increases in the future. But France quickly found that one of its most dangerous enemies in Kapisa was the provincial governor himself, who extorted the local populace and tipped off insurgents about the whereabouts and plans of French troops. Eventually, following considerable French and coalition pressure, President Hamid Karzai removed the governor in 2010. But French diplomats were appalled when the deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, who was responsible for prosecuting the former governor, was in turn removed by Karzai. The president also vetoed a number of investigations of his senior government officials. Today Faqiryar, one of Afghanistan's chief fighters against corruption, lives under virtual house arrest in Kabul and is forbidden to receive visitors.

The Afghan security forces should be the French troops' closest ally. But in 2011 the International Crisis Group cited Kapisa as “one of the best examples of the nexus between the insurgency and corrupt Afghan security forces”, a statement privately endorsed rather than refuted by French military officers. France lays the blame on the Kabul government, which, Paris says, needs to reform and reconcile with its enemies if NATO intervention is to make any difference. And unlike Washington, Paris sees no point in sending a short-term ‘surge’ of troops to provinces where the Afghan government refused to curb the activities of predatory and corrupt officials.

Paris is having little success in getting Washington to listen; the US frequently ignores French concerns about corruption and incompetence in the Afghan government. Throughout 2010 and 2011, French diplomats in Afghanistan warned that the sharp increase in US aid under the Obama administration fuels corruption and indirectly funds insurgency (because many subcontractors pay 'protection' money to the Taliban). US officials recognised that their contracting and oversight procedures were flawed, but they chose to keep faith with Karzai’s vague promises to curb corruption, even though the Afghan government had deliberately obstructed several prior anti-corruption initiatives. Successive commitments to reform made at high-level conferences were ignored. Despite mounting evidence of misuse, US aid to Afghanistan almost trebled between 2008 and 2011.

Another clash between Paris and Washington occurred in 2010, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended the negotiation of financial aid to Afghanistan upon the refusal of the Karzai government to stop and investigate the theft of millions of dollars of aid money through Kabul Bank. France was particularly adamant that the international community should stand united in supporting the IMF and not allocate further large-scale funding to the Afghan government until it reformed the Kabul Bank and prosecuted those responsible for the scandal. But US military leaders complained that the Europeans were interfering with their timetable to build up the Afghan security forces and committed to fund the Afghan Ministries of Defence and Interior regardless of the IMF’s position.

Rather than addressing the shortcomings of NATO strategy, coalition headquarters in Kabul have a dangerous tendency to publicly present an exaggerated picture of success. For example, NATO officials cite polls claiming that the Afghan National Police (ANP), which assumed control of the Surobi district of Kabul from France in 2011, enjoyed 70 to 80 per cent approval ratings among the local populace. But French officers, who have seen first-hand the predatory behaviour of the ANP in Surobi, dismiss the figure as absurd, and point out that respondents are often afraid to voice their true opinions: many Afghan agencies that conduct such polls are not trusted and often travel with loathed private security companies. NATO needs the figures to look good because it has based its departure upon the capability of the Afghan government to deliver improved security and governance. France initially went along with this approach because it promised a quick exit but it has long doubted its credibility. The reality is that many provinces have become less stable since the US-led surge of 2009, yet NATO stubbornly claims that its strategy remains on course.

This is the context in which Paris made the decision to withdraw in 2013. France has had enough: its government has concluded that another year or so of a large-scale NATO military presence will not make a difference in the long-term as long as the Afghan government is obstructing rather than helping NATO to improve the governance of Afghanistan.

On balance, Sarkozy’s announcement is to be welcomed. After years of hand-wringing, misspent lives and money, a major member of NATO has finally sent a clear political signal to Kabul. In future France may become the first country to completely link its aid in Afghanistan to real progress in governance, as opposed to questionable opinion polls or recruitment numbers of new police officers. (There is no point in continuing to train security forces if their commanders are not interested in observing the law and intimidate anti-corruption agencies.) France should try to convince other countries and the EU to limit aid until the Kabul government seriously tackles corruption. The evidence is on the side of Paris: despite billions of dollars of aid and thousands of NATO casualties, Afghans trust the international community and their own government less and less.

US leaders such as former Defence Secretary Robert Gates failed the key rule of coalition fighting: the need to listen to, and act on, the views of other allies. They dismissed dissenting European voices on Afghanistan as a sign of weakness rather than foresight. Instead of giving allies more influence over the strategy, Washington repeatedly demanded more ‘boots on the ground’ and money. David Galula could have told them that this is never enough.

Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.