Friday, October 1, 2010

Will the UK sign up to European Economic Governance?

Brussels was brought to a standstill yesterday by 100,000 trade unionists from across Europe who were demonstrating against plans being drawn up by the European Commission that would penalise member state governments that fail to rein in their deficits.

Trade Unions across Europe are concerned that the fiscal conditions being placed on Member State governments by the EU will lead to more job losses and threaten economic growth.

The conditions are being drawn up to ease market fears over unsustainable public spending after the “shock and awe” €750billion plan to protect the Eurozone from collapsing during the weekend of May 7-9th.

The Commission believes that the €110bn EU bail-out of Greece earlier this year shows that without any fiscal union there is no guarantee that the whole system won’t fall apart when a shock hits the system. Olli Rehn, the Commissioner for monetary affairs has said: “We need stronger and better EU economic policy co-ordination”. In other words; more economic governance. And this spells trouble for the UK’s relations with the EU.

For now, the idea of more EU “economic governance” has not registered in the UK. It is seen as a Eurozone response to a Eurozone problem.

However, the German Chancellor is insisting that it should be a matter for all 27 Member States. This is to ensure that the French don’t get it all their own way. Germany is concerned that France will form a political bloc with the more “fiscally-relaxed” member states rather than agree to serious structural economic reforms. France is more ambitious about fiscal union but not so keen on the budgetary constraints that Germany is insisting on.

There are inevitably conflicting views on what economic governance would look like. If applies to all of the EU27 Member States, then the UK will want to see a minimalist framework – a sort of code of good fiscal conduct. However, BusinessEurope – the employer’s federation want to see co-ordination of demographic pressures on pensions, stress-testing of public finances and monitoring of labour, product, services and capital markets.

The European Central Bank has not shied away from proposing a radical agenda for European control of deficit and spending. In June this year, the ECB proposed an independent EU fiscal agency to monitor public finances; financial sanctions and the even removal of voting rights in EU institutions.

The ECB believed that Member States had not been stringent enough in applying the fiscal rules that exist. Apart from ignoring the pressures that governments were under to revive their economies following the financial crisis, the ECB solution would be an unacceptable loss of fiscal autonomy. Its response is that Greece had de facto lost fiscal autonomy after it was bailed out.

But member states are not going to give up the fiscal controls that easily. What might be more acceptable is the Commission’s less ambitious plans to synchronise preparations of national budgets. The idea is that governments would submit national economic programmes to the Commission every April. Commission experts will look at the plans and advise the Council, which in turn will issue country-specific policy guidance in July. Only then would member states finalise their budgets and present to their national parliaments.

This arrangement was agreed in September but the UK managed to get a concession and the UK government will continue to present the budget first to the House of Commons and only then would it submit the budget to the Commission and Council “for their consideration”.

The Coalition Government in the UK is looking on with some trepidation. The Conservative Prime Minister and Chancellor will be resistant to anything that smacks of undermining national fiscal autonomy. The LibDem deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary are likely to see some merit in better fiscal co-ordination. Divisions within the coalition on Europe will, at last, surface after the governments best efforts to ignore their differences.

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