Tag Archive: EU

To Grexit, or not to Grexit, that is the question

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

And so, amazingly and beyond most Europeans’ wildest imagination, it has come to the single most important Referendum since the beginning of the Eurozone, indeed since the very beginning of the European Union (EU) “project”. The Greek nation is voting in a historic referendum that will shape its future, as well as that of the 18 other nations of the Eurozone and the 28 nations on the EU.

As a Briton, I belong to one of the 9 countries that are not part to the Eurozone, but I live and am based in Germany, so I am contributing to the various bailouts. My views of the historic vote the Greeks are casting are shaped by both sets of experiences, which is valuable, since Greece may soon be one of the 9, following a probable default, probable exit from the Euro and possible exist from the EU, the so-called Grexit.

Let me start by saying that I fully understand the Greek’s anger and frustration with the current situation. Unemployment of around 25%, youth unemployment of 60%, wage reductions, pension reductions, poverty reaching unprecedented levels, pensioners desperate to get some money and all the rest of it. Whatever you may think about Germany and the Germans, you will surely be aware of the suffering of the German civilian population after two world wars, hyperinflation, devaluation, two periods of devastation in the last century. The Britons have also gone through traumas. So have the Irish, Portuguese, Spaniards and Cypriots to varying degrees at the same time as the Greeks. No one wants to see this whole sorry situation drag on endlessly.

I am tired of and increasingly frustrated with all the accusations, bickering, tantrums and all the rest that all our politicians have been guilty of since January 2015, reaching a crescendo in the last two weeks. At a historical turning point in European history, it is sad and worrying to see just how divided Europe is. This does not bode well for Greece, the other 18 countries in the Euro or the 28 nations of the EU, not mention the large number of countries that aspire to join the EU in the future. Only one country will be quietly satisfied observing that is going on: Russia.

There have been all sorts of claims and arguments from politicians and economists, many of them totally contradictory. I am just an interested observer who is contributing through my taxes to the bailouts, who may be affected by a possible Euro collapse and who will be affected by the future shape of Europe resulting from today’s referendum. I would like to highlight some issues that Greeks may or may not be considering in casting their vote, but which are probably impossible to pay adequate attention to. given the chaotic and febrile situation, as well as the compressed timescale for this critical referendum:

  1. Europe is not to blame for Greece’s woes. This is first and foremost Greece’s own responsibility.
  2. The EU is not to blame for the Greeks’ troubles. Greek governments have consistently promised more than they could deliver and its citizens have knowingly voted them in one after the other, including the current Syriza. If what politicians are offering sounds too good to be true, it probably is and in other countries, the electorate generally acts accordingly.
  3. The Euro is not the reason why Greece needs bailouts. Greek government, Greek businesses and Greeks individually have lived beyond their means for decades and then used the historically low interest rates generated by (fraudulently) joining the Eurozone to over-borrow even more than previously. But we know full well that what is borrowed must eventually be repaid – and so do they.
  4. Greece has systematically lost competitiveness through its own actions and inactions. Generation upon generation of politician has borrowed too much, created too many public sector jobs, feathered the nests of their supporters through unaffordable perks such as early retirement, failed to collect the taxes due from certain segments of society, refused to implement needed reforms and again and again paid itself too much. In the 10 years until the crisis, the Greeks awarded themselves a 100% increase in wages, not to mention anything about early retirement or other perks. The loss of Greek competitiveness is not due to the EU, the Euro, the banks, the capitalists, the oligarchs, the politicians etc. They have collectively failed to maintain or improve their own competitiveness. The last 5 years have reinforced an entrenched the pattern and austerity has made the pre-existing situtation a lot worse, which is the main criticism which is justifiable. But the last five years were not the cause.
  5. The German, French and other banks are not to blame for the Greeks´ ills. These and other banks saw the opportunity to expand their business in this and other similar countries (as have Greek banks in the whole of the Balkans region) and lent according to the regulatory principles of the Greek Central Bank, according to the contracts that the Greek government, businesses and individuals signed. All three took the money that was lent and did not concern themselves unduly about its origin, though this has become an issue when it comes to payback. The banks naturally want to be repaid the huge sums involved otherwise they go bust, meaning losses for all the individuals that save with them, businesses that bank with them, shareholders that invest in them and others. They are no different from the Greek banks operating in Greece, the Balkans and elsewhere. If the banks (including Greek ones) had not been rescued or propped up, the consequences for the Greeks and for us in the Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries would have been disastrous. The Eurozone has acted correctly in avoiding this scenario. All the talk of paying French and German banks but failing to mention all the others, including Greek banks is hypocrisy. This has happened in all countries where it had to happen, including Britain, Ireland and the United States. If push comes to shove and governments have to make a similar choice again, the same pattern will be repeated because the alternative is worse.
  6. Greece has been the whipping boy for the Eurozone, but not the only one. The fact is that the Eurozone could easily have suffered “contagion” if Greece had defaulted at the time of the first and second bailouts. Furthermore the vast majority (around 90%) of the bailout has gone to the banks rather than the people of Greece. However, this was neither premeditated nor designed to impoverish, punish or humiliate the Greek people. I have already discussed the likely consequences of allowing a Lehman-style ”letting go” of the commercial banking sector. The failsafe mechanisms were simply not in place at the time (who knows if they really are this time around). The Eurozone was doing whatever was necessary to stop a doomsday scenario in Greece and potentially the other weak countries, as well as the whole of the Eurozone area. They succeeded, but at an even greater cost to Greece. But Greece chose to remain in the EU and the Euro. It did not have to.
  7. The Eurozone is not responsible for past, present or future Greek prosperity. There is no transfer union in the EU and it is not possible to have permanent bail outs of one nation by any other nation. Therefore Greece does not have an automatic right to be bailed out by anyone and certainly not on an on-going basis. Solidarity stretches only so far and cuts both ways. The Greeks should reflect on the fact that many of the nations bailing them out are notably poorer than them. If Greece is being bailing out, it is not to create a long-term dependency culture, but to help it to help itself and to be economically sustainable as soon as possible. Greece is entirely responsible for its present and future prosperity, not others.
  8. Greece has chosen so far to remain in the EU and Euro and must live with the consequences. Greece has held two national elections at which its electorate has categorically insisted upon remaining in the EU and the Eurozone. There is a price to be paid for this decision on their part and that price is called “internal devaluation”. The way that the Greek nation can regain competitiveness and eventually stand on its own two feet, is to reduce wages and other costs to levels which are compatible with their economic performance. The other option is to leave the Euro, but this is exactly what Greeks have insisted upon avoiding so far. The decision today enables the country to choose its own path for the third time. If they choose the same path as the rest of the Eurozone countries, then they have to abide by the implications. Please, let us not have any more accusation of blackmail, terrorism, humiliation of the Greek nation and all the rest of it.
  9. No one is taking sovereignty away from the Greeks. The Eurozone does not owe Greece anything and certainly not on a permanent basis (which is actually illegal in the EU and rightly so). So far Greece has chosen to remain in the Euro and swallow the bitter pill of internal devaluation that goes with the bailouts. The bailouts involve clear conditionality and the other Eurozone governments will only provide further tranches of funds if they accept the conditions/reforms connected with the bailouts. No one can or should get money for nothing. The conditionality is designed to enable Greece to get back on its own two feet as soon as possible, including priority reforms which previous Greek governments have systematically failed to implement over decades. Most people are totally unwilling to pay for a free Greek (Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Maltese) lunch and certainly not for ever. And the same applies to these countries in reverse. Greece has a duty and responsibility, to itself as well as the Eurozone countries, to reform and regain its competitiveness as soon as possible. The conditionality is not for the benefit of the other countries, except in the sense that they and their electorates / taxpayers wish fervently not have to have to continue to bail out other countries.
  10. No one has twisted Greece’s arm and forced it to take the bailouts and accept the associated conditionality. Greece asked for the bailouts arising directly from its own actions over decades. Its politicians signed-up to the money and the conditionality. If it takes the cash but fails to deliver on the conditionality, shit happens. But as the popular saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” EU voters in other countries will not allow further bailouts that fail to deliver the promises of reform for ever. Our politicians know this and they are not suicidal. They have a responsibility towards the Greek citizen by virtue of Greece being part of the Eurozone. However, they have a much greater responsibility towards their own electorates and to fulfil their own mandates. This will always trump Greece in a democratic environment comprising 28 nation states, and rightly so.
  11. The last general election resulted in a Syriza majority despite the electorate knowing full well that its programme was both contradictory and unaffordable without continuing bailouts from the Eurozone countries, debt relief and a cancellation of numerous conditions attached with the present bailout agreement. The nightmarish last five months have been the direct consequence of the mandate that the Greek people have given Syriza to end austerity. This is pie in the sky. This will not happen for a decade, regardless of whether Syriza is able to extract all the concessions it wants and certainly regardless of whether Greece remains part of Euro/EU or not. The mandate to end austerity in Greece is pure political opportunism on the part of Syriza: it amounts to a populist policy that cannot be delivered. Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis know this full well and so does the Greek electorate.
  12. Mr Tsipras and Mr Varoufakis cannot deliver the mandate they have asked for. They have assumed that the risk arising from Greek default is so high that the Eurozone countries would agree to whatever they demanded and have acted accordingly. They have deliberately and consistently gambled over the last five months with the future of Greece, as well as that of the rest of the Eurozone (and beyond – Britain, take note). I resent this stratagem on the part of the Greek government and I feel indignant about it both on the part of the ordinary Greeks and other Eurozone citizens. Game theory is all very well when it comes to econometric modelling, but not when the future wellbeing of 19 countries is at stake. Newsflash for Mr Varoufakis: we are not a mathematical model comprising 10 million Greek voters and a further 325 million rest-of-Eurozone variables to be number crunched until your previously desired statistical outcome is eventually delivered. The sad reality is that all that the Fine Your Radicals have manage to achieve so far, other than plunging Greece into unneeded and unwanted chaos, it to manage to rename the hated “Troika” to the equally detested “Institutions.” Game theory at its best? We are real people, not some gigantic theoretical experiment. The Greeks are facing enormous stress which goes well beyond any spurious mandate that Syriza believes it has managed to extract from a deeply traumatised nation.
  13. Greece has broken the EU way of doing things and the current state of the country is the result. The only way that it is possible for 19 counties to make decisions on such issues as the future of Greece and the Euro (and possibly the EU) is through compromise. Neither Mr Varoufakis nor Mr Tsipras have proved to be willing or able to play the game according to the established rules. The game theory assumption is that when push comes to shove, the Eurozone countries will back down and agree to more or less whatever Greece wishes. Newsflash for Mr Varoufakis: this hardball strategy, which plays fast and loose with the lives of 350 million people, not just that of the Greeks, has failed. The resulting fall-out is a complete and utter lack of trust on a scale never previously witnessed in Europe (not even during Margaret Thatcher’s period as British Prime Minister) since the end of the Cold War period. It does not serve Greece’s interests. It does not serve Eurozone interests. It does not serve EU interests. And it does not serve global interests.
  14. The current chaos in Greece only serves Russian interests. The geographers out there would agree that Greece is undoubted located at a pivotal geo-political position in Europe. The USA, EU and Greece know this, and so does Russia. Mr Tsipras´ attentive and persistent courting of Russia has been deliberate and has not failed to grab our attention. Europe is at a turning point and Russia, despite the ongoing economic weaknesses due primarily to low petrochemical prices, is resurgent. This is game theory with serious global implications which go potentially beyond mere economics and finance. The obvious and explicit threat is that Greece will turn its back on Europe and fall straight into the arms of mother Russian. Good luck with that. Greece is part of the European Union and Greeks feel European. There is nothing in the mandate that the Greek that citizens have given to Syriza to justify this approach and it can only entrench feelings against Syriza in the first instance and the Greek nation thereafter.
  15. Austerity cannot and will not be stopped tomorrow or any time soon. What the Greek or any other politicians imply, say or promise count for nothing as far as austerity is concerned. Not much will change, regardless of whether Greece votes Oxi (yes) or Nai (no). The choice is between “shock therapy” by defaulting and leaving the Euro or “muddling through” with EU bailouts. Neither option is quick nor palatable, though the shock therapy route does offer the promise of regaining competitiveness faster than the “muddle through” option, since Greece would then be totally in charge of its own currency and its own monetary policy, instead of the Euro straitjacket. However, there is no guarantee that its politicians will be able to agree, implement or maintain the long-term reforms necessary to achieve greater and faster economic dynamism than the current path. Presumably this lack of confidence in their own politicians is the reason why the Greeks are bending over backwards to remain in the Euro and the EU, rather than to entrust their own leaders with their future. The chaotic last 6 months are not a good omen: who can blame them?
  16. A flip-flopping government has run out of credibility, friends and trust. The negotiating position of Greece fluctuated over time but unilaterally pulling out of negotiations at a critical time, calling a snap referendum, the decision by Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis to solicit a “no” vote, not to mention the increasingly bellicose language used, means that there is no longer any trust in the current Greek government. How Messrs Tsipras and Varoufakis can imagine that Greece’s negotiating position will be strengthened by a “no” vote is beyond me but this must obviously be the conclusion that their game theorising has led them to. The main counterparts in the whole process, not least IMF, EC and the principal contributor to the bailouts, Germany, have stated that they will not be able to work with Mr Varoufakis while remaining a vague about whether the same applies to Syriza.
  17. The EU cannot achieve regime change, only the Greek people can. The Institutions/Troika can say whatever they like (and they are, presumably because of their exasperation) but only the Greek people can decide on their own future and which party will lead them. The rest of Europe will have to like or lump it: that is the nature of democracy. But what exactly are the Greeks deciding on in this referendum? Do the people understand the convoluted question? Do they have enough time to consider the options properly? Even if the answer is “yes” twice over, is there an EU bailout on offer to vote on? The answer is “no”. The only thing that the voters are deciding on is whether they want to be part of the Euro or not. Already, with funds running low, there are chaotic and heart-rending scenes that are nothing to be proud of, either in Greece, the Eurozone or the rest of the EU. If this goes on, whatever the announcements by the Syriza government that they have stock-piled food and medicines (when did they do this and why did they do so, unless they did not expect their negotiations to succeed?), we shall all be diminished and the Greek people will indeed be desperate. Who knows what kind of chaos will break out? Has this really been factored in by Syriza? I very much doubt it. I suspect that they are just winging it.
  18. Neither option will be palatable to Greek people: it is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. A yes vote could mean easier negotiations with Syriza since they will then have another mandate (but they already have the mandate of remaining in the Eurozone) to negotiate the terms of the bailouts. This will be awkward but not impossible to roll up the sleeves and find a workable compromise this time around. We expect no less from our politicians. But a resignation by Syriza is the more likely outcome based on their intransigent approach in the last five months. There would be another general election, with the possibility of an even more radical government coming to power and the crisis being drawn-out even longer. Or it could mean a “traditional” government that will agree debt relief, combined with an acceptable bailout programme and conditionality. Either way, the Greeks cannot expect higher minimum wages, pensions, etc. than exist in the various countries that are contributing to keeping their economy afloat but do not enjoy the same level of benefits. This is not feasible and will not be agreed to. Living within their means has to be the way forward, even with the significant debt relief combined with serious investment for growth and development that I sincerely hope will be hammered out next time round.
  19. The present is bleak, but the future could be worse. No European, indeed no human being, can look upon the scenes in Greece with aloofness. My parents are pensioners and I would not wish this sort of thing upon them or any other person. However, should the Greeks choose the “no” path, followed by default and introduction of a new Drachma, they will have delivered themselves into an unpredictable roller-coaster ride which will test the nation well beyond the limits of anything they have endured so far. There is plenty of not-so-distant experience of “shock therapy” in most of Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia. Whatever the alluring promises on the part of duplicitous politicians or contradictory prize-winning economists, the bloody reality will result in economic and human carnage in the short-term. This will, hopefully, quickly be followed by much more rapid recovery and prosperity than possible under the current “muddling through” option within the Euro. But don’t bet on it: economic theory and reality are usually out of sync, as the last five years should have once gain proved.
  20. A last word on the matter. Good luck to the Greeks today. I would not like to be in their shoes and I can only hope that they will make the right decision for Greece, as well as for the rest of us.

 

 


The Queen of the Referendum: Elizabeth II in Germany

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

Queen Elizabeth II has just completed a four-day state visit to Germany, included a visit to the Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war and concentration camps (where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary and died shortly before liberation), met the President Joachim Gauk and the Chancellor Angela Merkel, and visited Berlin and Frankfurt. The German people went bananas about the state visit – it was almost as if Germany had become the 54th member of the Commonwealth!

The Royal Family is very popular among ordinary Germans despite the recent history of two World Wars. Royal marriages, divorces and births are followed closely and there is an obvious affection for the Queen. The pomp and ceremony, including the flag waving, are just not part of the culture in modern Germany, though it is noticeable that they have become a lot more at ease about waving the German flag since the football World Cup was staged in Germany in 2006. Partly because the Germans are much more buttoned-up about the whole concept of patriotism, the Royal visit was an occasion to dress up, go mad and just enjoy the state visit. English flags were still a lot more visible than German ones.

Queen Elizabeth in Germany 2015

Picture: John MacDougall/Pool Photo via Associated Press

Of course, there are strong connections between the British Royal Family and Germany, going back quite some time. But even in terms of the present, few realise that Prince Philip is a member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and that he was partly educated in Germany. But at the end of the day what matters is quite simply that Germans admire the Queen’s charm and sheer will-power; it is a rare sight for an 89 going 90 year-old to perform her role so competently. A rapidly ageing nation such as Germany certainly knows how to appreciate this.

The royal couple’s first visit to Germany was actually back in 1965. It was an important state occasion, involving a marathon 11 cities and it is a generally acknowledged that it helped heal the wounds of World War II. As in the case of the first visit, the fifth and quite possibly last one, also drew large, enthusiastic crowds and generated significant media coverage.

Rex

Rex

Picture: Rex

Neither Mr David Cameron nor Mrs Angela Merkel would have had one-tenth of the pulling power of the Queen, let alone one-hundredth of her influence in terms of building positive international relations between the people of Germany and the UK citizens. And, let us face it, after the on-going centrifugal forces generated by a possible Grexit, not to mention a possible Brexit, as well as the austerity drive which, rightly or wrongly, is associated with the EU and Germany, Europe can certainly do with a lot more of this sort of thing – it is a precious glue binding two nations together.

However, what has been the most significant aspect of the official state visit is actually the speech she gave, which is not normally reported (other than the Opening of Parliament Speech). The Queen’s speech was widely discussed and reported in the British media. What she said was:

“The United Kingdom has always been closely involved in its continent… Even when our main focus was elsewhere in the world, our people played a key part in Europe.”

Blink and you would have missed what all the fuss is about, not least because the crucial word uttered only contained three letters, namely the reference to the UK and “its” continent. The Queen could easily have chosen the word which would normally have been used in the sentence, namely “the” rather than “its”, but for whatever reason chose to do otherwise.

It is very easy, indeed dangerous, to over- or mis-interpret the supposed meaning of a single word. Nevertheless, given the febrile discussions in the UK about the forthcoming referendum on whether to remain or exit the EU, the Queen’s speech is being widely regarded as an indication that the Queen favours continuing UK membership of the EU.

But the greater controversy concerned the speech delivered in Berlin on Wednesday, where she warned of the “dangers” of division in Europe and the need to “guard against it”. What she said was:

“We have witnessed how quickly things can change for the better. But we know that we must work hard to maintain the benefits of the postwar world… We know that division in Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the west as well as in the east of our continent.”

This part of the speech, which could be read at different levels, is what has caused consternation among Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party as well as UKIP. The main reason is that it could be interpreted as being for the EU status quo and such speeches are normally done in conjunction with government officials. In other words, the suggestion is that the Queen is uttering that which Mr Cameron shirks saying himself.

Despite the protestations emanating from Buckingham Palace and Downing Street that the Queen was not setting out a position in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, the speech resonates. The sentences chosen by the Queen made it clear that Britain is part of the European continent, that it is not a matter of “us and them”, as some would wish to portray things and that Europe (EU?) should remain united (though the Greeks appear to be doing their best to do the opposite).

The Queen is supposed to be above politics but this is clearly nonsense. After all, she opens parliament. She appoints the Prime Minister and meets with him or her on a weekly basis. Not only does the Queen have a mostly ceremonial role in the Parliament of the whole of the UK, she also has formal responsibilities within the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is therefore naive to maintain that she is a neutral observer and that and the Royal Family is above politics.

Yet this is precisely what Buckingham Palace maintains and the average Brit is happy to believe, despite the recent “Black Spider” memo letters written by Charles, Prince of Wales, to the British government ministers and politicians over the years. Despite the British monarchy being supposedly politically neutral, the letters sent by Charles may be interpreted as an attempt to exert influence over British government ministers on a wide-ranging set of issues including farming, genetic modification, global warming, social deprivation, planning and architecture. If this is the case with Charles’ private letters, surely the Queen is able to influence politics, not to mention her subjects.

If she is really trying to influence British voters to vote in favour of remaining in the EU in the forthcoming referendum on the matter, I would agree fully with her instincts. But the fact remains that she would not be politically neutral and neither should Bucking Palace, Downing Street nor anyone else pretend otherwise.

Besides, this would not be the first time that the Queen has waded into referendums and possibly influenced their outcome. The most recent example of this was in September 2014. Shortly before the voting day on the Scottish referendum, the English Establishment, not least Downing Street, was panicked by the exit polls suggesting that there would be a majority in favour of Scotland becoming independent, into using every means possible to sway the vote in favour of Union.

By all accounts, the Queen was encouraged by Downing Street to speak out on the issue. Her views on the matter had been made clear in her silver jubilee address to a joint session of parliament in 1977, when she said:

“I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.”

In the end, the plea issued by Buckingham Palace, with perfect timing, was to urge voters in Scotland to “think very carefully” about the referendum in an apparently spontaneous response to someone in the crowd. Needless-to-say, this too was widely reported by the media shortly before the vote.

Like the words “its continent,” dangers of “division in Europe” and the need to “guard against it”, small things can make a significant difference in a country where her subjects revere the Queen. It is widely assumed that the urge to “think very carefully” was sufficient to influence swing voters during the Scottish referendum, resulting in a last-minute surge in favour of retaining the Union. That said, it is far from clear that the outcome of that particular referendum in favour of of retaining the Union will be the last word on the matter, as far as the Scottish National Party and the Scottish people are concerned.

When it comes to the most profound issues facing the UK and its future, I believe that the Queen is not quite as politically impartial and Buckingham Palace would suggest. I suspect that Elizabeth II may well turn out to be, among other things, the Queen of the Referendum.


Housing Markets in Britain and Germany: Similarities and Contrasts

© Ricardo Pinto, 2015, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

Housing as a basic necessity

Someone asked the other day: “If you had to choose one issue that fundamentally differentiates Germany from Britain, what would it be?” This is a tough question to answer since the response depends directly on what the individual considers to be important and we all prioritise things differently.

For me, the single most important thing, regardless of country and its level of development, is the extent to which our essential human needs are fulfilled or not. The definitions vary but the three immediate “basic needs” have traditionally been food (and water), clothing and shelter, followed by sanitation, education and healthcare. In the sense of fulfilling our basic needs, the key difference between Britain and Germany for me personally, is the issue of shelter or housing. The economic, social and cultural right to adequate housing and shelter is recognised in many national constitutions, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. But this right is not simply about having a roof over one´s head, it is also a matter of whether it is affordable to households with different levels of income, as well as whether people are able to enjoy security of tenure (without fear of unreasonable eviction, rent hikes, etc.), which is fundamental to our quality of life.

To my mind, Germany broadly fulfils the right to housing, as well as affordability and security of tenure. But it is far from clear that Britain does; indeed according to some indicators, the housing market may even be moving backwards.

I have previously written a blog post comparing housing in Britain and Germany and another that argued that none of the main political parties in Britain are prioritising housing policy. The post comparing the UK/German housing systems concluded where I want to pick up in this post:

“… the AngloDeutsch™ Blog will compare and contrast the housing system in Britain and Germany. There is significant potential for policy-makers in both countries to learn from each other, despite the clear specificities and uniqueness. I plan to focus on key themes such as: the differences in the housing structure in the two housing systems; the variation in the house price trends and the reasons for it; the differences in the housing finance system; the reasons why one housing system has consistently delivered high quality, affordable homes, whereas the other has consistently failed to do so over several decades.”

This blog post sets the broad nature of the housing systems in Britain and Germany, with reference to the European Union (EU) context. The analysis below covers the issue of tenure, dwelling type, size and quality, dwelling construction (supply), adult population (demand), price and affordability. It demonstrates that the housing systems in Britain and Germany are fundamentally different in some ways, yet remarkably similar in others.

Housing Tenure: owner occupation, social renting and private renting

Housing tenure basically refers to the legal rights of different forms of housing ownership and occupancy. The first distinction to note is owning and renting; whereas the owner buys a property (new or existing), the renter makes a regular payment to the owner for the right to live in a property. If the rent is paid to a private individual / institution, this is private renting. If the rent is paid to a local authority, housing association or cooperative, it is known as social renting.

Table 1 illustrates the tenure differences between Britain and Germany.

Table 1: Tenure in Britain and Germany, 2013 (%)

Tenure Type UK (2007) Germany (2001)
Owner Occupation 70 41
Social Renting 18 6
Private Renting 13 49
Other 0 5

Sources: International trends in housing tenure mortgage finance (2014); Housing Tenure (2009)

The key difference is that whereas Britain is primarily a nation of homeowners (70%), Germany is a nation of renters (55%) and has one of the lowest proportions of owner occupiers in Europe. These rather dated statistics reflect the fact that housing tenure is not collected on a like-for-like basis across countries. A notable feature of the British housing system is the recent decline of owner occupation in favour of private renting. To counteract this issue and to include the EU dimension, I Table 2 presents Eurostat data with a focus on population by tenure status.

Table 2: Population by tenure status, 2013 (%)

Tenure Type UK Germany EU-28
Tenant 35,4 47,4 30,0
Tenant — reduced price or free 18,1 8,5 11,0
Owner 64,6 52,6 70,0
Owner occupied, with mortgage or loan 37,4 27,6 27,3
Owner occupied, no outstanding mortgage or loan 25,0 27,3 42,7

Source: Eurostat Housing Statistics SILC, (online data code: ilc_lvho02)

On this basis, by 2013 Germany had also become a nation of owner occupiers (52,6%) but renting remained equally important (47,4%) in terms of population. The respective figures in the UK are 64.6% and 35.4%, highlighting the fact that the level of private renting has experienced a revival in recent years, partly as a result of government policy. In the EU-28 countries, the situation is much closer to Britain than to Germany (70% and 30% respectively). .

Housing type: flats, detached and semi-detached dwellings

Major tenure differences exist in Britain and Germany but the variance is even more pronounced when it comes to type of dwelling that people actually live in. Britain is very much a nation of house dwellers, with 84,8% living in detached or semi-detached homes. By contrast, Germany is even more a nation of flat/apartment dwellers (53,2%) than in the EU-28 (41,6%) as a whole. Britons obviously love their houses and gardens but I am not sure if the rest of the EU loves flats, even if a large proportion of the population in Europe certainly lives in one.

Table 3: Distribution of population by dwelling type, 2012 (% of population)

Dwelling Type Britain Germany EU-28
Flat 14,5 53,2 41,6
Detached house 23,9 28,6 34,0
Semi-detached house 60,9 16,7 23,7
Other 0,7 1,5 0,7

Source: Eurostat Housing Statistics YB2014 II (online data code: ilc_lvho01)

Housing Quality

An important aspect of quality of life is not only having a roof over one´s head, but the quality of the housing conditions that people live in. The overcrowding rate (% of people living in an overcrowded dwelling) in the EU-28 was a remarkably high 17.2% in 2012. The figure was much lower in UK (7%) and Germany (6,6%) according to the Housing Statistics Year Book (2014). The situation in the two countries is remarkably similar but 6-7% of people living in overcrowded dwellings is still a relatively high figure.

The severe housing deprivation rate is defined as the proportion of persons living in a dwelling which is considered as being overcrowded, while having at the same time at least one of the following housing deprivation measures: lack of a bath or a toilet, a leaking roof in the dwelling or a dwelling considered as being too dark. Across the EU-28 as a whole, 5.1 % of the population experienced severe housing deprivation in 2012. The equivalent percentage was much lower in the UK (2%) and Germany (1,9%).

Within the population at risk of poverty (households with a disposable income per person below 60% of the national median), the overcrowding rate was 29.4% in the EU-28, but the figure was much lower in the UK (13,6%) and Germany (17,6%). Poverty and poor housing conditions go together to large extent.

Dwelling Size

When it comes to dwelling size, unfortunately the UK data are not comparable with other countries. The average dwelling is almost 107 m² in size in Germany, compared with 102 m² in the EU-28.

Table 4: Size of the dwelling by tenure status, 2012 (m²)

Dwelling Type Britain Germany EU-28
Total – unreliable data 106.8 102.3
Owner
– with mortgage or loan – unreliable data 128.9 105.2
– without mortgage or loan – unreliable data 135.1 124.5
Renter
– market price – unreliable data 76.8 78.6
– reduced rent or free – unreliable data 82.4 80.7

Source: Eurostat ad-hoc module ‘Housing Conditions’ (HC020)

Space standards are significantly more generous in dwellings that are owned than those that are rented in both Germany and the EU. The private rented sector has the lowers dwelling size of all.

Broadly the same trends are likely to apply in the UK. For example, the English Housing Survey Housing stock report found that. “The average useable floor area of dwellings in England was 91 m². However some 52% of social sector bungalows, 50% of social sector flats and 35% of private rented flats had a total floor area of less than 50 m²” (2008, p.8). The indications are not only that the average dwelling size is smaller in the UK than in Germany and the EU-28. There is evidence that the average new average new home in the UK is actually getting smaller over time (76 m²). Elsewhere, the average size of new homes is increasing.

Housing Supply

House developments are influenced by many factors but a strong relationship exists between house prices and other indicators of demand and supply. Specifically in terms of supply, housing construction (i.e. building permits issued and housing units completed) is related to house price developments. If supply is out of kilter with demand, it may not matter too much in the short-term, but over a period of decades it can lead to acute housing stress and eventually crisis. The trend in terms of supply of housing in Britain and Germany is illustrated below.

Graph 1: Housing Completions in Britain and Germany (2002-2013)

Graph 1 Housing Completions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Hypostat 2014, Table 12, Housing Completions, author additions

Graph 1 illustrates that Germany has outperformed Britain in terms of new supply of housing during the last decade or so. As demand for housing increased post-2008, there is evidence of supply responding accordingly. The German government forecasts 270,000 residential completions in 2015, the highest number of completions in over a decade, and argues that construction has reached the amount needed to keep up with future demand. By contrast, in Britain a country which is acknowledged by all and sundry to be in the depths of a full-blown housing crisis, supply has flat-lined around 140,000 completions per annum and government forecasts 135,000 completions in 2015. This suggests that housing supply is significantly more responsive in Germany than in Britain, despite not actually experiencing a housing crisis. The reasons for this critical difference will be explored in future blog posts.

Total Dwelling Stock and Adult Population: demand

Another way to examine the situation is to examine the changes in adult population (over 18 years of age) and the extent to which the total dwelling stock is keeping up with the changing demand. During the period 2002-2013, the adult population in Germany increased by 1.8 million. During the same period, the dwelling stock increased by over 2 million units. By contrast, whereas the adult population in Britain increased by 4.4 million, the dwelling stock only increased by 2.1 million units (see Hypostat 2014, 26 Population 18 years of age and over). I shall explore other indicators of demand in future posts to illustrate the point that supply is lagging behind demand and has done so for decades in Britain.

House Prices

The OECD’s real house price index for the period 1970 (2nd quarter) to 2013 (4th quarter) reveals fascinating trends, as illustrated in the graph below.

Graph 2: Real House Prices in Britain, Germany and Euro Countries (1970-2013)

Graph 2 Real House Prices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: OECD Real house prices database (seasonally adjusted, index based in 2010)

What the real House Price Index shows is that British house prices have historically been significantly lower than the German ones. But whereas the prices declined gradually from 1994 onwards in Germany, the UK experienced rapid price increases (with some volatility, especially during 1989-1992) until the end of 2007, when the global economic and financial crises hit. Thereafter, German house prices flat-lined for a while, but increased rapidly from 2010 – 2013, a trends that continues today. By contrast the UK prices experienced a steep decline in 2008, followed by a gradual increase from the end of 2013 onwards, a trend which has more or less continued to today.

Rising since the 1970s, the UK house prices eventually surpassed those of Germany for a five-year period (2005 and 2010) but a gap is evident once more. For Germany, the real house price index remained more or less the same in 1970 as in 2013, suggesting a fairly stable housing market.

The trends in house prices in the two countries are ultimately a reflection of demand and supply issues. Since supply is highly restricted in the UK for various reasons to be discussed in a future blog post, the trend of house price increases is almost certain to continue, especially in London and the South East region.  It is only a matter of time until the UK house price index outstrips that of Germany once again.

Housing Affordability

Housing affordability is a fundamental issue. Countries have broadly the same definition for this, namely that affordable housing should address the housing needs of the lower or middle-income households. The level of disposable household income is a key factor in determining affordability and it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to create the framework conditions for the delivery of affordable housing.

Eurostat defines the proportion of the population living in households that spent more than 40% of their disposable income on housing as the housing cost overburden rate. Table 5 illustrates the situation in German, UK and EU-28 countries.

Table 5: Housing Cost Overburden Rate, 2011 (% of population)

Dwelling Type Britain Germany EU-28
Owner
– with mortgage or loan 8.8 13.6 8.6
– without mortgage or loan 9.1 10.5 6.2
Renter
– market price 45 21.4 26.8
– reduced rent or free 23.9 16.5 13.3

Source: Eurostat Housing cost overburden rate (ilc_lvho07a). Data from 2011 used because there was a break in the UK time series in 2012.

As a general rule, a significantly higher proportion of the population in the rented sector experience affordability problems than in the owner sector. Furthermore, the problem is particularly important in the private renting sector (market rents) and is especially acute in Britain, where 40% of the population in the private renting sector experiences a housing cost overburden. Overall, although the housing cost overburden rate is higher in Britain than in the EU-28 countries, the rate is higher still in Germany in the two owner categories. However, the housing cost overburden rate in the private and public rented categories are significantly higher in Britain than elsewhere.

The housing cost overburden rate also varies between different groups of society. Generally, women are more vulnerable to housing cost overburden than men and, in some countries, the elderly tend to experience it more than the younger age groups. But the housing cost overburden rate says nothing about the extent to which people can afford to get a foot on the property ladder or rent privately. If people cannot do so, they have little alternative but to live with parents, friends, etc. in order to meet their housing needs.

Two Markets: different realities

Based on the analysis above, the tenure pattern in Britain and Germany is very different in some ways: there are many more owner occupiers, people living in houses rather than flats, the dwellings are smaller and getting smaller over time and there is noticeably less responsiveness in the supply of housing in the UK than in Germany.

On the other hand, the two housing markets converge in other respects:  general overcrowding rate, overcrowding rate within the population at risk of poverty, severe housing deprivation rate, etc. are remarkably similar.

Other indicators are mixed:  house prices suggest a fairly stable German housing market but a somewhat volatile British housing market which is likely to exceed the German prices. The owner sector seems to exhibit more housing affordability issues in Germany, yet affordability concerns are much more acute in the British rented sector, especially in the case of private renting.

The temptation may be to conclude that the differences in the two countries are not that great: wrong and double wrong! We all know the quotation: “There three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. Statistics are one thing but the housing reality is quite another. In the course of the next few blog posts, I intend to elucidate my starting point, namely that if I had to choose one thing that fundamentally differentiates Germany from Britain, it would be its housing system.


Predicting the British General Election Result and the next few years

A humorous but apt Danish proverb is that “Prediction is difficult, especially when dealing with the future.” As the politicians finally stop pushing the merits of their policies and the British voters reflect on which way to cast their vote on 07 May 2015 general election, I will hazard some predictions about the likely general election result, as well as the political priorities that are likely to be pursued in the next few years in Britain. Most if not all of the predictions will probably come back to haunt me, but here goes nothing…

And the winner is…

My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority, rather than a hung parliament. The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives:

  • Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there. The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.
  • The British public, including many traditional Labour voters, remain extremely sceptical about the final Blair / Brown years, which they blame a lot of the issues confronting society, not least being drawn into recent wars, immigration trends and the state of the economy. Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England.
  • Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders. In this respect, I cannot help but experience a sense of déjà vu in respect to the Michael Foot / Neil Kinnock era which bodes ill for the Labour Party.

The Conservatives will profit from the above and will form the next government. This is particularly the case because the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence combined with persistent gaffes by its candidates that undermine the message that it is neither anti-immigration nor racist. Despite it all, UKIP retains strong support in parts of England.

My other two predictions concern the issue of austerity and its implications on British society, as well as the future of Britain in the European Union.

EU Referendum: plus ça change…

Regarding the in-out EU referendum scheduled for 2017, the Conservative Party will finally have to break cover and clarify whether it belongs to the yes or no camp. If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.

Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.  The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP. The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto. Unlike the present time where few speak up, others, such as art, culture and sport personalities will do likewise as a means of counteracting what will remain, in the main, a strongly anti-EU media.

Should a coalition Government arise, the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country. The other possible coalition partner to the Conservatives, despite protestations to the contrary, is UKIP. If the latter coalition government were to emerge, the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017. A combination of the Conservatives and UKIP running to leave the EU would be a disaster for Britain (as well as the remaining EU countries already battered by the travails of Greece and holding the Eurozone together), which would be very hard to counteract, especially with the majority of the British media supporting their position. Britain would come to regret the likely outcome in the medium to long-term.

Under any scenario involving a referendum, the EU will have to show flexibility and do whatever it takes in to facilitate the UK remaining in the EU. As I have previously argued, there will not be fundamental EU treaty amendments for the sake of keeping Britain in the EU boat, such as a reform of the freedom of movement or the other three fundamental freedoms of movement, namely of capital, services (which is extremely underdeveloped) and goods. However, the EC and the EU will be more flexible in areas such as benefit entitlement in the EU area, which in any case is almost entirely determined by nation states, rather than EU directives and regulations.

If the referendum were to be held today, I believe the outcome would be an outright rejection  of the EU. The great majority of British media is extremely anti-EU and anti-immigration and would contribute to a no vote. However, there could be up to two years for business, society and voters to reflect on the not insignificant advantages of being part of the EU, as well as the potential consequences of Britain going it alone in an increasingly globalised world. A re-orientation towards the old and new Commonwealth and North America is no longer adequate to guarantee current, let alone future prosperity. An emphasis on trade at the exclusion of everything else that the EU brings simply does not cut the mustard in the modern era, where problems such as environmental issues and tax agreements require regional or global responses, rather than national ones. Turning our back on 27 other next door neighbours around us in Europe is simply not sustainable in an economic, social, political or any other sense.

I retain great faith in the capacity of the British public to eventually do the right thing. The following Winston Churchill quotation springs readily to mind: “The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” Substitute “Brits” for “Americans” and you get the gist of what I mean. The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Austerity ad nauseam

The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society. There will be a repeat of the pattern set in the previous Parliament, namely a dramatic public expenditure squeeze in the first two years, followed by a gradual let-up as the term of office peters out and politicians look to be re-elected.

The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.

There will continue to be a lot of talk about benefit scroungers (British and EU) to justify the cuts which will fall disproportionately on the working poor and non-working segments of British society. The austerity agenda continues to offer handy political cover for a significant reduction in the size of the state and the social and welfare infrastructure, including local government. This is set to continue, spreading more deeply to areas such as police, judiciary, military, etc. since the other options have been largely exhausted. The alternative would be to put the squeeze (e.g. means testing benefits of various sorts, higher taxes, etc.) on the middle classes, the retired and the wealthy; this will not happen if the Conservatives hope to be re-elected thereafter.

In the meantime, some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration. These are simply not great priorities for the Conservatives. Their traditional supporters are capable of by-passing any current or future shortcomings in state provision and directly accessing the highest quality services that money can provide, though the phenomenon of the “squeezed middle” will ensure that political capital and financial resources will still be devoted to these fundamental themes.

Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire. After all, if housing is unaffordable and private renting is insecure, the normal response in a modern wealthy country would be to stimulate significant additional supply and/or ensure that appropriate protections are enacted. This will not happen. If there are not enough school places or hospital beds, then public investment should deliver greater supply while still maintaining standards. This is highly unlikely to happen either. Yet it is Westminster that is responsible for recognising, responding to and securing these changes over the medium term, not individual citizens looking to access these services, regardless of their nationality, race or creed.

We shall know the result of the general election soon enough. I sincerely hope that most of the above predictions prove to be wrong, in which case I will gladly eat my hat.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Europe is a litmus test: Britain and a possible EU Referendum

As expected, a key battleground of the British General Election due on 07 May 2015 concerns whether Britain should remain in or out of European Union (EU). The position of the main political parties is now clear namely that Labour, the LibDems and the SNP are all fighting the election on the basis that they wish to remain in the EU, whereas the Conservatives are fighting on the basis that if re-elected, they wish to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in or leave the EU. The Ukip party´s position is to leave the EU as soon as possible, preferably before 2017.  The manifesto positions are summarised here.

I have written about this the possible Referendum in 2017 before (British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?), namely that it does not actually rank highly in the the average British voter´s list of priorities.  When the Ipsos MORI poll of January 2015 asked British voters about their top concerns, four issues predominated: healthcare (almost half of voters), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (one-quarter) and education/schools (one-fifth). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is very low in the UK. Indeed, less than 10% of potential voters consider it to be of importance in their list of priorities. The same post also examined the full list of British voter priorities and concluded that they had very little to do with the EU, since they the vast majority of them, with the exception of EU immigration are largely or entirely the responsibility of the British government. In other words, voting for the Conservatives in order to have a referendum resulting in leaving the EU would change precious little in relation to the state of the NHS, the economy, the education system, the housing system and much else besides. The responsibly for these rests squarely with the British government, not with the EU.

There is, in my view, little or no point to quote research and studies regarding the economic and other consequences of leaving the EU. The fact is that both sides of the debate use the assumptions that best suit the conclusions that they they wish to arrive at. Ultimately, each voter will have to weigh up the pros and cons of staying and leaving the EU. The British voter had to do so in 1975 and chose to join the EU. I shall trust them to arrive at an appropriate conclusion in 2017, should the Conservatives regain power after the General Election.

I would note, however, that the Ukip has been simplifying the pros and cons of leaving the EU and, as I have previously discussed, have made strenuous efforts to conflate the issue of migration, use of the NHS, etc. with the EU which also underplaying the consequences of leaving the EU as soon as possible. By contrast the Conservatives have understood perfectly the consequences of leaving the EU but have simply pandered to their Eurosceptical wing while at the same time seeking to stop the hemorrhage of support in their traditional voters which have, until recent months, been increasingly warming to the dubious charms of the Ukip party.

The Labour party, unlike the LibDems and the SNP, initially gave the impression of sitting on the fence on this issue but have ultimately decided to stay in the EU, while reforming the EU budget and ensuring EU migration does not lead to workers’ wages being undercut.

On 07 April 2015, a leading British political figure waded into the debate and, for a change, it was not to denounce the EU, EU immigration, benefit scroungers and all the rest of the anti-EU rhetoric that has become common place in recent British politics. The person in question has this to say about the possible EU referendum, should the Conservatives be returned to power following the General Election:

“For me Europe is an important litmus test. I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation. It would be a momentous decision….

A decision to exit Europe would say a lot about us [United Kingdom] and none of it good: that an adventurous country has become a timid one; that one with global ambitions has opted to be a parochial bystander; that a country known for its openness to the world shuts the open door nearest to it; that a nation which has built its history on confidence towards others defines itself by resentment to others; that, with all the challenges of the world crowding in upon us, demanding strong and clear leadership, instead of saying ‘here’s where the world should go’, we say ‘count us out’. “

At last, a notable politician has the courage to stand up and be counted in relation to the importance of the EU to the UK and vice versa. The speech by this politician has been prominently reported but alas has also been widely dismissed for the simple reason that it was said by none other than Mr Tony Blair (Europe – a very good reason to vote Labour, 07 April 2015).

This is a terrible pity. Tony Blair has gone from being the darling of the left and the person that brought about Cool Britannia to achieving political pariah status in the years since he resigned in favour of Gordon Brown. The main reason for this is that he was he was blown off course by 9/11 and committed British troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Of course, many seem to find his ability to amass a personal fortune since leaving public office galling, though it is entirely his right to do so and simply mirrors what other ex-Prime Ministers have done.

Personally, I believe that because of the so-called special relationship with the USA, almost any other British Prime Minister would have made the very same decisions that he did at the time and that, just like Margaret Thatcher before him, not only has he defined British politics since 1997 but his legacy continues to do so today.

I admire his capacity to communicate and I respect his political courage for making this speech on the UK and Europe.

 Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Moral Hazard and the Future of the Eurozone

The blame game

I greatly sympathise with the argument that Greece and its citizens have been through the meat grinder, otherwise known as austerity, in the last six years. But this is categorically not because of the EU, the euro, the Troika or Germany. It is down to Greece and the Greeks. Ask the Britons about their own version of austerity, which is nowhere near its end stage with a further GBP 50 bln of cuts in public expenditure scheduled in the next five years. Britain is in the EU but not in the euro, however, there are similarities in the causes that have led to the austerity that both countries are facing for the foreseeable future. The difference is that Britain retains control over its currency and interest rates and is able to manipulate both, while still needing to undergo a painful process of austerity. Despite the most serious economic and social stresses and strains since WWII, the political parties are consistent about the journey in the next five-year term of office.

Contradictions galore

The Greeks chose to join the EU and the euro. In their last two general elections, they have chosen to remain in both. They must either live with the consequences or leave one or both. If Greece chooses to stay in the euro, the only option is to submit to the process of internal devaluation so as to regain competitiveness. Greece can choose to leave the euro but it knows full well that it will still have to submit to a different and rather more unpredictable form of pain that would follow as surely as night follows day. What Greece cannot do is to continue to want to have it both ways, namely to blame everyone else, row back completely from its obligations and totally unshackle itself from any conditionality connected with on-going eurozone support.

I have already written two other posts about the future of the eurozone, centred on Greece and the current phase of uncertainty about the future of Europe:

  • The first focuses on Syriza and its commitments, which are contradictory and impossible to achieve given Greece’s current financial circumstances. It has also chosen a completely unsuitable coalition partner, when it had various more reasonable options. This is a serious miscalculation by its Fine Young Radical leadership.
  • The second focuses on the demands of the Greek leadership, which amounts to the world’s biggest game of chicken. The Greeks are assuming that the rest of the eurozone will blink first and simply cave-in to its demands so as to keep Greece in the euro, avoid contagion in the eurozone and possibly save the EU project as a whole. The new Greece wants to have its euro cake and eat it at the same time, but at the expense of all the other eurozone countries that have been standing by it through various rescue schemes. This approach is inconsistent with the principle that rescue packages must be time-limited, clearly earmarked and subject to conditionality otherwise, they become permanent transfers, which are illegal under both EU and national constitutional law.

Moral hazard and financial crises

This post focuses on the third reason why the Greek will, in the end, be unable to bounce the other eurozone countries into agreeing to its demands, leading ultimately to an abandonment of its major electoral platform. That reason is “moral hazard”, a pervasive and inevitable feature of the financial system and of the economy. Moral hazard arises when a contract or financial arrangement creates incentives for the party(ies) involved to behave against the interest of others.

Many of these moral hazards involve increased risk-taking: if I can take risks that you have to bear, then I may as well take them; but if I have to bear the consequences of my own risky actions, I will act more responsibly. Thus, inadequate control of moral hazards often leads to socially excessive risk-taking—and excessive risk-taking is certainly a recurring theme in the current financial crisis.

Turning back to the latest eurozone crisis, it is not so hard to see where the moral hazard arises from the Greek stance.

Greece, as well as the other countries bailed out by the eurozone countries, namely Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus, have benefited tremendously from being members of the EU in the first instance, as well as the ultra-low interest rates and other advantages of being part of the euro. All experienced sustained growth which delivered much higher levels of income and prosperity. The cause of the problems they commonly face was almost entirely self-imposed: they borrowed too much, paid themselves too much, relied on the construction sector too much and deregulated too much, all of which fuelled their economic growth until the bubble burst.  They can blame the banks and the fatcat banksters, they can blame the government, they can blame the establishment and clientelist elites, they can blame the EU, they can blame the euro, they can blame the troika, they can blame the Germans and they can blame the immigrants… and they certainly do. But facts are facts. Citizens borrowed too much, spent too much, focused too little on productivity, competitiveness and innovation, and kept voting-in politicians for more of the same. They did this for generations prior to even joining the EU and the advent of the euro, then accelerated the process until the music inevitably stopped.

To blame the EU and the eurozone countries for their plight, as Greece is currently, amounts to wilful collective amnesia. The Greeks want to stay in the EU and euro. They have taken on obligations connected with the various euro rescue packages which they now wish to roll back. There is no doubt that there has been and continues to be massive suffering and not just in Greece. I am all for finding solutions that generate economic development that allows Greece and others to turn the corner as soon as possible. I am all for productive, long-term investment. Greece desperately needs this, as does the rest of Europe.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

But I am not for debt forgiveness combined with rolling back all the commitments that the new Greek leadership insists upon. The reason is that it would amount to a permanent transfer union from all other eurozone countries to Greece, something which is not only forbidden but also increases moral hazard. If the other eurozone countries are expected to assume the resulting risk, then it cannot work. If I were Greek, I would be thrilled to reduce my own burdens while at the same time increasing my pension, my wages, my social benefits and all the rest of it, knowing that someone else will foot the bill. I would certainly agree with the thinking: “Let the strong eurozone countries carry the burden. They can afford it. I have suffered enough.”

This is at the one and same time totally logical and yet totally unconscionable, but it is precisely what would happen. Once the Greeks are granted their 50% debt relief and released from the conditionality of the eurozone rescue packages why should the country reform itself as the new Greek leadership promises? More importantly, why should the rot stop there? It is quite clear that the Podemos movement in Spain is carefully watching developments and others also look on with great interest. Once the principle of debt relief and release from conditionality is established, what is likely to happen at the next general election in those countries? If other anti-austerity parties are elected, would they not reasonably expect similar treatment from the eurozone countries?

It might be possible to absorb the resulting losses and implied on-going costs in the case of Greece, but the euro game would be up soon after. No one could afford it. This applies to Germany as much as to any other eurozone country that has been backstopping the various eurozone rescue packages.

I am resident of Germany and a taxpayer there and I can assure you that I do not fancy this scenario at all. You can take it for granted that my neighbours, no matter how Europhile they may be, care for it even less. While they may go on holiday to other countries of the EU, they have not lived and worked elsewhere and therefore do not have the friendships and family networks that I do and even I am dubious about this future. Germans are financially conservative not by nature but as a direct result of horrific experiences with financial and other catastrophes within living memory. Its ageing population structure simply reinforces this tendency. If moral hazard takes hold in the eurozone, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Germany might experience a rapid and pronounced disenchantment with the EU and the euro. Were this to occur, it would be an unmitigated disaster for Europe.

I believe the new Greek government will fail with most of its contradictory anti-austerity drive. Its programme is completely unrealistic (except for their insistence that austerity must be counteracted with a pro-growth, productive investment programme), EU and national constitutional law forbid a transfer union and the obvious moral hazard connected with all other eurozone countries mean that this simply cannot be accepted.

The current Greek position would directly increase moral hazard in the EU to an unprecedented degree. If other countries were to follow suit, moral hazard will reach hitherto unimaginable levels. If I take a risk, I should bear the consequences. But if I take a risk at someone else’s expense, then it becomes moral hazard and I would consider this new EU and eurozone, where I would have to pay on an on-going basis for other countries’ decisions, to be little short of an economic nightmare. I would be in hock to third parties for the rest of my life, as would my children and my grandchildren.

I would remind the Greek Fine Young Radical leadership, as well as all the economists out there pushing for the eurozone to give-in to the Greek’s apparently reasonable anti-austerity, pro-growth demands, of a universal truth: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone will have to pay for it and I have no intention to be paying lunch for complete strangers from elsewhere in the EU for the foreseeable future.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Transfer Union and the Biggest “Game of Chicken”

The Greek David vs. the EU Goliath?

A cursory glance of much of recent media reporting and one could easily conclude that the EU is bullying Greece as a means of advancing its agenda of propping up the euro at the expense of the Greek economy and on the back of the Greek people. Our instinctive reaction is to support the plucky underdog in its monumental fight against the Eurocrat Goliath, especially if the undertone is that the bailout has only succeeded in helping the fat cat foreign banks, who have been making hay with the EU rescue funds while the Greek citizens starve. This could not be further from the truth, as I have previously written.

The recent media reporting has consistently demonstrated that the Syriza rhetoric which went down so well with the Greek electorate is failing to gain traction with the other eurozone countries that have been keeping the Greek economy afloat for the last few years. Instead of Mr Alexis Tsipras and Mr Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s Fine Young Radicals getting their way with their contradictory demands, they are discovering that their European partners are not for turning, despite the high stakes game of poker being played.

Game of Chicken: who blinks first, loses

This is the world’s most dangerous game of chicken and everyone can see a potential crash looming ahead. Neither the EU nor the Greeks are giving way. The Greeks want to tear down the agreed programme of reform and the as they see it unreasonable conditions imposed on them by the hated “troika” (EC, IMF and ECB) and take back their sovereignty while at the same time staying in the EU and the eurozone and demanding a long list of concessions while being clearly not in position to pay for them either today or any time soon.

The obvious implication of the Greek stance is that the eurozone has foisted austerity upon the Greeks, that it is not working and that the eurozone owes the Greek people for the suffering that has been imposed on them against their will. There should be a significant debt write down, an immediate end to austerity and presumably continuing transfers from eurozone countries for the privilege of Greece not pressing the reset button by leaving the euro and defaulting on their debts. Such eurozone transfers would be expected by Greece not only now, but potentially for the foreseeable future until its economy has recovered fully and it is able to pay back its debts. Many cheer the Greek stance and their pluck in the face of the pro-austerity forces of the establishment, such as the Troika.

Interestingly though, none of the eurozone countries seem to be buying into this fairy tale despite the potentially catastrophic chain of events that could flow from such a game of chicken if contagion were to take hold in other similarly stricken eurozone countries. The lack of eurozone cave-in appears to have taken the Greek young radical leadership by surprise. Moreover, the public pronouncements being made, and not only by the Germans, appear to be hardening over time. Time is running out for Greece. The world‘s biggest game of chicken is unfolding before our very eyes with potentially disastrous consequences for Greece and eurozone. Many must wonder why the eurozone countries don’t simply press the financial reset button? Why must the poor Greeks continue to suffer, whereas through a magical stroke of the EU pen, they could simply forgive the Greek debt and move on?

The Germans always pay…

When it comes to the EU, the three most significant countries have always played a consistent game. The French are the visionaries that drive the ever closer union agenda, including in the establishment of the euro. The Germans are the ones that sign the blank cheques and effectively traded off their beloved DM for reunification. The Brits are the pragmatists that have only ever been interested in trade and finance, but been sceptical about almost everything else connected with the EU and would not touch the euro with the proverbial barge pole. In this story, the simple fact is that the much vilified Germans would almost certainly have signed on the dotted line and rescued the Greeks (and probably others) were it not for two seemingly innocuous words which few people ever mention in relation to the game of chicken currently being played, namely the “transfer union”.

… except if they simply cannot: transfer union

Firstly, let us be clear about the definition. A “transfer union” is basically characterised by permanent, direct and horizontal transfers between eurozone countries.  Quite simply, this is forbidden under EU and national law. The taxpayer in German and other EU countries has always been concerned that s/he might end-up assuming liability for the debts and deficits generated by other Member States. Consequently, the Maastricht Treaty and its successor treaties provided safeguards not least Article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which contains the so-called “no bail-out” clause.  It requires that EU institutions (including the European Central Bank) must not assume liability for the debts of central, regional or local governments of the member states of the eurozone, nor must one member state assume liability for the debts of another. A recent amendment to Article 136 TFEU authorises eurozone members to set up the European Stability Mechanism on an inter-governmental basis, but this does not invalidate the no bail-out clause which forbids debt burden-sharing amongst eurozone members.

These legal restrictions are reinforced by others in the national constitutions of certain member states such as that of Germany. The German Federal Constitutional Court based in Karlsruhe has been particularly vociferous in blocking anything which affects Germany’s ability to act as a fully self-governing sovereign state.

Had it not been for the constraints blocking transfer union on the basis defined above, I believe that most German politicians would have already done whatever it takes to rescue Greece and the euro. They would have written a blank cheque in 2009, they would have done so today and they would have continued to do so for the foreseeable future until their own financial system was corroded. Never underestimate the importance of war guilt in German policy-making. The instinctive reaction of German politicians, certainly until the advent of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, was to pay first and think last about the consequences for the German taxpayer. Fortunately for the German citizen (or more to the point, unfortunately for the Greek citizen), the problem of the transfer union is a major stumbling block which inhibits the normal course of EU politics and results in the biggest game of chicken ever.

To be sure, some vertical transfers do take place between member states and the EU and back to member states. Article 3 III of the EU Treaty refers to economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity between the member states as one of the aims of the Union. Measures that are financed must correspond with the aims of the Union and have been agreed by the member states in the framework of the European Treaties and secondary legislation. The competitiveness and cohesion budget focuses on three elements: i) economic convergence of the least developed regions and member states ii) regional competitiveness and employment and iii) cross-border cooperation and the integration of regions and SMEs.

But the situation becomes much trickier in the case of the euro rescue package which now comprises three elements: i) the European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (EFSM) run by the Commission, ii) the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) financed by the member states and iii) IMF aid. There have been numerous attempts to block the rescue packages on the legal grounds previously mentioned. All have failed because the rescue packages have been considered to be time-limited, with clearly earmarked loans and subject to strict conditionality. Funds are not paid out until economic policy conditions connected to the framework of the structural adjustment programme, are complied with. This is the basis of the euro rescue packages, otherwise they could not have been offered. This is the basis that Greece accepted the offered rescue packages.

New Greece or eating the euro cake and having it too

Prior to the advent of Syriza, it could be questioned if the loans would ever be repaid by Greece or if the conditions attached were being met in the manner anticipated. But with the new, explicit Greek demands, the position changes radically . As I have previously discussed, Syriza goes against all uneasy compromises which have been hammered out under the previous euro rescue packages. In essence it insists on the following:

  • Stay in the EU and the Euro.
  • Negotiate the level of the debt burden (175% of the GDP or €318 billion) immediately
  • Reboot the economy and create 300,000 jobs
  • Immediate end to austerity:
    • Tax reductions (abolish taxes & social contributions for 7 years & income tax of 30%)
    • Raise the minimum wage from €586 to €751
    • Re-introduce 13th month payment for the lowest retirement pensions
    • Distribute electricity or housing coupons and free access to public transport for the poorest 300,000 households
  • Introduce free healthcare for all.
  • Stop privatisation on its tracks.

This is the new Greece wanting to have its euro cake and eat it at the same time, but at the expense of all the other eurozone countries that have been helping it through various rescue funds. These demands, which its Fine Young Radical leadership is pursuing with vigour, would effectively overturn the current rationale of the rescue packages totalling €240bn and contravene the principle of no transfer union since it would lead to permanent, direct and horizontal transfers between eurozone countries. By requiring an immediate renegotiation of the debt burden by half (bearing in mind that many eurozone countries are significantly poorer than Greece on a per capita basis yet would have to bear the costs of debt reduction), it would represent a clear and unambiguous bailout by the other eurozone countries. By stopping privatisation and reintroducing a raft of measures which the country simply cannot afford to pay for, it would effectively amount to permanent, direct and horizontal transfers between the other eurozone countries and Greece, since the country cannot afford them now and is unlikely to afford them for decades. In other words, the current Greek negotiating position would represent a direct contravention of the EU treaties and, if successful, would trigger challenges at the EU level, as well as in the German Federal Constitutional Court, something which the German government rightly fears. And this is even before we discuss how the average tax payer and voter in eurozone countries will feel about contributing to increasing the minimum wage or pension in Greece to levels which they themselves do not enjoy in their countries.

In this game of chicken, Greece’s leadership has been betting that when push comes to shove, the rest of the eurozone will blink first and simply cave-in to its demands so as to keep Greece in the euro, avoid contagion in the eurozone and possibly save the EU as a whole.

But Greece’s Fine Young Radicals have underestimated the legal importance of the EU treaty and national constitutional barriers to the establishment of a transfer union. A European financial equalisation, with permanent, direct and horizontal transfers, is simply not possible, otherwise Germany and other leading eurozone national would probably have long ago given-in to the mounting economic and political pressures.

The limits to the EU and the euro

The day when the Greek citizen or any other EU citizen votes to increase its wages, pensions, social expenditure, etc. yet simply expects the taxpayers of other EU countries, be it the Germans or any other nationality, to foot the resulting bill on an ongoing basis is the day that the EU and euro will be dead and buried as far as I am concerned. This massive game of chicken potentially affecting the lives of the Greeks, the eurozone countries and other including Britons (though they may feel immune to it because of their own currency)  may go on for a while, but it will not last long. There will probably only be losers in this game started by Greece’s Fine Young Radicals. They will lose if things go wrong by accident or design, but nowhere as badly as the Greek people themselves who, in their desperation, have voted them in.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


British Voters and EUroscepticsm: much ado about nothing?

A Historic Turning Point Coming Up?

British voters are weighing up their options, but a strong element of anti-EU sentiment can be detected. The General Election scheduled for 05 May 2015 may well be turn out to be historic. If the Conservative Party wins, it is committed to holding a straight in/out referendum in 2017 about whether Britain is to remain in the EU or not. Previous posts have discussed the role of the eurosceptic Conservative wing and the role played by the Ukip party in the hardening Conservative and Labour Party stance in relation to the EU and EU-related immigration. Previous posts have also discussed a growing anti-Euro and anti-Islam sentiment in Germany, though it is materially different and not as pervasive as in the UK. No obvious anti-EU sentiment can be detected, which is why this post focuses mainly on Britain.

A reading of opinion polls illustrates that the balance of British public opinion, which has never exactly been EUphoric since joining in 1973, appears to be turning stringently EUrosceptic. The common assumption among quite a few politicians and a large segment of the media seems to be that life would become instantly better if only Britain would jettison membership of the EU, regain “control over its borders”, thus stopping “uncontrolled” migration along with excessive “interference” from Brussels in British affairs. But is this really the case? How much would actually change overnight, as far as the voters’ priorities are concerned?

Voter Priorities (2010-2015)

With the British general election not so far away, it is worth asking: just how much would actually change in people’s lives if the UK were to leave EU in terms of immediately improving life in Britain, based on the issues that matter to voters? To address this thought experiment, I have used the latest Ipsos MORI poll which asks about the top concerns of British voters.

British voter priorities 2010-2015

In January 2015 four issues predominated in terms what is important to voters, namely healthcare (almost half), economy (one-third) followed by asylum and immigration (27%) and education/schools (20%). Europe/EU as an issue is on par with unemployment, which at present is a pretty low rate in the UK (less than 10% note it as being important). A further five issues are of some importance in terms of voting intentions (benefits, taxation, housing, foreign affairs and pensions).

Table 1 shows some change since 2010, but the top four priorities have been fairly consistent. What is noticeable, however, is that whereas economy and education have not changed, both health and immigration have risen significantly in importance to British voters since 2010. Perhaps surprisingly, housing is increasing in importance but remains a secondary priority for British voters.

Voter Priorities and UK vs. EU Responsibilities

On the basis of the voter’s priorities, it is worth asking the question: what exactly are the responsibilities of the British Government and what is affected by the EU? On the basis of this question, it is possible to assess what might change for Britons.

UK EU competencies

Below I discuss these issues briefly, focusing first on the top four voter priorities:

  • Health: The Department of Health is entirely responsible for the NHS in terms of budget, priorities, reforms, etc. The main EU influence is in enabling the citizens of the EU-28 to be fully covered when they go to other EU countries without the need for additional health insurance for work, holidays, study, etc. It also allows people to choose where they wish to be treated, if the services are better or waiting lists are shorter. Health Tourism is an issue concerning non-EU citizens, rather than for EU ones. Nothing dramatic would change tomorrow, if the UK were to leave the EU in terms of quality of care, waiting lists, response rates or any of the other key issues of concern to the British voter. If anything, choice is likely to be reduced and extra costs incurred when British citizens travel to the EU. In terms of EU residents living in the UK and their use of the health service, not much would change. If they are working, they are also paying for the NHS through their National Insurance contributions. Otherwise, they would have to insure themselves privately and still have access to health in Britain. The exception would be if the UK chooses to deport, something that is barely imaginable. Verdict: no change. There are no magical solutions to the problems of the health service in Britain. The trends are neither recent nor connected with membership of the EU.
  • Economy: the UK is entirely in charge of its macro- and micro-economic destiny, since it is not part of the euro and thus not affected by the eurozone rules. The UK can affect its interest rates and implement quantitative easing to its heart’s content. The Stability and Growth Pact does have requirements, such as no budget deficits greater than 3% of GDP, no public debt exceeding 60% of GDP without diminishing by 5% per year on average over 3 years. Verdict: nothing would change. The UK and many other countries have greatly exceeded these limits at a time of serious economic and financial concerns. Britain is 100% in charge of its destiny, unlike Greece, Spain, etc. The Chancellor has already set in train further drastic reductions in public expenditure in the next period of Government. There is nothing about the programme of austerity that the British Government can pin on the EU, which is probably why this has not been tried, unlike for example Greece.
  • Asylum/immigration: as I have previously discussed, there are three elements here. Firstly, the UK is entirely in charge of its asylum policy and can choose who to let in and who to keep out. The same applies to non-EU immigration, which Britain is entirely in charge of. These elements comprised over 68% of immigration (together with Britons returning to the UK). The EU cannot and does not interfere with this but the balance (32%) is EU migrants. Many international companies are based in Britain that require access to the global pool of human resources to maintain their standards and profitability. On balance, basing a decision to leave the EU because of the freedom of movement of people principle and perceptions of “uncontrolled immigration” in the last decade does not appear to be justified. The unemployment rate remains at 5.8% (compared with 6.5% in Germany and 11.4% in the EU), despite a long period of intense economic and financial crisis. A critical issue that affects voter sentiment is net wages, which is determined by the companies located in Britain, as well as the public employers. If Britain were to stop EU and any other form of immigration (it is doubtful that employers would welcome this) the perceived pressures on health, housing and social services would not change since most EU immigrants would presumably remain. The exception is if such a police were to be combined with (forced) repatriation, which is unimaginable at the present time. If so, in theory Britain would have to make allowance for the 1.3 million Britons in other EU countries to return from EU countries to the UK. Verdict: possible short-term gain but likely long-term loss. The change would affect 32% of Immigration (2012 data) at the very most, but asylum and immigration would not end. There would only be perceptible changes, if a policy of terminating EU immigration were to be combined with deportation. I cannot imagine the average British voter wanting this or the consequences of enforcing such a policy.
  • Education/schools: this is entirely the responsibility of the UK and the pressures have been decades in the making. The issue that the EU has concentrated on is harmonizing qualifications and certification to ensure greater scope for freedom of movement of workers. This is advantageous for Britons as well as for others. Verdict: no change. The children of EU migrants make-up a small percentage of all children in schools across the country. If their parents are working here, they are entitled to study in Britain unless the Government and the British electorate wishes to evoke the deportation route.

So in terms of the most important issues to UK voters, there is not a huge amount of immediate gain from Brexit, based on the top four voter priorities. I am not even going to discuss the possible losses which would be the consequence of gaining control over EU immigration. Britain is already in charge of two of the three key elements of immigration, which makes up the majority of immigration. It is an island, which gives it more protection than others in the era of globalisation. The fear that there is uncontrolled immigration from the EU is overdone. When the economic downturn started, many EU migrants simply left the UK of their own accord and the migratory pattern turned towards Germany instead, the only EU country experiencing strong economic growth. When the UK economy started growing again in mid-2014, the immigration trend started reversing (though probably influenced by the A2 countries,namely Romania and Bulgaria). In any case, if the unemployment rate is 5.8% and decreasing, it is worth asking the question: who is employing the EU migrants and benefiting from their contribution to the economy, to tax inflows and to company profits? Might the answer be Britons and Britain? If the real issue is decreasing net wages and benefits in Britain, the question is who is gaining from this development? Might the answer be certain segments of British society?

Below I address the remaining voter priorities:

  • Europe/EU: The issue which the EU insist on is that the freedom of movement of people (as well as goods, services, capital) be maintained, allowing all EU citizens to travel for tourism, study, work and retirement purposes. Many, if not most Britons, enjoy some or all of these freedoms in one way or another. 1.3 million Briton live in other EU countries, and a large number travel, work, study, invest (e.g. second homes and pension funds) or retire in EU countries. This is something which is currently taken for granted at present. I believe the loss will be felt much more rapidly and keenly than most British voters may realise.
  • Unemployment: leaving the EU might result in less European migrants, but it would not put an end to EU immigration or lead to zero unemployment. British-based enterprises compete globally for many skills essential to maintain productivity and innovation. I doubt that there would be a significant reduction in qualified labour coming from the EU.It is not certain that the agricultural, tourism, hospitality, etc. businesses would be able to satisfy their needs simply from UK-based sources. There might be a reduction in less qualified labour and thus in unemployment but this is unlikely to be more one or two percentage points and will lead to other pressures. Verdict: possible short term gain but likely long term loss.
  • Benefits: very few EU migrants claim benefits. Immigrants were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives during 2000-2011. They are also less likely to live in social housing than the UK born population. EU migrants of working age who are not students, not in employment and receive some kind of state benefit, amount to 39,000 or less than 1% of all foreign nationals in the UK and 1% of all EU nationals in the UK.  Recent analysis of 23 out of 27 EU countries shows that there are at least 30,000 Britons claiming unemployment benefit in countries around the EU. In other words 2.5% of Britons in other EU countries are claiming unemployment benefits, roughly the same as EU nationals doing the same in Britain. The numbers are tiny: the political and media coverage of this issue is completely disproportionate. If this is the case, an even smaller sub-set of them are living in Britain for benefit tourism/abuse purposes. Verdict: no change (but one less emotive topic for certain parts of the media and politicians to bang their biased drum about).
  • Taxation: the UK is in entirely in charge of all its taxes, including Corporate Income Tax, Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax and VAT. Verdict: no change.
  • Housing: The UK is entirely in charge of its housing policy, construction, planning system, etc. There would be fewer EU immigrants, which might affect the housing situation in terms of rent levels and house prices. However, this would only be a marginal effect since the trend in housing supply, demand and pricing is a long term trend of over 30 years and any nationality is able to buy property in Britain. I have already referred to the fact that fewer recent immigrants claim benefits and live in social housing than the UK born population. Verdict: no change. I have written the first of my blog posts comparing the British and German housing systems to illustrate aspects of this point.
  • Foreign affairs: in terms of foreign affairs this role is, to some extent, coordinated with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for specific issues. In the main, each EU nation does its own thing and Britain is no different.
  • Pensions: the UK is entirely in charge of the retirement age, contributions, qualifying years, minimum state pension pensions, etc. The EU facilitates freedom of movement of people and capital, so develops rules to ensure that if people work in different countries, that their contributions are acknowledged and count towards their overall pension entitlement. Furthermore, it seeks to ensure, under the same two freedoms, that Britons and others can receive their state pension in any of the EU-28 countries without suffering from arbitrary reductions, cancellations, fees, etc. Since many Britons enjoy their retirement in the sun and have bought second homes in other EU countries (rather more than is the case in terms of EU nationals buying properties in the UK), it would appear that to be well worth remaining in the EU.

EUroscepticism: much ado about nothing?

Ultimately, it is up for each voter to assess their personal gain or loss from staying in or leaving the EU. Based on the analysis above, the anti-EU sentiment is much ado about nothing, as far as the most important issues to voters are concerned, except for the freedom of movement of people. The EU has helped to secure so many rights and opportunities across all 28 nations that it is hard to imagine life without them. It is not simply that not much would change overnight. A moment of reflection on what would be rolled back as a result of leaving the EU, should show just how much we perceive as being normal and do not even actively consider. The fact is that we usually do not miss that which we take for granted… until it is no longer there.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

 

 

 

 

 

 


Syriza’s Electoral Success in Greece: the future of austerity in Europe

Syriza has just pulled off the most amazing of political coups. There is little doubt that the Greek voters were simply sick and tired of the parlous state of their economy, combined with years of austerity which have undoubtedly caused economic and social havoc. Things simply could not go on as before; something had to give. Politics gave, resulting in a stunning electoral success for Syriza and its young leader, Alexis Tsipras, already dubbed Sexy Alexi. The reality though, is that there is little of an appealing nature about the aftermath of the Greek election. There is nothing ahead but more turbulence and socio-economic strife in the short-term for Greece and the other countries undergoing austerity in the eurozone and beyond.

Demonizing Germany

Greek society has been traumatized by what has been happening since 2008/9. However, there seems to have been a strange collective loss of memory about the role of the Greeks in this tragedy. Instead there has been a deliberate and consistent demonization of the eurozone, the Troika and, most prominently, Germany itself, which has characterised this stunning electoral victory. On the eve of the election, Mr Alexis Tsipras said at his final campaign meeting: “On Monday we shall be done with national humiliation. We will have finished with orders from abroad,” 23rd January 2015. This theme was consistent during the lead up to the election and has continued since.

Let us consider the Greek role in that national humiliation and the role of those issuing orders from abroad, an euphemism for the EU, the Troika, the Eurozone generally and Germany in particular:

  • Greece’s problems did not start with joining the EU or the Euro.
  • They are the product of generation upon generation of decisions made by Greek leaders.
  • These same Greek leaders, at least since 1975, have been democratically elected.
  • Joining the EU in 1981 gave a massive social and economic boost to Greece.
  • Through its own macroeconomic decisions, it has built-up unsustainable levels of debt.
  • Through its lack of wage restraint, combined with lack of reform, Greek decisions led to a systematic loss of competitiveness during the long economic boom until 2008.
  • Extensive tax avoidance and evasion combined with corruption remains a problem.
  • During the last general election, the Greek people voted to remain in the EU and Euro.
  • The Greek government chose not to exit the Euro and thus sought support from the EU.
  • Even though EU treaties forbid eurozone states from assuming the debts of other states (bailouts), emergency rescue funds were formed to support debt crisis states to meet their financial obligations and buy time for reforms to regain competitiveness.
  • The Eurozone has provided various rescue funds which have avoided default and massive social and economic disruption. A long and painful “internal devaluation” is occurring.
  • The price of these rescues is a programme of reform and cuts, agreed with and signed off by the Greek government as the pre-condition for the various rescues.
  • The price, in terms of human suffering and the effects on the economy have been huge. Internal deviation has finally delivered growth but at the price of a reduction of 25% of GDP, 25% unemployment, 50% youth unemployment and 23% poverty rate.
  • This is now interpreted as humiliation, bullying and dictatorship, with Germany singled out.

It is a delusion almost gleefully perpetuated by certain parts of the media, to imagine that the EU, and Germany are responsible for all the above. This is the end-product of Greek voters’ decisions and their chosen democratically elected Governments, even if the average person now feels completely divorced from the traditional parties. People can bang on as much as they like about the EU, eurozone, Euro, Troika and Germany being responsible for the lot of the Greeks, but it rings hollow for anyone that cares to reflect on the reality. They may put-up their anti-EU and anti-Germany slogans, posters and graffiti to express their rage and helplessness, but the facts are different. None of this is to imply or deny that the Greek people have suffered tremendously or indeed to blame them for wanting a change from a downward vortex that they find themselves trapped in.

This is indeed a national humiliation, but one made in Greece. It is a travesty to leave unchallenged the assertion that Greece is simply taking orders from “abroad”. Greeks voted to remain in the EU and the euro at the previous General Election and this is what their previous democratically elected government delivered. The EU and Eurozone have made extensive efforts to meet the wishes of the Greek electorate, while also keeping the economy afloat and the country in the euro. No one suggested that there would not be a price pay in terms of painful reforms required from internal devaluation, as opposed to default which would have been at least as painful.

There was an outpouring of joy about the Greek election results and the expression of solidarity in many European countries. The hope is that this election result will spell the end of “Germanic” austerity in Europe. So let us examine what exactly the Greeks have just voted for.

Unsustainable to the Nth Degree

For those that are not aware of it, Syriza stands for the Radical Left Coalition. The Greeks have voted (36%) for a party which has a series of policies which stretch credulity beyond breaking point:

  • Stay in the EU and the Euro.
  • Negotiate the level of the debt burden (175% of the GDP or €318 billion) immediately
  • Reboot the economy (New European Deal and Investment Bank) and create 300,000 jobs
  • Bring about an immediate end to austerity:
    • Tax reductions (abolish taxes & social contributions for 7 years & income tax of 30%)
    • Raise the minimum wage from €586 to €751
    • Re-introduce 13th month for the lowest retirement pensions
    • Distribute electricity or housing coupons and free access to public transport for the poorest 300,000 households
    • Introduce free healthcare for all.
  • Stop privatisation on its tracks.
  • Various other pledges, depending on the source considered.

Individually all the above items are logical, especially in a country which is in economic and social turmoil. Collectively they certainly are not. The only radical thing about this programme is that Syriza wants to have its cake and eat it, and has managed to persuade the exhausted Greek voter to buy a ticket for a bumpy ride. How is all this possible to achieve given the parlous state of the Greek economy?

If Greece wants to finish with “orders from abroad”, it could have done so at the last general election and it can certainly do so now by leaving the euro and/or the EU, but it cannot have it both ways. It cannot insist on staying in the EU and euro but require everyone else to prop-up the country and its standards of living for the foreseeable future. This is not a eurozone or an EU that almost anyone else would wish to be part of. The transfers from other countries implied are, rightly, forbidden by EU treaties.

That’s not all, folks

As if this was not challenging enough, Syriza has just made the situation a lot worse than it needed to be. Three seats short of an outright majority, it had to select its coalition party. Instead of going for the more moderate To Potami party (The River, 6% of the vote), Syriza selected the Independent Greeks Party (4.6% votes) as its coalition partner. So let us examine the Independent Greeks Party’s key election pledges:

  • Revoke the loan agreements between Greece, EU and International Monetary Fund (Troika) and prosecute those who negotiated them.
  • Repudiate part of Greece’s debt because it was created by speculators in a conspiracy to bring Greece to the edge of bankruptcy.
  • Require German war reparations for the invasion and occupation of Greece during WWII.
  • Oppose multiculturalism, reduce immigration and develop a Christian Orthodox-oriented education system.

Its leader Mr Panos Kammenos makes much play of the fact that ‘The Troika’ has turned Greece into a “laboratory animal” in an austerity experiment using “… public debt as a means of control.” Mr Kammenos concentrates his ire on Germany: “Germany is not treating Greece as a partner but as its master. … It tries to turn a Europe of independent states into a Europe dominated by Germany.”

He does not seem to focus much on the role his own countrymen have played in creating this Greek Tragedy for generations, even before joining the EU, before joining the euro 10 years ago and then going into a massive debt-fuelled public and private spending spree. No, apparently it is all the responsibility of the German banks that pushed piles of cash into the unwilling hands of Greek public and private borrowers. Apparently it is all the responsibility of the Troika for responding to the express wishes of the Greek electorate to remain in the euro at all costs. And it is all the fault of the hard-hearted Germans, hell-bent on European domination once again. The reality is different. All serious commentators agree that Germany is a “reluctant European hegemon.” Mrs Merkel leads because there is no one else to lead, with France imploding and Britain vacating the EU stage.

In selecting the Independent Greeks Party as its coalition partner over To Potami, Syriza has made a major miscalculation that will complicate the tough negotiations with the EU to come and the massive reforms which will continue to be needed for the foreseeable future, even if all of the Syriza pledges were to be achieved, which they most certainly will not.

Endgame: pressing the reset button

The endgame will not be long in the making both for Greece and for the whole of austerity Europe. The Spaniards, Portuguese and others including Italy and France look on curiously. Britain stands aloof, perhaps feeling protected by its own currency, yet still gripped by its own variant of austerity which is no less cruel. There is no doubt that what happens in Greece will have repercussions throughout Europe and not just in the eurozone.

A decision is imminent since the next round of discussions on the EU support to Greece is due. The newly minted Greek government is maintaining its tough talk but it is a high stakes poker game for both sides. Quite simply, the game is up for Greece if it fails to agree the next EU rescue. It will have to default and go through all that which it tried so hard to avoid since the last general election. The difference is that the suffering experienced so far with be a cakewalk compared with what would follow. On the other hand, if the EU does not compromise on austerity, the whole eurozone edifice could crumble. The chances are that a compromise will be found and the eurozone will simply muddle through, but there would need to be a very significant change to the current Syriza / Independent Greeks Party electoral programme to achieve a workable compromise.

But default is not out of the question. Many economists and commentators in Britain, Germany and USA are increasingly portraying default and dropping out of the euro as the lesser of two evils for Greece. The argument is that it would be best for Greece to pull out. What would follow is bound to be a short, sharp shock or so says economic theory (which did not prove all that sound in predicting the current financial and economic crash). The argument continues that countries such as Argentina have done it and the experience shows that default and a new currency is normally followed by rapid economic recovery. Their conclusion is that this scenario would be infinitely better than death by a thousand cuts via the current internal devaluation in the eurozone.

Maybe, maybe not.

I ask these economists and commentators: have you and you families experienced anything remotely like what the average Greek family already has in the last six years? Who are you to suggest to the Greeks that a round of short, sharp “shock therapy” arising from sovereign default is bearable for a country that has already suffered so much? What makes you so confident that Greece will arise Phoenix-like from the ashes, ready for rapid growth and regenerated from such a catharsis? How can you be so sure that contagion will not take hold in other eurozone countries?

Eastern Europe went through variants of shock therapy in the 1990s and the Russians, Poles and all the others will confirm that very little was predicted by economic theory, that recovery took much longer than anticipated and that they have absolutely no desire to ever experience such wanton destruction again. I would not wish this upon Greece or any other nation. I would much rather another round of muddling through in the classical European way instead of the destructive, unpredictable catharsis that is being floated. But I also know that many would disagree and not just in Greece.

So step-up to the plate Syriza / Independent Greeks Party: a lot rests on you so let us see what you can do.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


The British Question: shall we stay or shall we leave the EU?

Since joining the European Union (or EEC at the time) in 1973, the United Kingdom has had an ambivalent attitude to being a member of the European Union (EU). The British general election due in May 2015 will determine whether Britain will hold a referendum over whether to stay or leave the EU. The skirmishes over the “British Question” or “Brexit”, in other words, whether Britain is to remain a part of the EU or not started long before the General Election.

EU Red Lines for Britain Staying

When Mr Jean-Claude Juncker sought to become the President of the European Commission (EC) his election manifesto had five priorities, the first four of which were:
• Creating jobs and growth.
• A European energy Union (diversify our energy sources, and reduce the energy dependency).
• A balanced trade agreement with the USA.
• Reform of the monetary union with a greater focus on social aspects (governance in the Eurozone beyond the ECB, reform of support to Eurozone countries in financial difficulties to take into account of the social impacts and strengthen the Eurozone’s voice in the IMF).

So far so good – nothing unexpected there. However, it is Mr Jean-Claude Juncker’s fifth priority (reproduced below with the original emphasis) that was a little bit unexpected and gave rise to the title of this post.

A fifth and last priority for me as Commission President will be to give an answer to the British question. No reasonable politician can ignore the fact that, during the next five years, we will have to find solutions for the political concerns of the United Kingdom. We have to do this if we want to keep the UK within the European Union – which I would like to do as Commission President. As Commission President, I will work for a fair deal with Britain. A deal that accepts the specificities of the UK in the EU, while allowing the Eurozone to integrate further. The UK will need to understand that in the Eurozone, we need more Europe, not less. On the other hand, the other EU countries will have to accept that the UK will never participate in the euro, even if we may regret this. We have to accept that the UK will not become a member of the Schengen area. And I am also ready to accept that the UK will stay outside new EU institutions such as the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, meant to improve the fight against fraud in the EU, but clearly rejected by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We have to respect such clear positions of the British Parliament, based on the British “opt out” Protocol. David Cameron has recently written down a number of further key demands in an article published in the Daily Telegraph. As Commission President, I will be ready to talk to him about these demands in a fair and reasonable manner. My red line in such talks would be the integrity of the single market and its four freedoms; and the possibility to have more Europe within the Eurozone to strengthen the single currency shared so far by 18 and soon by 19 Member States. But I have the impression that this is as important for Britain as it will be for the next President of the Commission.

 

This was a remarkably explicit statement from a man seeking high political office at a point in time when he was far from certain of being successful in his bid to lead the EC. This uncertainty was largely due to a high-profile initiative on the part of the British government, led by the Prime Minister himself, to ensure that Mr Juncker did not become the President of the EC. Yet Mr Juncker won resoundingly, despite colourful rumours floating around about his alleged drinking habits.

There was a steely underlying determination to recognise but not pander to UK demands: the four freedoms of movement (of capital, people, goods and services) are non-negotiable, the UK can continue to opt out, but the Eurozone will continue its march towards further integration, so as to strengthen the Euro. But it is interesting to note the absence of a broad commitment towards “an ever-closer union”, 1957 Treaty of Rome, except in the context of the Eurozone countries.

Six months into his mandate as President of the EU, Mr Juncker has underlined his views of the British Question. On the 18 January 2015, he publicly floated the idea of a British exit (or Brexit) from the EU for the first time. Mr Juncker not only compared Britain’s membership of the EU to a “doomed love affair” but also suggested that it might be time to call it a day. He rounded off his comments by warning David Cameron that he will not be “grovelling” for the UK to stay in the EU during future negotiations. What was previously a personal “red line” prior to his election to the most influential of the EU’s Presidential posts, has now become the official EU one.

British Red Lines for leaving the EU

An answer to the British Question it is due now, in the run-up to the British General Election on 05 May 2015. Britain has been largely ambivalent towards the EU, tending to focus on the economy and trade issues and, for a period of time when it suited its economy and voters, enlargement of the EU. Due to a combination of the Eurosceptic wing within the Conservative Party and the growing influence of the Ukip, should they win the election, the Conservative Party has pledged to allow the voters a referendum on whether to stay in or leave the EU unless the current terms of membership are renegotiated. There is, of course, the possibility that the Conservatives will not win but the ambivalence towards the EU is more than likely to remain. Mr Juncker’s red lines are presumably of importance, regardless of whether the Conservatives win the general election or not.

The Conservative attempts at EU reform which would satisfy its Eurosceptic wing and win back Ukip defectors included renegotiated of the terms of EU membership, such as the principle of freedom of movement of people. The explicit aim was to find an acceptable half way house between “uncontrolled” and “no” immigration.

David Cameron has stressed that he favours staying in a reformed EU but that Britain will “rule nothing out” if the changes required are not made, some of which will necessitate EU treaty changes. There are several problems with this position, which the British Government is well aware of: treaty change requires the agreement of 28 member states, all member states are highly averse to such treaty changes because of the debacle of the aborted attempt to develop a EU constitution, several countries are required to hold referendums in relation to such changes and, quite simply, there is not enough time to undertake such changes before the UK referendum is due in 2017. Apart from anything else, why should other member states do anything unless and until there is a Conservative Government in power post May 2015? The insistence on EU treaty change appears to be a lot of hot air blown by the British government, which other politicians and the EU representatives are willing to play along with. There are obviously messages to be put out to the British voter between now and the general election.

For the British is it a serious matter: asylum and immigration are among the top four issues that are likely to determine the outcome of the general election. Consequently, the PM David Cameron has set out his own (latest) version of his “red lines” most recently in November 2014:

  • Workers from the EU: ban EU nationals from claiming in-work benefits or social housing in Britain for four years. No child benefits or tax credits paid for children living outside the UK.
  • Unemployed EU migrants: deport jobless migrants if they do not get work for six months.
  • Other: veto EU enlargement unless the new country impose controls on the movement of their workers until their economies reach UK levels, restrict EU migrants bringing in family members from outside the EU, longer bans on rough sleepers, beggars and fraudsters returning to the UK and tougher rules on deporting foreign criminals.

Notice that there is no mention of EU treaty changes, change to the principle of freedom of movement or renegotiation of the current terms of EU membership. The British Red Lines are highly specific and, to my mind, do not amount to a radical change in the British position within the EU. For the British government it seems as it the British Question or whether to remain in the EU or not simply boils down to these issues.

Early skirmishes over the red lines

The British Question is already being addressed by the two most influential people, namely Mrs Angela Merkel and Mr Jean-Claude Juncker. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made the position of the German government clear. In the same way as Mr Juncker and any other leader of the other 27 EU members, in her 07 January 2015 visit to the UK she said at the joint press conference with Mr Cameron: “We have no doubt about the principle of freedom of movement being in any way questioned.” Taking his cue from those words, in a speech on 18 January 2015, Mr Juncker said: “When one mentions the end of the free circulation of workers, there can be no debate, dialogue or compromise.” Not much wiggle room for Mr Cameron there. He added that: “We can fight against abuses, but the EU won’t change the treaties to satisfy the whim of certain politicians.” No other EU nation state has questioned the freedom of movement principle. Mr Juncker also added a dimension which is rather pertinent to Britain’s economy, dominated as it is by the financial industry: “if you question the free movement of workers, Great Britain has to know that one day the free movement of capital will also be called into question.” Do I detect an attempt by the EU to outflank Britain?

The Conservative Party if left with a weak hand: despite the threat to pull out of the EU if it does not get its way; its bluff is being called. Britain is on to a loser in terms of both treaty change and/or reform of the freedom of movement principle. The British government knows it, hence the reasons for the watered down version of Mr Cameron’s red lines above.

The only chink of light for the British government is in relation to cracking down on welfare abuse by EU migrants (but many doubt the extent to which this is widespread abuse). But even here, Britain is not being handed carte blanche. The possibility of tackling EU migration abuses been conceded by the German Chancellor, whose country is holding a similar debate connected with the end of the transition arrangements for Bulgaria and Romania: “We are looking at the legal (aspect) and we are looking at legislation here … abuse needs to be fought against so that freedom of movement can prevail.” But there is a sting in the tail for Britain – Mrs Merkel added: “One has to take a very close look at the social security systems of individual member states … and to what extent they have to be adjusted. And that’s something we need to address”. It hardly amounts to a ringing endorsement of reforms that might involve EU treaty changes before a possible 2017 referendum. It sounds as if the emphasis is placed on individual nation states (Britain and Germany?) getting their own house in order in terms of their welfare benefit eligibility rules and regulations.

It is still early days in the battle of the red lines over the British Question, though some of the early skirmishes have already been decisive. The latest British position appears to be mainly designed for domestic consumption in the run up to the General Election. However, the red lines are of importance, so I plan to address them in future posts.

Ricardo Pinto, 21 January 2015, www.AngloDeutsch.eu