A victory for the regulators?

12 Dec

One view of what happened at last week’s European Council summit is that we saw a struggle between neoliberal Anglo-Saxon capitalism and Europe’s alternative of a more regulated and people-friendly capitalism. David Cameron’s defence of the City of London’s banksters was in line with long-standing attempts to block European efforts at expanding the regulation of financial markets. That he failed, and that Sarkozy and Merkel struck a deal without Britain, is welcomed in this view as one step closer towards tackling the scourge of casino capitalism that has brought the Eurozone, and much of the global economy, to its knees.

There is lots wrong with this view of last week’s acrimonious summit negotiations. For a start, Cameron’s motivations were as much about avoiding a national referendum – and thus keeping his own Conservative –Liberal Democrat coalition alive – as they were about the City of London. The City itself is deeply divided over the issue of financial regulation: some would prefer to keep clear of European harmonization efforts and to go it alone (for a list of all the financial market reforms in the EU pipeline, see here). Others in the City say very clearly that a common European regulatory regime of which the City of London is a part would be better than a split. We should also have no illusions about the motivations of European financial regulators: the political push behind this regulation, led by the European Commissioner for internal market and services, the Frenchman Michel Barnier, comes from the French and the Germans and is driven by competition between national capitals. The goal is to weaken the City of London as a financial center as much as it is to reform European finance. Why side with one over the other in this struggle if not out of German, French or Euro-chauvinism?

Another major problem is to paint Sarkozy, Merkel and others national leaders as great representatives of a more social Europe. Regulatory change is about social and class power. Regulators, especially powerful ones, have huge amounts of discretion. The ends to which that discretionary power is put depends upon the wider social context of the regulation. Where Sarkozy and Merkel stand in this regard should tell us something about the promise of progressive financial market regulation. The development of their own economies has so far been in a decidedly anti-social direction and the recently agreed deal in Brussels cements this trend. This agreement enshrines in law the mistaken idea that fiscal expansion is the cause of the Eurozone’s crisis. In doing so, it gives Europe´s leaders a legal basis with which to pursue their austerity measures. Most of those measures are directly aimed at dismantling social protection in Europe: inter alia, rising retirement ages, cutting pensions, cutting public sector jobs, raising the cost of travel on public transport. These measures ignore the real basis of the Eurozone crisis: the stark unevenness of the national economies which make up the Eurozone. As Martin Wolf recently argued, the best predictor of the crisis in Europe was not government spending but balance of payments accounts.

Sarkozy and Merkel launch vicious attacks on the social conditions of the populations of peripheral Eurozone states, and strong arm their own populations into a decade of austerity measures, all in the name of a starkly lop-sided reading of the current crisis. And at the same time they portray themselves as progressive regulators, seeking to contain the untrammeled power of financial markets. Judged by developments so far, there is little reason to celebrate last week’s agreement as a victory for regulators over markets.

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