Europe’s implementation problem

26 Apr

In recent days, we have seen an unravelling in the political foundations of the Eurozone’s fiscal compact. The most recent casualty was Mark Rutte’s government in the Netherlands. Precarious at the best of times, the government’s proposed budget cuts of up to 16 billion Euros failed to win over the Freedom Party leader, Geert Wilders. Wilders withdrew his support for the government, leaving it to rely on a spattering of small parties across the Dutch parliament. Rutte claims that the country must pass the new budget by the 30th April, the deadline given to the Hague by the European Commission, the latter donning its hat as agent of budgetary approval for national governments. Many in the Netherlands disagree and any election is likely to be cast as a referendum on the Euro.

In France, the success of the far right National Front in the first round of the Presidential elections last Sunday has put France’s role in Europe under the spotlight. One of Marine Le Pen’s most publicized demands was that France leave the Euro. Turning their attention to National Front supporters, both second round candidates – Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande – have taken the anti-EU sentiment on board. Hollande promises to redesign the fiscal compact so that it focuses more on growth and job creation. Sarkozy has begun to speak about politically controlling the European Central Bank and has taken a tough line on Europe’s immigration laws.

In Ireland, as a referendum on the fiscal deal approaches, a large part of the population is undecided. Recent polls suggest that up to 40% of the population is unsure how it will vote on the 31st May. And in Greece, the forthcoming elections may well challenge the political consensus built up behind the country’s deal with its creditors.

This unravelling of political support for Eurozone agreements is not just a product of a far right surge across Europe. Many of the criticisms of the austerity measures reflect divided opinion at the very top of public life. That more austerity only leads to lower growth, which in turn leads to higher debt levels and thus a need for even more austerity, is recognized by many as a downward spiral associated with extreme cost-cutting by governments. The IMF has for a long time warned against draconian cuts in government budgets that could stifle rather than encourage growth. In Greece, we have heard this argument coming from the opposition for some time and in the UK the Labour and Conservative Parties agreed in the run up to the 2010 election on the need for balanced budgets but disagreed about how quickly budgets should be brought back into balance. Elite opinion lacks consensus on the modalities of austerity policies and today’s disagreements reveal some of the problems with the deficit-reduction assumptions of the EU’s fiscal compact.

It is also clear that implementation problems are an inherent feature of European governance. Taking the case of the Eurozone, the fiscal compact reflects the way in which political decision-making has become separated from the ugly business of implementing unpopular policies. EU crisis management concentrates policymaking powers within the hands of executives. In the form of agreements between heads of state, brokered behind closed doors and in ways that are intended to mutually support each other in the difficult task of ruling in uncertain times, these policies are then passed down to the level of national ministries where the cuts and belt-tightening takes effect. And it is not coincidental that the focus at the EU level is on government spending. The far more difficult and longer term task of raising competitiveness is left up to national governments.

Such a radical separation between the decisions made and their implementation is evidence of the weak authority national governments command across Europe. They hope that by presenting at the domestic level something that has already been agreed by most member states, implementation will be made easier. The pan-European nature of the deal thus reflects the crisis in authority felt by national governments. They need this separation of policymaking from implementation in order to make implementation easier at the national level. We are seeing today that it does not always work.

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