Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Catalonia and Brexit: the same nationalism

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, will not enter the history books as an enlightened leader. However, when in 2014 he had to decide to allow the Scottish referendum, he used his brain and opened the door for the referendum. It took place on September 18, 2014. Only 45% of the Scotts voted for independence.
The contrast with the referendum in Catalonia could not be greater. The Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy stupidly decided to use violence to prevent a referendum in Catalonia, despite the fact that a peaceful referendum would most probably have led to a similar outcome as in Scotland. Spain and Catalonia are now on collision course; a situation that could have been avoided if the Spanish Prime Minister had not suffered from dogmatism and a degree of nationalism equaling in intensity the Catalan version.
The Catalan nationalists now have been given a fantastic boost thanks to Rajoy's stupidity. The TV images of Spanish robotic police officers hitting old and young to prevent them from voting create a perception of an oppressed people fighting for their freedom.
Nothing could be further from reality. The Catalans are not an oppressed people. They have a high degree of autonomy. They can organize their own education in their own language. No obstacles exist for the cultural development of Catalonia. It is the most prosperous region of Spain. Barcelona is a bustling city like no other in Spain. The Catalans are heard at the regional, national and European level. The image of an oppressed people is ludicrous.
Catalan nationalism is of the same kind as British nationalism that led to Brexit. It is based on a number of myths.
The first myth is that there is an external enemy. For the Brexiteers these are the European authorities (the European Commission, the European Court, etc.), which impose their arbitrary will on Britain. For the Catalan nationalists the enemy is the Spanish government oppressing the Catalan people.
The second myth is that the people who fight for their independence have a clearly defined identity. The task of national politicians is to listen to the will of the people. There can be only one voice. There is no room for different and opposing voices. The British government is now calling for patriotism. The opponents of Brexit are not true patriots.
The third myth is that independence will generate unsuspected economic prosperity. When the people “take back control” they will have the tools to achieve maximum economic prosperity. That is today the argument of Brexiteers like Boris Johnson. When Brexit will be realized (preferably as soon as possible), Britain will have achieved its true destiny. "Global Britain" will take over from the protectionist EU. Great Britain will merrily conclude free trade agreements with the rest of the world, which will lead to unprecedented prosperity. A similar argument of more prosperity for an independent Catalonia is heard from Catalan nationalists today.
The reality is that globalization undermines national sovereignty. This happens in many ways. One example. Large multinationals blackmail national governments in Europe, with the result that corporate taxes decline almost everywhere. In no country, however, is there a will of the people in favour of reducing these taxes. Yet this is the outcome because governments act as national entities. Were they to decide jointly on corporate taxes in Europe, multinationals would be unable to blackmail these governments and there would be no creeping decline in corporate taxes.
Another example. International trade today is not influenced so much by tariffs but by non-tariff barriers. Large countries decide about standards and the regulatory environment that will govern trade. There are now essentially three countries, the US, the EU and China that can aspire to decide about the nature of these standards and rules. The other countries play no role in this game. Thus when Great Britain exits from the EU so as to gain more sovereignty (“to take back control”), this gain is only formal. In fact its real sovereignty declines. Obviously the same holds for Catalonia.
We arrive at the following paradox in a globalized world: when nationalists pursue more formal sovereignty they achieve less real sovereignty of the people. They want to take back control and they end up with less control. That’s what Great Britain will end up with. That’s also what the Catalan nationalists will achieve if they pursue their nationalistic dreams.
This paradox has a corollary: when countries in Europe renounce formal sovereignty this leads to more real sovereignty of the peoples of Europe. 

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Brexit creates window of opportunities for the EU

The British government has officially started the "divorce" procedure from the European Union. This procedure must be completed within two years. In April 2019 the UK will cease to be a member of the EU.
Most divorces are painful affairs mainly because an agreement has to be found on who pays whom. The same will be true for the divorce of Great Britain and the European Union. The European Union intends to present a stiff bill to the British Government. According to some estimates this could go up to 60 billion euros. The hard line in the Conservative government of Theresa May does not want to pay a cent. These are the people who during the referendum campaign promised that Brexit would create massive budgetary means to be used to save the National Health Service from bankruptcy.
Between 0 and 60 billion there are many numbers waiting for a possible compromise. But the latter will be very difficult because the hard camp in the British government considers each number above 0 as an act of treason to the British people.
The Brexit Ministers continue to repeat that a new trade agreement between the UK and the EU is easy stuff and can be completed in two years, at least if the Europeans are "reasonable". If they are, they will see that it is in their own interest to meet British demands. If they don’t it will be proof of their vindictiveness.
The British demands are derived from the very successful referendum slogan: "to take back control of our borders, our laws and our money." This means full control over immigration; the end of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on British soil; and not a penny more for Europe. The prime minister has made it clear that the first two demands cannot be negotiated away. About the third one a compromise is possible but no one knows how much negotiating space the British prime minister has.
These UK demands imply that the UK excludes itself from the internal market. The UK government, as the representative of a fully sovereign nation, will therefore have to negotiate a new trade agreement. And like any trade agreement this will drag on for years. As a result, one can say with great certainty that in April 2019 there will be no trade agreement between the UK and the EU.
What is striking in this drama is that under the spell of nationalism the British government has based its policies on a big illusion. It is the illusion that, as in the past when Britain ruled the waves, it can be fully sovereign and freely trade with the rest of the world without having to accept rules that are decided elsewhere. This was possible when Britain was the master of the world and decided about the rules that the other nations would have to accept to trade. Today, however, Britain is a small country. Its GDP is only 15% of the EU’s GDP. If this small country wants to trade with the European Union it will have to accept the rules that are decided on the European continent, not in Britain. If it wants to trade with the rest of the world, it will also have to accept rules drawn up elsewhere. It will be a painful awakening for the British who have been misled by their government into believing that they can have free trade and full sovereignty.
For the EU Brexit creates a window of opportunities. When the British joined the European Community in 1974 their intention was not to make Europe stronger. On the contrary, the British strategy was to weaken the European integration effort from inside. Since their accession the British governments have opposed attempts to apply majority rule in the union, and instead have tried to force an inter-governmental approach where each country maintains a veto power. The British entered the European house not to strengthen it, but to halt its further construction and even to deconstruct it.
The fact that Britain now leaves the house creates new possibilities to take steps towards further integration. In the tax field, for example. This is an area where,  at the insistence of Britain (but not only Britain), veto power of national governments has been maintained. As a result, multinational companies have exploited the lack of coordination in setting corporate income taxes to blackmail individual governments. This has led to a race to the bottom where major multinationals pay almost no taxes, although they profit from public goods provided by European governments. This problem can only be solved by jointly deciding about corporate income taxes. This will not be easy, as there are other countries that benefit from not having a common approach to taxation (Ireland, Luxembourg). But at least the major obstacle to a common policy will have been removed.
Thus the decision by the UK government to leave the European house should be welcomed by EU-member states instead of being deplored. It creates a window of opportunities for further integration on the European continent. This window of opportunities, however, can only be exploited if the EU makes her negotiating position clear. This should be one in which the EU recognizes that the UK wants to be fully sovereign. The EU therefore should make it clear that this makes UK access to the internal market impossible. This is not a choice of the EU but the logical consequence of the UK’s quest for full sovereignty.
Business lobbies both in the UK and the EU will push for a different outcome. One in which the UK will be allowed to enjoy exceptions to the rules governing the internal market while maintaining access to it. The EU should resist these lobbying efforts. Failing to do so will open the door for other nations to do similar “cherry-picking”. This would undermine the integrity of the union and would contribute to its disintegration. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

How far should we push globalisation?

The discussions about CETA, the trade agreement between Canada and the European Union, have focused almost exclusively on two questions. They are important but certainly not the most fundamental ones.  In this article I first discuss these two questions and then turn to the more fundamental question of how far we should push globalization.
The first question at the center of the debate around CETA concerns the way national regulations on environment, safety and health are made consistent with each other. To make trade possible in a world where trading partners have different rules about the environment, health and safety, a procedure must be followed to make these rules mutually acceptable. When, for example, two countries wish to trade in poultry, they must agree on what constitutes a healthy chicken. The attitude of many opponents of CETA in Europe is that European regulation is superior to the Canadian (or American in the context of TTIP), and that as a result Canadian and American chicken are suspect, if not poisonous. The implicit hypothesis of this attitude is that European governments care more about the health and safety of their citizens than the Canadian and American governments do about their citizens.
Such an attitude makes trade agreements very difficult. Moreover, it is not based on facts. There is no reason to assume that European legislation of health, safety and the environment is superior to the North American one. If that were the case, the European regulators would long ago have curbed the harmful emissions of rigged European-made diesel cars. They did not, the US authorities did.
The second question at the forefront of the CETA negotiations had to do with the legal procedures to resolve disputes between foreign investors and national authorities. The CETA trade agreement, like many others, provides that foreign investors who feel harmed by new environmental, health, and safety regulations can turn to a special arbitration procedure. This is indeed a problem. It would be better to accept the jurisdiction of national courts in these matters, rather than allowing international investors to turn to special arbitration courts. The feeling in many countries that this is an unacceptable discrimination favoring mostly multinational corporations should be respected. It is better to rely on the national courts to settle disputes. Yet I have the impression that the opponents of CETA (and TTIP) have blown this problem out of proportion, even arguing that the ratification of these trade agreements would undermine the foundations of our democracy.
A more fundamental issue that arises here and which has not sufficiently been addressed in the discussions around CETA has to do with the question of  how far we should push globalization?
In my academic career I have always been an advocate of free trade. Free trade provided the basis of the phenomenal material prosperity we have achieved in Europe in the postwar period. It has also made it possible for hundreds of millions of people, especially in Asia, to be pulled out of extreme poverty and to live a decent life.
But it now appears that globalization reaches its limits. These limits exist for two reasons. Firstly, there is the environmental limit. Globalization leads to very strong forms of specialization. There is of course nothing wrong with specialization as it provides the condition to create more material welfare. But specialization also means that goods are transported around the globe a lot. The lengthening of the value chains that has been made possible by the reductions of trade tariffs means that the same goods can travel back and forth between many countries before they achieve the final consumers. All this transporting around creates large environmental costs (e.g. CO2 emissions) that are not internalized in the price of the final product. As a result, the prices of these products are too low and too much is produced and consumed of them. Put differently, globalization has made markets freer but these  markets do not function properly, giving incentives to produce goods that harm the environment.
When the proponents of CETA (and TTIP) argue that trade agreements will lead to higher GDPs they are right, but they forget to say that this will be accompanied by rising environmental costs. If we subtract the latter from the former it is not certain that this leaves something positive.
The second limit of globalization has to do with the highly unequal distribution of benefits and costs of globalization. Free trade creates winners and losers. As argued earlier there are many winners of globalization in the world. The most important winners are the hundreds of millions who used to live in extreme poverty. There are also many winners in the industrial countries, e.g. those that work for or are shareholders in exporting companies. But there are also many losers. The losers are the millions of workers, mostly in the industrialized countries, who lost their jobs or have seen their wages decline. These are also the people that have to be convinced that free trade will ultimately be good for them and their children. Not an easy task. If, however, we fail to convince them the social consensus that existed in the industrial world in favour of free trade and globalization will deteriorate further.
The most effective way to convince the losers in the industrial world that globalization is good for them is by reinforcing redistributive policies, i.e. policies that transfer income and wealth from the winners to the losers. This, however, is more easily said than done. The winners have many ways to influence the political process aiming at preventing this from happening. In fact since the start of the 1980s when globalization became intense most industrial countries have weakened redistributive policies. They have done this in two ways. First, they have lowered the top tax rates used in personal income tax systems. Second, they have weakened the social security systems by lowering unemployment payments, reducing job security and lowering minimum wages. All this was done in the name of structural reforms and was heavily promoted by the European authorities.
Thus, while globalization went full speed, industrial countries reduced the redistributive and protective mechanisms that were set up in the past to help those that were hit by negative market forces. It is no surprise that these reactionary policies created many enemies of globalization, that now turn against the policy elites that set these policies in motion.
I come back to the question I formulated earlier: How far should we push globalisation  My answer is that as long as we do not keep in check the environmental costs generated by free trade agreements and as long as we do not compensate the losers of globalisation  or worse continue to punish them for being losers, a moratorium on new free trade agreements should be announced. This is not an argument to a return to protectionism. It is an argument to stop the process of further trade liberalization until the moment we come to grips with the environmental costs and with the redistributive effects of free trade. This implies introducing more effective controls on CO2 emissions, raising the income tax rates of the top income levels and strengthening social security systems in the industrialized countries.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

How to prevent Brexit from damaging the EU

The UK has a new government under the leadership of Theresa May. The mandate of the new government, as the new prime minister stated, is to "make a success of Brexit". Although the detail of what success here means is unclear, there can be no doubt about what it means in general. It should be interpreted as keeping access to the EU single market while gaining concessions from the EU about the rights of the United Kingdom to control immigration. In other words: trying to square the circle. Something the Brexit campaigners have led millions of British citizens to believe can be done easily.
What negotiation strategy should the European Union take? Here is the choice that must be presented to the UK. Either the UK government takes over the Norwegian model or it stands alone and negotiates new trade agreements with the EU and about fifty other countries (or group of countries) in the framework of the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The EU must make it clear that there is nothing between these two choices. There can be no "special deal" with the United Kingdom.
If the UK accepts the Norwegian model, it retains full access to the single market. In that case there are no obstacles for British goods and services in the EU and for EU goods and services in the UK. But the price the UK pays in this model is the free movement of EU citizens in and out of the UK. Without the free movement of people there can be no free movement of services. This is the core of the single market. Moreover, the Brits will have to accept two other things in the Norwegian model.  First, they will have to abide by the rules on standards, health and safety that are decided in Brussels without being involved in the decision making process. Secondly, they will have to contribute to the European budget.
It is very unlikely that the UK government will accept this model. The Brexit camp considers free migration and Brussels legislation as diabolic and will revolt if the UK government accepts these conditions. True there is an important faction in the new government that is attached to maintaining full access to the single market and sees few problems in accepting free movement of people and Brussels regulation. But this faction is probably too weak to counter the demands of  Brexit supporters.
I assume, therefore, that the British government will reject the Norwegian model and will try to obtain concessions from the EU that reduce migration flows, while ensuring access to the single market. Here, the EU must make it clear that a special deal with the UK is excluded. The EU must insist that the only other option for the UK is to stand on its own feet, and to start negotiating new trade deals with the EU and other countries after Brexit is completed. In other words, the UK must be treated like the US, China, Brazil, etc., i.e. as sovereign nations that insist on maintaining full sovereignty over their trade agreements. The trade negotiations between the UK and the rest will take years, if not decades. Their outcome is uncertain. It is not clear, for example whether the UK will be able to maintain free movement of services with the EU as this freedom is intimately linked to the free movement of people. But that is a problem for the Brits who have chosen to embrace full sovereignty.
Here are the reasons why the EU should not accept to be dragged down in negotiating a special deal with the UK. Some EU-countries are tempted today to also organize referenda. I have no problem in principle against such referenda. If citizens of a country dislike being member of a club, they should be able to leave. This will be better for all. There is no point in living together with people who intensely dislike each other. However, it is in the interest of both parties that the terms of the divorce should be made clear in advance.
That is why the EU should make it clear what potential exiters should expect. It will be either the Norwegian model or a “standalone-model” in which the newly sovereign nations will face the difficult task of establishing new trade agreements on their own. Clarity is essential for those who consider leaving the EU. This clarity can only be achieved by excluding a privileged trade agreement with the United Kingdom.

When the UK joined the EU in 1973 its main strategy was to prevent the union from becoming too strong. The UK political elite decided that this could best be achieved from inside the union. Now that the UK is departing the century old British strategy remains the same, i.e. to weaken the forces that can make Europe stronger. The UK can achieve this by insisting on a special deal between the UK and the EU whereby the UK maintains the benefits of the union while not sharing in the costs. Such a deal, if it comes about, will signal to other member countries that by exiting they can continue to enjoy the benefits of the union without the costs. Such a prospect would fatally weaken the European Union.

Friday, 1 July 2016

The EU should take the side of the losers of globalization

How should the European Union react to the decision of the British people to withdraw from the union? This is the question that is at the center of the political debate in Europe.
The starting point in trying to answer this question is the observation that the European Union has a very negative image today, not only in the UK but also in other parts of the EU, leading to dissatisfaction about the European project. I will argue that this dissatisfaction has to do with the inability of the European Union to set up a mechanism that protects the losers of globalization. Worse, the EU has reduced the capacity of national governments to take on the role of protector, while little has been done to create such a mechanism at the EU-level.
Free trade creates an incredible dynamic of innovation and material prosperity. That prosperity, however, does not benefit everyone. Many are better off thanks to globalization. But many others are not. Some even see their welfare decline because they lose their jobs or because their incomes fall.
As globalization creates material welfare in the countries that participate in it, it is in principle possible to compensate the losers from globalization. That is the argument that most economists find strong enough to defend globalization. But the political obstacles against organizing redistribution towards the losers of globalization are large. This is a problem in most industrialized countries, but it is made even more intense in the EU.
The European institutions have become major promoters of globalization. The single market and the trade agreements reached by the European Commission have widely opened up the European gates to globalization. There is nothing wrong with that per se. Except that there is a complete failure to organize the necessary compensation towards the losers of the globalization. The European institutions have no power over social policy, which has been kept in the hands of the national authorities. However, the hands of these authorities have been shackled by the same European institutions’ fiscal rules.
The European fiscal rules not only make it extremely difficult to compensate the losers from globalization. What is worse, they have amplified the hardship of the losers from globalization. Since at least five years the European Commission has pushed all member-countries of the Eurozone into an austerity straightjacket that has produced economic stagnation and rising unemployment mainly of those who had already been hit badly by globalization. It will be no surprise that many turn their backs towards the European institutions that are seen as cold and ready to punish when millions live in hardship.
Not only the fiscal rules but also the structural reforms that have been imposed by the same European institutions are to blame for the rejection of the European Union by millions of people.  European policy makers have adopted the neo-liberal discourse. According to this discourse, workers must be flexible (read: they should be happy when their wages fall, when they can be dismissed quickly and when they receive less unemployment benefits). The neo-liberal policymakers that now dominate the European Union preach that social security is unproductive and should be downsized. These policies are euphemistically called structural reforms. They are imposed on millions of people, mostly the losers of globalization, by European institutions and national governments alike.
The problem of the European Union today is that, instead of helping those who suffer from globalization, it has set up policies that hurt these people even more. It is no surprise that the losers revolt. If the EU continues with austerity and structural reforms, revolt will spread and will take the form of attempts to exit the Union. It is time the European Union takes the side of the losers of globalization instead of pushing for policies that mainly benefit the winners.
This can be done in two ways. The first one is to stop imposing structural reforms on the member-states. The rationale for these structural reforms has been that they promote economic growth and therefore should benefit everybody. The empirical evidence of a positive link between structural reforms and economic growth, however, is very weak. Recent econometric analysis of the OECD countries fails to find evidence that reforms in the labour markets and in the product markets boost economic growth (De Grauwe and Ji(2016), IMF(2015)). These studies, however, find that investment, both private and public, has a strong positive effect on economic growth.
The latter result points the way to the second change in economic policies that the European policymakers should initiate. This should consist in boosting public investment. The latter have suffered severe collateral damage from the ill-conceived austerity programs imposed by the European institutions.
A boost in public investment can only be achieved by changing the fiscal compact that imposes structural budget balance in the member-states of the Eurozone. This compact has the unfortunate implication that public investment can only be financed by current revenues. A more destructive rule for economic growth has rarely been imposed.  When politicians are told that the cost of public investment should be fully borne by present taxpayers (voters) while the benefits will accrue to future taxpayers (voters) it will not surprise that the political incentives to engage in public investment will be weak. This is what happens today. Thanks to an ill-conceived rule, public investment in the Eurozone is at a historic low level.
It is often said that allowing public debt to increase will saddle our children with an unbearable debt burden. This criticism confuses gross and net debt. When productive public investments are undertaken by issuing government bonds, our children will inherit both productive assets and government bonds. Today the cost of issuing government bonds is close to zero in many Eurozone countries. If governments manage to invest in productive assets that have a return higher than zero, our children will inherit assets that create revenues exceeding the cost of borrowing. As a result, their net debt burden will have declined. They will not understand why we have not increased public investment when borrowing was so cheap.
I am a proponent of more political integration in Europe. But today grand schemes for “more Europe” should be put on the back burner. Instead European politicians should change their economic policies and, in so doing, show in the facts that the European Union can produce welfare, also for the losers of globalization.  
De Grauwe, P. and Ji, Y., (2016), Crisis Management and Economic Growth in the Eurozone, Chapter 2, in Francesco Caselli, (ed), Prospects for Growth in the European Union, Oxford University Press.

IMF World Economic Outlook, (2015), Ch. 3, Box 3.5 on The Effects of Structural Reforms on Total Factor Productivity, 104–7.