John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: President Sarkozy

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE’S VICTORY- WHAT DOES IT TELL US ABOUT FRANCE ?

The result of the French Presidential election was no great surprise in a way.

In fact, when one considers that  most of his first round competitors had  endorsed Hollande,  outgoing  President Sarkozy did  well to get  48%,  as against the mere  27% he had  got in  the first round.

The  Centrist Bayrou, and the Left Front candidate Melenchon, had both explicitly endorsed Hollande, and  the National Front  candidate  Marine  le Pen, most of  whose  supporters were otherwise trending in Sarkozy’s favour,    said she was  going to  vote for nobody  .

The breakdown of the vote is interesting .

Sarkozy did best in a Northern  block of territory  from Normandy over to  the German  border in Strasbourg, and  Hollande did best in Paris, and in the  rest of France, apart from the  Riviera.

Unlike the US, where women  are more for Obama, and men more for Romney, the two candidates in France got more or less the same level of  support from men as from women.

Those with higher educational qualifications voted more for Sarkozy ( 54%/46%). So also  did those who were financially better off.

Employees were  54/46 in favour of Hollande, whereas  business and self employed were  58/42 for Sarkozy.

AGE GROUPS VOTED DIFFERENTLY

The age distribution of support was most marked.

Those under  24 were  59/41 for Hollande.   
The 25 to 34  and the 50 to 59 age groups were  for Hollande.

But the 35 to 49 age group, and the over 60s, favoured Sarkozy.

SO DID PEOPLE OF VARYING RELIGIOUS VIEWS

The most remarkable cleavage of all was on the index of religious practice.

Practising Catholics were 73/27 for Sarkozy.

Protestants were 61/39 for Sarkozy.

But those who said they had no religion were 66/34 for Hollande.

Muslims supported Hollande by a margin of  93 to 7!   Sarkozy’s anti immigrant  rhetoric and his talk  about strengthening borders may have  won him  support from elderly voters, but it  may make it difficult for his party to win Muslim votes in future elections and they are a very important  voting bloc in France.

HOLLANDE IS ALSO COMMITTED TO AUSTERITY

Some may think that the election of Hollande will mean an end to so called austerity policies in France.  In fact ,he  gave that impression himself during the campaign. Outside France, some people  have seized on Hollande’s campaign rhetoric as a sign that   borrowing does not have to be reduced, and  budgets do not have to be balanced. They are mistaken.

In fact, if those who voted for him read his programme closely they would see that he is committed   to getting the French budget deficit down to  3% of GDP by  2013, and to eliminating it altogether by  2017.  That simply  cannot be done without austerity, at least  in France itself.

Of course a little less austerity  IN GERMANY  might help achieve that goal, if it meant that more Germans bought French goods, or took their holidays in France.  But even that is not guaranteed.

France’s big problem is a poor export performance. Whereas Spanish manufactured  exports are at 108% of the level they were at in  1999, French  exports are now   at only 72% of their  1999 level.  This is not, it seems , because French wages are too high, but rather that French companies have not innovated enough.

Meanwhile the French national debt is at its highest level ever, apart from the peaks it reached after the two world wars.

Hollande is committed to increasing the corporation tax on big companies to 35%, and reducing the tax on small companies to 15%. This would create and incentive to companies to stay small, which may not help the French export effort much.

He is also committed to employing more teachers. This will be difficult to reconcile with his plans to eliminate the budget deficit.

MEANWHILE HE HAS TO FIGHT ANOTHER ELECTION………

The immediate task facing President Hollande is that of winning a majority in the National Assembly. This may mean that he will avoid facing really difficult choices until June, when the Assembly elections are due, and  stay in campaign mode until then.

His difficulty is that the financial markets may not give him the  space in which to do that.  If the markets feel that, in the medium term, the French budget  deficit is going to rise faster than that of Germany, interest rates on French bonds will rise faster than those on German bonds . That could create problems for the euro, something to which President Hollande is committed.   

AND DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM OF GREECE

The Greek election result poses an even more immediate problem.

Greeks favour staying in the euro, but do not favour the conditions on which they  can access funds provided by the taxpayers of  other euro area  countries.

These conditions involve reforming wage agreements, cutting pensions ,improving tax collection, and  cutting the cost of  pharmaceuticals used in the health service. There is also a difficulty that Greece has  not done all the things it  promised, like eliminating supplementary pensions and getting rid of off budget funds.

The trouble is that things are now so bad in Greece, that many Greek voters convinced themselves that they cannot not get worse, and thus  voted for parties that want to reject the conditions on which money is  currently being lent to Greece to  keep its  government functioning.

Unfortunately, things can get much worse in Greece, even than they are now, if taxpayers in other countries decline to provide more funds.   A collapse in the banking system, and a disorderly exit from the euro, would be worse than anything Greece has experienced  so far.

President Hollande, as a new leader, with a democratic mandate, has a capacity to persuade  the Greek people to see sense, to a degree that may not be open to other European leaders, including Chancellor Merkel. President Hollande can  be persuasive in Greece because

France favoured Greek entry to the euro.

France never occupied Greece.

French banks have lent to Greece in the past.

Francois Hollande is a man of the left.

All these  things give him an authority  to speak to the Greek people,  at a critical moment  for them, and for Europe.

THE FRENCH PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

I was in France this week,  and had a chance to have a closer look at the  French Presidential Election Campaign.
It is a two round election, with only the top two in the first round, contesting the second  round three weeks later.
At the moment,it is likely the two in the  second  round will be François Hollande, the Socialist(now on 27.5%) and Nicolas Sarkozy (now on 29.5%).
The third and fourth candidates, Jean Louis Melanchon of the  Left Front, and  Marine  le Pen of the National Front are both on 14%, so neither of them is likely to overtake the front runners. Francois Bayrou, the Centrist candidate, is on only 10%.
When voters are asked who they would vote for in a straight fight between Holland and Sarkozy,  they plump for Hollande  by a margin of 8 points.
This is because Hollande  picks up a bigger share of the eliminated candidates’ votes.  For example, Hollande has a margin of 81/3 among Melanchon’s voters, and 40/32 among Bayrou’s.   Sarkozy beats Hollande by 49 to 16 among  Le Pen’s electorate.
Sarkozy’s best chance to win is if he can convert Bayrou’s voters to his  cause, possibly by offering the Prime Ministership to Bayrou, while still holding on to the National Front electorate. This would not be an easy task, because there is little or nothing in common between Bayrou’s electorate and that of the National Front
Some of the campaign debate is about taxing the rich. This is in response to the fact that incomes at the top in France have risen faster than incomes in the middle and lower range.
Clamping down on Islamic militants, and employing more teachers, are other recurring themes.
The fact that France has an excessive budget deficit, has lost competitiveness vis a vis Germany, and as a result has a big trade deficit, is not getting attention from the big parties.

FRANCE’S LOSS OF COMPETITIVENESS

Hourly labour costs in France are now 10% higher than in Germany , whereas ,in  2000, they were 8% lower.
The State in France spends 56% of GDP. Deductions from wages to pay for health and pensions (the retirement age is only 62)  are extremely high and deter job creation. Yet French politicians blame things like the Irish 121/2% tax rate for their problems in attracting investment, rather than the cost of employing people in France itself.
If Hollande wins, he could find himself dependent on Deputies from the party of the Left Front, who favour a complete ban on redundancies, and a 100% tax rate on incomes above 350,000 euros. Hollande himself already favours a top 75% tax rate, and an increase in the wealth tax.
France has a revolutionary tradition and a passionate belief that political action can change things. The difficulty is that globalisation, European integration, and accumulating Government debts,  have reduced political options more than French politicians are willing to  admit.

FREE MOVEMENT OF CAPITAL IGNORED IN THE DEBATE


The policies of the French Left would be very difficult to implement, because as long as France continues to allow free movement of capital, people who feel they are being overtaxed can simply leave the country, and take their money, and their factories with them. 
Free movement of people, and of capital, are requirements of EU and euro membership, and have allowed France to develop world class companies, like Pernod Ricard ,which owns Irish Distillers.
France  is prepared to take the benefits from globalisation, but has not accepted that these benefits come with limitations on what is politically feasible.  
 I believe that the unreality of the debate in France about its public finances, and about its true economic options, could become a threat to the future of the euro.

THE EURO CRISIS—WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

The  European Union is facing a crisis because of the loss of confidence in the debts issued by several member states. This is related directly to the problems and activities of Europe’s banks.
On 9 December in Brussels, the Heads of Government of the 27 EU member states meet, yet again,  to come  forward with a solution to the  escalating loss of confidence in the debts owed by European  banks and  governments. Each time leaders meet, and come forward with proposals that, within days,  prove to be inadequate, further confidence is lost  both in the leaders themselves, and in the  European Union, as a functioning  and competent  political authority capable of managing the  affairs of its peoples. 
This is corrosive. It undermines political solidarity within and between Europeans, and it encourages   reversion to 1930s style nationalism, and to  general  anti politician sentiment, which could eventually erode the tolerance that is essential to democracy itself.
There is a limit to the number of failed government bond auctions we can endure. Many further such bond auctions are due in January and February. In February there will be a General Election in Greece, and the campaign in that election will be critically influenced by the perceived effectiveness of present EU arrangements and the  steps Greeks are having to take to comply  with these arrangements. If there is to be a good result in that election, the EU needs to show electors that it is in control of the situation.
THE ECB CAN ACT NOW, AND SHOULD DO SO

The European Central Bank needs to take note of the situation. It has a mandate under EU Treaties to maintain price stability, defined as around 2% inflation.  There is a growing risk that the problem Europe will face next year will be deflation, not inflation.
If industrial orders and consumer confidence continue to decline, prices and incomes will start to fall, and the situation of those in debt will worsen further because, even if they pay all interest, the real value of their debts  will increase as a consequence of the  fall in prices and incomes relative to the unchanged level of their debts.
If these circumstances are likely to arise, the ECB has a duty, in the interests of price stability, and in full accord with its Treaty mandate, to initiate quantitative easing to prevent it. An immediate statement to that effect from the ECB would go a long way towards resolving the short term crisis.
 
CONSEQUENCES OF A BREAKUP OF EURO
Failure to act could lead to a break  up of the euro. This could be devastating , because a lot of the debts owed by Europeans are owed  in euro to other Europeans. With the euro gone, the uncertainty about who owed how much, in what currency, to whom could lead to endless legal dispute.
Governments trying   to establish new national currencies could face huge problems stopping  outflows, which could  lead to  limitations on bank withdrawals, reintroduction of exchange controls, and  tariff walls against their exports by other countries  in the EU aimed at countering  competitive devaluations of one  new currency against another. 
The legal order on which the EU is based could break down. We should not forget how inherently fragile that legal order has always been. If one country refuses to implement a judgement of the  European Court of Justice in an important matter, and gets away with it, the EU has no  meaning anymore because  the EU has no police force to enforce its  rules. Everything is based on consent.
Against this background, one must ask oneself if further EU Treaty change could be part of the answer.  Treaty change could take, at the very least, a year to effect.  But we do not have that much time.  So the best we can hope for is a political commitment  by Governments to seek consent to a Treaty change from their parliaments or peoples.
SPEECHES OF CHANCELLOR MERKEL AND PRESIDENT SARKOZY

There has  been agreement  that a  proposal to improve the  governance of the  euro zone would be presented by the  President of the European Council, Hermann Van Rompuy to the EU Summit on  9 December. In advance of this, the leaders of the two biggest euro area states have set out their requirements. 
In her speech today, Chancellor Merkel has called for Treaty changes that would make sanctions on  states who breach  debt and deficit limits  automatic and  capable of  being enforced  directly through the  European Court of Justice.  It would take the issue out of politics and make it a legal one. This would require a change in the Treaties.
President Sarkozy, on the other hand, said yesterday that European integration must be pursued, and the problem has to be solved , inter governmentally. This is because he believes that only elected heads of national governments have the required political legitimacy to make the necessary decisions.
These two positions are quite far apart, and there are difficulties  with both of them.
The difficulty with Chancellor Merkel’s approach is that it will involve the European Court of Justice in making economic judgements. 
In the case of a disputes, is  the Court really qualified to judge whether  a deficit is excessive by reference to the point at which a country is at in its economic cycle? Can it adjudicate on whether estimates of future revenue are valid or not?
Even economists have difficulty with these issues.  So the framing of a Treaty change in this area will could be challenging.
President Sarkozy’s preference  inter governmentalism  will bring economic judgements into the realm of power politics, the sort of power politics that prevented any  sanctions being imposed on France and Germany when they became the first to breach the original Stability and Growth Pact. His approach would diminish the role of the European Commission.
Both the Chancellor and the President are paying too little attention to what has been already agreed in the “six pack” regulations. These, which require no Treaty change, will already make it more likely that a state, with and excessive deficit ,will be fined,  because a qualified majority (66%) would have to be found to agree NOT to impose a fine.
Neither  the Chancellor nor the President pay enough attention to the huge failure of  EU wide banking supervision that allowed all this foolish cross border lending to take place within the single currency area. Neither of them addressed the lack of implementation, from the very outset of the euro, of the ECB’s responsibilities in the Treaties , to  supervise the  activities of banks and the impact those  activities have had on the stability of  the European economy. Both of them spoke as if the problem  today was solely one of Government finances ,when it is also a problem of  bank finances

THE GERMAN AND DUTCH PROPOSALS TO CHANGE THE EU TREATIES – HOW RELEVANT  ARE THEY TO THE PROBLEMS WE FACE?


But what of the more  detailed proposals for Treaty change  advanced so  far.  How relevant and helpful are they?  It is suggested that  we must amend  the  EU Treaties, because it is argued that the existing  Treaties either
 
a)    prevent  us doing what is necessary to resolve the situation, or
b)    provide us with insufficient assurance that  we will not get into the same difficulties again.
The German CDU has demanded Treaty changes to provide for

  • automatic sanctions for breaches of the  Stability and Growth Pact( 3% deficit and 60% debt/GDP ratio),
  • a procedure for insolvency of EU states,
  • the direct election  by the people of the EU of the President of the European Commission,
  • taking away the exclusive right to initiate EU legislation from the Commission,  and allowing the Parliament and the Council  an equal  right with the Commission to initiate legislation,
  • more seats for bigger countries in the European Parliament based on their bigger populations.

They also want Europe to unilaterally introduce a tax on financial transactions.
The Dutch Prime Minister has suggested Treaty changes that  would

  • allow a European Commissioner for budgetary discipline to force  states running excessive deficits  adjust their policies and
  • to impose  sanctions  including reduced payments from Cohesion and Structural Funds, national budgets requiring  EU  approval before introduction,  suspension of voting rights in EU institutions,  and  ultimately expulsion from the  Euro  zone. 
It is important that any proposals for Treaty change are based on an honest appraisal of what  our problems actually are, and are not put forward  as  tokens to soothe domestic  opinion in particular countries. Our problems are too serious now for that sort of thing. 
Given that Treaty changes in the EU require all members states to ratify them, the way proposals are put forward is almost as important as the proposals themselves. 
If proposals seem to be one sided, or to emanate from a small cabal of big countries, rather than  from an inclusive process of which all member states have equal  ownership,  then the  proposed Treaty changes may be doomed from the  start, whatever their merits.
On the specifics of the CDU and Dutch proposals, I would  respond as follows.

THE CDU PROPOSALS

The difficulty with automatic sanctions for supposed breaches of the Stability and Growth Pact is that, if the country on  whom they were to be imposed objected, the dispute would go to the European Court of Justice, not to the Council of Ministers for arbitration. Breaches of the Pact would include  questions about whether  assumptions about future economic growth and thus revenue were  too optimistic, the point at which a country was on in its economic cycle, and the like.  These are questions on which economists, who are studying these matter all the time, usually  cannot agree.  There is little chance that the judges in the ECJ, many of whom have no background at all in economics, will make sensible judgements  in such cases.
A treaty provision for the insolvency of states, as suggested by the CDU, will be very difficult to draft and will be highly controversial.  There may be some merit in establishing rules in this field, but I wonder if this is the time to be doing it.  The issue will not be being debated in an academic setting, but in the midst of febrile market conditions. There is a strong risk that the twists and turns  in a public debate on the  state insolvency   will have a  negative and unintended influence on the markets.
 We should not forget that ,when  the issue of so called  private sector involvement in resolving the Greek debt  crisis was first mooted by Germany , it had an immediately damaging effect on the capacity of some other  smaller countries to borrow.

CDU PROPOSAL FOR DIRECT ELECTION OF EU PRESIDENT MOST WELCOME
The direct election of the President of the European Commission by the people of Europe is a vey good idea. I advocated it when I was  President of the European Council in  1996, and again when I was a member of the Praesidium of the Convention of the Future of Europe. Interestingly, the only member of the Convention who gave the proposal any support at that time was George Papandreou. It is very good that the CDU is supporting this proposal now.
A direct election of this  kind is what we need to create a  genuine European  demos, or  sense of shared destiny, among EU  citizens whatever their nationality or language . Without such a demos or  shared  identity, we will be unable to persuade Europeans to make sacrifices for one another, and that is something we need if Economic and Monetary work.

BUT CDU ATTACK ON COMMISSION VERY DANGEROUS

On the other hand, the CDU proposal to take away from the Commission the exclusive right to propose legislation, and  to require it to  share that with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers,  is a thoroughly bad idea.
It would  weaken the Commission even further than the rampant intergovernmentalism of Europe’s response to the financial crisis has already  done. 
The European Commission seeks to put forward proposals that will command  support  from  all countries , large and  small. It formulates compromises in advance.
If the  Parliament and the Council could table competing legislative proposlas on the  same  subjects as the Commission, this would make the search  for subtle compromises much more  difficult. It would  enhance the power of the bigger delegations of the bigger countries in the  European Parliament  and would encourage  crude nationalistic  majoritarianism in that body. 
The Commission is the protector of the interests of  smaller  member states within the EU, and this  CDU proposal will be seen by them as provocative and subversive of the community method on  which the EU was founded.
CHANGING REPRESENTATION IN PARLIAMENT WOULD UPSET A DELICATE COMPROMISE
The CDU proposal to increase  the relative representation in the European Parliament of  countries with bigger populations, but without reducing the  extra voting weight that bigger countries enjoy in the  voting system of the Council of Ministers,  overturns one of the central compromises reached in the  drafting of the   European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty.
 The CDU should remember that ,even if the United States which is a fiscal union, all states have equal representation in the  Senate while populations have  equal weight in the House of Representatives.
 Under  the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has struck a similar compromise.  Bigger states have bigger representation in both the Parliament  and the Council, but there is a system of “degressive proportionality” which compensates smaller states by  giving the proportionately bigger representation than their population would strictly  justify.
 I cannot understand why the CDU wants to reopen this  difficult matter, unless of course it want  to use the proposal as a negotiating  weight to gain traction on some other issue. Frankly, I think our situation is serious enough without that sort of gamesmanship being introduced.
A FINANCIAL TRANSACTIONS TAX
The suggestion of a financial transactions tax has populist appeal. It may slow down financial transactions and allow a little more time for reflection in the markets. It would curb automated  transaction systems by making unduly frequent buying and selling slightly more expensive. It could  provide the EU with a new source of revenue, which would be very welcome.
But  It would also lead to  financial sector activities moving out of Europe, and the tax revenues that those  activities generate for  EU states going into the treasuries of   non EU countries. Given that unanimity must be obtained for this proposal to go through, I wonder if it is not, like the proposal to redistribute seats in the European Parliament,  being put forward as a  negotiating  ploy .  Again, one must ask if this displays the sort of seriousness that out parlous situation requires.
THE DUTCH PROPOSALS
Turning to the Dutch proposal to enhance the Commission’s control over the budgets of states running excessive deficits, it is hard to argue against the principle of what they are seeking to achieve.  The CDU has argues that fines for excess borrowing should be automatic.
But one might wonder how urgent  the proposal is.
 Financial markets are already imposing very harsh discipline, through demanding higher interest rates of countries with excessive deficits.
 It will be a long time before any EU country will ever again be able to borrow money at easy rates of interest unless their fiscal policies are demonstrably sound. Do we really need to reinforce what the markets  are already doing with Treaty changes at this stage? 
It is also worth noting that the reverse majority procedure now applies to both the Excessive Deficit and the Excessive Imbalance procedure. So a country, that is liable to be fined for running an excessive budget deficit, or an excessive balance of payments surplus or deficit, will automatically have to pay a  fine,  unless it can persuade a qualified majority in the  Council NOT to let the fine go ahead. Perhaps we should see how that new procedure works before going for Treaty change?
 In any event, levying a fine on a country, that is already in financial difficulty , will add to the difficulties.  It will be too late to be an effective deterrent
CUTTING STRUCTURAL FUNDS?
The Dutch proposal to reduce payments from the Structural Funds to  countries with excessive deficits  will  fall more heavily on poorer countries than on richer ones.
 Excessive deficits or economic imbalances in richer countries can be just as damaging as they can be in poorer countries, perhaps more so. For example, the Netherlands is less reliant on structural funds than is Estonia, so a proposal to reduce structural would hurt  Estonia  proportionately more than it would the Netherlands, even though their  excessive deficits  might be of  the same proportionate scale. That is unbalanced.
The proposal that budgets of deficit countries require advance EU approval is also potentially unbalanced.
 One country can only run a trade surplus if another country runs a deficit. If a country is deliberately managing its economy in order run consistent surpluses, it is contributing to deficit problems of other countries. That needs to subject to EU surveillance too.

DUTCH PROPOSAL TO SUSPEND VOTING RIGHTS IS NEO COLONIALIST

The proposal  by the  Dutch Prime Minister to suspend the voting right in EU institutions of a country which has excessive debts or deficit is tantamount to reintroducing colonialism within Europe, because it  would involve imposing decisions, in which they have  had  no vote, on  countries who joined the EU precisely because they  thought it was a democratic organisation.  The existence in 21st century Europe of a mentality that would make such a proposal is deeply troubling.
I am unclear about the merit of changing the Treaty to allow for the expulsion of a country from the euro zone. It would imply that the euro itself is a temporary expedient. It would aggravate speculative pressure, without any compensating benefits.
CONCLUSION
 
I believe the proposals from the CDU and from the Dutch Governments to  change the Treaties are not adequate to the problems we face, and in some cases are a distraction.
 The so called six pack proposals, recently agreed go a long way to strengthen disciplines on fiscal policy, and do not need Treaty change. They should be given a  chance to work, before we contemplate additional Treaty changes for control of national budgets.
But the CDU proposal for a direct election of the President of the Commission does deal with an important problem that underlies our present problem, namely the lack of a sense ,on the part of ordinary Europeans,  that they can, through their vote, influence the direction of EU policy.
 If citizens could  directly vote the President of the EU  in or out of office , that will give them a much more direct sense of control of the direction of the EU than they get  now from just voting  for their local or national MEPs.
None of the proposals on the table so far deal with the issue of banking, which is at the heart of our economic difficulties today. It was foolish lending decisions be banks that caused our problem.
The original Maastricht Treaty  of 1992 envisaged the ECB taking an overall role in overseeing the prudential supervision of  banks, especially banks that were lending across borders within the euro zone. This provision in the Maastricht Treaty was never brought into effect , because activating the ECB’s powers in this matter required unanimity. Some countries did  want not anyone else enquiring into their banks, and that reluctance continues even  to this day.
 
 Any Treaty change now should include
1.)  much tighter EU wide supervision of  banks,
2.)  restriction on the size of banks, and 
3.)  an EU  wide deposit guarantee scheme.

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