Reform of the Stability Pact: political leaders simply give up
September 30, 2019
Meeting ‘informally’ in mid-September, the Finance Ministers of the Eurozone considered reforms of the Stability Pact. They concluded that the task was too complicated, too controversial, sure to fail. Refusing to face up to the challenge is a sure way of laying ground for a future major turmoil.
In 1997, shortly before the launch of the euro, Germany proposed what eventually became the Stability Pact. The proposal was directly inspired by the German federal experience but it had no chance to work in the European Union (and, anyway, it does not work well in Germany either). Yet, it was accepted without serious discussion. The view in Paris was that it was not worth a confrontation with Germany since the pact would not be respected anyway. This is indeed what happened. Beyond continuous frictions on the importance of abiding by accepted rules, the fraught pact is directly responsible for the sovereign debt crisis that erupted in 2010-12, coming close to scuttling the single currency.
The consequences of bad economic policy choices rarely surface right away, but they eventually do. Even before the crisis, it had become increasingly difficult to ignore the pact’s weaknesses, a first reform was agreed in 2005. After the crisis, more reforms were agreed. Each time, the pact’s deep misconceptions were studiously set aside. Rather, the focus was to refine its strictures, mostly by adding bells and whistles. Today’s pact is extraordinarily complex et deeply bureaucratic, the result of multiple changes that aim at the symptoms, not the root causes of its failure.
Am I exaggerating? For a long time, officialdom and many analysts thought so. The European Commission, in particular, staunchly defended the pact, which it was responsible for and from which it seemingly derived much authority. Not anymore. The Commission has finally accepted that the current pact is unlikely to adequately function. The recently created independent European Fiscal Board just published an official report that does not mince its words and largely validates the above criticism.
The September meeting of Finance Ministers was presented with proposals by the Commission and by the European Fiscal Board. Mind you, these proposals do not challenge the fundamental architecture of the pact but, for the first time, some of its key aspects. They probably are the best that officialdom can suggest. The main suggestions aim at moving away from nitpicking about annual budgets towards a longer-term strategic appraisal, trying to combine short-term flexibility with long-term rigor.
However, these proposals in effect challenge the pact’s logic, including the infamous limits of 3% for the deficits and 60% for the public debts. Were these objectives misleading? Yes. Do the new proposals stand to work better than the existing arrangements? You bet they do. Can we be sure that they will deliver fiscal discipline in each and every member country? We don’t. But for politicians, it is nigh impossible to recognize past mistakes. Risk taking (will it work 100%?) is terrifying, even if improvement is guaranteed. Anyway, they simply cannot fathom the opening of negotiations that are bound to be politically divisive and technically challenging. On the other side, they have no trouble kicking the can down the road and keeping in place an arrangement that stands to lead to yet another major crisis. This is not new, of course. This is what they did with earlier pact reforms. It delivered the sovereign debt crisis, which came about shortly after the Global Financial Crisis, itself the consequence of similar thinking. These crises delivered rising Euro-skepticism, they debased the credibility of the governing elites, which led to the current wave of populism and to the rise of extremism. Today’s politicians apparently fail to grasp the risk that they will lose power and that the survival of liberal democracies is at stake.