Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gloomy about Europe

Borrowing costs may have come down across Europe – even in Greece – but the underlying economic situation in many euro zone countries is still grim. And it may well be that the political consequences are only just starting to emerge.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times Gideon Rachman suggests that the euro crisis hasn't gone away: it has simply moved from the periphery to the core.

Italy, for example, has lost 25% of its industrial capacity since 2008, and the real level of unemployment is about 15%. The country's ratio of debt to GDP is more than 130%. France too has double-digit unemployment and the national debt is rising towards 100% of GDP.

Tension between European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and the German economic establishment including finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble seems to be increasing. And Rachman fears that Europe is very vulnerable to an external shock – such as higher energy prices as a result of any standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

Europe's fragile economy is in danger of being tipped into a deep recession. "And," writes Rachman, "a return to deep recession would favour the radical fringes in Europe."

Anyone who has witnessed Marine Le Pen's unequivocal and outspoken but brilliantly controlled television interview performances will be only too aware of the dangers.

But though she has made the Front National far more respectable than it was under her father and has achieved impressive electoral successes (such as in recent mayoral elections) with the prospect of more to come, she has not moved her party into the political – and certainly not into the economic – mainstream. She appeals directly (and effectively) to the French people and scorns the institutional status quo. And her protectionist economic policies are quite at odds with the economic thinking of both the centre left and the centre right.

The situation in other European countries, of course, is different but groups supporting policies similar to those of the FN are now a common feature of the political landscape.

In Asia, by contrast, despite rising nationalism and real threats to the continuing growth of trade and prosperity, bilateral free trade deals and other new arrangements to facilitate international trade and financial transactions are somehow continuing to happen. (Deals between Australia and Japan and Australia and South Korea have been finalized in recent days, for example, and a suite of new arrangements between Australia and China is expected to be concluded this year.)

Despite problems in some regions – like poor air or water quality, or food contamination – much of East Asia (and South and South-East Asia and Australasia) continues to benefit from strong levels of economic activity, with most countries still firmly committed to further lowering barriers to increased trade and investment.

Meanwhile Europe, driven by long-term historical, economic and demographic trends as well as more contingent cultural factors, is moving slowly (but apparently inexorably) to the periphery of global politics and trade. It doesn't help that, under an ineffective President and an increasingly dysfunctional political system, the United States seems to be drifting into a long, drawn-out and perhaps inevitable decline.

Such prognostications, I know, are not worth much. But as more people come to see things in this way – and they will if nothing happens to suddenly render this narrative implausible – these expectations will affect behaviour, feeding and consolidating deep, underlying economic and social trends. Even now, many Asian cities (like Singapore, for example) are booming and attracting some of Europe's and America's best talent.

I don't know that it makes sense to talk about Europe as a single entity. It has always been a patchwork of nations and regions with very different cultures and levels of prosperity. And – despite attempts over recent decades to create a more unified and homogeneous union – it remains something of a patchwork, more interdependent, certainly, but also more divided in new and complex ways.

Some regions, no doubt, will prosper; others will languish, relatively speaking. Given the overall economic situation, however, the best one can hope for, I think, is that the countries of Europe will maintain social harmony and hold at least to the general levels of prosperity which currently exist.

This would not be so bad. But such an outcome is far from guaranteed.