The paper presented provides a discussion and evaluation of the functioning of the fiscal discipline instrument; it was designed in the early 1990’s for inclusion in the Maastricht Treaty, refined in 1997 with the creation of the Stability & Growth Pact (hereafter, ‘SGP’), and reformed in 2005. Assuming that we need it for reasons rehearsed in literature, the SGP will be evaluated and discussed in relation to its effectiveness to date. Although case law is not studied extensively, a brief overview of the SGP crisis in 2003 will be provided, followed by a legal/economic analytical framework perspective with the SGP examined under the lens of soft and hard law primarily.
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With the legal principles exposing the economics behind the SGP, the rules and discretion debate is followed supporting evidence that the current framework has proved to be inadequate. The methodology continues to analyse the SGP framework with a particular focus on the economic crisis of Greece. The lessons illuminated from this particular case study will further provide possible recommendations to help the SGP become a more effective regime, in face of ageing populations and a need for growth enhancing forms.
While monetary policy is delegated to the European Central Bank (ECB) who face a challenge of convincing speculators that they are serious about the maintaining of exchange rate stability and that they will not use the option of devaluing (Jacquet 1998), fiscal policy remains in the hands of national authorities. Member States (MS) should however, according to the Treaty on European Union (hereafter, Maastricht) comply with the principle of sound public finances. To ensure this, the Treaty presents a no bail-out clause which prohibits the ECB, and other nations of rescuing a MS in financial trouble. This was further protected by the introduction of the Stability & Growth Pact (SGP) which further specified rules and procedures.
A primary source of European Union law is provided for by the power-giving EU treaties which set broad policy goals and establish institutions that, amongst other things, can enact legislation in order to achieve these goals. The SGP is precisely this further legislation that is required to give force and credibility to the Treaty. The legislative acts of the EU may come in two forms; directives and regulations. In the case of the SGP, it consists of two council regulations 1466/97 and 1467/97 which are directly applicable and binding in all MSs without the need for any further domestic legislation.
The fundamental objective for the SGP is to identify excessive deficits and end them as soon as possible. However, the SGP, in its original, reformed and current form is not effective. Whilst initiating debt and deficit cuts, it fails to stimulate and enhance growth. It has no end to criticisms in applying fiscal discipline. This has led to not only the SGP crisis facing the European Court of Justice in 2003 where the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) failed to impose sanctions on delinquent MSs but more significantly the recent crisis of Greece, where the failure of the SGP to discipline their budgetary discipline has led to spiralling debts forcing the EU to possibly ‘eat its own words’ in relation to the ‘no bail-out’ clause. This not only undermines the credibility of the SGP as a framework, but calls into question the functioning of the European Monetary Union as a whole. With the pact being described as an operational recipe and repeatedly being considered as too weak, will this finally spur policy-makers into producing a much harder pact?
The aim of the following chapter is to provide a brief focused review of how the SGP framework was formed.
The debate leading up to the creation of the SGP began long before the Maastricht treaty was signed in 1992. After the experience of the 1970’s and 1980’s it became clear that a new focus was required on medium term stability and fiscal discipline, and it became certain that there was a need for institutional mechanisms. In particular, the absence of a fiscal rule meant that the free rider problem was feared as MS’ may be tempted to run excessive deficits in the expectation that the Monetary Union will bail them out (Begg & Schelkle, 2005). Later, this became the one of the most compelling rationales for the SGP; to prevent the European Central Bank (ECB) from being pressurised for an inflationary bail out (Eichengreen & Wyplosz, 1998).
In 1989, The Delors Committee composed of central bankers reported that economic and fiscal decisions “would have to be placed within an agreed macroeconomic framework and be subject to binding procedures and rules” (Delors Report, 1989). This would also help to avoid differences in public sector borrowing requirements between MSs and present obligatory constraints on the size of budget debt and deficits (Delors Report, 1989), therefore limiting the use of fiscal policy itself. This not only combined but reflected both the Keynesian coordination and fiscal discipline arguments.
The vital question was how? The European Union (EU) was faced with key players representing different rationales. Whilst France wanted an ‘economic government’ the Germans central focus was on price stability, and they were adamant that excessive deficits must be avoided. Thus the result was the Treaty on European Union 1992. Whilst Article 99 states that MSs shall regard their economic policies as a matter of common concern and shall coordinate them with the Council, Article 104 states that “Member States shall avoid excessive government deficits”. The Treaty requires MSs to satisfy two fiscal convergence criteria to qualify fully as EMU members: to keep general budget deficit/GDP below 3% and nominal gross debt/GDP below 60% (Article 104c & Protocol) (hereafter the ‘rules’ of the SGP).
Furthermore, the excessive deficit procedure (EDP) is defined and shaped by the interaction between the Council and the Commission. For Euro MSs, this can lead to financial sanctions because of possible negative spillover occurring throughout the Monetary Union as a result of established excessive deficits. However the procedure, as laid down by the Treaty, is in no sense mechanistic. Ultimately it leaves the discretion of whether to take action to the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN). The EDP protects MSs from action in the form of ‘forgiveness clauses’ which accommodate deviations from the rules, for example resulting from an idiosyncratic shock, given that MSs meet specified conditions. This means MSs are still able to participate in EMU (Article 104(c) 2a & Article 104(c) 2b). For the debt ratio rule, the escape clause is ambiguous in its wording as the ‘satisfactory pace’ for approaching the reference value has not been defined and this has been interpreted very freely and at the discretion of each MS. It has proved difficult to devise a formal rule covering all possible events. It was interesting to note, that the SGP provided a further detailed specification regarding the interpretation of the deficit ratio emphasising the importance placed on it, yet it remained silent on the debt criterion. This can be interpreted as the SGP effectively overlooking the debt/GDP ratio as being unimportant in the application of fiscal discipline.
As Maastricht aimed at bringing into line the states whose fiscal history in previous periods had given rise to problems, Maastricht offered a great incentive of joining EMU successfully. However, pessimists worried that ‘Maastricht fatigue’ would set in once countries were admitted to EMU. It was thought that countries had been forced to suck their stomachs in to squeeze into Maastricht’s tightly tailored trousers, but upon EMU entry, they would expel their breath violently (Eichengreen 1997). Beyond doubt, a further mechanism was required to ensure that MSs sustained compliance. The EU faced two options; they could either continue to rely on voluntary agreements where MSs agreed to meet convergence criteria after EMU was fully operational or the EU could impose explicit rules that would elaborate on and give further instructions from Maastricht. Although the introduction of the SGP implied that the EU chose the latter, it soon came to light that in fact the EU had implicitly chosen the former.
Prior to the introduction of the Euro, the German government became extremely anxious about giving up the reputable Deutschmark in favour of the new single currency that would include fragile economies who lacked stability culture. Germany already maintained a low inflation policy, and through the SGP the German government hoped to limit the pressure other MSs could exert on the European economy. They hoped to remove the margin for discretion left by Article 104 of Maastricht by ensuring that the EDP would be implemented according to a predetermined timetable and the eventual sanctions would be levied according to a predetermined formula (Costello, 2001). However such an automatic sanctioning mechanism was considered inappropriate by some MSs.
In 1996, the SGP was finally concluded as being “far less mechanical than the initial proposal” (Fischer et al 2006). Based on two council regulations, it took the force of law, with decisions to be taken within the original standard legislative framework of the Treaty. Fiscal policy remained decentralised but the SGP hoped to combine restraint with flexibility, whilst representing a backbone of fiscal discipline in EMU to primarily address negative spill-over’s from MSs (Fischer et al 2006). Although the Commission reserved its ‘right of initiative’, the Council ultimately retained discretion in making decisions within an overall rule based framework.
Whilst some argued that the SGP was “no more than a clear affirmation of Article 4” (Jacquet 1998), others suggested that the SGP builds on the Maastricht provisions (Fischer et al 2006), by presenting a monitoring process, based on Article 99, which combines surveillance through stability programmes and a quasi automatic warning system for countries suffering from excessive deficits based on Article 104, often referred to as the ‘preventive’ and ‘corrective’ arm.
The preventive arm requires Euro members to submit stability programmes while non-Euro members present convergence programmes. Both are required to include the medium term objective (MTO), and if applicable, an adjustment path towards it. The MTO is required to be ‘close to balance or in surplus’ and the rationale is to ensure sustainable fiscal positions in the long run whilst also creating sufficient room for fiscal policy to smooth out fluctuations in the short run without violating the 3% deficit ceiling as specified in the SGP regulations. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that although the programmes must be submitted to the Commission, it may be examined by the ECOFIN Council which may choose to make its opinion public, and this can be understood as ‘naming and shaming’. In addition, if the Council forecasts a deviance from the budgetary position it may choose to address a recommendation to the respective MS. However this is not obligatory, highlighting the Council’s power as it can take it upon itself to apply peer pressure.
The corrective arm however, in contrast to Maastricht, provides for a much stricter and formal procedure, designed with a rigorous course of action set with time limits, to enforce fiscal discipline in the SGP (Dutzler & Hable 2005). Whilst an excessive deficit is established upon a breach of the 3% deficit or 60% debt rule under the Treaty provisions, the SGP nonetheless focuses on the 3% deficit ceiling.
This is arguably, a mistake on the part of the SGP creators. The inability of monitoring deficits due to difficulty in time lags means that data is imprecise. It can take more than four years to detect disobedience reliably, which means that disciplining MSs is even more unlikely. Therefore, focusing on the debt/GDP ratio would be more sensible. After all, it is the total debt stock that needs to be financed. Focusing on the short term requirement does not do much in preventing MSs from getting themselves into situations where they may need to be rescued as the Greek experience illustrates. Because debt is a persistent stock and not a flow, it can help policymakers in nation states to choose more suitable and reasonable plans, which will help lower the probability of nations facing a crisis such as the one faced by Greece. The persistence of a debt will help give governments an incentive to keep debt at lower levels in order to be able to adjust to unforeseen circumstances more easily. There is a question of how to set that debt limit; but that can easily be done using the empirical work of Reinhart and Rogoff (2009), and others, on the links between debt and growth rates.
Nevertheless, the EDP clarified the following. Firstly, the ‘exceptional circumstances’ are defined as ‘an annual fall of real GDP of at least 2%’ meaning that countries will be automatically exempt from further action. Furthermore, a fall of between 0.75% and 2% may be deemed exceptional if MS provide evidence. The deadline for correction of excessive deficits should be completed in the year following its identification unless there are ‘special circumstances’; these were not defined. As the rules in the SGP are insufficiently flexible, they allow for breaches that ultimately may undermine the operation of the SGP. However, because the procedural steps clarify that the timing between reporting a deficit above 3% GDP and imposition of sanctions should be no more than 10months, it means that, if no corrective action is taken in adequate time to correct the deficit by the year following its identification, sanctions will be imposed. Financial sanctions will be in the form of non-remunerated deposits which will take the value of 0.2% of GDP and rise by one-tenth of the excess deficit up to a maximum of 0.5% of GDP. Additional deposits will be required each year until the excessive deficit is removed. If the excess is not corrected within two years the deposit will be converted into a fine; otherwise it will be returned. Ultimately, this means a MS can run excessive deficits for at least three years before their deposit is converted into a fine.
Although the inability of monitoring deficits is unfortunate, the effect of legal and institutional weight given to the corrective arm means that the short term requirement of keeping government deficit below 3% is treated with much more seriousness than the preventive arm. This is ironic since in practice, the excessive deficit procedure is not properly enforced as no MS has yet been fined. The preventive arm on the other hand is enforced, yet its lack of formal and legal basis and no procedure to punish a failure to comply with the objective of a medium term balance further emphasises the lack of importance placed on the preventive arm. (Rostowski 2004).
This chapter will provide a review of the SGP as a form of proper regulation up until the SGP crisis in 2003 which led to the consequent reforms. The hard versus soft law debate will be discussed.
Whilst several Euro countries bettered their fiscal outcome by moving their budgetary positions into surplus, others such as Germany, France, Italy and Portugal remained trapped in high deficits (Fischer et al 2006). The implied emphasis on correcting deficits rather than preventing them (because on its sanctioning nature) induced a failure to achieve ‘medium term balance’ meaning that they had little scope to allow automatic stabilisers to operate once economic conditions deteriorated (Rostowski 2004). They were criticised as not being tuned into the pact and this failure of key MSs to respect the requirements of the SGP just a few years after its inception, triggered a heated debate regarding a potential reform on the architecture of the SGP (Fischer et al 2006). Though some may argue that countries would have faired worse had there not been a SGP, the operation of the pact brought to light issues which where nevertheless important. A continued period of low growth levels triggered by the dot-com crisis in 2000, eroded budget balances to the point where fiscal policies had to become strongly pro-cyclical to respect the 3% limit (Wyplosz, 2008), highlighting the fact that the SGP encourages pro-cyclical behaviour. In addition, the SGP discouraged growth and economic reform, most importantly in the labour market. REFERENCE?
Although these are major criticisms of the functioning nature of the SGP itself, what’s more is that the SGP is perceived as being contradictory; although created as hard law it takes the effect of soft law. With a legally binding nature, there should be little room for discretion, however as mentioned the sanctioning is not automatically applied (Schelkle 2005) to countries who are in breach of the EDP but rather, the members of the Council are required to vote, and only by qualified majority can countries be declared to have excessive deficits (Rostowski 2004). The council composing of finance ministers from MSs, implies that not only is ECOFIN dependant but it is also partial (Schuknecht 2004). As concluded by Eichengreen and Wyplosz (1998), the SGP will in this respect have some, but not maximum, effect. As long as imposition of sanction remains a political decision in the hands of national governments, it is highly unlikely that large and influential states will be punished (Rostowski 2004). This was proven in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) crisis of 2003. Due to the fact that EU officials will be reluctant to levy fines and lose goodwill, EU decision makers will compromise, allowing the 3% deficit ceiling to be violated. MSs will be reluctant to incur fines and suffer embarrassment, and therefore governments will also compromise by modifying their fiscal policies just enough to obey the rules, and avoid forcing the EU to impose sanctions. Thus although the lack of hard law perhaps implies that the sanctions were to act as a deterrent for MSs from violating the rules, the presence of the sanctions which will ‘never be imposed’ provides no incentive whatsoever for countries to comply with fiscal discipline. This is not only in the best interests of the respective MS but for the best interests of EMU as a whole. Furthermore fines may adversely affect a MS, causing conditions to worsen, leading “to recrimination and dealing a blow to EU solidarity” (Eichengreen & Wyplosz 1998). It makes no sense to place emphasis on penalising MSs after the rules have been breached; rather the EU needs to do more to prevent these breaches from occurring.
Not surprisingly, to date no country has yet incurred fines. Evidence suggests that the SGP has created divergence between different sized MSs (von Hagen 2005). With the three largest countries seemingly unwilling to push for underlying balance, the Pact seems to have worked well for a group of smaller countries (as well as Spain) (Annett, 2006). This demonstrates that enforceability is not uniformly weak; generally small countries have respected the SGP provisions, the only exception being Portugal (Rostowski 2004). This suggests that either enforceability needs to be applied equally, or the pact must regain the support of the larger MSs, especially Germany and France who fought for the creation of the pact. Perhaps a more vital question is why the pact lost support of the key players in the EU. If governments do not believe fines will be imposed in bad times, what incentive do they have to run fiscal surpluses in good times? The following SGP crisis was therefore inevitable.
In 2003, Germany and France established excessive deficits. However, the European Council (described as the ‘dozing watchdog’ in Heipertz & Verdun 2004) voted to hold the EDP in abeyance as it is permitted to do so by the articles in the Maastricht Treaty, causing great uproar for the ‘existence’ of the pact. As described by Begg & Schelkle (2004), “The ECOFIN council decision was widely interpreted as the death-knell for the Stability & Growth Pact.” The Commission challenged this decision by presenting the case to the ECJ whose judgement left many unanswered questions. This in turn led to legal uncertainty and the loss of credibility for the EU fiscal framework (Dutzler & Hable 2005).
More specifically the Council stated that France & Germany had established excessive deficits. In the case of France, Council recommendations on basis of art 104(7) set a deadline for taking appropriate measures to reduce their deficit. Once the deadline was reached, the Commission observed France had not taken effective action upon the recommendations (Dutzler & Hable 2005). The case of Germany differed slightly; although another deadline was established, in face of the economic slowdown facing Germany, the content of the recommendations was moderate. Upon reaching the deadline, Germany had, from the Commissions point of view, taken inadequate measures to implement Council recommendations. Thereafter the Commission issued further recommendations to the Council in order to advance with proceedings with regard to both MSs, and in particular, to take action in face of art 104(8) and art 104(9) EC respectively (Dutzler & Hable 2005). Although, from the Commission’s point of view, this should have resulted in the Council immediately resuming the EDP (Dutzler & Hable 2005), the Council upon voting, chose to suspend the EDP for both Germany and France. This decision was not unanimous; most of the smaller countries (who incidentally hold better fiscal positions) voted in favour of the Commission’s recommendation, but the larger countries formed a blocking minority (Fischer et al 2006). As commented by Dutzler & Hable (2005), in essence, the ECJ had to deal with two claims by the Commission. On one hand it was asked to annul the decision of the Council of not adopting the formal instruments contained in the Commission’s recommendations pursuant to art 104(8) and 104 (9). On the other hand it was asked to annul the Council’s conclusions, because it involved the decision to hold EDP in abeyance.
The Court, in its judgement, demonstrated an appreciation of both parties. It ruled that the Council can and must hold the EDP in abeyance if the majority in Council does not vote to sanction the MS in question. However, it ruled in favour of the Commission in stating that the Council cannot adopt political conclusions (Dutzler & Hable 2005).The judgement proved fatal to the existence of the pact as it failed to address important questions and clarify the institutional balance of powers between the Council and the Commission. It not only called into question the political willingness of countries to adhere to the prior agreed fiscal rules but it remains unsettled if the issue is to arise again in the future. Although Dutzler & Hable (2005) comment that it remains unclear whether the EDP can be continued without the Council’s approval, it is likely that the sanctions will never be applied without the backing of MSs as this would never be politically accepted. Therefore the question of whether the SGP effectively enforces MSs to obey fiscal rules is brought to light. The extent to which the system of fiscal surveillance and economic policy coordination binds the MSs and institutions remains unclear. The 2003 crisis called for a refocusing of the SGP and a need for political agreement opening the path to reform the SGP architecture (Begg & Schelkle 2004), as supported by many of its critics.
To restore the credibility of the so called ‘hard-law’ fiscal coordination, in 2004 the Commission “suggested that an enriched common fiscal framework with a strong economic rationale would allow differences in economic situations across the enlarged EU to be better catered for and would contribute to greater credibility and ownership of the SGP in the MSs building on the culture of sound fiscal policy established in the EU over the last decade” (Commission 2006).
In 2005 the reforms took place (legal provisions in EU Council (2005a,b)). The revised version arguably offers some answers to what was known as the inadequate SGP. There are changes in the preventive/corrective arms and the EDP, for example a variety of standards such as the position in the cycle, the nature of expenditure and the level of public debt must be taken into account to calculate whether a MS is in breach of the 3% deficit rule (Couere & Pisani-Ferry, 2005), emphasising further flexibility. Contrastingly, there are no changes in governance. The voting methods and basic procedures remain the same, as changes to these would require modifications to the Maastricht treaty. Though the changes are welcomed (Fatas & Mihov 2003), the SGP may still be identified as the ‘dog that would never bite’ (Heipertz & Verdun 2004). For many critics, it was unruly that a softer pact was coming into existence, as a harder pact was desirable. However the Commission role has been strengthened considerably in that it can now give early policy advice and is under obligation to file a report if a budget deficit has been violated.
All MS have an MTO of
“close to balance or in
differentiation of MTO
depending on debt level and
potential growth, allows for
1% deficit if debt is low
In case of Deviation
No adjustment path or action
Commission can issue direct
“early policy advice;”
adjustment path specified as
a minimum fiscal effort of
0.5% of GDP and countercyclical;
structural reforms can be
taken into account to allow
Monitoring if Deficit
No obligation for
Commission to prepare
no mitigating other relevant
factors (ORF) specified
Commission will always
prepare report, taking into
– deficit exceeds investment
– ORF can justify
No specific provisions
debt can be taken into
Systemic pension reforms
can be taken into account
for five years if reform
improves long-term debt
Excessive deficit must be
fixed in year following
identification; if not, a noninterest
bearing deposit must
be made with the
Commission that is turned
into an “appropriate size”
fine if situation persists; No
‘minimal fiscal effort’
defined; No repetition of
Correction can be postponed
for one year if ORF applies;
Minimal fiscal effort of
0.5% of GDP to reduce
excessive deficit required;
Deadlines for correcting
deficit can be extended if
necessary steps are taken or
if unforeseen adverse
Hard law instruments can be distinguished from soft law in that they are fully binding. When MSs do not comply with these laws they are breaking the law and may be sanctioned accordingly. Contrastingly soft law instruments are negotiated in good faith and provide a new framework for cooperation between MSs. Whilst favouring openness and flexibility, policy processes follow a codified practice of benchmarking, target setting and peer review. This allows national policies to be directed towards certain common objectives. The essence of it is not to provide a single common framework but instead to share experiences and to encourage the spread of best practice. By avoiding regulatory requirements, it allows experimentation whilst fostering policy improvement and possibly policy convergence. These can be seen as managing techniques which provide means to promote policy coordination without further undermining sovereignty. An example in the general EU context is the OMC method used under the Lisbon strategy. Whilst soft law is easy to agree on but hard to enforce, hard law instruments on the contrary are difficult to agree on but easy to enforce. According to Wessels and Linsenmann (2001), EMU introduced both hard coordination in fiscal policy in the form of the SGP and soft coordination in economic policy in the form of Broad Economic Policy guidelines (BEPG). If a country deviates from the guidelines the Council can – as in the case of Ireland – adopt a non-binding recommendation against the respective MS (Jacquet &Pisani-Ferry 2005). Unlike the EDP, the guidelines are not supported by any sanction. However, there is a fixed format of reporting and a predetermined timetable is followed, rather than allowing for ad hoc decisions by policy makers that set the agenda for discussion and action. Therefore, upon this insight, it suggests the SGP takes the form of hard law in that it is legally binding, but soft law in that enforcement is not automatic. Of course there are many shades of softness in the SGP framework. The preventive arm with it’s close to balance or surplus provision, without sanctions is rather soft. By contrast the corrective arm with the ultimate threat of sanctions comes much closer to hard law (ESB working paper 2004.)This is not effective as it implies that only when things are wrong, is it time to sanction and this is an ultimate downfall of the SGP design.
It is therefore confusing that following the reforms, critics claimed that the ‘hard law’ institution for fiscal surveillance has become soft. Furthermore, critics claim that the SGP has become so soft that the functioning of the SGP is jeopardized (Schelkle 2007). Schelkle (2007) refutes this claim by arguing that the revised pact will be better suited in constraining MSs in their fiscal behaviour since the new rules will be perceived as binding constraints that shape domestic efforts. An apparent paradox exists; the weakening of obligation to the pact may in fact make it difficult to evade, although it implies a softening of the governance framework.
Abbott et al (2000) have proposed that there are three dimensions of governance – all of which characterise the degrees of legislation; obligation, delegation and precision. This allows one to compare and contrast the original SGP with the reformed version for effectiveness of instruments and for the relationship between these dimensions. Obligation has been defined as a commitment arising under rules. At the two ends of spectrum, hard law is defined as sanction-able obligations whereas soft law are norms which are too general to create specific duties. Delegation, whilst at the hard law end of spectrum would mean an international court or organization given powers to resolve a dispute, contrastingly with the soft law end, which implies diplomacy. Precision defines whether a rule indicates the type of action that needs to be taken and by whom it needs to be taken in order to comply with the rule. For example, the BEPG state the objectives, but not how these objectives could be met. As the following table summarises the changes from the original to the revised pact, it can be understood the changes were not a uniform move from hard to soft law.
high to medium:
Quasi-automatic sanctions under
EDP but political decisions by
Council required (with qualified
majority, the government under
scrutiny has to abstain)
medium to low:
Correction of excessive deficit can
be postponed, or high investment
and ORF classify the excess as
temporary, but conditions apply;
achieving MTO depends on
low (operational and
supervisory and monitoring role of
Commission is optional or
contested; less detailed reporting
requirements specified in Code of
high (operational) to medium
strong and detailed supervision by
Commission and Eurostat, detailed
reporting requirements specified in
Code of Conduct; reporting to Council by Commission now mandatory in the corrective
arm; option of early policy advice in
the preventive arm
Medium (goals) to low (means):
Excessive nominal, later structural
deficit of 3% to be avoided but
measurement issue unresolved
until June 2005 (not directly linked
no specification of means to
achieve correction or adjustment
Low (goals) to high (means):
Excessive structural deficit of 3% to be avoided, measurement issue
resolved for the time being, but
long-term sustainability (growth
potential, debt position) and
structural or systemic reforms are competing goals, specification of minimum fiscal effort to prevent unsustainable deficit or correct excessive deficit; country-specific exemptions (ORF, MTO etc) defined in detail
The architectural core of the revised SGP indicates that although obligation has weakened, delegation and precision have been strengthened (Schelkle 2007).
In the sense of obligation, it is widely agreed that the original pact was not as strong as the architects of the SGP framework intended. From a legal point of view, many argued that the revised version no longer imposed any obligation on MSs (Gros 2004) as it became even less likely that sanctions will ever be imposed (because of further flexibility and/or exemptions). To say that there are no obligations at all under the SGP is however misleading; why do rules exist at all then? Why does the Commission attempt to enforce them? From this it can be interpreted that obligations do not occur solely in the form of financial sanctions but also through peer pressure, as finance ministers may feel bound by Eurogroup, an informal body composed of finance ministers of the Euro-zone, with a strong identity. There is therefore an incentive to comply with the SGP in order to be a respectable member (Puetter 2006).
Changes in delegation mark more frequent communication with the Commission as its surveillance role was strengthened with the reformed SGP as mentioned before. In terms of the Commission’s relationship with MSs, it is interesting to note that usually national legislatures delegate some of their own scrutinising power to the Commission so that they can pass and amend proposed budgets but in fact the Commission has adopted standpoint of being an agent of the legislature by insisting that its reports are laid before national parliaments. This addresses the criticism that the Commission’s role is limited to surveillance.
Precision of fiscal rules have been sharpened; for example the measurement of MTO is subject to regular methodological discussions in ECOFIN and the definition and measurement of a country’s fiscal balance is more tightly specified by Eurostat, a directorate-general of the European Commission. Eurostat promote harmonisation on how to report statistics across the EU and maybe be described as an’ independent auditor’. But, a crucial point to make is that MSs are still not told how to achieve results and outcomes although it can be argued that it is unfair to expect the Commission to take even more responsibility, by identifying what is to be done as different approaches will be suited to MSs and their respective needs. An interesting question is why fiscal targets are not met. Is it because of a lack of effort or is it because MSs do not know what to give preference to when facing trade-offs? Most importantly, who should take responsibility when budgetary discipline is not complied with? This question, posed by Schelkle (2007), remains unanswered as it is difficult when complete transparency does not characterise the fiscal framework and responsibilities are blurred; this can viewed as a deficiency.
Overall, although obligation has been weakened, there have been complimentary changes in delegation and precision. As noted, more could be done in the nature of the precision of the rules. This could be a reason for why MSs are not complying with fiscal discipline.
Since it should be recognised that soft law may often revolve into hard law, in that legislation is enacted to make it more legally enforcing, it is extraordinary in this case to see the opposite taking place. Where hard law is usually needed to make soft law ‘work’, in this case, Schelkle (2007) has argued that soft law has encouraged compliance with the SGP relative to before. The conclusion points to the fact that the key to policymaking design is therefore to combine soft and hard law. However can the same be said for rules and discretion?
This chapter will address the question of why the SGP is ultimately a rule based framework, and discusses the implications it presents.
It can be thought that the economic versions of soft and hard law are rules and discretion. Kydland &Prescott (1977) initially triggered the rules and discretion debate highlighting the role of expectations and the value of pre-commitment as an answer to the problem of time inconsistency in discretionary policy making. They showed that if policy makers are left unconstrained and are able to reconsider their policy plans at each point in time, this can lead to suboptimal outcomes (Artis & Nixon 2007). Time consistency can arise in fiscal policy also; for example a capital levy provides a non-distortionary form of ex post taxation, while the anticipation of such a levy would destroy the incentives to invest and accumulate capital ex ante. They claimed that by relying on policy rules, economic performance could be improved. In the international context, the SGP as an overall rule based framework (Begg & Schelkle 2005) can be thought of as a product of this debate which in essence is being tested with the current economic crisis of Greece.
Elements of discretion can be seen within the SGP framework; at the time of creation, it seemed optimal to create a fine for the sanctioning of MSs so it could act as a deterrent. However, enforcement problems came to light very quickly; during the third stage of EMU, the 60% debt rule was relaxed in order to let Italy, Belgium and Greece join although they had debt/GDP levels of over 100% (Fatas & Mihov 2003, Rostowski 2004). If one is going to relax the rules upon entry, and then MSs do not respect the requirements during membership, it would come of no surprise that many would hold it unfeasible to hold the MSs responsible for this. Rather this is a deficiency on part of the EU authorities. Furthermore, in 2002, the Commission proposed that the Council should issue an ‘early warning’ to Germany and Portugal that their deficits were almost in breach. The Council however, decided not to follow the Commission’s recommendation (Fischer et al 2006). Not only does this highlight the weak enforcement as a lack of incentive for MSs but it further highlights the EU’s unwillingness to respect the requirements of the SGP as well. As a result one must question the nature of these inadequate rules.
Although Schuknecht (2004) argues that simple rules are best, in this case the simplicity of a rule has proven to be detrimental to its credibility as it means that it can easily be manipulated to suit dissimilar needs at different times. This has undermined the credibility of the rules and meant that the SGP was considered as becoming more and more subject to discretionary interpretations (Fatas & Mihov 2003), highlighting the soft law elements. On the contrary, the clarity of rules are important when formal enforcement is difficult; the current rules are not litigable nor can any army or police force national governments to comply (Schuknecht, 2004).
However, it has become institutional wisdom that ‘rules’ are better than discretion, hence the creation of the SGP as an overall rule based framework. Although the rules in the SGP can be identified as soft law, soft law can be good in that it reduces political transaction costs by improving transparency. There is an argument that if rules are well designed, they can be self enforcing (Schuknecht, 2004). This not only provides a framework for discussion amongst key players but it allows national governments to use supranational institutions as political weapons (Fatas & Mihov, 2003). For example, the Maastricht criterion was able to play a big part in reducing deficits during the early 1990’s. Arguably, without these criteria, the excessive deficits of many countries would have fared worse. Adopting common rules is time consuming and difficult as it requires an impressive amount of political co-operation. However, it is more politically feasible and importantly more credible than maintaining an effective discretionary cooperation policy(Jacquet 1998). However, rules in order to be effective must be legitimate; they must be seen as necessary and they must be enforced in an impartial and equal manner on all the states in the Euro-zone (Rosowski 2004). Unfortunately as discussed above, the SGP rules lack in their uninformed enforcement and as we shall see below, they are not seen as being necessary for all those involved in enforcing and complying.
Many countries have high deficits after years of high spending, with each MS having different political characteristics, such as divided governments, coalitions and division of power in budget making processes. Macroeconomic evidence undertaken by Romer suggests that deficits result from deliberate decisions of policy makers to leave large debts to their successors. Since future generations are not represented within the democratic process, governments are able to restrain their successors spending, leading to intergenerational unfairness. Evidence suggests it is likely that division of power leads to high deficits, as can be seen in Italy and Belgium who have succession of coalition and minority governments (Romer). High deficits lead to higher real interest rates crowding out investment with a negative impact on capital formulation and growth (Artis and Nixon 2007). It is these high deficits, no matter what their source, that makes public finances more fragile as they reduce the effectiveness of monetary policy (Giavazzi et al 1997), illustrating that fiscal policy is far from sustainable, and this is what makes deficits undesirable.
It is considered that deficit bias exists in fiscal policy since present forces tend to cause fiscal policy to produce deficits that are on average inefficiently high, and so there is a need for restriction (Fatas & Mihov 2003). Deficit bias exists for many reasons, for example inefficient policies which occur when MS governments may not know what optimal policies are. To illustrate, consider widespread protectionist policies that exist because many people do not understand the sufficiently subtle idea of comparative advantage. Therefore, it must be recognised that voters and policymakers knowledge is incomplete (Buchanan and Wagner 1977) and this is an important cause of deficit bias (Romer). A further example is of imprudent fiscal behaviour that exists when countries have high spending coupled with low taxes and therefore resort to borrowing.
Therefore a rationale for the rules of the pact is therefore to limit the size of excessive deficits and provide a solution to combat the deficit bias by aiming to move Europe’s budgets towards balance or surplus sufficiently to stabilize the debt income ratio or to allow it to decline (Annett 2006). However, in a fundamental light, the application of budgetary discipline to get rid of excessive deficits simply means that by imposing numerical caps on the size of deficits, it encourages MSs to continue to incur excessive deficits rather than getting rid of the deficit/reducing total debt stock, itself. As noted by Eichengreen & Wyslopz (1998) this can be likened to suppressing the symptoms rather than fully eradicating the disease. This obvious objection to the rationale of the pact means that the free-rider problem of the pact is aggravated. Nonetheless, suppressing the symptoms is standard practice when disease is untreatable. When doctors cannot fully eradicate cancer, they administer powerful painkillers to the patients. If the only way excessive deficits can be prevented is by EU authorities imposing constraints then there is no reason why this should not happen (Eichengreen and Wyplosz, 1998).
This then leads to the next question; is it even possible for MSs to achieve budgetary positions on average in balance or close to surplus? During the early years of the SGP it was reported that MSs were not growing fast enough; at the growth rates of the time they were never expected to reach the required levels. Discretionary initiatives such as tax increases or expenditure cuts were the only hope; if they continued at the same rates they may have had a chance. However further spending cuts cannot take place if past spending cuts were comprehensive. Others argue that improvements in the fiscal position due purely to faster cyclical growth will be of little help since what is required is an improvement in the cyclically corrected fiscal position. Permanent and sustainable increase in the level of output is needed and is harder to achieve. What in fact happened during the early years was that fiscal fatigue set in (Eichengreen & Wylopsz 1998). Furthermore the deep nature of the current recession is imposing a considerable burden on public finances in MSs such as Germany (Carare et al 2009), because more and more individuals are eligible for state payouts, a consequence of the functioning of the automatic stabilisers. This further exasperates the deficit. However it is not clear how this problem can be solved unless the government reforms social welfare. It is therefore not surprising that the European Commission has been appealing for social reform for quite some time in the face of significant political difficulty. The situation is feared to get worse as the EU is facing an ever-worsening demographic crisis where a growing population is relying on the working of the automatic stabilisers.
Yet only by achieving budgetary discipline, will MSs thereby leave scope for customary levels of automatic fiscal stabilization (Fatas & Mihov 2003) in order to ease the severity of economic downturns. In this aspect, the SGP is failing to allow countries to respond to individual country specific shocks (Pisani-Ferry et al 2008) since the SGP does not leave enough room to manoeuvre in recessions. Ultimately, the SGP fails to incentivise MSs to stimulate surplus during booms and this in turn results in the ‘tough’ times being very bad in the sense that the governments run even bigger and unsustainable deficits as lower tax revenues means the persistence of a deficit may lead to difficulty in financing and servicing the total debt.
Olivier Blanchard wondered how ‘strict’ a government needed to be in the long run in order to keep room for manoeuvre against an occasional but significant recession. How much below the 3% level would the budget deficit have to be to provide this cushion? (Eichengreen & Wyplosz 1998).This will ultimately depend on how far below the 3% deficit ceiling MSs were when the SGP fully came into force in early 1999. Furthermore, the phenomenon in the last decade seems to be that governments lack the appetite to cut spending, and to reduce government deficits, and therefore fast growth is required. The SGP in this case will grow more binding, and automatic stabilisers will fail to work as they should, further depressing growth and making the pact even more binding than before. Through this vicious circle, ‘Europe could be condemned to a low level equilibrium trap’ (Eichengreen & Wyslopz 1998). This relates to where economic growth is rising per capita income, meaning that the economy is not growing (Nelson, 1956). Not only will the SGP have significant costs of diverting effort from fundamental problems, but the SGP will indeed make these fundamental problems worse than before.
This has meant that critics have labelled this very same rule based framework as ‘inadequate’. As commented by Charles Wyplosz, fiscal rules used are either too lax, or they are too tight leading them to be ignored. For example, they are flexible in the UK’s Code for Fiscal Stability but very stringent in the case of the SGP. A further disadvantage is that once a rule is in place, it misleadingly seems straightforward to measure the government’s performance against it. Unfortunately in practice this is not as clear cut; firstly for rules to be effective they must be enforced and secondly, it must be noted that fiscal outcomes are the product of both policy and endogenous economic developments. Hence, what seems to be a compliance with the rule may just be the result of lucky economic circumstances. It is therefore necessary to separate the two to see whether or not a rule has changed government policy (von Hagen 2006).
The distinction between good and poor quality fiscal strategies is therefore crucial (Pisani-Ferry et al, 2008). The rule needs to be built as checks and balances in budgetary process (Fatas & Mihov 2003). This is hoped to prevent policy makers from incurring large and frequent politically motivated discretionary changes in fiscal policy without preventing proper functioning of automatic stabilisers. However, more so than the type of rule, enforceability is the biggest issue. Without enforceability a rule has no substance.
Yet although the framework is inadequate, having rules in the EMU context allows some form of discipline – and this is a second rationale of the pact. Discipline is needed in the fiscal realm to prevent the fuelling of inflation throughout the Monetary Union of sovereign countries when free riding MSs run excessive deficits. This is defined as the ‘externality problem’ by Heipertz & Verdun (2004). Inflation throughout EMU would require the ECB to increase interest rates in order to curtail this inflation, but this step may further depress investment and consumption within EU and cause the Euro to appreciate, possibly leading to the area trade balance sheet to deteriorate (Leblond 2006). However, from the ECB’s inaction of taking anti-inflationary measures whenever countries breach the rules of the SGP, it seems that they are unwilling to believe that excessive deficits will cause huge problems for EMU. Anthony Thomas, economist at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, summarises: ‘What is remarkable is that deficits are something that the European Commission worries about – but nobody else’ (Atkins, 2005). The SGP can therefore be considered as not only soft law, but also bad policy.
This is supported by Eichengreen and Wyplosz (1998) who believe that inflation spillovers are not huge. Misbehaviour documented in Table 7 of Eichengreen and Wylospz (1998) has provided evidence that excessive deficits do not result in dramatic inflationary consequences. Average annual inflation for a sample of MSs was a relatively moderate 6% over period. This 6% may be more inflation that some Europeans would like but it is hardly the inflationary disaster feared by Euro sceptics. After pooling data for all countries partial correlation between inflation and budget deficit is negative, contradicting assumption that deficits are associated with inflation. Not only is the SGP soft law in the sense that the rules can be breached by member states without it bearing the supposed consequences but it is also bad policy since such spill-over’s do not exist therefore questioning the need for fiscal discipline in first place. It is not the excessive deficits that should be of concern but rather the total debt stock as the crisis of Greece is showing at the moment.
In summary, if rules worked, surely they would stop delinquents from offending? The fiscal framework should strike a delicate balance between different goals. It should avoid constraining national fiscal behaviour excessively while redressing possible incentives towards deficits. It should make joint action possible without forcing coordination (Couere & Pisani-Ferry 2005). Although, there is a widespread agreement that the current rules are not ideal in achieving their goal of eradicating deficits completely, the rules are seen to be the best way of disciplining MSs in their fiscal behaviour. This is surprising since not all MSs are thought to be in a position to achieve a budgetary position of close to balance or surplus in the first place. Furthermore, without budgetary discipline automatic stabilizers stop functioning effectively as the rules of the SGP do not allow countries to respond to asymmetric shocks. It seems restraining excessive deficits is not necessary for the reason of preventing spill-over’s because in fact, neither the EU, nor the ECB believe that these spill-over’s will be detrimental to the European Union. An interesting conclusion that can be made is that it is not the excessive deficits that cause problems when they cannot be financed; it is the failure of the pact to limit the total debt stock. It is this that can cause the EU being faced with a decision of a potential bail-out.
As mentioned, Greece has tested the rule based framework as a means of applying fiscal discipline. Essentially the rules have proven to be inadequate in the course of the economic crisis facing Greece and ‘discretion’ seems to be winning.
Faced with high deficits, and a downgraded credit rating, Greece is facing economic chaos. Although it has only been recently highlighted in the media, Greek’s debt/deficit levels have been alarming since their accession into EMU (Couere & Pisani-Ferry 2005). Early 2009 the EDP was triggered, with the council adopting recommendations in April 2009. In November, under Article 104(8), the Commission put forward a recommendation to the Council that Greece has not taken adequate action to correct their deficit. The Council also adopted the decision that inadequate action had been taken. Following this, in early 2010 the Commission adopted a further “series of recommendations to ensure that the budget deficit of Greece is brought below 3% of GDP by 2012, that the government timely implements a reform programme to restore the competitiveness of its economy and generally runs policies that take account of its long-term interest and the general interest of the Euro area and of the European Union as a whole” (European Commission 2010). Disciplinary action would be the conventional response to Greece’s problems; however, there is not much point in this. The Commission feels that continuing a dialogue with Greece is much preferable to taking sanctions, as that will only deepen the loss of confidence in Greece and making it virtually impossible for Greece to sell bonds in the capital market. The Commission recognises this and is working to get an agreed resolution with Greece involving stricter fiscal policy targets. This highlights the soft law element existent in the functioning of the SGP, meaning that in fact although the SGP is rule based, the discretion part of the debate is winning.
The situation coincides with the reporting of the previous chapter; the rules of the SGP do not eradicate the underlying disorder and therefore, the country’s debt has spiralled out of control. This can lead to the EU being faced with the decision to bail out a MS although the no bail out clause in the Maastricht treaty prohibits them from doing so. Article 104b says that if a MS fails to service its debt, there will be no bail-out by the EC or the other MSs; the defaulting country and its creditors will bear the consequences of such a fiscal crisis. However, the clause lacks credibility; although the costs of maintaining EMU are high, the Greece government defaulting on its debt will produce disastrous consequences. This is an example of a time consistency problem, highlighting the absence of a commitment device that should be present on part of the EU authorities. Although an interesting observation identified by Joseph Stiglitz in his interview states that Greece is simply a victim of speculative attack, he suggests that the Eurozone MSs need to stand by Greece and restore confidence to the markets by guaranteeing that countries under speculative attack will not default on their debt. If this is convincing, the situation will return to normal and Greece will not need to be rescued. (Harel 2010). However as the EU are scared of creating a precedent for other troubled economies, it remains unclear whether the EU will indeed step in to bail Greece out. Should governments be made liable for each other’s fiscal difficulty? If the answer is yes, the SGP’s untested credibility is certainly going to be thrown up in the air with the ‘discretionary’ actions of the EU taking precedent over the no-bail out clause.
Along with other Euro MSs, Greece has long term economic weaknesses (Grant 2009). Whilst their over-regulated economies discourage innovation and efficiency, higher education is of poor quality and there is little investment on Research & Development. They are too dependent on low tech industries that cannot compete with Asia, yet powerful trade unions have pushed up wages (Grant, 2009). With a huge public sector, and low tax revenues consequent from a large black economy, the Greek government has built up large amounts of debt (BBC, 2010). Data shows that direct taxes in Greece as a percentage of gross domestic products are much lower, around 20 per cent, than in the other Eurozone countries (roughly 26 per cent), (European Commission).
Moreover, because Greece has tried to import and adapt models used in other nation states, Greece does not have a competitive socio-economic model that fits with the country’s geographical location, climate, natural and other assets, and the skills and the mentality of the Greek people – this has in turn decreased the competitiveness of its economy (Tilford, 2009). Because of declining competitiveness, current account deficits have grown to 13.5% in Greece. The recession is preventing the government from cutting their deficits by exporting more; only a big fall in consumption can shrink the deficits.
Because of its high deficits, Greece is seen as great credit risk (Grant, 2009). Because a Euro MS loses the freedom to devalue its currency, it can be punishing for countries whose economies are slow to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. It is in this case that the argument of the SGP rules being too tight, and not allowing enough room for manoeuvre can be applied. Although some argue that Greece’s problems relate back to years of high spending, the recession has further accelerated the bad circumstances in Greece; government borrowing is out of control with debt to GDP ratio expected to rise dramatically. Standard & Poor, the financial-market intelligence have said that Greece’s debt burden may climb to 125% of GDP in 2010, the largest among the 27 European Union nations, and stay at that level or higher in the “medium term”. Fitch ratings noted “concerns over the medium term outlook for public finances given the weak credibility of fiscal institutions and the policy framework”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the total debt will to rise to 134% by 2014. In reality however one may argue it looks much higher than this, and once it reaches this level the situation will be even worse because of the burden of interest payments (Tilford, 2009). This provides evidence of the SGP’s failure of preventing unsustainable fiscal paths. Investors whilst fearing default, by the government will sell their bonds leading to bond prices plummeting. A collapse in bond prices can cause a loss of asset values for commercial banks holding this debt. Operating in an environment of asymmetric information, fears that banks are at risk triggers bank runs (King 1997). As bond yields rise indicating the risk of default, Greece faces difficult choices. The best course would be to follow Ireland, Hungary and Latvia with a credible fiscal plan heavy on spending cuts that the government can control such as wage freezes (although this could depress domestic demand) (Tilford, 2009). Productivity can be strengthened by applying structural reforms, as Germany has since unification, to regain competitiveness. This approach is working in Ireland with public spending being cut by 20%. However, is the Greek political system robust enough to swallow such bitter medicine? (Grant, 2009) Chaos would face Greece, with protests and perhaps even calls to quit the Euro. So far the unwillingness of the Greek government suggests that not only are they ignoring their disobedience to the SGP rules but they are throwing to light the question of whether the 3% deficit rule exists. Previously, the problem was that the letter of the SGP but not the spirit was being met; now both have been disregarded. The SGP reforms in this case have been disastrous as they have had as little as zero effect. Whilst the early problems of the SGP provided evidence that a harder pact should have come into force, the softer alternative has not done any justice.
Jörg Krämer, chief economist of Commerzbank, said policymakers in Berlin had to be aware of the dangers of a Greek default. “Should Greece become insolvent and the value of its bonds collapse, European banks would have to take massive write-offs,” he said, warning of effects rippling across the financial system and a destabilisation of the Euro (Barber, 2010).
Greece is currently faced with two problems of credibility, in one scenario the SGP will lose great credibility if a rescue operation takes place and in the second scenario of Greek default, robustness of the EU will fail. By defaulting on its debt, speculation will mean that it will be unlikely that Greece will be able to borrow in the future, which may inevitably force them out of the Euro-zone. It is unknown what exactly would happen to Greece as it is unprecedented, though one can be sure that confidence in the Greek economy would be severely dented and the repercussions would be felt for generations. The option of defaulting, leaving the Euro, and devaluating will indeed increase the competitiveness nature of exports. If Greece contemplated on leaving, the financial markets would speculate against other potential quitters; Italy or Ireland for example could find their markets and economies going deteriorating significantly. However, few Greeks would want to leave the Euro because it is “a symbol of economic and political modernity” (Grant, 2009). Secondly, Greece’s partners would rather bail it out than see it leave the Euro (Grant, 2009). Former Germany’s Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said in Febraury- “in reality other states would have to rescue those running into difficulty.” This reinforces the idea that MSs would rather lose creditability and authority in the short term so as to ensure that long term stability of the Union.
On December 7th 2009, the ECB president reported “The situation in Greece is very difficult. We all know the figures, and we all know the very important courageous decisions that have to be taken to put the situation back on track.” With such statements, it comes of no surprise that many are under the impression that being part of the Eurozone will protect Greece from the financial crisis; this is true but the Greek economy is not suffering from the financial crisis, rather it is suffering from a fiscal crisis (Tilford, 2009).
The Commission has recognised that Greece needs to be bailed out. The European Commission “stands ready to assist the Greek government in setting out the comprehensive consolidation and reform programme, in the framework of the treaty provisions for Euro area member states.” said Joaquin Alumnia (Fraher, 2009). Following this, the European Commission adopted recommendations as mentioned earlier in helping Greece run tighter fiscal policy.
Being part of a Monetary Union means that a country loses its money-creating powers and the loss of exchange rate as an instrument of adjustment (Jacquet 1998). Furthermore, taxing powers may de facto also become increasingly constrained to the extent that economic integration and liberalisation promote the mobility of tax bases. Capital in particular may move to jurisdictions where there are lower tax rates (Artis & Nixon 2007). Moreover, governments who have accumulated high debt stock will no longer be able to resort to printing money nor can they reduce the real value of debt via inflation. This raises the increased probability of outright default on government debt (Mckinnon 1994). Although MSs should now have an incentive to avoid unsustainable fiscal positions, this will be only be a credible deterrence if it is not possible for national fiscal authorities to rely on neighbouring countries or EU authorities to help rescue nations that run into fiscal solvency problems. This is the rationale for introducing the ‘no bail out’ clause (Artis & Nixon 2007). However, governments may judge a ‘no bail-out’ clause to be of little importance if default has systematic consequences for financial systems also in partner countries. If the ‘no bail-out’ rule is not believed to be credible, its effect will be virtually nil.
Experience in the EU has shown us that crises can migrate for no apparent reason within EU. Banks in other countries are linked by interbank markets and by payments and settlement systems. The consequences of a public debt crisis will have adverse effects for the stability of the banking sector. Furthermore it may lead to a collapse of non bank financial institutions that are counterparties to banks in a number of markets. The Great depression illustrates that widespread bank failures can have serious macroeconomic repercussions. With the threat of banking panic spreading to several other Euro MSs this could lead the ECB having to monetize debt to prevent a meltdown. In effect, EMU taxpayers would be footing the bill. This ability to shift the bill provides a perverse incentive to run risky policies. The role of the SGP is therefore to limit moral hazard. Bail-outs will then become the ‘norm’ and holding the Euro system together will require ongoing support from all MSs.
Furthermore, contagion is more likely because Greece’s problems are not unique. On Greece’s resolution rides the fate of its neighbours, the Eurozone and perhaps the European Union itself. The story of the other Eurozone stragglers is different in degree but not principle. All are highly leveraged. If Greece is to be rescued, what about other MSs such as Portugal and Italy which may need help? These economies may prove problematic as they are much bigger than Greece. After all it is the larger states that, with their fiscal irresponsibility, ultimately threaten the sustainability of EMU’s monetary rules (Rostowski 2004). Italy’s government is highly leveraged it and it too must cut spending and regain competitiveness (ECB, 2006). Portugal on the other hand urgently needs structural reform to restore economic dynamism and fiscal health. Of the larger nations, Spain looks increasingly vulnerable to a Greek-style tragedy. Although originally thought to have worked well with the SGP evidenced by a budget surplus in 2007 (Central Intelligence Agency), Spain had a recent housing boom, where property prices initially flourished then dropped leaving behind a large stock of surplus houses. This has had a huge impact on GDP and jobs. The long term persistent unemployment problem has come out of the woodwork, and with an uncompetitive economy future, hope is somewhat limited (Central Intelligence Agency). Although public finances are not dire, the government deficit has accelerated. Rapid deterioration is a worry, and Spain may be the next in line to require a bailout (Economist, 2009).
Since the EU relies on ambiguity, it tries to maintain the aura of solidarity that countries work together and help each other, while sending tough messages to Greece and the other troubled sovereigns about the limits to bail-out and the need to sort out their budgets. The tension between these opposites has caused the recent yo-yo behaviour of the default risk spread on Greek government bonds. Since much of Greece’s debt is held by other EU states and by the European Central Bank as collateral; no-one will want to see Greece collapse. Furthermore, there is no deposit insurance – if bailed out, Greece will not have known that they will be in advance.
However, because there is no hard law to stipulate how a rescue operation should work, this is likely to prove costly for the inexperienced Commission as it would be sending the wrong message to the EU MSs. A strategy would b required which went beyond the route provided for by the SGP. As described by Wolfgang, (2010) the problem is the “lack of a credible end game”. Since the pact contains only detailed procedures of how to deal with a delinquent MS, it does not go further than its ultimate fine, suggesting that delinquents need to be ‘punished’ in a manner that sends out a clear message. Yet as mentioned before, what is the point of fining a MS when the damage is already done? Moreover, the present deposits and fines for Eurozone members are not incentive compatible as they make fulfilment of Maastricht treaty requirement harder (Rostowski, 2004). “The endgame is still default – and contagion.” (Wolfgang, 2010) .This further supports the argument that the SGP only addresses the effects of excessive deficits, does not quite get to the cause of the underlying disorder.
However, one must also consider a strategy of damage limitation. Whilst many believe a bail-out would send the wrong message to the Greek public leading to an end of any effort on their behalf, would it not depend upon what the type of message that is sent in reference to the conditions attached? A bailout should be as unattractive as possible so that it does not send a message of open initiation to all MSs, encouraging them further to avoid taking control of their budgetary discipline. A possible solution to do this could be by taking some control of the Greek economy, so that the partial loss of sovereignty as a disincentive to nations running large deficits that will require future bail outs. Although this would not rule out the probability of default completely, it would help to minimise automatic contagion. MSs who do not agree to the conditions could still default but, at least, other EMU countries would have the choice of preventing a spill-over by complying with the agreed procedure.
In order to attach conditions to a bailout, it is thought it would be a mistake for the EU to run the rescue operation without any help from the IMF. The reality is that neither the Eurozone countries nor the Commission have the power to negotiate conditions. “The IMF has a reputation for objectivity and is experienced at setting conditions” (Grant, 2009). If the EU tried to negotiate there may be a risk of the EU becoming hated in Greece. One argument is that the EU provides the financial aid, but allows IMF to set the conditions and make an agreement with Greece. There is a further point that must be considered; the bailout may prove to be deflationary. This is likely if the conditions attached to the bailout, such as cut public spending, are deflationary. It must be distinguished that it is not the effects of the bailout itself but rather the conditionality. However, it is likely that the recession or default may lead to deflation in the Eurozone anyway. In relation to the current crisis, the ECB has been conservative in its response by decreasing interest rates several times despite the belief that interest rates would increase following the recession which has sent deficit levels to dazzling heights in many MSs, especially in Greece. This is because, at the moment, there is no perceived threat of inflation. There are concerns that if either interest rates increase prematurely, or if the fiscal expansion on the part of MSs is curtailed too soon, then the EU economy will dip back into recession. This means that the ECB is likely to keep interest rates low, making the Euro less attractive although it could help MSs regain competitiveness. Lower interest rates may encourage borrowing and consumption. Deflation in the face of default may also occur. Eichengreen & Wyslopz (1998) identify similar past experiences; the Fed Reserve response to the collapse of stock prices in 1929 and 1987, and the banking crises in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Limitations of evidence were identified; the past banking crises were caused by poor real estate loans and are unlikely to provide much information about the probability of a public debt crisis triggering a banking crisis.
Then, although deflation may occur anyway, supports of an IMF bailout do not take into account the signal that would be sent to the EU. Whilst illustrating that the Eurozone is incapable of dealing with its troubled economies, it could lead to a loss of credibility. This could spur investors into treating the Eurozone as a fixed exchange rate mechanism rather than a Monetary Union. Another shortcoming of using IMF is that because Greece is unable to devalue its currency (Tilford, 2009), there may be a repeat scenario (of the Argentinian crisis) where the government ‘broke the rules’ and defaulted on its $100 bn government debt in 2001 because it was not willing to devalue (Wolfgang, 2010). However, in the final instance it might be the best solution. While it would be embarrassing from the Eurozone’s perspective that it’s SGP hasn’t worked, it would on the other hand, send out a clear signal to Greece that if it does not mend its ways the only answer is to turn to the ‘tougher’ IMF or to sink.
Nevertheless, German and French officials contend that Greece is to blame for its own troubles and that it would be difficult to justify emergency aid for the Greeks when other governments, such as Ireland, have imposed harsh austerity measures on their citizens to dig themselves out of crisis. Furthermore, a problem facing a bailout of Greece by its neighbours is that Greece has very generous social wage, including a retirement age of 57 years old. In Germany the retirement age recently was raised from 65 to 67 years old. Therefore politically it is very difficult for Germany to explain to its citizens why German tax-payers money should be used to bail-out Greece and effectively pay for the retirement of Greeks at age 57. But equally it is difficult to argue that Germany should be telling the Greek government its policy on retirement age. This is a difficult situation and explains why many commentators are arguing that the long term solution to the "Greek" problem (which also afflicts Portugal and Spain, and maybe Italy) is to increase the "political union" of the EU in order that domestic social policies can become a matter of "common concern".
As suggested by Wolfgang (2010), some have remarked that the current circumstances facing the EU have been reminders of the speculation that occurred during the exchange rate mechanism on Sterling in 1992. At the time, finance ministers and central bankers reacted with anger and incomprehension. The ERM crisis demonstrates that stabilizing exchange rates can be very costly if it goes against speculators expectations (Jacquet 1998). Sterling’s short lived period in the ERM was as unsustainable then as Greeks debt is today. Prior to the ERM crisis, in the UK, inflation was at high levels. To try and curtail this, the government joined the ERM. Since the UK government was committed to maintaining a rate of the pound believed to be outrageous by the markets, they raised interest rates in the middle of the recession. However the markets took no notice and continued selling Sterling. Eventually, the UK chancellor decided to leave the ERM and in turn the Pound was devalued causing the interest rate to fall. The UK was finally able to begin to recover from its unnecessary recession. It is a classic example of failed government policy as policymakers continue to an understanding of how financial markets will respond to the nature of policies. Since a bailout procedure is not specified, it remains unclear what will happen if a nation is unable to finance its debt. With the Eurozone choosing not to address this, financial markets are confused as to what will happen. As a result, it has been concluded that the likelihood of a contagious default is rising.
In summary, it seems that a debt/deficit crisis has been a long time coming. Without rules that combat excessive deficits rather than the deficit bias, the SGP will not succeed in removing or limiting excessive deficits. Furthermore, incentives are needed to push MSs governments to achieve budgetary discipline and this is not helped by the fact that the rules and procedures of the SGP do not contain an automatic enforcing mechanism. From this chapter, it is seen that the ‘no bail out rule’, presenting a time inconsistency problem, is not a credible ‘threat’ for these very shortcomings. The anxiety surrounding the Greek economy is creating a confidence crisis and if the EU wants to convince investors that it is taking their fears about sovereign debt default seriously, it may soon be necessary for the Greek government to seek a bailout.
Overall the pact has many flaws at different layers. With the preventive and corrective arm of the SGP only mentioning the 3% deficit ceiling, the pact does not fully require MSs to reduce their total debt stock. Although the preventive arm requires MS to submit programmes that include the MTO with a budgetary position of ‘close to balance or in surplus’ it does not explicitly mention the rule specified in Maastricht, emphasising the importance placed on the short term requirement. Until this issue is addressed the pact will not help MSs to achieve debt sustainability in the long run. It is therefore not surprising that the SGP rules push MSs to meet the letter but not the spirit of the law.
A key weakness of the SGP is therefore that it seems to work well in ‘good times’ but in lean times it has no value. However, since deficits cannot be eliminated completely, and the next best option is to limit the size of excessive deficits, the SGP could instead introduce a rule which requires or pushes MSs to have their budget balance in surplus during boom periods. Although this may be difficult in that it is impossible to be sure that surplus can be achieved in economies that perhaps have low growth rates, it highlights the SGP as being inefficient in stimulating growth and pushing for structural reform. The ‘Stability & Growth Pact” is in fact an ill-fitting name for it. If it cannot go as far as requiring nations to have a budgetary position of being in surplus, then it should certainly do more to push for good times rather than preventing the bad times as this has proved ineffective. There need to be incentives built into the pact, for example a system of rewarding countries who comply with the SGP rules. Thos could be done by presenting more autonomy in their fiscal behaviour. As noted by Schuknecht (2004) the payoffs of complying need to be bigger than deviation.
Secondly there is the issue of the preventive arm being softer than the corrective arm. With the preventive arm, requiring MSs to submit programmes it is in practice, enforced. However, it differs from the corrective arm in that it has no sanctions. The corrective arm, further specifying the EDP procedure, is weak in its enforcement. With no countries yet being penalised for establishing excessive deficits, it has little effect. Overall, the SGP is not hard law. As described by Begg & Schlkle (2005) “the pact is a weak and ill conceived substitute for a central fiscal authority acting as a politically legitimate counterweight to the ECB”.
Whilst the SGP cannot dictate to national governments on how to run their economies, the best it can do is to try and enforce budgetary discipline. Schelkle (2007) attempted to show that soft law in the shadow of hard law can indeed help compliance with the SGP, but unfortunately the case of Greece has proven otherwise. The economic crisis of Greece has gone beyond showing that enforcement is difficult in soft law with the lack of incentives for MSs, but rather that the fiscal architecture in EMU is less than credible. With no incremental punishment, and no mechanism to deal with delinquents the SGP has proved worthless.
Therefore, the SGP needs to be revised thoroughly to become ‘harder’ than it is at present. A credible regime and punitive method of enforcement is very much needed as the current SGP is criticised for being too soft and lacking ‘teeth’. This issue of enforcement fails to incentivise MSs to comply with budgetary discipline and this has been re-enforced with the fact that no country has yet been fined. The pact can only be made harder if greater power is given to the Commission, that is, they can both warn MSs and impose sanctions under EDP however it has been found find that this degree of centralization uncongenial and unlikely to be politically acceptable to MS (Rostowski 2004 and Buti et al 2003).
However, the enforcement issue is a matter of the chicken and the egg, what comes first? Is it that rules are not enforced that causes the SGP to be useless? Or is it that the rules themselves are useless, causing the pact to be ignored? As Rostowski (2004) has commented, rules must be seen to be legitimate if they are to be enforced and complied with. The rules of the SGP, may in this light be questioned as shown by the ECB’s unwillingness to curtail inflation when MSs violate the rules of the pact and the ‘close to balance or in surplus’ rule never being able to be reached as suggested by Greek governments unwillingness to act. This throws to light the question of the existence of the Pact.
The Greece crisis has brought into question the credibility of the EMU framework. If the EU proceeds to bailout Greece, EU authorities will be hoping that they have not set a precedent. With no experience, the EU may struggle to help Greece in the long run as there is no hard law to specify how a bailout will work. The EU, after being faced with a difficult decision of bailing out Greece, must now create a bailout procedure that will include conditions to be imposed on the delinquent country. Hopefully this will be a more of a deterrent effect than simply including a no-bail out clause despite the fact that all national governments are aware that the EU will most likely step in because of highly probable contagion. The EU needs to be move fast, especially with economies of other nations who are also suffering, at the hands of the recession. Another possible option is that the ECB could be given power to pump money into an economy in need, and withdraw after competitiveness has been achieved and country’s economic performance has improved.
Other options can be explored to help MSs comply with budgetary discipline. Rules need to be credible in their punitive method. Rostowski (2004) believes a delinquent country should be punished by the EU by being forced to leave. Only if this threat of kicking out MSs is credible will this system of dealing with non-compliant nations work. After examining a different system in Poland, Rostowski (2004) proposes that a similar treaty constitution be formed in the EU. This would mean that MSs would have to enact domestic fiscal rules, and if the rules were not complied with the rules would be regarded as rescinded, rather than breached. This would mean that the offending MS would need to quit the Euro as rescinding domestic laws would mean breaking the conditions of Eurozone membership. These fiscal rules would have a high degree of enforcement and yet do not centralise discretionary fiscal policy at EMU level. When countries violate chosen thresholds, the argument that high debt countries press for higher inflation to reduce their debt value could be solved by limiting their voting rights in ECB (de Grauwe). Exclusion from Eurozone does not mean they have to introduce their own currency, but it means that they would be excluded from setting interest rates, in seignorage revenue from Euro creation or in any implicit lender of last resort liquidity support from which their banking systems might require. At least, a strong signal would be sent to market that risk of govt default depends exclusively on condition of its own public finances. Reintroduction could be done conditional on reintroduction of domestic fiscal rules required by the new treaty and on bringing public debt ratio below treaty’s threshold.
However, this has problems, for example unequal starting points of different MSs. It either needs to be accepted that some countries are allowed to maintain higher public debt than others or make sure they reduce debts. A second implicit problem noted by Rostowski (2004) is implicit pension reform. A 60% limit on debt would discourage implementation of reforms so a higher limit needs to be agreed for countries with funded pension systems.
Although this seems like a good alternative to the sanctioning mechanism of the SGP it again seems highly unlikely that it will be politically accepted. There is the intriguing question of whether rules are the best way to apply budgetary discipline in single optimal currency area. Perhaps a step is needed to move away from the SGP altogether, and this could be done with the adoption of fiscal policy committees (FPC) in every MS as proposed initially by Wyplosz (2002). The creation of independent FPC’s that meet common requirements must be Euro compatible and this would guarantee fiscal discipline whilst removing deficit bias. These FPC’s would be to the macro-policy fiscal stance what the ECB is to monetary policy. The Councils would base their decision on the fiscal stance each year on the need to ensure long-term sustainability while minimising short-term GDP and price fluctuations. With clear mandates and associated formal or informal authority it would achieve the same aims whilst leaving fiscal policy instrument as an effective tool of output stabilization now that monetary tool is not available at national level (Wyloszp 2005). These FPC’s would offer many of the advantages of both rules and discretion. Although a maximum deficit target could be given, rules could be replaced with genuine incentives backed by institutions. This would make roles and responsibilities transparent whilst allowing members of the FPC to exercise discretion in the short run whilst delivering debt sustainability in long run. The FPC would be composed of unelected experts appointed for fixed term, and should be given a debt target by relevant political authorities to be achieved over a given horizon. They would hold the authority to decide on the budget balance on basis of explicit GDP growth forecast although final budget could be approved by parliament who specifies a budget balance that matches the FPC’c decision. Finally the FPC could be made to be accountable to parliament – this is credible as the authority could be removed from the FPC by the parliament if required (Wyplosz 2005).
As noted by Wylopsz (2005) the FPC’s do not need to be adopted with full authority, they could be adopted as advisory bodies with little binding authority. The consultative FPC’s can have much of the required flavour and can be used for experimentation with both procedure and political acceptability. Eventually strengthening the power would then be a short step to fully fledged FPC (Wylospz 2005). However, even if politicians agreed to the de-politicisation of the fiscal stance, it is unclear how ministers of finance could vary expenditure and revenue so as to achieve the stance set by the FPC efficiently. One possibility would be for most of the short-term changes to be achieved through tax rate changes, with expenditure variations being much slower. A possible difficulty in this case might be a relatively low level of response of aggregate demand to what would be known to be transitory tax changes (European Commission, 2002). However, the strength of the proposal is that it sharply reduces the power of national politicians over fiscal policy, while at the same time establishing a framework which is designed to ensure long-term fiscal sustainability (Rostowski 2004). FPC’s are unloved because they are seen to be clashing with the principle that only elected representatives of the people should have right to make budgetary decisions. Secondly, proposal of FPC’s is threatened by interest groups that lie at root of deficit bias. (Wyplosz 2008)
In summary, there are lessons to be learnt and these have been highlighted as the SGP has in metaphoric terms, hit a brick wall as the Greek crisis has shown. After undertaking a survey of the literature, Rostowski (2004) and Wyplosz (2002) have both made reasonable proposals which are likely to do a better job of disciplining MSs than the pact. However, because both of these arguably, require nation states to give up even more sovereignty, the proposals are unlikely to be politically acceptable. Therefore the best bet is for the EU to ‘harden’ the pact and focus more on debt sustainability. Firstly, the excessive deficit procedure needs to be properly enforced by the EU, and they should take the step to sanction delinquent countries rather than hoping the threat of sanctions will act as a deterrent. Secondly, further regulations need to be enacted which require MSs to limit the size of public debts explicitly. Both of these suggestions should improve the functioning of the pact as a suitable instrument to apply budgetary discipline. Furthermore a bailout procedure needs to be specified in case a MS gets itself into fiscal trouble. Although this should be seen as a last resort, it will hopefully not be needed if the suggestions above are used.
Since its inception the SGP has not had much joy in achieving its overall aim of applying fiscal discipline to MSs. This can primarily be seen as the SGP failed to gain support of the EU Authorities when they relaxed the rules upon entry, and the support of the larger, influential states which was demonstrated with the inevitable crisis in 2003.
The framework stops short of automatic procedures but acknowledges the need to exercise judgement in the interpretation and case by case application of common rules which ultimately has to rely on peer pressure in decision making, meaning that the pact is more of a soft law instrument (Artis & Nixon, 2007). The preventive arm with no sanction only spurs the SGP into action when countries have already incurred excessive deficits. Even then, as demonstrated, the SGP fails in enforcing the EDP procedure to the point that fines have never been incurred. Although the framework was not brought into force to ‘punish’ MSs when violate the rules, it hoped to incentivise and push nations into complying with budgetary discipline. By demonstrating the problem of national politics versus EU rules and procedures, a clear case of misaligned incentives is created. With the time inconsistency problem that is built into these misaligned incentives, along with the impotency of the EU to fully enforce the rules, it proves difficult to cure these ills. Although one may argue that the SGP does have some value in that it encourages MSs the crisis of Greece has pushed the SGP to an even bigger crisis than the one in 2003, the pact needs to be reformed. Even though the reforms in 2004 meant that the EU Authorities recognised that the ‘one size fits all’ concept is not sufficient for the EU, other options will need to be explored.
The EU is not developed and ready enough to step away from the SGP framework altogether and explore options such as the proposals suggested by Rostowski (2004) and Wylopsz (2002). This can be seen as the proposition by Wypslopz to create even advisory FPC’s is not on the EU agenda, yet alone Rostowski’s proposition of ‘kicking out’ MSs who fail to comply. Therefore, the best suggestion is to move towards a harder pact which focuses on debt sustainability in the long run rather than the short term requirement which it focuses on at the moment. Only by making these steps, will the pact have a better chance at achieving its main aim; perhaps it will even help regain the support of the EU and the MSs as it will be more likely to be effective.
 For fiscal surveillance in the EU see Brunila et al (2001)
 Fischer, Jonung & Larch 2006
 Most notably Italy enjoyed this incentive. Joining EMU helped them to comply with the fiscal rules, and thereafter SGP. See Radaelli 2000
 A useful summary of provisions preserving the original texts can be found at Artis & Winkler (1998)
 See Hughes Hallett, Kattai and Lewis (2009).
 Many advantages for soft law over no law, identified in ESB paper working paper 2004 on paper
 Look at figure 2
 Case C27/04 – Council vs Commission 2004 E.C.R. I-6649
 Case C-27/04, Commission v. Council, 2004 E.C.R. I-6649
 There is no reason why inefficiencies cannot be addressed at national level but because it is a matter of common concern policy institutions and regulation can be improved at national level as a further back up (Eichengreen & Wyplosz 1998, Artis & Nixson 2007). On the contrary, Couere & Pisani-Ferry (2005) claim that the very existence of the Pact may have discouraged the adoption of national fiscal frameworks.
 For extensive literature on deficit bias and its political sources refer to Annett (2006)
 For literature on deficit bias in relation to electoral cycles look at Leith & Wren-Lewis 2009
 Annett (2006) notes that institutional reforms can also combat deficit bias through the use of fiscal contracts and delegation. Fiscal contracts appear to be a success as they achieve large debt reduction.
 For further literature – Imaan (1996)
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