Issue 42 - 2005

Bulletin 42

Issue 42 June/July, 2005

When the dust settles

External author(s): Alasdair Murray
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East versus West? The European economic and social model after enlargement

East versus West? The European economic and social model after enlargement

East versus West? The European economic and social model after enlargement

Written by Katinka Barysch, 06 January 2006

China is losing its EU friends

China is losing its EU friends

China is losing its EU friends

Written by Katinka Barysch, 29 November 2007

by Katinka Barysch

The EU is getting tough on China. That, at least, is the impression one gets from high-ranking EU officials that arrived for the annual EU-China summit in Beijing this week. Economics is the main reason for Europe’s changing mood. The EU’s trade deficit with China is set to reach €170 billion this year, and European business is losing an estimated €55 million a day because of Chinese red tape, trademark violations and unfair subsidies. The EU’s economic troika – Joaquin Almunia, Jean-Claude Juncker and Jean-Claude Trichet – called on China to let its currency rise against the euro. Commission President Barroso and his trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, warned that they would no longer be able to withstand rising protectionist pressure in Europe, unless the Chinese made it easier for European companies to sell in their markets.

Will the Chinese be frightened? Maybe they should be. Those industries in the EU that compete directly with Chinese mass manufacturers – think Italian textiles, German light bulbs or Czech consumer electronics – have occasionally lobbied for protection. But European retailers and those industries that rely on cheap Chinese inputs, for example steel, have lobbied against. At the political level, the Chinese could usually rely on Germany, the UK and the Commission to make the case for open markets. However, this may no longer be the case.

The Commission’s patience seems to be wearing thin. Mandelson in October wrote a letter to Barroso that suggested that the EU’s dialogue-based approach to solving economic disputes with China may have run its course.
The British may be instinctive free traders. But British business is unlikely to lobby on China’s behalf. UK companies still sell roughly as much to Denmark and Dubai as they sell to China. On the other hand, China is now Britain’s 5th most important source of imports, with the result that the bilateral trade deficit reached €24 billion in 2006, a third of the UK’s total trade deficit with non-EU countries. Services, where UK companies are world leaders, account for only a tiny fraction of Chinese imports because domestic markets remain heavily protected. A recent survey showed that while globally almost half of company bosses see China as the biggest business opportunity, in the UK the share is only 37 per cent.
Perhaps most worrying for the Chinese is the shifting mood in Berlin, however. Germany alone accounts for around 40 per cent of all EU exports to China, not least because Germany specialises in exactly the kind of machine tools that China needs to build up its industrial sector. Since 2000, Germany’s exports to China have risen threefold. Since the German economy is much more dependent on exports than those of other big EU countries, it has had a strong interest in keeping economic relations with China smooth.

In recent years, however, the rising euro has made German goods expensive outside the eurozone. And German, like other western companies, have suffered from China’s very cavalier attitude towards patents and trade marks. In 2006, German machinery exports to China actually fell. Germany’s trade deficit with China has more than doubled since 2000, to €16 billion in 2006, and it keeps growing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the share of Germans who see China as an economic threat has jumped by 17 percentage points in just two years, to 55 per cent in 2007 – the biggest public opinion turnaround in any big OECD country.

German awareness of China as a competitor, not only a promising market, will rise further as Chinese industry moves up the value chain. Chinese car output, for example, is growing by 40 per cent a year. Although Chinese cars have a long way to go before they can compete with Volkswagen or BMW, the fact that China now produces more of them than Germany has fuelled some disquiet. As has the fact that China has dethroned Germany as the world’s biggest exporter.

At the same time as economic ties are souring, Germany and China have fallen out politically. The Chinese were very upset when Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama in her Chancellor’s office in September 2007. Merkel initially said she’d expect Beijing to calm down quickly. It did not. Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck had to cancel a planned trip to Beijing because his counterpart was no longer available. Chinese state-owned companies pulled out of a China-German trade fare. Scheduled dialogues on human rights, the rule of law and foreign policy co-operation were called off.

At the EU summit, Premier Wen Jiabao said that Germany could still be a partner and a friend – provided that Merkel acknowledged publicly that she had made a mistake by seeing the Dalai Lama. The Chancellor is also under growing pressure from German business groups and her SPD partners in the grand coalition. But she is unlikely to budge. In a speech to parliamentarians at home, she insisted that “human rights and the defence of economic interests are two sides of the same coin”.

While they have put relations with Germany on ice, the Chinese have reached out to France. Nicolas Sarkozy grasped the opportunity at a bilateral summit in Beijing on November 25th. As is customary, he came with a group of French business leaders, who signed deals worth around €20 billion (although such ‘summit deals’ have a habit of falling apart afterwards). However, Sarkozy is unlikely to be as friendly to the Chinese as his famously Sinophile predecessor, Jacques Chirac. While he promised strong ties, Sarkozy also admonished Beijing for its currency policy and warned that Europe may slap ‘carbon tariffs’ on Chinese goods unless the Beijing contributed to a post-Kyoto agreement.

Europe will not make a full turn towards protectionism. But there clearly is growing potential for economic friction with China. Beijing’s usual conciliatory language – promising gradual change and open dialogue – may no longer be enough. It may have to offer concrete action on currency policy and economic opening if it wants to win its European friends back.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.


Added on 13 Dec 2007 at 15:19 by RP-Pereira

I do agree with Katinka's assessment of the current state of EU-China relations. As David Shambaugh has put it, the 'honeymoon' phase may well be over. Perhaps both sides, to a certain point, underestimated their differences, and only now came to realise it to a full extent. That was most visible on the difficulties experienced with the approval of the last Summit's Joint Declaration. I do believe that Europe had to change its tone in order to gain some concessions from the Chinese. Let's see if that works out.

Added on 06 Dec 2007 at 03:15 by Anonymous

"because of Chinese red tape, trademark violations and unfair subsidies". So, the Chinese steal things, they are bad people because they steal things. Who says that, MPAA and RIAA? That is a funny position, and i guess it is couched in the "you do not respect intellectual property". - As if something immaterial that we cannot either see or touch could be property...

I would rather say that we have a problem with our non-accountability of the patent establishment, not bad people who steal things. That is the elephant in the room no one is willing to talk about, and it has consequences.

What financial and economic risks do we have by intellectual property systems that have long been out of sync with the actual intent of the law. What was the intent? Anyone remember? We also need to remember a distinction in this context. It is the distinction between invention, innovation and incremental change. Over the last 2 decades we have entirely blurred those lines.

The patent system was a social contract, the monopoly right was saying to society that it was economically viable to change the dynamics of fair and free markets, in consideration.. in consideration for a disclosure of something that ultimately advances the cause of science, technology or industry. Today the system is not a social contract in exchange for whatsoever. Go ahead, read _any_ recent granted patent. In practice we have created such a great obfuscation around what we think we are doing and what we think our competitors are doing, that we have mutually assured destruction if anyone ever peel back the layers of the patents to actually sort out who is doing what. That is the elephant.

What if the patents that are being asserted to be stolen or copied or infringed are not actually worth the paper they are printed on, and what if the Chinese using their sovereign rights to actually challenge those patents? Who wins? David Martin, a specialist in assesing patent portfolio values and technology transfers, also an advisor under the Clinton admin., held a speech in Brussels back in 2004 explaining the economic consequence of this and our connections with China:" REL="nofollow">Real economic consequences of the non-accountability of the patent establishment.

In the earliest days, patents where a way for the King to reward his supporters and friends, and often to enrich his own coffers. Today we are back to something like that, though the modern insiders are not the friends of the monarch, but patent lawyers, insurance companies, and other assorted purveyors of overhead draining any small company to its death. They will come out very nicely under this scheme, on both sides of the fence, with the future development as a looser either way." REL="nofollow">Laura Creighton explained this very well in a speech in Brussels 2003 on the subject of software patents.

If we are not willing to confront the integrity problem, which says that we are incentivised to issue garbage, and the sovereign immunity from accountability that exists in our patent system, then we are just rearranging deck chairs on the titanic.


The euro as the world’s reserve currency?

The euro as the world’s reserve currency?

The euro as the world’s reserve currency?

Written by Simon Tilford, 15 November 2007

by Simon Tilford

Back in the 1970s President Nixon’s treasury secretary, John Connally, famously quipped that “the dollar may be our currency, but it’s your problem”. One of the arguments in favour of establishing the euro was that it would quickly come to rival the dollar’s status as the world’s principle reserve currency and make it hard for the US to abuse its “exorbitant privilege” – devaluing the dollar imposes few costs on the US because its foreign debt is denominated in dollars. Is the wish of those Europeans that want to see the dollar dethroned about to come true? If so, would this be a win-win scenario for the eurozone?

There is no doubt that the threat to the dollar’s status is bigger than at any time since the end of the Second World War. The most likely outcome is that a rapid narrowing of the US current-account deficit and renewed fiscal discipline will combine to restore confidence in the dollar, and that it will retain its status as the world’s leading reserve currency. Confidence in the long-term prospects of the US economy remains strong, and the country’s huge and liquid financial markets make the dollar highly attractive as a reserve currency. However, a rout is a possibility, and could be triggered by a number of events, such as a debt crisis in the US or a steep rise in inflation, which would undercut the willingness of foreigners, crucially East Asian central banks, to hold so many of their reserves in the American currency. Let’s assume for a moment that the damage to the credibility of dollar is such that its role as the world’s favourite currency is lost.

The euro would be the only plausible replacement. It is the world’s second most important reserve currency, though a distant second to the US. The eurozone economy is huge (though not quite as big as the US), its economy is open, its financial markets increasingly deep and liquid, and the ECB now enjoys considerable credibility in the financial markets. But what would it mean for the eurozone, aside from schadenfreude? It would be easier for European companies to operate internationally as there would be less exchange rate risk. With import and export prices denominated in euros the economy, and the inflation rate, would be less vulnerable to shifts in exchange rates. Much more important than this, however, would be the gains from seignorage. As is the case at present in the US, the eurozone would benefit from what are effectively very low interest loans in the form of large central bank holdings of euros. Also, the growth of international trade would boost demand for euros, with the result that the euro-zone could very cheaply finance an external deficit, much as the US has been doing for decades.

But there are downsides to these potential advantages. As the issuer of a major international reserve currency, the eurozone would have to cope with different external risks, such as structural imbalances in the global economy, that are to a large extent responsible for the weakness of the dollar. The huge US current account deficit is the flipside of mercantilist economic policies being pursued by East Asian governments. Internationalisation of the euro could also make it harder to control the stock of euros in circulation and hence growth in the money supply and potentially inflation. An increase in the demand for euros would either cause the currency to appreciate, making exports less competitive, or require that the eurozone run a substantial external deficit in order to satisfy the external demand for euros. For this to happen, the ECB would need to run a looser monetary policy.

The potential for conflict within the eurozone is obvious. A stronger euro would be anathema to many eurozone countries, not least France and Italy, which are already very worried about euro strength. But a looser monetary policy would be anathema to countries such as Germany and the Netherlands that worry about the inflation implications of cheaper money. Indeed, it is far from obvious how the eurozone could run a sizeable current account deficit without exacerbating existing tensions between members of the single currency area with large current-account surpluses, such as Germany and Netherlands, and those with large or rising external deficits – most notably Spain, but also France and Italy. It would be possible for Germany and the Netherlands to continue to run big surpluses at the same time as the eurozone as a whole ran a bigger deficit, but only if other eurozone countries ran even bigger deficits. This is politically implausible.

Becoming the world’s principle reserve currency might not be worth the bragging rights.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.


Added on 15 Oct 2008 at 02:55 by Anonymous

I agree with the author's prediction that "The euro would be the only plausible replacement. It is the world’s second most important reserve currency".The growth of international trade would boost demand for euros, with the result that the euro-zone could very cheaply finance an external deficit, much as the US has been doing for decades

lucky" REL="nofollow"> Credit Card Debt

Added on 11 Aug 2008 at 11:32 by Mike

Just to be clear.. I don't mean that in a bad way..

Added on 11 Aug 2008 at 11:11 by Mike

I think that the entire western economy needs to be cautious in general, not only in currency politicts.

I think we'll have a very strong side in China when they develop further in the years to come.

Added on 27 Nov 2007 at 14:57 by Pete

An interesting article. I am interested by the author's prediction that "with import and export prices denominated in euros, the economy, and the inflation rate, would be less vulnerable to shifts in exchange rates". If we look at what has happened while oil has been priced in dollars, as the dollar has depreciated against the euro, oil producers have demanded more dollars per barrel so the dollar-price has risen (of course there are other reasons for this price rise). So the dollar's reserve currency status has exacerbated the inflationary effects of depreciation, not mitigated them. Would the effects on Eurozone inflation be different were the euro to become the reserve currency?

Added on 16 Nov 2007 at 09:58 by spikslow

Given the current imbalances in global currencies, I would say that the US is currently paying a heavy price for its reserve currency status. The relentless buying of dollars by asian countries means that the US is carrying most of the load in the global economic adjustments that are currently taking place. If the euro inherited this reserve currency role, the EU would have to take on this burden.

The EU would be wise to avoid this situation, but unfortunately the reserve currency is determined by the actions of the whole world and is not controllable by any one country.

Added on 15 Nov 2007 at 17:27 by Anonymous

What if.. lets play that tape a bit longer. What if more natural resources get traded in eouros? I seem to remember that Saddam was about to do just that. What if Russia decide to like trading energy in euro? The iron ore of the Brazil mining giant CVRD? Would Rio Tinto, BHP and the rest follow? What if China just decide to transfer more of their reserves into euro. What if they.. whether EU like it or not? Can the euro, sort of, be forced into beeing a de facto world reserve currency by business decisions of thousand of others? Or will we see something like multiple, even competing reserve currecies, dollar, rubel(?), euro, yen...?

I do not think the US would like it with their current unipolar vision of the neocons, but would it benefit the world?


Reshaping Europe: Visions for the future

Reshaping Europe

Reshaping Europe: Visions for the future

Edited byCharles Grant

Written by Nick Butler, Philip Dodd, Stephanie Flanders, Timothy Garton Ash, Kirsty Hughes, 06 September 1996

Can industrial Europe be saved?

Can industrial Europe be saved?

Can industrial Europe be saved?

Written by Olivier Cadot, Pierre Blime, 13 September 1996

Can the EU learn to live with Chinese mercantilism?

China and the EU

Can the EU learn to live with Chinese mercantilism?

Written by Philip Whyte, 29 October 2007

by Philip Whyte

Not long after its launch, the euro was famously dismissed by a disgruntled currency trader as a “toilet currency”. How things have changed. Since 2003, the euro’s external value has soared despite comparatively sluggish rates of economic growth in many of Europe’s largest economies. The strength of the euro has been a boon to European consumers who have been able to buy DVD players from China for less than the price of a meal at a run-of-the-mill restaurant. But not everyone has been celebrating—least of all France’s hyperactive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been fretting about the economic downsides of a strong euro. Mr Sarkozy believes that the euro is now over-valued and that French companies’ trade competitiveness is being damaged as a result. Ever since he entered office in May, therefore, he has thrashed around looking for a culprit.

At first, he blamed the European Central Bank (ECB) for neglecting the euro’s external value and for pursuing its inflation target at the expense of economic growth. This struck many observers as odd, for at least two reasons. First, a central bank cannot target the inflation rate and the exchange rate simultaneously: was Mr Sarkozy suggesting that the ECB jettison its inflation target? Second, it seemed perverse to accuse the ECB of pursuing an excessively restrictive monetary policy. Real interest rates remain low by historical standards, and were even negative for much of the period between 2003 and 2004. More recent indicators—notably buoyant rates of broad money growth and lending to the private sector—hardly point to a central bank that has sacrificed economic growth on the altar of low inflation. Mr Sarkozy’s broadsides were in any case widely seen as an attack on the ECB’s institutional independence—so no-one was surprised when they were given short shrift.

Mr Sarkozy then shifted his attention across the Atlantic. Authorities in the US, he argued, needed to act to stem the US dollar’s decline against the euro. Again, however, it was not clear what Mr Sarkozy was proposing the US authorities should do. Raise short-term interest rates? You must be joking! The US Federal Reserve is trying to contain the fall-out from the crisis in sub-prime lending which is threatening to push the world’s largest economy into recession. This is why it cut short-term interest rates in September. In any case, it is hard to see what the US Federal Reserve could possibly do to support the US dollar. The dollar is weakening because the US is struggling to attract the capital inflows needed to fund its current-account deficit. As the world’s largest debtor, the US has to attract three-quarters of the world’s capital flows to service its external deficit. This is unsustainable—and not just because US assets have offered investors absolutely terrible returns in recent years. A weak US dollar is imperative if the US’s external deficit is to narrow.

Slowly, it dawned on Mr Sarkozy that the problem might lie to the east rather than the west. In the run-up to the G7 meeting in late October, the French government spoke rather less about the US dollar and rather more about the Chinese yuan. It had taken its time, but at last it had stumbled on the heart of the problem: namely, that parts of the world—mainly China, Japan and oil exporters in the Middle East and elsewhere—are saving vastly more than they are investing. This excess of savings over investment has resulted in colossal outflows of capital which have supported the spending habits of governments and households in the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe. That’s right, you read correctly. Developing economies such as China are now large net creditors to the developed world. This is totally at odds with what one might normally expect. Capital usually flows in the other direction, from the developed to the developing world. So what happened?

The short answer is that China and a number of other Asian economies have spent the best part of the last decade pursuing unashamedly mercantilist policies. There are two reasons for this. One is the abiding attraction of an egregious fallacy: that a country’s primary objective in trade is to export more than it imports. The other is the experience of the Asian crisis in the late 1990s, when countries with large external deficits were unable to defend their currencies in the face of huge capital outflows. Stung by this experience, many Asian countries did not choose to abandon fixed exchange rates. Instead, they decided that they should continue to maintain a peg of sorts against the US dollar—but by actively intervening to keep their currencies artificially weak. Since that date, many Asian countries have turned trade deficits into vast surpluses by accumulating foreign exchange reserves. And the world has been stuck with an asymmetric monetary system in which the euro and the US dollar have floated freely against each other, but not against Asian currencies.

The apparently insatiable appetite of China and other Asian countries for piles of depreciating US dollars has had undoubted benefits for the EU. The most important is the boost to domestic demand that the resulting strength of the euro has provided. This has worked in at least two ways. First, by bearing down on import prices, the strength of the euro has contained inflation—allowing the ECB to keep official interest rates lower than they would otherwise have been. Second, it has boosted consumers’ purchasing power. The Chinese government, in other words, has indirectly given European consumers and mortgage holders something looking like a free ride. The downside is that the yuan’s exchange rate is generating protectionist demands from beleaguered European firms labouring under the weight of a currency that has borne the brunt of global adjustments since 2002. The EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, has been muttering darkly about the speed at which the EU’s trade deficit with China is growing; and hinted that the EU cannot maintain an open market for Chinese goods if the Chinese government does not change policy direction.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the UK famously used gunboats to open Chinese markets to opium. Times have changed and few would now advocate similar methods to persuade the Chinese government to let the yuan appreciate. In fact, there is not much the EU can do, other than to raise the rhetorical volume and wait for the domestic tensions generated by China’s policy to play themselves out. No-one knows how long this process will last. The Chinese people’s capacity for pain is legendary. But the point will surely come when the Chinese government succumbs to internal pressure and refocuses economic policy on raising the living standards of the wretched Chinese people rather than relentlessly acquiring assets in a depreciating foreign currency. When this happens, Mr Sarkozy should pay particularly close attention. For the mercantilism that China has practised looks suspiciously like that which he would be tempted to pursue if ever he were let loose on the ECB!

Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

The Microsoft appeal: The Commission was right

The Microsoft appeal: The Commission was right

The Microsoft appeal: The Commission was right

Written by Simon Tilford, 13 September 2007

by Simon Tilford

On September 17th the European Union’s Court of First Appeal will rule on Microsoft’s long-awaited appeal against the record fine imposed on the company by the Commission in 2004 for abusing its dominant position in computer operating systems. The decision to fine Microsoft has prompted unprecedented criticism of EU competition policy and even accusations of anti-US bias. If the court upholds the Commission’s decision, demands for it to be stripped of its competence over competition law will no doubt intensify. The criticism of the Commission is without merit.

Indeed, the Microsoft case is a poor choice for critics of the Commission to champion. Attempts to portray its ruling as anti-competitive and as a threat to innovation do not really stack up. This case is not, as Microsoft and its supporters contend, about punishing a company for being successful by compromising its intellectual property. The market for IT is not so different from other markets that the suspension of antitrust law is justified. Rather, the case is about making it possible to compete with Microsoft in its core areas of business.

Supporters of Microsoft tend to conflate various issues. First, they accuse the Commission of undermining competition and hence innovation by placing constraints on dominant firms in the IT sector. According to this argument, dominant companies will only make big investments if they are confident they will face no significant competitors. Second, they argue that the Commission should focus on the impact on the consumer and not on the level of market dominance; that is, it doesn’t matter how much of a market a company (in this sense, Microsoft) controls, if its dominance benefits the consumer.

There are obvious weaknesses to these arguments. If it were the case that companies only innovate when they are confident that they will be allowed a monopoly, no company operating in a competitive market would invest in product development. But of course they do. They have to do so in order to ensure that their product or service is better than that of the competition. Only then can they hope to win a profitable share of the market. It is this need to be better than the opposition that drives innovation and productivity growth.

Similarly, it is not clear how Microsoft’s dominance benefits consumers. Is it because the company’s size (and hence ability to leverage huge economies of scale) allow it to offer products at low prices? If so, this would be an argument for abolishing competition policy. Or is it because consumers benefit from the ubiquity of Microsoft products? This ubiquity almost certainly does provide short-term benefits to consumers. But it is hard to see how allowing such dominance could serve consumers in the long-term if it precludes innovative companies challenging Microsoft.

Just because Microsoft won the race does not mean it should be permitted to dominate huge markets indefinitely. This would not be tolerated in any other market, including other high-tech markets. The IT market is a fast-moving one, but this is hardly a unique characteristic.

EU competition policy is already under attack from member-states that would like to provide their companies with more support and who want to promote national champions to positions of market dominance. A ruling by the Court of First Appeal in favour of Microsoft could not come at a worse time. It would play into the hands of those like France’s President Sarkozy that want to dilute EU competition policy, and who question what competition has done for the EU.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.

Weak dollar strong euro? The international impact of EMU

Weak dollar strong euro?

Weak dollar strong euro? The international impact of EMU

Written by Fred Bergsten, 01 May 1998

Why Europeans don’t have babies

Why Europeans don’t have babies

Why Europeans don’t have babies

Written by Katinka Barysch, 29 June 2007

by Katinka Barysch

Europeans live longer, work less and have fewer babies. On current trends, the EU will not have enough workers to pay for its growing number of pensioners. Economists and policymakers have moved beyond scratching their (greying) heads in despair. They focus on what can be done to alleviate and possibly reverse the trend. That is also what they did at last week’s Munich Economic Summit that brought together some of the world’s best people on the subject (

The EU’s average fertility rate is now 1.5, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain the size of a population. In Germany and Italy, the fertility rate is closer to 1, which means that each generation is 60 per cent smaller than the previous one. Even more worrying but less well-known is the fact that population decline – just like population growth – is exponential. In Germany, the birth rate started to fall in the 1960, well before Italy, Spain and other EU countries. By the 1990s, Germany was running short of 20 or 30-something potential mothers. A country that has had low birth rates for decades ends up in a ‘fertility’ trap.

Another fact that is rarely taken into account is how demographics interact with economic geography. Young people and those with skills are the most likely to leave declining areas, and women are apparently more prone to moving than men. Germany’s eastern Laender are a frightening illustration of this trend. The number of young people has dwindled, leaving the over-60s to themselves in some places. And among the 10 per cent of the population that has left the eastern Laender, there were many more women than men. In some towns, there are 160 young men for 100 young women. The fact that those men left behind tend to be unqualified and unemployed gives women little incentive to return. Similar developments can already be observed in some parts of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the continent’s northern and southern fringes. Europe will not age homogenously. It will be a patchwork of booming regions and those that are inhabited by octogenarians and angry young men.

No-one is yet talking about demographic micro-management. But all EU countries do need to address the inevitable raise (in many cases doubling) of the old-age dependency ratio (the number of workers to pensioners). The list of possible solutions is by now well known: work longer and harder, accept more immigrants and have more babies. But each remedy has its limits, so Vladimir Špidla, the EU’s social affairs commissioner, talks about ‘mainstreaming’ demographic concerns into all policy areas, not only pension reforms, but also education, tax, labour market and infrastructure policies.

Population decline is a European problem – globally the population is growing by 200,000 a day, adding the equivalent of Switzerland every six weeks. Some of the fastest growth happens in the EU’s vicinity, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. Children and teenagers make up over half of the populations of Iraq and Somalia. Many of them will want to move to where jobs are better and life is more stable.

But immigration can only help to alleviate Europe’s pension pressures, it cannot solve the problem. Hans-Werner Sinn, head of the Ifo Institute that runs the Economic Summit, says that even if immigrants stayed young forever, the EU-15 would need more than 190 million immigrants to keep its dependency ratio constant until 2035.

Similarly, the retirement age would have to go up to 77 if governments were to rely on this step alone to fix the pension problem. Instead, they usually adopt reform packages that include a gradual raise in retirement ages, cuts in state pension payouts and adding fully-funded ‘pillars’ to the pension systems. There are some interesting and encouraging examples of reform, for example the ‘notional contribution’ systems implemented by Sweden, Poland and Latvia. These are pay-as-you-go systems that mimic fully-funded pensions because each worker’s contributions are added up in a notional account’. Since the pension pay-out depends on how much a worker has paid in, people have an incentive to retire later.

In most other European countries reforms have been overly cautious, which may have something to do with the growing voting power of Europe’s elderly. Not only is the number of over-50s rising steadily, they also tend to be more politically active. In the last US presidential election, for example, 70 per cent of those over 65 voted, but only a third of the 18-24 year-olds. Pension reform would have to happen now, before the baby boom generation retires. But there is little sign of this.

Meanwhile, family-friendly policies are becoming increasingly popular, across the political spectrum. Munich’s assembled economists were unanimous that higher birth rates cannot solve Europe’s pension problem in the short run. Even an immediate doubling of the birth rates would only have an impact on dependency ratios in 30 years or so. But in the long run, Europe will need more babies to mitigate the economic consequences of an ageing and shrinking workforce. Can and should governments get involved?

Economists have calculated that bringing up a child costs €150,000 to €300,000 and that each child contributes a net €140,000 to a country’s pension system. The parents bear the costs but the benefits also go to those pensioners that have not raised children themselves. Therefore, some economists suggest that people with children should pay less tax and get bigger pensions. Others argue that state-funded childcare institutions are a better and more immediate way of redistributing money to those with children. The fact that France offers day care for all children over three may have helped with its impressive fertility rates. But childcare facilities alone do not make a difference: Germany’s eastern Laender have many more nurseries but fewer babies than the western part of the country.

A quick fix will not work. France has had pro-family policies since the 1870s. In Scandinavia, support for women and children runs through all aspects of life. David Willetts, the Conservative Party’s Secretary of State for Education and Skills approvingly speaks of ‘state feminism’. Nor do values or religion explain birth rates. Fertility rates are lowest in traditionalist countries with rigid family structures, such as Italy, Greece or Spain, but also Japan, South Korea and Iran. They are highest in those places that allow women to combine work with bringing up children. France’s 35-hour week gives parents plenty of free time to look after their offspring. Flexible labour markets in the UK and the US offers part-time job and makes it easier for women to go back to work after a maternity break.

Germany is almost an example of how not to do it. Education takes too long, often up to 20 years, which forces many women to delay having kids until their 30s. Women now tend to be better educated than men. But they struggle to find matching partners since many high-earning men prefer traditional stay-at-home wives. Over 40 per cent of German women expect that having a baby would be the end of their professional career. They have a point: schools close at mid-day and private child care is expensive. Part-time jobs are rare and often come without perks and social security. The expectations towards women that juggle work and kids are crushing, says Regine Stachelhaus, who admits that she only managed to bring up her son and run Hewlett Packard in Germany because her musician husband did not work regular hours.

Incidentally, Frau Stachelhaus was the only female speaker at this two-day conference. I counted fewer than ten women among the 150-odd participants. I would have though that women have a lot to contribute to debates about having babies, juggling work and families and caring for the elderly.

Katinka Barysch is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.


Added on 02 Jan 2013 at 07:50 by Astrid Carter

I really think the reason Europeans don't have children is not because of the work schedules. I used to think this, but then every time I went back to Germany and Sweden etc all of the people in my generation (I'm 20) were too selfish to want to have children. This is the problem. It doesn't matter that the welfare state is offering money for having children, the Europeans are just too damn self absorbed to be responsible for anyone else in life. Having children makes you a better person, and it is also the most basic economic and societal structure of a country! Think about it, without families what civilization will be left? The Europeans are no replacing their parents so nobody will be able to pay for the welfare state. I think this is a product of a hedonistic spoiled generation.

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