CENTRAL EUROPE AND THE FUTURE OF THE EUROPEAN UNION IN THE 21st CENTURY

Debrecen, Hungary, University

In 2018 Jaguar Land Rover ((JLR) opened a new plant with 640 robots on a former farmland in Nitra in western Slovakia. The robots together with 2,800 workers can assemble a Land Rover Discovery every two minutes. JLR was just another carmaker to come to Slovakia. VW arrived in 1991, followed by Kia and PSA. These firms together turn out over one million cars annually; more per head of population than any other country. Nitra is close to the motorway and Slovakia has an impressive supply chain with more than 300 factories making car parts. This spoke for Slovakia. The JLR factory gives a fair picture of Slovakia’s, and more broadly Central Europe’s model of economic development. First, it was built with foreign capital and largely by foreign contractors. Membership in the EU has facilitated the flow of capital from the western members to the eastern ones. Second, the economy of Central Europe depends on customers in economies to the west purchasing goods made relatively cheaply in the hinterland. Third, government support was essential for this economic take off. Government subsidies luring foreign companies into the country are common in Central Europe. Investors flock to special economic zones across the region, attracted by tax advantages. Furthermore EU funds have boosted investment in infrastructure that appeals to foreign investors like, road and rail. Even in Poland, the region’s biggest and most diversified economy, these EU funds matter: by 2022 they will make up 22 per cent of public spending each year.

This foreign-led development model has had much success. Countries from the Baltic states in the north to littoral Black Sea states have become considerably richer over the last two decades. GDP per person in the Czech Republic is now close to Spain. Bulgaria and Romania are much poorer in terms of GDP, but managing to win investment and to grow, too. The European Commission tracks the progress of five EU members immediately east of Germany and Austria, namely the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, compared with a group of four western frontier EU countries, namely Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. In 1995 the average GDP per person at purchasing power parity was around 55 per cent lower in the five Central European countries than in the western frontier countries. By 2016 the difference had shrunk to 39 per cent. Average incomes in the five countries are now equal to those in Portugal and far above those in Greece, of course also due to the financial crisis and sovereign debt crisis since 2008. Of all the Central European countries Slovakia saw the most dramatic gains.

But the challenge for these countries, as for any hinterland reliant on supplying labour to produce goods for richer neighbours, is to keep closing the income gap. The next step of economic development is going to be harder, requiring more productive firms, more private capital and more skilled labour. The region was not that hit by the financial crisis and is growing strongly once again. The IMF expects these countries to expand nearly twice as fast as Western Europe and this expansion looks more sustainable than the one that ended with the financial crisis in 2008. Back then cheap foreign loans, including Swiss franc mortgages taken out by individual households had boosted consumption but became hard to pay back. Nowadays banks are in better shape and consumption is less supported by debt and more by rising incomes. Despite nationalistic policies by populist governments in some countries foreign companies are not retreating. Corruption and some political instability seem not to deter investors as long as other economic conditions are beneficial. Building firms are doing particularly well. Construction activity in the region has typically grown twice as fast as GDP in recent years. Central Europe accounts for a fifth of Strabag’s – Austria’s biggest construction company – business. Business in Poland has gone so well that Strabag is branching out from EU-funded infrastructure into hotels, shopping centres and office blocks. Wienerberger, an Austrian building-materials supplier, has 64 plants across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), including the ones in Austria and Turkey. 30 per cent in the region are not connected to a sewer system, compared with 5 per cent in Western Europe, which means big business for the firm. Subsidies for better housing, for instance in Hungary, have meant a boom in brick sales.

Services are playing a bigger part in this expansion in Central Europe than in the pre-crisis boom. This means that also white-collar work is doing well. Western banks are moving back-office jobs east to pleasant and affordable spots such as Krakow. McKinsey has 1,000 analysts in Poznan in central Poland, serving clients world-wide. Brexit is moving some mid-level finance jobs away from London as well. Erste Bank, an Austrian bank with 16 million customers in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Turkey, expects banking in the region to grow faster than in Western Europe for many years to come. Central Europe has also transformed Vienna Insurance Group, a nearly 200-year old Austrian institution. Its 21 companies across CEE now provide half of all VIG’s premiums and profits because as income rises, spending on insurance increases, too. So it seems that Central European economies are well set for sustainable economic growth. Yet there are still three reasons for worries, namely a lack of innovation in local firms, a coming demographic squeeze and an over-dependence on foreigners, especially Germans, to drive development.

THE EURO CRISIS AND THE FUTURE OF THE EURO

Austrian National Bank, Vienna, completed in 1925 by Ferdinand Glaser and Rudolf Eisler

The Euro was a grand experiment in real time much observed by economists. If you create a single currency you take away the two most important tools of governments to steer the economy, namely the exchange rate and the interest rate. In the first years the single currency system was working well, but that was no real test because there were no economic shocks. The first big shock was 2008 and all the fears of economists came true. Europe was not able to respond adequately.

Before the euro was created the question had to be posed: What are the conditions for a single currency? And unfortunately Europe did not satisfy any of those criteria. First, if there is a shock where regions are differently affected, is there true free labour mobility? In the US people move if there is not enough work in one region or state; there is no real identification with those places. That is totally different in Europe. Greece does not want an “empty” country with all the young moving to other parts of Europe. Second, there should not be too many economic differences for a single currency to work, but the idea was that the European countries would move more closely together with the euro and unfortunately that was a wrong assumption. The Maastricht criteria of 60% stock of debt and 3% flow of deficit should have moved the economies closer together, but there is no economic theory on these figures; they are completely arbitrary. On the contrary, there is evidence that even above 90% debt-GDP ratio there is no negative effect on growth. In the post-World War II years the US had 130% debt-GDP ratio and GB 250% and the Eisenhower administration reacted with an investment programme instead of an austerity programme, e.g. the GI bill which offered free higher education for everyone who needed it or the Highway bill with extensive investment in infrastructure or the R&D bill with government investment in scientific research. With these measures the debt GDP ratio went down to around 50% in a few years due to these governmental investments in human capital, infrastructure and science. Due to high economic growth rates these two countries got rid of their debt without any crisis.…

THE SOVEREIGN DEBT CRISIS AND REFORMS IN EUROPE AFTER THE FINANCIAL CRASH OF 2008

Austrian National Bank, Vienna

Is growth normal and are the recessions of the 1970s/80s and since 2008 just the exceptions to the rule? Calls for reform always follow economic crises. Here are two examples of reforms that were introduced in Europe and can certainly not be seen as meaningful: Due to the serious sovereign debt crisis starting in Greece in 2010 the Greek government was obliged to carry out a multitude of reform measures, called “The Long March to Recovery”, among them laws on household insolvency, bankruptcy, foreclosures and pension reform. In how far were those really reforms and how could they benefit the Greek society? The second example is taken from Latvia: When the country emerged from the USSR it was without debt and mortgages. Then mostly Scandinavian banks moved in and gave extensive loans to the Latvians which finally could not be paid back and the Latvians faced the threat of foreclosures. “Reforms” were carried out that the duty to pay back the loans could be extended to family members, which ended in foreclosures anyway. In which way are these two examples meaningful reforms?…