EU: Financial Stability and Economic Growth — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 3rd November 2011.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bath and Wells The Bishop of Bath and Wells Bishop 3:15 pm, 3rd November 2011

My Lords, I am grateful too to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for initiating this timely debate and inviting this House to look more broadly at the pressing question of financial stability and economic growth in the European Union.

Constraining public spending and securing financial stability can be only part of the equation. Europe also needs to embrace structural reform of its economic model to encourage growth. This means tackling the imbalances that currently exist within Europe and unless we do so we are likely to see a damaging outbreak of protectionism across Europe.

European economies for the most part are shrinking while unemployment is rising, in some cases alarmingly so. Austerity measures introduced in response to the financial crisis are biting. The soaring rate of interest on the sovereign debt of some countries underlines the worry that much of the existing debt, even if partly written off, is unaffordable.

Our public and political debate is understandably fixed on the latest saga in the eurozone. However, are we conveniently overlooking the pressing question of where growth will come from? This is not just a eurozone problem but one for the whole of Europe. A stable euro requires more balanced trade and growth among its members. The prevailing economic orthodoxy holds that tough austerity and structural reform will ultimately lead to growth. The last two years may suggest that this orthodoxy is wanting.

Economists will of course point out examples of fiscal austerity preceding economic growth but they all include currency devaluation and/or big cuts in interest rates. Neither option is open to the eurozone economies. It is hardly surprising therefore that household and business confidence is rapidly crumbling across the currency union, depressing economic activity across Europe as a whole. On current trends a series of sovereign and banking defaults looks unavoidable.

A crisis that started on Europe's periphery has been allowed to grow into a threat to the core of the eurozone and the future of the European project itself. Measures taken across Europe appear to invite economic stagnation and political dislocation, the effects of which can be seen on even the marbled steps of St Paul's.

There are of course dissenting voices to this orthodoxy. Some talk of a Marshall Plan for Greece to stimulate investment in infrastructure and solar power. In Brussels, the European Commission is working on schemes to speed up the disbursement of the European Union regional aid funds to foster growth in the southern countries and, if last year's report on the single market drawn up by the former Commissioner Mario Monti to liberalise services and the digital economy had been implemented, Europe's growth might have increased. However, at the moment too little is being done to boost growth across Europe.

The question of Europe's competitiveness predates the current crisis affecting the eurozone and is in many ways one of its underlying causes. For decades Europe has grown more slowly than other continents. However, there are remedies. These were set out and agreed in the Lisbon agenda of 2000 and the Commission's recent European Union 2020 programme. What are we to make today of the statement that Europe should be,

"the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion and respect for the environment"?

European Governments have always found it easier to sell the promise of this agenda than its content. Populism, nationalism and Euro-scepticism are on the rise. Even if Europe's politicians can agree the right policies to establish and to stabilise Europe's finances and stimulate economic growth, there is no guarantee that public opinion will be sufficiently benevolent to allow them to carry them out.

One of the greatest achievements of the European Union has been to scrap non-tariff barriers. The biggest danger, however, is that the euro crisis will lead to a two-speed Europe that fractures the single market. We need to be wary that the new bailout mechanisms agreed at last week's euro summit do not sideline either the European Commission or the European Parliament. A flawed single market that encourages protectionist measures cannot be either in Britain's best interests or in those of Europe. A more protectionist Europe will result in slower growth, thus fuelling the electoral fortunes of populist parties. A more fractured single market will see Britain disengage yet further from Europe, a retrograde step in the hard fought fight towards peace and prosperity for our region.