Tag: european union

Let Europe Be—and Defend—Europe

In the midst of difficult domestic political battles, Barack Obama begins a lengthy European trip today.  He should encourage the continent to increase its defense capabilities and take on greater regional security responsibilities.

Presidential visits typically result in little of substance.  President Obama’s latest trip will be no different if he reinforces the status quo.  His policy mantra once was “change.”  No where is “change” more necessary than in America’s foreign policy, especially towards Europe.

Despite obvious differences spanning the Atlantic, the U.S. and European relationship remains extraordinarily important.  The administration should press for increased economic integration, with lower trade barriers and streamlined regulations to encourage growth.

At the same time, however, Washington should encourage development of a European-run NATO with which the U.S. can cooperate to promote shared interests to replace today’s America-dominated NATO which sacrifices American interests to defend Europe.  Americans no longer can afford to defend the rest of the world.  The Europeans no longer need to be defended.

Although World War II ended 66 years ago, the Europeans remain strangely dependent on America.  Political integration through the European Union has halted; economic integration through the Euro is under sharp challenge; and military integration through any means is reversing.

Indeed, the purposeless war in Libya, instigated by Great Britain and France, has dramatically demonstrated Europe’s military weakness.  Despite possessing a collective GDP and population greater than that of America, the continent’s largest powers are unable to dispatch a failed North African dictator.

President Barack Obama starts with visits to Ireland,  the UK, and France.  In the latter he will consult with the heads of the G8 nations, which include Germany and Italy.

His message should be clear:  while America will remain politically and economically engaged in Europe, it will no longer take on responsibility for setting boundaries in the Balkans, policing North Africa, and otherwise defending prosperous industrial states from diminishing threats.  Washington should expect the continent to become a full partner, which means promoting the security of its members and stability of its region.

The president should deliver a similar message when he continues on to Poland.  Part of “New Europe,” which worries more about the possibility of revived Russian aggression, Warsaw has cause to spend more on its own defense and cooperate more closely with its similarly-minded neighbors on security issues.

In fact, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, members of the “Visegrad Group,” recently announced creation of a “battle group” separate from NATO command to emphasize regional defense.  The president should welcome this willingness to take on added defense responsibilities.

Friday Links

  • They passed the bill, and now we’re finding out what’s in it.
  • We’re finding out that the war in Libya could really be about protecting European interests.
  • In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand described a world in which government both partly produced and partly subsidized goods; we’re finding out she wasn’t far off the mark.
  • We’re finding out that “American exceptionalism” is a cloak for military adventurism.
  • The longer America fights a war on drugs, the more we find out about how detrimental it is to our fiscal outlook:


The New Year and Financial Crises

The New Year is likely to bring renewal of financial problems in the European Union. In Greece, the crisis was fiscal in origin and spread to Greek banks and banks in other countries that had lent to Greek banks and the Greek government. In Ireland, the crisis began with problem real-estate loans at Irish banks. That spread to European banks, mainly British, that had lent to Irish banks.

In its year-end issue, the Economist reminds us of the 2008 banking crisis in Iceland.  The Icelandic government responded much differently in that crisis than did the Irish government to its banking crisis. Iceland let its banks go under and to some extent stiffed their creditors. It did so out of necessity. Banking assets there were 10 times the country’s GDP, while they were “only” 2-3 times the Irish GDP. Iceland’s defiance did not cost its citizens more than did Ireland’s acquiescence.

Irish taxpayers are now burdened with their banks’ debt.  The ultimate beneficiaries of the Irish bailout are British banks and, indirectly, British taxpayers. The political irony of that has not been lost on Irish voters, and in the upcoming elections in March the populist political left is likely to gain. Then, whether by necessity or choice, look for calls for renegotiating (i.e., defaulting on) the debt. Calls for that are already being heard in Ireland.

If the Irish domino falls, look for others to topple. Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain are all candidates. (Together these 5 countries are called the PIIGS.) The Fed has backed EU banks through currency swaps and thus exposed US taxpayers to the EU crisis. In the words of former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, the Fed continues to operate at “the very edge” of its legal authority. (Words spoken in April 2008 speech after the bailout of Bear Sterns.)

The New Year will be an interesting one.

Promoting Free Trade—Sort Of

The U.S. and South Korean governments have agreed to changes in the free trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. The president rightly lauded the FTA as a good deal for Americans:

“This agreement shows the U.S. is willing to lead and compete in the global economy,” the president told reporters at the White House, calling it a triumph for American workers in fields from farming to aerospace.”

Approving the FTA has taken on added urgency after the European Union negotiated a similar accord with the South. Once that agreement takes effect, Europeans would have better access than Americans to the world’s 13th largest economy. Protectionism is always foolish, but especially so when one’s competitors are promoting open markets.

The accord also offers important geopolitical benefits. With much nervousness in the U.S. and throughout East Asia over an increasingly assertive China, Washington should work to break down barriers to Americans trading with China’s neighbors. Already Koreans do more business with China than the U.S. While the FTA won’t reduce the appeal of products from next door China in South Korea, it will allow American producers to compete more freely in that market.

The president deserves credit for pushing the agreement forward, but he also needlessly held up ratification by two years. Moreover, his “fix” punishes American consumers. As the official government fact sheet explains:

Car Tariff Elimination: The 2007 agreement would have immediately eliminated U.S. tariffs on an estimated 90 percent of Korea’s auto exports, with remaining tariffs phased out by the third year of implementation. The 2010 supplemental agreement keeps the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff in place until the fifth year. At the same time, Korea will immediately cut its tariff on U.S. auto imports in half (from 8 percent to 4 percent), and fully eliminate that tariff in the fifth year.

Truck Tariff Elimination: The 2007 agreement would have required the United States to start reducing its tariff on Korean trucks immediately and phase it out by the agreement’s tenth year. The 2010 supplemental agreement allows the United States to maintain its 25 percent truck tariff until the eighth year and then phase it out by the tenth year – but holds Korea to its original commitment to eliminate its 10 percent tariff on U.S. trucks immediately.

That is, the Obama administration forced a delay in the reduction of U.S. auto tariffs. This obviously hurts Korean exporters, but the highest price will be paid by American consumers. The provision is simply a special interest payoff to the auto industry, which already has benefited from a big federal financial bail-out. So much for bringing “change” to Washington.

Free trade is good for Americans. That means bringing down foreign trade barriers. It also means bringing down U.S. trade barriers.

American Taxpayers Should Not Bail Out the European Union

The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors (I have mixed feelings about Ireland since that nation at least has been a good example of low tax corporate tax rates, but I still think they should get punished for over-spending and bailouts). This I-told-you-so attitude is not very mature on my part, but one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons and something good will come from this mess.

I have not written much about the topic in recent months, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?

Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.

The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”

This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts - especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.

In some sense, this is a corporatism vs. free markets battle for Republicans. Big banks and Wall Street often support bailouts since they like the idea of somebody else saving them from their bad investment decisions (though American financial institutions fortunately are not as exposed as their European counterparts). Economists despise bailouts, by contrast, since they subsidize risky choices and lead to the misallocation of capital.

Which side is John Boehner on? Or Mitch McConnell? And what about Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee?

Austrian Government Moves to Undermine Freedom of Movement in Europe

The European Union was meant to create a common market with free movement of goods, services, capital and people. The citizens of the “new” member states, such as the Czech Republic, should have been free to work in the “old” member states, such as Austria, from the date of accession of the “new” members to the EU on May 1, 2004. The Austrian government managed to postpone the horror of having laborers from ex-communist countries offer cheaper services to the Austrian citizenry until 2011.

With the 2011 deadline looming, Austrian politicians came up with an ingenious way to make it more difficult for the Czechs and other hoi polloi to enter the Austrian labor market. Beginning next year, it will be “illegal” for Austrian employers to pay less to a foreign laborer than they would to an Austrian. I am looking forward to seeing how this is to be accomplished without further wage regulations (collective bargaining and wage minimums in different sectors of the economy are widely used) and accompanying corruption.

I hope that the Czechs take the Austrian government to the European Court of Justice and pronto. If the Austrian measure is allowed to stand, it will undermine one of the four freedoms, and destroy an important source of competition and wealth creation in Europe.

Want a Free Vacation? Move to Europe

I recently returned from a short vacation – had to get it in before the Supreme Court begins announcing decisions in this year’s big cases and the president nominates a replacement for Justice Stevens – but it seems that I’m a chump for paying for it myself.  While I was gone, the EU’s commissioner for enterprise and industry, one Antonio Tajani, declared that vacationing is a human right, one that ought to be paid for by the taxpayers:

Tajani, who unveiled his plan last week at a ministerial conference in Madrid, believes the days when holidays were a luxury have gone. “Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life,” he said.

Tajani, who used to be transport commissioner, said he had been able to “affirm the rights of passengers” in his previous office and the next step was to ensure people’s “right to be tourists”.

As Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up:

Tajani’s programme will be piloted until 2013 and then put into full operation. It will be open to pensioners and anyone over 65, young people between 18 and 25, families facing “difficult social, financial or personal” circumstances and disabled people. The disabled and the elderly can be accompanied by one person.

In the initial phase, northern Europeans will be encouraged to visit southern Europe and vice versa. Details of how participants are chosen have not yet been finalised, but it is expected the EU will subsidise about 30% of the cost.

Officials have envisaged sending south Europeans to Manchester and Liverpool on a tour of “archeological and industrial sites” such as closed factories and power plants.

With apologies to friends who are fans of the Man U and Liverpool soccer teams, I’m not sure those cities would be on my list of top 1000 places to visit.  But still this program illustrates the logical culmination – one logical culmination – of a view that government exists to provide all things to all people and that everyone has a “right” to whatever makes life good and pleasant and fulfilling.

Libertarians are often assailed for exaggerating the problems inherent in large, unlimited government, or of making ad abusurdum slippery slope arguments, or of having “outdated” views of political theory.  But really, when the “right” to a paid vacation is ensconced in so many countries’ laws, when it gets its own article (24) in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, is it that far-fetched for someone to come up with an actual state-provided vacation? Apparently Spain has already been doing it.