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Strauss - Kahn: The Road Ahead for Europe

The integration of Europe’s goods, capital, and labor markets has brought tremendous benefits to all its members—with the economies of the new member states in particular enjoying a rapid catch-up.

By: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF Managing Director - Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The founding fathers of the European Union were motivated by a most noble goal: to create the institutions needed to secure lasting peace on the continent.
The founding fathers of the European Union were motivated by a most noble goal: to create the institutions needed to secure lasting peace on the continent.

Here in emerging Europe, after the painful early years of transition, economic growth took off, trade flourished, and stable institutions took root. Growing economic and financial ties with western Europe accelerated this process, and boosted foreign investment. All these produced a remarkable rise in living standards, with incomes beginning to converge toward western European levels. And that surely is what is most important: integration has improved the quality of people’s lives. Of course, with integration also came policy challenges. In some economies in emerging Europe—and also some in Western Europe—easy access to inexpensive foreign money was allowed to fuel excess consumption and asset price bubbles, leading to unsustainable current account deficits. And when the global financial crisis hit, many of these economies found themselves terribly exposed when foreign capital withdrew.

European institutions and mechanisms were able to provide some cushion from the crisis. A few examples:
• For members of the eurozone, monetary integration proved a valuable safeguard, providing protection against additional disturbances from destabilizing currency gyrations. In addition, the ECB made emergency liquidity facilities available, extending a financial lifeline to banks in the euro area.
• EU structural funds helped bolster investment in new member states, and thus support economic growth.
• Countries outside the eurozone facing external financing difficulties could make use of the EU’s balance of payments facility.
• Finally, through the European Bank Coordination Initiative, western parent banks agreed to maintain exposures in a number of emerging European countries.

Of course, what mattered more for how Europe’s economies fared during the crisis were domestic factors—including macroeconomic fundamentals, financial sector policies, and political will. How did this relate to emerging Europe?

Tackling the Crisis: Emerging Europe

Think back to a year ago: frankly, the mood in much of emerging Europe was grim. The troubles affecting the Baltic economies looked set to hit all former transition economies—and possibly even the EU itself.
Thankfully, this nightmare never came to pass. Instead, the economies of this region, though hit hard by the crisis, have weathered the storm and are now on the path to recovery.

Naturally, given the tremendous diversity in the region, countries in emerging Europe have experienced the crisis very differently—ranging from Poland which virtually escaped recession altogether, to Ukraine, the Baltics, Romania and Hungary—all of which suffered severe downturns. What has made the difference in terms of a country’s response to the crisis has been the quality of its economic policies and institutions.
In this regard, Poland stands out. Thanks to strong economic institutions and commendable policy management, Poland has avoided the excesses seen in many other countries in recent years. And because there was sufficient fiscal space to adopt temporary stimulus measures, the impact of the crisis on growth was lessened. Indeed, as the largest economy in the region, Poland is leading the economic recovery.

Overall, then, the lesson is clear: good policies and strong institutions matter.

I’d also like to highlight another key feature of this crisis: namely the courage of many of emerging Europe’s leaders to take tough policy decisions. They did not shy away from taking deeply unpopular measures that they knew were necessary to save their economies.

Building a Europe for the 21st century

Let me now touch on three priorities for Europe in the post-crisis era.
First, Europe needs a fundamental overhaul of its financial architecture.
There has already been good progress in revamping Europe’s cross-border financial stability framework. With the envisaged establishment of a European Systemic Risk Board and a European System of Financial Supervisors, the ability to monitor financial sector risks—and hence to prevent crises—is being strengthened.

But the reform proposals have yet to address crisis management and resolution, in particular for cross-border banks. What should be done in this area?

As I said in Brussels recently, I see a clear need for an integrated European framework for crisis prevention, management, and resolution. The framework should include a European Resolution Authority, with the mandate and tools to deal cost-effectively with failing systemic cross-border banks. While technically challenging, the elaboration of such a framework is feasible—but it will require strong political leadership to come to fruition.

Europe should also strengthen economic policy coordination. Currently, the major policy frameworks in Europe—macroeconomic, financial, and structural—are relatively independent of one another. One of the lessons of the crisis in Europe is that a single currency without enough economic policy coordination may lead to huge imbalances.

My third priority for Europe is perhaps the most urgent: reigniting growth and tackling unemployment. Again, we must retain a clear focus: European countries must work together to sustain the economic recovery. That is the priority.

In the short run, macroeconomic and financial policies should be geared toward supporting growth and facilitating the necessary adjustment in countries with large fiscal and current account imbalances. To restore confidence in Europe’s fiscal sustainability, policymakers must formulate, communicate and begin to implement strategies for exiting from crisis-related intervention policies as soon as possible. Having said this, policy actions that would undermine aggregate demand should be postponed until 2011. But those that do not should be implemented now.
To sustain growth over the longer run, competitiveness must be increased. Reforms that tackle rigidities in labour and product markets, as set out in the Lisbon 2020 agenda, should be accelerated. In fact, more effective labor markets are allowing many emerging European economies to recover more rapidly from the crisis—and should provide a boost to their competitiveness for many years to come.

The IMF as a Partner of Europe

Let me touch on the IMF’s role in Europe. The IMF has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with its emerging European members for many years already. The success of the Fund’s early engagement with Poland, for example, which began with the original stabilization program of 1989, provided a roadmap for our engagement with other transition economies.

In addition to financial support and policy advice, the IMF has provided extensive technical assistance for the creation of modern tax and fiscal structures, central banking institutions, and financial supervision. Such advice has helped emerging European economies prepare for membership in the European Union.

More recently, the IMF has lent financial support to regional economies facing financing problems during the crisis. In total, we provided over $80 billion in support in the wake of the crisis.

This financing comes with conditionality, which is necessary to ensure that the causes of the problems are addressed. But I have to stress that if the IMF provides the framework of the program, it is the countries’ authorities who decide on the specific measures. In addition, we have been emphasizing and promoting social conditionality to minimize the effect of the crisis on the most vulnerable.

So, our lending has become more flexible, and more focused on crisis prevention. The Flexible Credit Line for members with strong policy track records—such as Poland, which has accessed a $20 billion credit line from the IMF—is one example of this.

The IMF has also partnered very effectively with the European Union during the crisis—jointly providing balance of payments support to countries in the region. We see this as a both a reflection of our common interests and as a template for better coordination with regional financing mechanisms in the future.

A Powerful Shared Legacy

The founding fathers of the European Union were motivated by a most noble goal: to create the institutions needed to secure lasting peace on the continent. As Robert Schuman said in 1949, “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe—creating between them an organization putting an end to war, and guaranteeing an eternal peace."
The IMF was also born at this defining moment of history. Its purpose was to unite the nations of the world in a spirit of solidarity, with a mandate to safeguard global financial stability, and thus secure peace and prosperity. It was founded to fight the economic roots of war. And so, we share a powerful legacy with European Union.

And now, as Europe recovers from a major economic crisis, it is time to recommit to integration and cooperation. This means strengthening institutions. This means fortifying the economic foundations of the union. And this means extending the benefits of peace and prosperity to all the peoples of Europe.

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