Supply-side thinking now dominates European economic policy. Most governments, and the European Commission, argue that attempts to boost demand would be counterproductive, achieving little but a delay to the necessary consolidation of public finances. With close to unanimity, they believe that structural reforms offer the only hope for depressed European economies: these reforms will improve competitiveness and confidence, leading to stronger growth, a rebalancing of trade between European countries and sustainable public finances. But are policy-makers and the Commission putting excessive faith in the power of structural reforms? Is there a risk that a strategy weighted so heavily towards supply-side measures could actually end up further eroding Europe's growth potential? And is it right to argue that structural reforms will help bring about sustainable rebalancing?
Few doubt the need for structural reforms in Europe. The region needs faster productivity growth and this requires, among other things, more flexible and competitive markets: labour and capital must be freer to move from slow growing sectors to faster-growing ones. But structural reforms alone will not achieve this. Indeed, in the short to medium term such reforms will further depress demand. Only in the long-term could they have the desired effect and only then if businesses invest in new organisational structures and new products, and if workers (especially young ones) have the right skills and experience. But business investment is at historic lows in Europe as firms worry about the lack of demand.
And unemployment is back to levels last seen in the early eighties and set to remain chronically high for years. In short, the damage done to Europe's supply-side by very low investment and mass unemployment is likely to offset the potential benefits of the reforms. For example, all the academic evidence shows that persistently high unemployment does lasting damage to economies' human capital and hence growth potential.
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A further problem is the nature of the structural reforms underway in Europe. Supply-side reforms in the context of the eurozone largely mean labour market reforms, or more particularly, labour market reforms that erode the bargaining power of labour. By contrast, there is much less emphasis on opening up markets for goods and services to greater competition, which is arguably more important from the perspective of economic growth. This is perhaps unsurprising. Germany's Hartz IV reforms, which are the inspiration for much of what the eurozone is doing, led to a weakening of workers' bargaining power, but did little to promote reform of Germany's domestic economy. Indeed, according to the OECD, Spain's product markets are considerably more competitive than Germany's. This helps explain the persistent weakness of German domestic demand: it fell in 2012, with all of the economy's 0.9 per cent growth down to net exports.
The European Commission argues that the structural reforms underway in the peripheral eurozone economies are boosting their trade competitiveness, and points to the narrowing of their current account deficits in 2012 as evidence of this. But this improvement is mainly the result of unprecedentedly weak domestic demand (and hence declining imports) in these economies, rather than rising exports. Faced with stagnation at home, some firms have successfully scrambled to boost exports. However, a sustained rise in exports requires investment in new capacity and products and stronger export demand. Neither is happening: investment in manufacturing is at all-time lows across Europe, but it is especially weak in the periphery. Demand across the European economy, meanwhile, is chronically weak.
Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.