BRUSSELS, Belgium — The ground is shifting in Europe’s debt crisis. The edifice of economic austerity built under the guidance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is starting to wobble.
There’s a new buzz in Brussels about pumping hundreds of billions into a Marshall Plan-inspired fund to get Europeans back to work, devaluing the euro to boost exports or sharing out the euro-zone debt burden.
“This generalized austerity is prolonging the crisis. I can’t accept that. We need growth in Europe,” says Francois Hollande, the Socialist leader tipped to win Sunday’s French presidential election.
“With every day that goes by, I have the feeling that my initiative is more and more understood in Europe,” Hollande said in comments posted on his website Monday.
Hollande is enjoying an eight-point lead over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s vote. His expected victory is the main catalyst behind the emerging pro-growth emphasis in Europe, but there are other factors.
Continuing grim economic news — Spain announced Monday that it had sunk into a second recession in just over two years — is fueling doubts that Europe’s three-year dedication to spending cuts and tax hikes may not be the best way to cure the continent’s economic malaise.
“Europe has misdiagnosed its problems in important respects and set the wrong strategic course,” former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers wrote in a column this weekend. “Only if growth is restored can the euro endure and European financial problems be resolved.”
The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported Sunday that the EU was preparing a 200 billion euro “sort of Marshall Plan” to fund infrastructure projects, green energy and advanced technology.
EU spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said Monday that such figures were “highly speculative.” However, the EU is putting together a plan to boost growth for approval at what is expected to be a highly significant summit of European leaders on June 28-29.
Wary that the new focus risks further spooking markets, Ahrenkilde Hansen told reporters that going for growth did not mean a return to slack finances. “We are not talking about an alternative to fiscal consolidation,” she said. “The issue is not either fiscal correction, or growth. We need both.”
The late June EU summit is likely to be Hollande’s first if he succeeds in unseating Sarkozy.
Much has been made of the Socialist leader’s expected clash with Merkel due to his criticism of the fiscal discipline treaty that is the centerpiece of her response to the treaty.
Both Merkel and Hollande in recent days endorsed two of the key pro-growth ideas expected to be on the summit agenda: fast-tracking the use of remaining money from the EU’s budget for developing its poorest regions, which ran at 360 billion euros from 2007-2013, and boosting the firepower of the EU’s lending arm, the European Investment Bank.
EU Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn has suggested that lifting its capital by just 10 billion euros could enable the EIB to leverage lending of 180 billion euros.
Although they have continued to spar in media comments, Hollande and Merkel have been preparing the ground for non-confrontational relationship. There are signs of a softening of the Frenchman’s demand for a renegotiation of the fiscal discipline treaty.
Defeat for Sarkozy would however be a blow for Merkel, who offered unprecedented support for the incumbent in the early stages of the French campaign.
She also risks losing allies elsewhere.
The Dutch government, one of the strongest supporters of Merkel’s insistence on austerity for southern Europe, fell last week over its own budget-cutting plans and will face a stern challenge from the center left and far right in September elections.
Parties on both political extremes are seen profiting from a wave of discontent in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Greece to find a successor to the technocratic government which has gone along with the tough conditions set by the EU in return for bailout packages.
Adding to the pressure over the past few days, several key players have joined the chorus calling for a growth initiative, including European Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi; top EU financial services official Michel Barnier; and the UN’s International Labor Organization.
“Austerity has, in fact, resulted in weaker economic growth, increased volatility and a worsening of bank’s balance sheets,” said an ILO report released Monday. “It is high time for a move toward a growth- and job-orientated strategy.