Outlook: Silence in Euroland

IT INSISTS it is going to be accountable, but not will not publish minutes of its meetings. It will explain itself to the public at large, but has just appointed a chief spokesman, Manfred Korber, famed for his ability to keep a firm veil over the activities of Germany's Bundesbank. This Alice in Wonderland organisation is, of course, the new European Central Bank. After the fuss about that shabby deal under which Wim Duisenberg is replaced in time with a Frenchman, Jean-Claude Trichet, and whether the ECB's credibility would suffer as a result, the latest pronouncements from Mr Duisenberg make you wonder whether Mr Duisenberg himself is not the biggest threat to the ECB's standing.

After the first council meeting yesterday, the golf-playing, country and western-loving Mr Duisenberg said the question of publishing minutes had not been discussed, but the council had nevertheless decided not to do so. He added immediately: "We are accountable to the public at large and to the European Parliament. They will be on our heels to judge what we are doing."

Too right, Wim. If ECB interest rate decisions leave some countries languishing with high unemployment and slow growth, the public will know very well where to place the blame. A shell of secrecy will be no protection against popular discontent. Quite the reverse: openness is essential for any organisation that has to take unpopular decisions. As the Bank of England is learning, it does not make you more popular, but it does give your decisions a crucial authority they would otherwise lack.

The rationale, such as it is, for the reluctance to reveal the ECB's inner workings is the fear that council members would feel compelled to vote the national line. But the solution is simply not to name names in the minutes, rather than to not publish minutes at all. The ECB will find that the kind of secrecy the German public will accept from the Bundesbank will not wash across the rest of Europe. It will not even impress the financial markets, as the ECB inspires nothing near Bundesbank-like confidence.

In trying to buck the world-wide trend towards greater transparency in policy-making, the ECB is making a big mistake. It scarcely bolstered confidence when it also announced yesterday that from July it will meet on the first Tuesday of every month to discuss interest rates; but August will be a month of rest. This is presumably to create more time for golf.

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