Outlook: The battle for Europe is not over yet

NOW THAT Oskar Lafontaine has stamped off the political stage in a huff, peace between European politicians and bankers can at last be restored. Or so, at least, went the theory at the end of last week. The latest monthly bulletin from the European Central Bank suggests that hopes of a ceasefire are premature.

The report makes it as plain as can be that the ECB is not going to cut interest rates to stimulate Euroland until member governments make a start on structural reform and reductions in their budget deficits. Lower borrowing costs would only create inflation, according to the ECB analysis.

While this seems, frankly, bizarre when the inflation rate is just 0.8 per cent, the bankers are right on one point at least. There is no point trying to boost employment with rate cuts unless governments also tackle the prohibitive costs and tangle of red tape that have halted job creation in Germany and, to a lesser extent, France.

The contrast with the UK is instructive. Yesterday's figures show a jobs market where more people want to work, more jobs are being created for them, yet wage pressures are easing. The increase in unemployment last month reflected the fact that more people are deciding to seek work, rather than being indicative of a genuine rise. Britain is seeing the payoff from labour flexibility.

The result is that the Bank of England's monetary policy committee is able able to push interest rates lower. It will take another global crisis to push the British economy into a severe recession now, as opposed to a mild one. If we are lucky, it will just be a temporary slowdown, with any increase in joblessness in 1999 reversed in 2000.

The ECB is not in the same happy position. If the euro holds on to its post-Oskar gains, interest rates on the Continent might yet edge lower. Despite the mixed signals - falling GDP in Germany and Italy on the one hand, higher pay settlements, upbeat consumer confidence and a booming periphery on the other - there is no real inflation danger. But lower interest rates alone will not create jobs. In that sense, the bankers are right to pass the buck over to the politicians.

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