How fears of contagion gave Europe a dose of cuts fever

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The Independent Online

Let's go over to Rome to hear the vote of the Italian jury. "€26bn in cuts over two years, including savage reductions in health spending and road building."

And now it is over to Spain. "Good evening, Madrid. €15bn in spending cuts over two years? Thank you Madrid."

Paris? "€5bn in cuts over two years." Does that really complete the voting of the French jury? Oui (although no one much in France believes the figures).

Athens? A punishing €30bn over three years, on top of previous cuts.

Good evening to London, where a new coalition jury has just gathered. "£6.2bn of cuts in the present tax year with much, much more to come."

The sound of screaming and howling that can be heard all over Europe resembles a European Cuts Contest.

In the last week, almost all EU governments have been slashing their budget deficits in order to prop up stock markets, blunt attacks on the euro and the pound and discourage the kind of speculation on sovereign, or national, debt which almost drove Greece to the wall.

The cuts are supposed to reassure the financial markets that European governments take their whacking deficits and gargantuan accumulated debts seriously.

The European Union's 27 governments have a total accumulated debt of nearly 80 per cent of the union's annual economy - about €9.5 trillion. Their projected total budget shortfall this year is 5.6 per cent of GDP - or about €600bn.

Some countries are much naughtier than others. Greece, after three rounds of cuts, has reduced its projected deficit this year to 4 per cent of GDP - but its accumulated deficit is 125 per cent of its annual income.

France has a projected deficit of 8 per cent of GDP this year and a total debt of just over 80 per cent of its national income. Britain, before this week's cuts, had a projected deficit of over 12 per cent and a total debt of just under 80 per cent of GDP. Even virtuous Germany has a deficit of 5 per cent and accumulated debts of almost 80 per cent.

However, it is important to remember - even if "the markets" prefer to forget - how some of those figures came to be so alarmingly high.

In 2008-09, national governments bailed out banks and opened their public spending taps to prevent the world from sinking into depression. The figures given above for accumulated debts are, broadly speaking, the fruit of the combined sins of many years. The annual deficits have been, in many cases, doubled by the recent efforts to rescue the world economy.

There are many voices - including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, president of the IMF - who fear that the race to appease the markets by making severe public spending and deficit cuts may plunge Europe, and the world, back into a second recessionary dip. But governments fear that they will be damned if they do cut and damned if they don't.

A Europe-wide sovereign debt crisis, spreading from Greece to Spain, to Britain to France, would threaten to destroy several large European banks (including British banks) which hold thousands of billions of pounds and euros of national debt. There would be no money to bail out these banks a second time around.

The ironies do not end there.

The 2008 crisis was largely caused by similar speculation by banks and other market players on other forms of debt. Broadly speaking the same people are now complaining (or trying to profit from the fact) that the money spent to rescue them last time has left national governments dangerously indebted. Having speculated on a possible Greek default, they have switched to Spain, and may turn their sights in the near future on France and Britain.

Right-wing and pro-market commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have tended to present the "Greek crisis", and now the European crisis, as a come-uppance for decades of state overspending, welfare cosiness and weak growth. This is part of the story, but only part of the story.

It is true that euroland countries, having launched the euro in 2001, systematically ignored, or bent, their own public spending and deficit rules. It is true that Greece (but not only Greece) played around with its public deficit figures.

But "the markets" saw that the euroland rules were being abused and still pushed the European single currency to stratospheric heights against the dollar and the pound in the last five years.

European politicians, from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, have been ranting about the blind and destructive actions of market "speculators". At one level, it could be argued that the markets have performed a useful function in forcing the Europeans to tighten the absurdly weak rules and structures sustaining the euro and in forcing European capitals to face up to the consequences of permanent deficit financing.

But Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy also have a point. There has been something more than usually perverse about the trading departments of banks and other institutions speculating (again) in a way that threatens (again) to bring down the world banking system and the world economy.

AROUND EUROPE...

Ireland

Taoiseach Brian Cowen's government announced three austerity package last year.

* In January, it introduced a pension levy on public sector workers, equivalent to a 7.5 per cent pay cut, and in April it effectively raised income tax.

* In the December budget, it imposed a pay cut of 15 per cent on police and teachers, without provoking any Greek-style unrest.

* This year, it must find €3bn in spending cuts and tax hikes. Some say the government will not be able to wait until the next budget due in December, but will need to bring in emergency measures.

UK

On Monday, David Cameron's government announced plans to cut £6.2bn from government spending.

* The axe will fall most viciously on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which must find savings of £836m.

* Ministers will ditch their personal drivers and use public transport to help cut £1.2bn from discretionary areas.

* Immediate recruitment freeze across the civil service until end of 2011.

* Higher education spending to be cut by £200m.

France

France has promised to cut its 8 per cent GDP deficit to 4.6 per cent by 2012.

* Paris has promised €5bn in spending cuts over two years, partly by squeezing grants to local government.

* Another €90bn in cuts or tax rises are needed over 30 months but the government has given no clues to its plans.

* To rescue the bankruptcy threatened state pensions scheme, President Sarkozy is expected to announce next month that men and women

Germany

Government is to meet in a fortnight's time to discuss a major austerity programme expected to amount to cuts of at least €10bn a year from next year until 2016.

* The axe is expected to fall mainly on state subsidies.

* Tax cuts that Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition partners had previously insisted upon are also likely to be shelved.

* There are also hint that the government will cut unemployment and social benefits, although Ms Merkel has personally intervened to reject calls for cuts in education, research and social services.

Spain

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez earlier this month announced another €15bn euros of savings and cuts to try and bring the Spanish deficit in at 9.3 per cent this year.

* Government ministers will take a 15 per cent pay cut, while civil servants will have 5 per cent docked.

* Regional and local governments will be expected to deliver €1.2bn euros in savings. There will be no pension increase in 2011.

* The €2,500 baby bonus given to mothers will be axed in 2011.

Italy

Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet last night signed off on a budget including €13bn in cuts for 2011 to bring deficit down to 3.9 per cent.

* There will be a freeze on public sector hiring and pay rises.

* Politicians and senior civil servants will take pay cuts - to the tune of €5bn.

* There will be a crackdown on tax invasion, illegal building and fraudulent benefit claims which government hopes will bring in €1bn.

* Those nearing retirement age, will be blocked from taking their pension for a few months.

Portugal

Two weeks ago, the Socialist government of Jose Socrates announced its second round of austerity measures in as many months - a mix of tax hikes and €1bn in spending cuts that it hopes will cut the 2010 to 7.3 per cent.

* VAT will be increased by a percentage point.

* Crisis one-off taxes on individual pay packets and corporate profits will be imposed.

* Top earners in the public sector will take 5 per cent pay cut.

* Big projects such as a new international airport for Lisbon and high speed rail lines are likely to be postponed.

Romania

The IMF has made the next tranche of its aid to Romania, the EU's second poorest member, contingent on vast cost-saving measures, and President Traian Basescu has seen thousands of people take to the streets of Bucharest in protest.

* Wages in the state sector - which accounts for a third of all jobs - will be slashed by 25 per cent from next month.

* Pensions will be cut by 15 per cent, and the retirement age raised.

* The government is also expected to reduce unemployment and maternity benefits.

Greece

Prime Minister George Papandreou has crafted five austerity packages in as many months. The latest (at the beginning of May) paved the way for a bailout from the EU/IMF, but sparked mass (and sometimes violent) demonstrations.

* Public sector pay has been frozen until 2014.

* Main VAT rate has increased to 23 per cent, from 19 per cent in March.

* Retirement age expected to rise, and retiring under 60 will eventually be banned.

* Excise duty on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol rise by extra 10 per cent.

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