Economic Policy Review ISSN 1313 - 0544

European Subsidies from an Economic Point of View*

Author: Krassen Stanchev / 29.01.2007
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I should start off by saying that as I write this, Bulgaria is not the country I have in mind. Bulgaria is a separate case. Of course, anyone can use what I am about to say to draw conclusions about this separate case. I will talk specifically about those subsidy effects, which are difficult to see or, if seen, are left unaccounted for (or at least inadequately accounted for).

In order to understand these peculiarities, one has to compare the European funds to pure aid, which supposedly does not exist in the EU, but technically all transfers from the EU budget to the member states (and to the candidate countries) are just that, to a varying degree. In drawing comparisons, I will use the work of several world-renowned economists and a historian. The views of the scholars in question are rather well-known and in this format I would not discuss them in any detail. These scholars are Milton Friedman, Peter Bauer, Mansur Olson, Simeon Djankov and some of his colleagues at the World Bank(1), and the historian Tony Judt. Their analysis can easily be found on the web, in libraries or in bookstores, and their inferences can be compared to the ones in this article.

Ordinary logic

The main shortcoming of the EU’s redistributive mechanism, particular countries, and the international transfer of resources, termed “aid” (excluding the standard emergency solidarity offered after natural disasters) is, first and foremost, the disregard for and even attempted refutation of ordinary human logic or common sense. Here are three ordinary occurrences that illustrate my point.

First, imagine that I spend my personal means on myself. Unless my means are unlimited, then it is very likely that I carefully monitor how much, in what way, and on what I spend my money.

Second, imagine that you spend my means and I spend yours. That, which would concern us most is how much we spend. Since that is easily understood, we would probably have to agree on what and how we spend this money, as well as how we are to inform one another about our actions.

Third, imagine that I spend your money on someone else. Of course, it is possible that you are doing the same. That is beside the point. The important thing is that in this situation everyone, except for the original owner of the means, would be less interested in how and on what the money is spent than he was in the first two scenarios. It is also probable that everyone (except for the owner) would be interested in spending more. Reaching a mutual agreement would be much more complicated, unpredictable and costly.

Expressed a few years ago in a conversation with president Bush, the original idea of describing the process of redistribution in such a way belongs to the Nobel laureate Friedman.

Which of the above-described situations does the distribution of EU subsidies most closely resemble?

You are right – the third. It only somewhat resembles the second and does not even approach the first.

 

The source of ineffectiveness

The next question, which we should probably ask, ourselves is: in what way does the process of European subsidization differ from the second and third scenarios described above?

Naturally, what comes to mind first is that this process is quite complicated.

On the one hand, the governments of the candidate and member countries alike spend the money of their taxpayers. With respect to the constituents in these countries, the governments are in the situation of the person who spends another’s money on a third person. It makes no difference whether this third person is in the “Third World”, in Eastern Europe, in Ireland, Malta, Lithuania, Greece or even at home. If one digs in the information on EU transfers to Ireland, on one hand, and Greece or Portugal – on the other and compares the transfers with the economic growth rates, it become obvious that there is no correlation.

At first glance, it seems simple to understand, but actually, it is rather complicated to control the logic of collective action of this kind of money transfer.

At the root of this logic lies the fact described by Mansur Olson, that a small group of people can be organized more easily than a big one. When heavy financing is carried out in the name of taxpayers, the resources themselves and the cost of acquiring them affect a large group of people. When we think about how small the amount is per person, it becomes clear that he or she has no incentive to inquire about the amount of money, where it goes and how it is spent, regardless of whether there is accountancy at hand or not. This is how the phenomenon of informed ignorance spreads: people know that something is wrong, inexpedient or even foolish, but making an effort to chance the situation is so complicated that they do not bother.

This phenomenon has both ethical dimensions and economic alterations: those who use another’s money organize relatively easily in order to take more. Naturally, this awakens the resentment of those, whose resources are being taken away, even if they are in small amounts.

But yet, let me take a few moments to talk about the informational awareness of ignorance.

On average, the government redistribution in the EU is above 40% of GDP while transfers to Brussels are fixed at around 1% of GDP. Other thing equal, the reasons to worry about EU transfers are 40 times less important than own government redistribution.

When the organization of a lot of people is easy after all – for example during elections and referendums, the mood that someone seeks more rents and that the rent “we” get is less than that of the “others” always manifests itself somehow.

It seems to me that this phenomenon more accurately explains particular political circumstances. For example, the voting at last year’s referendums in the Netherlands and France on the so called Draft EU Constitution Treaty is the product of an accumulation of similar moods, not of outright egoism, nationalism, left or right populism.

On the other hand, effectiveness in general can be defined as the use of someone’s resources for the attainment of a certain desired goal with the lowest possible cost or the achievement of the best possible outcome with the resources at hand.

The European subsidies are closest to the course of the third scenario for the use of money described above.

The resources are someone else’s. They are spent on someone, who does not correspond to the person who provides them. The methods for tracing their exhaustion are complicated and costly, while ameliorating the situation seems impossible.

On top of that, other details are also present.

Unlike direct investment from private companies and individuals, the resources must be gathered entirely from taxpayers, a decision must be made regarding their allocation, a tender competition has to be organized and a bidder chosen to carry out the job. After all of this, someone has to monitor the company’s spending.

It is not difficult to see, that the means, which are subject to transfer to favored countries are 35 to 50 times less than those that the sender’s government spends and redistributes at home (depending on the range of government expenditures to GDP).

In the favored country, a candidate or member of the EU, these resources are 10 to 25 times less than those, which the local government redistributes from their taxpayers’ means (depending on the range of EU transfers to GDP).

Hence on both sides of the process, the interest in what the government does with taxpayers’ resources has a very high opportunity cost: with equal effort (i.e. resources), the results at home would be much better.

Finally, as my colleague Kevin Allen commented in the December 2005 issue of this bulletin(2), the European Court of Auditors refuses to sign the financial report for the 12 th year in a row because of “significant omissions and inaccuracies.” The Commission’s excuse is that the omissions happen at the candidate-country level.

In short, the ineffectiveness of European subsidies stems from the fact that someone else’s money is being spent on a third person.

Brussels’s subsidies for the member states and “aid” for the “Third World”

Is there a difference between them? I think so, but it is insubstantial.

As Peter Bauer says, “Calling official transfers of wealth “aid” confirms an unquestionable attitude. It disarms all criticism, blurs reality and carries through a preliminary evaluation of sorts. Who could be opposed to help offered to the less successful? The term itself allows the supporters of aid to vie for a monopoly on compassion and to blame the critics for their lack of involvement and empathy.”

That which the term “aid” results in, regarding the transfer of resources to countries of the “Third World” in the context of Brussels’s subsidies, can be attained with the term “solidarity.”

Even renowned historians like Tony Judt find this principle to be an “actual achievement” for the EU. According to them, it has replaced the use of taxes for arms, overcome the Marxist notion of economic predetermination, and ensured the primacy of politics over economics, which is unique in the case of the EU. From an economic point of view this explanation only serves as justification for the ineffectiveness of subsidies and does not necessarily means that mechanism for reduction of political risks is established once and forever. It would logical to expect that it backfires at some point. The question to find an answer to is “when”.

Apart from the similar justification, the similarities and insignificant differences between Brussels’s subsidies and “Third World” aid are the following:

International transfers of wealth are the matter at hand in both cases,

With subsidies, we see more elements of competition for Brussels’s public procurement, but such elements of competition, as well as demands for co-financing (as it is in the context of EU budget transfers) more and more frequently find their way into “Third World” aid,

Incentives for informal coalescence in the exhaustion of the means exist, are created and supported in both cases,

Transaction costs make both types of transfer more ineffective than the transfer of means from private entities to other private entities, whether individuals, families or companies ,

In both cases, government consumption increases and the temptation of corruption springs up,

A significant difference is that Brussels’s subsidies have never been a cause of war, unlike several cases in Africa where fighting has broken out over aid disputes. In Europe, conflicts are political and are quelled by transfers of influence, the hiring of staff, and concessions regarding public spending. It is very likely that competition for influence, protection and rewards from the “Brussels’” budget is one of the factors of growing regulatory deadweight and underutilization of economic potential.

The effects of subsidies and aid (analogies)

The above said gives me reason enough to draw some analogies between redistribution within the EU and the empirically studied impact of aid to the “Third World”.

As mentioned, the most detailed of these studies was conducted by Simeon Djankov, José Montalvo, and Marta Reynal-Querol , with results published last year and at the beginning of this year. In summary, the study comes to the following conclusions:

Contrary to expectations, aid does not necessary affect domestic growth positively. It often harms the allocation of resources to the most profitable initiatives and mobilizes administrative and budget resources, which would have better alternative use or is lost due to administrative or auditing ineffectiveness. Reports of the European Court of Auditors unequivocally prove that this ineffectiveness occurs with European redistribution as well. On theoretical (but not empirical) grounds, one can presume that on account of transfer costs and ineffectiveness the abstractly possible positive impact of EU subsidies is highly doubtful.

When it comes to aid, the increase in government consumption, spending, and opaqueness deters foreign investment and has a larger number of negative consequences than loans or foreign debt. In the case of Brussels’s subsidies, these investments are hardly hindered, but a limiting effect is probable – due to the temporizing of a sponsored resource, lobbying costs, etc.

Aid undermines the nascent democracy in the “Third World” by augmenting the clientelism, opaqueness, and voters’ despair in the region. Ultimately, “payment on account of the need for political stability” yields the opposite result. The main reason lies in the creation of incentives for “privatization” of aid and the structures, which redistribute it following the logic described by Olsen. As far as European subsidies are concerned, various symptoms indicate that something similar is happening. But the size, as was mentioned earlier, is relatively small and the effects are thus less visible. Nonetheless, the referendums in the Netherlands and France brought about instability unknown 10 years ago and motivated a search for undemocratic ways out from the situation.

Finally Djankov and his colleagues come to the conclusion that it is difficult to make aid effective, that conditional grants do not work, because there is no mechanism in place for the punishment of bad, inadequate or even harmful use of resources.

According to economic theory, this is almost certainly the case with European subsidies, too. Until now, no one has empirically examined the process in an objective manner. In order to do so, someone may ask for a subsidy from Brussels.

 

 

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* The article is first published in Dnevnik in IME’s column “What is Seen and What is not Seen”.

(1) This work deserves a special mentioning: Simeon Djankov, Jose G. Montalvo and Larta Reynal-Querol, Does Foreign Aid Help?, Cato Journal, vol. 26, No 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 1-28. It compares foreign aid to other forms of international transfers (foreign direct investment, remittances and loans) in terms of impact on economic growth and democratic impacts.

My original idea was to review the intra-EU financial transfers with the same set of criteria, but collecting needed information requires considerable time and effort. This explains why I deal with only general of economic argument.

(2) Kevin P. Allen, Inaction In Action: The Court of Auditors, European Commissioners, and the Problem of Financial Mismanagement, at: http://www.ime-bg.org/pr_en/index.html