Take a visit to the cyber-belly of the beast, to a website run by the European Commission, the EU’s bureaucratic core, and you will be told that “the financial sector was a major cause of the [economic] crisis and received substantial government support.” Soon it will be payback time, in the form of Europe’s new Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), set to be levied at a rate of 0.1 percent on equity and debt transactions, and 0.01 percent on trades in derivatives. It will ensure that the financial sector “makes a fair and substantial contribution to public finances.”
We’ll see. This new “contribution,” potentially much more onerous than those fragments of a percent suggest, may or may not be substantial (taxes of this type have a record of backfiring), but the revenues predicted by the commission ($45 billion or so, but the math is fuzzy) could be eclipsed by the punch that the tax delivers to economic growth.
Whether the FTT is “fair” is fuzzier still. That’s because the real objectives of the tax—to be introduced by 11 eurozone countries in 2014—have little to do with that. To start with, the FTT is about—dread word—the narrative. Problems within the banks were the immediate cause of the crisis—it’s not called the financial crisis for nothing—but working out what caused those problems is a messier matter altogether. The number of plausible suspects rivals the haul on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express. Prominent among them is something for which the commission bears a great deal of responsibility—the euro, a reckless, politically driven piece of financial engineering that has outdone the worst of Wall Street’s mad science. With the single currency still the focus of potentially dangerous debate, it makes sense to keep attention focused on fat cat bankers and away from Brussels’s more discreet architects of financial destruction. Similar thinking helps explain why—when the euro’s troubles grew too big to ignore—there was so much talk of dodgy markets and dark Anglo-Saxon plotting.
Sadly, in a way, not all of this was—or is—deliberate disinformation. Much of continental Europe’s leadership class—across the political spectrum—distrusts “financial capitalism” of the Anglo-American kind, a venerable suspicion that appeared to have been vindicated by the fiascos of 2008. Why there is this distrust is a topic for another time—Roman Catholicism, socialism, and the twists of history have all played their parts—but that it exists is undeniable. The idea that free markets are the least bad way of allocating resources has limited appeal in a political culture still in thrall to the notion that some authority somewhere knows best, a belief that remains the essence of what the EU stands for. This is more than a matter of philosophical disagreement. So far as Brussels is concerned, Anglo-Saxon finance is not just objectionable, it’s in the way.
The euro was an attempt to override the market. A nation’s currency is a measure of its relative economic performance. If its value falls that’s a signal to investors and, in time, a chance to restore international competitiveness. By abandoning marks, francs, lire, and all the rest, the creators of the currency union junked a useful economic tool, replacing the collective sense of the market with crude administrative fiat. France was Germany was Portugal, and that was that.
As millions of jobless Europeans know, the market bit back. But the instinct of those managing the currency union was not to revert to market discipline, but to move farther away from it. There were bans on the short-selling of certain securities, attacks on credit ratings agencies that were at last telling some inconvenient truths, and, crucially, a vow by European Central Bank president Mario Draghi to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, a declaration buttressed by the prospect of significant intervention in the sovereign bond market. Markets are far from perfect, and some of what has been done can be justified on pragmatic grounds, but it’s not difficult to notice the direction of a broader ideological current, one that is not good news for the City—London’s Wall Street—or, indeed, American financial firms interested in European business.