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Analysis: Europe puts its head in sand over growth crisis

Sep 5, 2011, 1:19 a.m.
European Union flags are seen outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels ahead of an EU heads of state summit, October 27, 2010. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Germany, by contrast, derided a decade ago as the sick man of Europe, is being held up as a model, at least when it comes to jobs.

"The remarkable resilience of the German labor market in the last few years, where wage moderation and flexible time accounting shielded the economy from excessive job destruction, illustrates admirably the promise of well-structured reforms," Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, said approvingly in Jackson Hole.

How much are countries missing out by not pressing the reform button?

Padoan says Europe's trend growth has fallen in recent years to an average of just 1.5 percent a year, but he says some members of the 17-nation euro zone could almost double that rate with a supply-side jolt.

Italy needs to liberalize its service sector, open up professions to new entrants and improve energy efficiency, Padoan said. Greece needs to do all that and overhaul its labor market and competition policy at the same time.

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Germany, too, could grow faster still if it liberalized services, which would trigger increased investment.

These policy prescriptions are well worn. Leaders of the European Union enshrined them and a host of other reform goals in the 2000 Lisbon Agenda, which they promptly ignored. The pledges have since been repackaged as the Europe 2020 Strategy, but Whyte says the havoc wrought by the near-collapse of the international financial system will make politicians more wary than ever of the social disruption that reforms entail.

"The Great Financial Crisis hasn't been a great advert for free-market capitalism," said Whyte. His research outfit publishes a booklet this week exploring how Europe could take off by embracing innovation. But in this area, too, Whyte fears the political climate means policy is likely to be increasingly hijacked by incumbent firms hostile to competition from start-ups.

Europe is not doomed to go down Japan's path of economic stagnation. Its potential growth rate is low but stronger than Japan's -- estimated by the Bank of Japan at just 0.5 percent a year because of a fast-shrinking working-age population.

But the specter of a renewed recession is a reminder for governments that, even if they can spirit away the euro zone's currency and debt woes, they have still to find the elixir for growth.

"I'm not saying politicians will implement reform, but they should," Padoan said. "Some politicians resist reform because they are captive to interest groups. Well, the price for those governments in terms of sustainable growth will be very high."

(Reporting by Alan Wheatley; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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