Austerity or growth: a politician's dilemma

With Karolos Papoulias emerging as the new Prime Minister of Greece, the nations of the Eurozone hold their collective breaths to see what approach to the crisis the new government will take. In some ways, Merkel and friends must be breathing a deep sigh of relief at having dodged the bullet of a coalition involving the ΚΚΕ (the Communist Party of Greece) who wish to renounce austerity and and leave the Euro. After the election dust has settled, a coalition has emerged between the parliament's largest party, New Democracy, Pasok (the Socialist party) and the Democratic Left. All three parties are broadly in favour of remaining in the Euro and desiring a less radical renegotiation of the bailout. However, the new government does seek some changes to the demands placed on Greece, and this must worry Merkel and co.

Across Europe, austerity is looking less attractive to politicians, as voters turn towards parties which favor growth. In France, François Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy on a platform of taxing and spending. This is a sign of how much things have changed in the two years since the last UK general election, where austerity was taken as common sense. Since then, European economies have seen little growth, and the prosperity that has been created has not helped where it is needed most. As government budget cuts force roll-backs across the services which are available, most people feel worse off under austerity. Now the Tory-led government talks about efficiency and promoting growth, realising that if the situation does not improve then re-election looks unlikely. As well as watching Greece, keen eyes are also focused on France to see if Hollande's policies of tax-spend will boost the economy faster than Merkel's austerity.

In the UK, boosting growth has support on both side of the political divide not the least because GDP must rise if tax revenue is to increase enough to meet the government's deficit reduction targets. Further stagnation in the economy will hinder growth in the long term and cause lasting structural damage. Aside from the much talked about 'lost generation' of young people locked out of jobs and the housing market through increased scarcity, social problems are becoming exacerbated through a lack of prosperity – see last summer's London riots for evidence of this. Faced with the prospect of the economy tanking, the government's austerity programme now looks a lot less like common sense and a lot more like an ideological commitment to privatization and rolling back the state. I have blogged before about the roots of the government's philosophical commitment to austerity.

If austerity is ever going to work, it will have to deliver some growth soon. In the meantime, the people of Greece are facing a fifth consecutive year of recession and world greatly appreciate some growth. The austerity conditions imposed on Greece are very harsh and surely smothering the green shoots of recovery. However, the new government has little room to maneuver, as they are reliant on the support of the rest of the Eurozone to manage the country’s enormous debt. Papoulias needs growth and austerity, but it is becoming evident that the two are mutually exclusive. Greece will be watching both France and Germany to see which economy grows the fastest. The divisions across Europe are summed up last Friday's Euro 2012 match between Germany and Greece, a contest of the prosperous against the impoverished. Germany's victory does not silence the doubts about the merits of austerity.

The leaders of Europe are in need of some answers to the question of austerity verses a bold dash for growth, and are keen to see what happens in the countries which have most openly embraced either stance. The new Greek government will have to make some difficult economic choices and the continuing existence of the Euro maybe rest on these decisions. One thing that is certain – politicians will need to embrace either harsh austerity or a strong push for growth soon, as the current stagnation is unsustainable.