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The statistical backbone of the new European economic governance: the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure Scoreboard

The statistical backbone of the new European economic governance: the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure Scoreboard

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G. Raveaud



During this process, the Commission uses several instruments to assess the situation of

individual member states. One of them has pre-eminence: the Alert Mechanism report, based

on the Macroeconomic Imbalances Procedure (MIP) Scoreboard. It is via this Scoreboard,

which consists of eleven indicators44, that it is decided whether a country is suffering from

“potential imbalances”. If this is judged to be the case, this country is subject to an “in-depth

review” which may finally lead to recommendations45.

The purpose of this chapter is critically to assess the nature and content of this

Scoreboard. Section I presents the methodology of the indicators and their role in sustaining

sanctions against deviant Member states. Section II offers a critical presentation of the ten

indicators included in the Scoreboard. Section III presents the theoretical model, which can be

derived from the Scoreboard, as well as its shortcomings.

1. From indicators to sanctions

1.1. The qualities of the indicators

The crisis has demonstrated the need for better coordination of economic policies.

However, as long as these remain national, the chosen path has been to ask each country to

follow the same roadmap. Or, more precisely, EU member states have decided to ask

themselves, in a set of new procedures, to follow new, more stringent guidelines. After all,

none of the policies detailed below are EU policies, unlike the Common Agricultural Policy

or the euro. They remain national in aim and scope: what has been created is a common

system for monitoring what the other member states are doing, not a common programme of

action for EU member states.

The Commission was asked to submit a “proposal” for the Scoreboard (EC, 2011),

which was to be endorsed by the Council of the EU (2011)46. The Scoreboard47 initially

consisted of a list of ten indicators addressing both internal and external imbalances. Its aim

was to “provide an early-warning signalling device of potentially harmful macroeconomic

imbalances in Member States”. However, the authors of the Scoreboard insisted that there

was “no automaticity”: the fact that a member state breached a threshold did not necessarily

mean that it is suffering an imbalance, as other sources of information would be used.

The document states a number of qualities expected from the selected indicators. They

should “focus on the most relevant dimensions of macroeconomic imbalances and

competitiveness losses”, with particular attention to the euro area. However, there is no clear

foundation for the choice of indicators. The European Parliament has pointed out the absence



44



The initial proposal included ten indicators, to which a financial sector indicator was added in 2012 (EC,

2012a).

The introduction of the Scoreboard was established by Article 4 of Regulation (EU) N° 1176/2011 of the

European Parliament and the Council of 16 November 2011 on the prevention and correction of macroeconomic

imbalances.

46

The Council made a few remarks, such as the need to take into account indicators of productivity and of the

financial sector.

47

The Scoreboard can be found here:

http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/excessive_imbalance_procedure/imbalance_Scoreboard.

45



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of “a single specific reference” in the Commission’s document and it criticised the lack of

methodology and the absence of a bibliography (European Parliament, 2011).

Secondly, the indicators and the thresholds should “provide reliable signalling devices”

at “an early stage” (EC, 2011). In particular, thresholds should be set “at prudent levels”, so as

to avoid “false alarms” while being able at the same time to detect problems at a sufficiently

early stage. The solution adopted to meet these difficult criteria is a statistical one, with the

thresholds being set as the lower and upper quartiles of the distribution of members’ states

achievements for the variable of choice. It should be remarked, however, that among the 10

indicators chosen, only 2 were presented with both a lower and a upper threshold48.

In other words, a member state is said to experience an imbalance not when the

indicator breaches a level calculated on the basis of economic theory or history, but when the

member state drifts apart from other EU members. This is of course a very raw measure,

which does not say much about a country’s economic situation. For instance, if a loss of

market share in exports is due to a surge in domestic activity which leads firms to sell at home

rather than abroad, it is hard to claim that this changed international position is problematic.

On the other hand, a country may well be below a threshold while experiencing serious

difficulties, such as when the unemployment rate surges from 6% to 9% without breaching

the 10% limit.

Additionally, the document asserts that indicators should be of high statistical quality,

i.e. derived from data compiled according to the principles of the European Statistics Code of

Practice of the European Statistical System (ESS). In practice, Eurostat sources are used or,

when not available, the “highest quality alternative data source” should be chosen (e.g. the

ECB).

1.2. From the Scoreboard to sanctions

As stated by the corresponding EU Regulation N° 1176/2011, if imbalances are

detected, the European Parliament, the Council and the Eurogroup are informed. The Council

may then make recommendations to member states. In the case of “excessive imbalances”,

the Council’s recommendation shall “specify a set of policy recommendations to be followed”

as well as a “deadline” within which the Member State is to submit a “corrective action plan”.

The next step is the assessment of the corrective action plan by the Council.

Technically, this involves the adoption of a new recommendation by the Council,

implementation of which is then monitored by the Commission. The Commission also has the

right to “carry out enhanced surveillance missions” in member states being monitored. In the

case of Eurozone members, representatives of the ECB can be invited as well.

The third step is an assessment of the corrective actions undertaken by the Member

State. If these are judged insufficient and if the Commission so recommends, the Council

adopts a decision of non-compliance. It should be noted that the Commission’s

recommendation is deemed to have been adopted by the Council. This is the case unless the

48



As noted by the European Parliament, “The Commission working document does not contain an explanation

of the inappropriateness of setting both upper and lower thresholds for most of the indicators” (European

Parliament, 2011)



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Council decides, by qualified majority, to reject the recommendation within ten days. If the

corrective actions recommended are implemented, the excessive imbalance procedure is held

in abeyance while the monitoring continues. The procedure is finally ended when the Council,

following a recommendation from the Commission, decides to abrogate its recommendations.

1.3. Indicators as proofs of imbalances

The ambiguity regarding the role of the Scoreboard indicators persists in the

Regulation: while an entire monitoring process is based on them, the Regulation insists that

they are not “goals for economic policy”, but mere “tools”. After all, when undertaking an

“economic interpretation” of the Scoreboard, the Commission is asked to “pay close

attention” to “developments in the real economy” such as economic growth, employment and

productivity.

This means in particular that when a member state is identified as requiring an in-depth

review, the review should be undertaken “without the presumption that an imbalance exists”.

However, it is precisely the suspicion that such an imbalance exists that motivated the indepth review in the first place. It is therefore no surprise that this call for caution is

immediately contradicted as the Regulation stresses “the need for policy action in member

states showing persistently large current-account deficits and competitiveness losses”

(emphasis added). In this case then, a couple of indicators entail immediate action, regardless

of “country-specific economic conditions and circumstances”. In the same vein, member

states that accumulate large current-account surpluses should “implement measures that help

strengthen their domestic demand and growth potential”, once again regardless of their

overall economic situation.

This use of the Scoreboard indicators is consistent with the EU’s view of the nature of

the crisis, which is seen as the result of “divergences in competitiveness”. The purpose of the

procedure is thus to restore national competitiveness. Measures member states are asked to

take “potentially include fiscal and wage policies, labour markets, product and services

markets and financial sector regulations.” Thus they may cover the entire economy – and

society –, which of course contradicts the spirit of EU treaties, according to which fiscal and

social policies remain national competences. This is probably why the Regulation goes on to

clarify that, in sanctioning a member state, the Council should “fully respect the role of

national parliaments and social partners”, in particular regarding “systems for wage

formation”.

Finally, in this “broadened” surveillance of member states’ economic policies, a

“stronger role” is allocated to the Commission, which draws up the recommendations on

which the Council’s decisions are based. The major innovation, introduced by the European

Semester and retained by the MIP, is the reverse majority voting according to which the

Council can reject a decision by the Commission only if there is a majority against it. In this

new governance, there is virtually no role for the European Parliament, which is not consulted

on recommendations and can only “invite” the heads of the Council and of the Commission to

appear before the relevant committee to discuss the decisions adopted.



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The Scoreboard thus plays a key role in determining whether a country is experiencing

imbalances or not. The next section looks in detail into the composition of the Scoreboard.

2. The Scoreboard

The eleven indicators of the completed Scoreboard can be divided into four categories:

the external position of the member states; competitiveness; housing prices and debts; and

unemployment.

2.1. Exports as the way out?

Three of the indicators are intended to ensure that a country is sufficiently competitive

and attractive. They measure:

• the current account position, as a percentage of GDP (3 years backward moving

average, with a threshold of +6% and - 4% of GDP);

• the net international investment position, as a percentage of GDP (lower threshold of 35% of GDP);

• export market shares (5 years percentage change, with a lower threshold of -6%).

The aim of these three indicators is to assess how well a given member state performs

vis-à-vis the rest of the world. This shows that, for the EU, the main problem is the

accumulation of trade deficits, particularly in the Southern economies (Greece, Spain, Italy,

Portugal) and France. It is only in theory that trade deficits and surpluses are treated equally,

as the absence of upper threshold shows. In fact, as the Council of the EU (2011) made clear,

“unlike current account deficits, large and sustained current account surpluses (…) will not

lead to sanctions”.

This insistence on trade overlooks the fact that, as exchange rates cannot adjust within

the Eurozone, there is no compensation mechanism: export countries see their exports benefit

from their currency’s lack of appreciation, while deficit countries cannot resolve their position

by devaluing theirs (Jeong, Mazier and Saadaoui, 2010). Thus to require deficit countries to

restore equilibrium is to impose a harsh price on them, as developments in Southern Europe

have shown.

Besides, it should be noted that some countries’ deficits are the counterpart of others’

surpluses. It is of course impossible for all European countries to become surplus countries.

Hence, insisting on export market shares means that instead of promoting cooperation or

complementarity between its member states, the EU is seeking to make competition ever

harsher, with no net collective gain to be obtained.

The second indicator considers the difference between the foreign assets held by a

member state and the assets held by foreigners in the member state in question. However,

globalization and the removal of national regulations have rendered measurement so

complicated that it was revised by the OECD (2008), which led, for instance, to a 40% drop in

the estimated stock of foreign direct investments in France (Askenazy, 2009). Besides,

official statistics substantially underestimate the net foreign asset positions of rich countries,

as they fail to capture most of the assets held by households in offshore tax havens (Zucman,

2013).



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It is to be stressed that there are no upper thresholds either for the net international

investment position or for export market shares. According to the Scoreboard, a country

should not import too much, but it can never be accused of exporting too much.

The intent of these three indicators is to establish a diagnosis of un-competitiveness, which is

to be cured by acting on the next two indicators.

2.2. Cutting wages to foster competitiveness

The next indicator monitors labour costs, which are to be kept as low as possible. It

measures:

• the 3 years percentage change in nominal unit labour costs (with thresholds of +9% for

Eurozone countries and +12% for non-Eurozone countries);

The surveillance of labour costs and prices aims to ensure that the country keeps its

production costs under control49. Here again, while there is an upper limit on nominal unit

labour cost, there is no lower bound: having wages fall in a country is not considered to be a

threat to Eurozone stability. This goes against the view of many economists on the role of

stagnant wages in Germany in depressing demand in the EU (Stockhammer and Onaran,

2012).

Furthermore, the link between rising wages and trade deficits may not be as

straightforward as it seems. For instance, Daniel Gros (2012) remarks that the evolution of

wages is not a correct predictor of export shares in the EU, which remained stable between

2000 and 2010 for Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain. More generally, Gaulier et al. (2012)

note the absence of any link between the evolution of wages and exports for Eurozone

countries.

However, the insistence on controlling labour costs has taken pre-eminence in EU

economic governance, with the ratification of the Euro-Plus Pact (European Council, 2011),

which was signed by the heads of states of the Eurozone plus six other countries (Bulgaria,

Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania). Aimed at fostering competitiveness, the

Pact invites member states to put an end to the indexation of wages on prices and to ensure

that wage settlements in the public sector “support the competitiveness efforts in the private

sector”.

Here again, wages are required to remain below productivity. The fact that this means

depressed demand is not mentioned. What has probably been the major imbalance of the EU

for decades, namely the fact that profits have risen faster than GDP, is not addressed. This is

so even if the Commission itself (2007), along with many major institutions such as the IMF

and the OECD, have pointed out the widening gap between the wage share and the share of

profits (Husson, 2010).

Member states are also asked to “decentralise wage bargaining”, in order to align wages

locally with productivity and thus foster job creation. But, according to the OECD (2004), “no

robust associations” are to be found between the level of wage bargaining and employment.



49



It is somewhat surprising that a direct measure of inflation was not included, as proposed for instance by the

ESRB (2011).



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On the contrary, inequalities and poverty rise when wages are negotiated in firms rather than

at a higher level (Damiani et al., 2011; OECD, 2004).

This case shows the fragility of EU governance by indicators: first, on the procedural

level, it is not clear how forcing countries to decentralize wage negotiations “respects national

traditions of social dialogue and industrial relations”. Second, the recommended measure has

known adverse effects on key social issues such as inequalities and poverty, without having

clear benefits in terms of jobs. Last, it is not obvious why high wages are such a problem, as

they appear not to be linked to exports. On the contrary, there is a serious risk that ending the

indexation of wages on prices and cutting public-sector wages will further depress demand in

Europe and worsen the crisis (Janssen, 2013).

The other indicator of competitiveness monitors exchange rates, by looking at:

• the 3 years percentage change in real effective exchange rates (based on deflators),

relative to 35 other industrial countries, with thresholds of -/+5% for Eurozone countries and /+11% for non-Eurozone countries.

This indicator takes into account two factors: the evolution of prices here and abroad

(this is the role of deflators) and the market shares of the country in question in foreign

markets. As such, this indicator seems well suited to measuring imbalances in national trade

positions, especially as the thresholds adopted here symmetrical, with rises and falls given

equal weight.

The next set of indicators deals with private and public deficits, as well as developments

in the housing market.

2.3. Watching bubbles, finally?

Surveillance of deficits has always been at the core of European economic governance,

with the requirements laid down by the Maastricht treaty (1992) for candidate countries to the

euro, and the creation of the Stability and Growth Pact in 1997 (Amsterdam Treaty).

However, this monitoring was limited to the public sector: private deficits were not

considered dangerous, as they allegedly resulted from informed decisions taken by rational

actors.

However, the crisis proves this analysis wrong. Indeed, two of the countries that

experienced the most severe difficulties, Ireland and Spain, were praised for their low debt

and public budget surpluses before the crisis hit50. These economies were characterised by a

housing bubble made possible by high levels of private debt51. And it was the bursting of this

bubble that caused the severe recession in which Irlande was entrapped between 2008 and

2010, while Spain experienced a “double dip” recession, which ended in 2014.

The Scoreboard reflects the lessons of the crisis by seeking to contain the rise in private

debts, both in flows and stocks. It monitors:

• private sector debt as a percentage of GDP, with a threshold of 160%;

• private sector credit flows as a percentage of GDP, with a threshold of 15%;

50



Spain enjoyed a budget surplus in 2007 (1.9% of GDP) together with a low level of debt (36.3% of GDP). The

figures for Ireland were 0.1% and 25.1%.

51

222% of GDP in Ireland and 215% in Spain in 2007, compared to an EU average of 152%.



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These indicators are standard, and they do point to important imbalances within the

economy concerned. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the content of debts should matter as

well as their level (ESRB, 2011). Finally, it should be noted that the private debt threshold is

set far below the upper quartile of the distribution (222 % of GDP, for the Netherlands).

The Scoreboard also seeks to contain house prices, measuring:

• the year-on-year changes in house prices relative to a Eurostat consumption deflator,

with a threshold of 6%;

This is a necessary innovation, as soaring real estate prices are a major issue for

households in many European countries. It is to be regretted, however, that the threshold was

not set at a lower level, given the need to reduce housing costs in many places in order to

restore living standards.

It was also decided to put an upper limit on the growth of the financial sector, with a

limit on:

• the year-on-year changes in financial sector liabilities, with a threshold of 16,5%.

This indicator measures the evolution of the deposits, securities, loans, shares, etc. due

to financial institutions (European Commission, 2012). In the economic interpretation of

member states’ situation, this indicator is complemented by a debt-to-equity ratio that

measures the amplifying effect of the financial sector on the economy52. It is uncertain

whether the thresholds are set at sufficiently low levels to avoid future financial crises.

Finally, the Maastricht criterion for public debt is retained, with the monitoring of:

• general government sector debt in percentage of GDP, with a threshold of 60%.

While monitoring of national debts is certainly warranted, given that the ECB cannot

bail out member states, it is to be noted that the threshold at 60% is breached by 17 member

states (for the third quarter of 2015). In fact, using the definition of the “upper quartile” gives

the value of 99% of GDP (for Spain) – not 60%. Also, one wonders what the 60% threshold

means for countries such as Greece (where debt reaches 171% of GDP), Italy (135%),

Portugal (131%), Cyprus (110%) or Belgium (109%). Lastly, asking member states to reduce

their debts all at once can only extend the recession in Europe, as demand will be cut in all

countries simultaneously.

Then comes what is probably the most important indicator for Europeans, the

unemployment rate.

2.4. Unemployment: a measure of the rigidity of economies?

For the first time ever, the Commission included the unemployment rate in a list of

compliant indicators. It decided to monitor:

• the 3 years backward moving average of unemployment rate, with a threshold of 10%.

While the inclusion of the unemployment rate may be seen as a renewed concern with

social issues, this is probably not the best way to look at this. For the Commission, a high

unemployment rate is the proof of a rigid economy. Widespread joblessness is perceived as a

52



However, the European Systemic Risk Board’s proposal to monitor short terms liabilities (ESRB, 2011), on

the grounds that liquidity issues have proven crucial, was not adopted (European Commission, 2012a).



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sign of the low “capacity of the economy to adjust” (European Commission, 2011). A high

unemployment rate thus calls for more flexible labour markets, in line with the European

Employment Strategy that was launched in 1997 (Raveaud, 2007).

As far as the indicator is concerned, the threshold is set slightly above the EU average

(9,1% in 2015, 10,5% in the Eurozone). It is broken by fifteen countries, with record levels

being reached by Greece (24.7%), Spain (21%), Croatia (16.5%) and Portugal (12.2%).

However, setting the upper bound for unemployment at 10% already shows that high levels of

unemployment have been accepted as a normal feature of European economies. Also, it is

surprising that the Commission did not include in its list of indicators the employment rate,

which has been the main economic indicator since the Lisbon treaty (2000) (Salais, 2006).

Thus the indicators included in the Scoreboard tend to emphasise a country’s external

position, with high wages and rigid labour markets being seen as problems. This points to the

specific model from which these indicators are derived.

3. The disequilibria of the Scoreboard

3.1. The Commission’s deflationary model

When presenting “the economic interpretation of the Scoreboard”, the Commission

insisted on the “critical importance” of “country-specific circumstances and institutions”

(European Commission, 2012b). It added that “broader indicators of development” should

also be considered, such as those relating to productivity.

However, this is not the case. The core of the Commission’s model is based on wage

cuts that should enhance competitiveness and exports. It is consistent with the “Berlin

Washington consensus”, which denies any effectiveness to Keynesian economic policies and

rejects lagging demand as a possible explanation for crises (Fitoussi, Saraceno, 2012).

In this approach, wages are to be maintained as low as possible and public deficits

should shrink; only exports remain as a dynamic element of demand. Clearly, this is an

export-led model of growth, which is advocated here, based on the German example.

However, not all European economies are as competitive or even export-oriented as Germany,

and it is by definition not possible for all countries to be export champions simultaneously.

Thus, by insisting on low wages, a massive disequilibrium is maintained within the EU

between the supply of goods and the income of the population. It is therefore no surprise that

GDP growth remains low.

Two other imbalances, which may have been at the origin of the crisis, are also left

aside.

3.2. Two persistent imbalances: excess profits and inequalities

These two disequilibria can be inferred from two imbalances. The first is that between

the labour share of income and the capital share, which has been acknowledged by the

European Commission for a few years now (2007). In fact, since the mid-1980s, the wage

share (the part of value added that goes to workers in the form of wages and social security

contributions) has been lower than it was in the 1960s, while the share of profits – and hence



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of dividends – has soared. It is remarkable that this increase in the share of profits has not led

to the expected rise in private investment and private employment.

The second disequilibrium concerns inequalities among individuals themselves: as the

number of working poor rises while compensation soars at the top, inequalities widen, which

pushes the poorest households into debt. As debt piles up to sustain consumption in the

bottom part of the income distribution, profits are accumulated in the finance industry

providing the corresponding credits. This leads to an even more unequal distribution of

income, as the profits of the finance industry accrue to those already at the top. Moreover, this

process is not sustainable, as debts rise faster than incomes. A massive disequilibrium is thus

nurtured at the heart of the economy, which can only end in a crisis of the kind we

experienced in 2007 (Kumhof and Rancière, 2010). More generally, the high level of

inequalities makes the US and European economies both unfair and inefficient (Piketty, 2014,

Stiglitz, 2013).

Thus we have two indicators of disequilibrium: the wage share, and a measure of

inequality. However, neither of them is included in the Scoreboard. This is to be understood

by the broader lack of interest of the EU macroeconomic governance for social matters.

3.3. Oversight of the social dimension

The insistence on public debt is one of the futilities of the Commission’s approach.

While it is certainly necessary to curtail debt in some countries, making reduction a universal

prerequisite completely ignores Keynesian mechanisms, which can result in a deepening of

recession and persistent deficits, as Paul Krugman kept on repeating on his blog (Inman,

2013). Besides, crucial policy measures have been adopted on grounds, which systematically

under estimated the negative impact of budget cuts on activity, as IMF economists have

recognised (Blanchard, Leigh, 2013). Also, straightforward errors have been made by

economists who saw high debts level as necessary obstacles to growth, as the debunking of

the works of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart by Thomas Herndon, the graduate student

from the heterodox University of Amherts (Massachusetts) has demonstrated (Herndon et al.,

2013). Lastly, the loss of economic activity causes excessive unemployment and

bankruptcies, which are detrimental to potential growth and long-term prosperity.

Finally, the Commission turns a blind eye to the counterpart of these reductions. As

social spending is not on the list (an even if it were, it is doubtful whether a high value would

be seen as a success), it is all too easy to forget the essential role of public money in

defending the weakest and preserving the social fabric. This is a generic problem with the

Commission’s approach, which does not consider social issues as potential economic

imbalances: the issue of rising poverty, notably the ever higher number of working poor, is

ignored, as if it were not a sign of an imbalance in the economy (Eurofound, 2010). This is

what allows the EU to present Germany as a model, despite the fact that the evolution of

inequalities in this country since the implementation of the Hartz reforms in 2000 has been

nothing short of catastrophic (Inequality Watch, 2012; Kyzyma, 2013).

It would be preferable for the Commission to pay attention to the indicators that really

matter, such as employment, poverty, inequality and measures of social health. It is also



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highly problematic that not a single measure of “environmental imbalance” has been included

in the list.

Conclusion. Misgoverning by numbers

As Alain Desrosières (2010) brilliantly argued, statistics are no simple “measures of

reality”. By choosing what to measure and how to measure it, policy-makers make crucial

choices. More precisely, “the tools of statistics evolve in parallel with new forms of the state”.

Desrosières (2003) calls “the neoliberal state” a state where indicators and benchmarks are

used to motivate individuals to adopt a certain behaviour. This certainly applies to this

Scoreboard, where statistics have been placed at the heart of political governance.

As we have seen, the Scoreboard can be criticised on many grounds. First, it omits

crucial economic variables, such as GDP or employment. Second, it places undue emphasis

on competitiveness, understood in a narrow way, thus putting wages and public spending

under strain. Last, it ignores major sources of imbalances, namely the high level of the profit

share and ever expanding inequalities. Thus the Scoreboard imposes a certain interpretation of

the crisis, despite the fact that, in so doing, it holds out little prospect of improvement in terms

of employment or the well-being of the peoples of Europe, contrary to what many voices are

asking for (Stiglitz et al., 2014).



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