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On superfluous teaspoons in oversized packaging



The European Commission today presented what it called "a communication providing member states with broad guidance on the conduct of fiscal policy in the period ahead."


Now, the commission doesn't have much of a role in fiscal policy. It's one of those ringfenced areas that European governments have steadfastly kept for themselves, while the EU seeks ways to chip away for some powers of its own. One of those ways is in macro alignment through the Euro. There, the European Commission's approach is periodically to sneak in some informal fiscal finger-wagging while taking eurozone countries to task over their more general economic management.


Today's communication is one of those occasions.


And it takes 17 pages to say: "remember, we're giving you a big pile of covid cash, so spend it wisely."


There's really very little much more than that in it.


The rest is filler over quite how much cash there is, and how marvelous the EU is in having disbursed it. Oh, and how marvelous the EU is for having agreed to stop the formal finger wagging over national budgets for a while.


It's a bit like receiving one of those outsized Amazon boxes and delving through layers of of packing paper and bubble wrap to fish out a a novelty teaspoon that you never ordered and don't want but which came as a complimentary (obligatory) 'gift' with some subscription or other.


Because even where the document does actually get into the nuts and bolts of fiscal guidance, it's only to deliver such gems as:


"Member states with less fiscal space or high levels of public debt ... should maintain prudent fiscal policies."


"Fiscal policy should remain agile and adjust to the evolving situation"


"Once health risks diminish, fiscal measures should gradually pivot to more targeted measures that promote a resilient and sustainable recovery."


It goes on to advise against the ingestion of yellow snow and the poking of bears and swimming too soon after meals.


The bleeding obvious stated, the document then 'pivots' to a three-page rehash of the previous 14 pages, both in words and pretty pictures.


The whole thing stretches to suspiciously close to 8000 words, as if some poor junior official was handed a word count and the title "One year since the outbreak of COVID-19: fiscal policy response" and was told to 'just fill in the rest'.


The less said about the accompanying press release the better... except that it is a truth universally acknowledged that you cannot polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter. And someone at the commission needs to learn the journalistic tenet of "don't bury the lede." [i.e. the news]. The bit the press are actually (albeit vaguely) interested in (the suspension of the finger-wagging to 2023) is smuggled 450 words into the 1200-word press release.


But when there's so little to say in policy blurtings, does an institution such as the European Commission even have the option to say nothing at all, for fear of being mocked for insubstantiality by some inconsequential parody blogger?


Arguably not.


So if we (reluctantly) concede that the lack of substance is institutional, constitutional even, then the addressable problem is the packaging, where the presentation doesn't reflect the contents.


If all you're delivering is a novelty teaspoon, just put it in a little novelty-teaspoon-sized box, and stick on the label "contains novelty teaspoon".


It would save a few people an awful lot of painful unnecessary work: the person who wrote 8000 words about the history of teaspoons and how best to use them, the person who wrote the 1200 word press release, and the person who read it all (me), who then had to go and splurge another 600 words on how little the 9200 words said.


If you've read all 9800 words spilled on this subject today, my sympathies and apologies. Collect a t-shirt on your way out.









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