Europe Economy

Euro Zone Still Waiting for Its Marshall Plan

Paul Ames
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When European leaders agreed last summer on a "growth compact" designed to pump more than two hundred billion dollars into the euro zone economy, it was hailed as modern-day Marshall Plan.

Seven months on, however, the money's still not moving and neither is the economy.

With a record 18.8 people billion out of work, the euro zone continues hemorrhaging over 100,000 jobs a month. The bloc's economy contracted by 0.4 percent last year and the growth forecast for 2013 barely edges above zero.

Matters are much worse in the south. Greece is mired in a sixth year of deep recession and more than a quarter of Spaniards are out of work.

However, all those billions for investment — which have been held up in the European Union's tortuous decision-making process since summer — could soon start to flow.

Formal approval from governments and parliaments across the 27-member EU to increase the capital of the European Investment Bank by $13.5 billion finally came through earlier this month.

(Read More: Cyprus Poses Biggest Euro Zone Risk)

Its base strengthened, the EIB aims to raise $80 billion more on the markets. That could enable it to leverage more private and public financing to a total of $244 billion over the next three years that would be invested in small businesses, research and innovation, and public works projects.

"In the longer term, it is incredibly important for the European economy," says Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank. "This is one of the very few tools we have available to address some of the very specific negative impacts of the crisis."

Rarely in the headlines, the Luxembourg-based European Investment Bank enjoys a triple-A credit rating and widespread market confidence, which enable it to raise money on the capital markets. It then offers long-term, low-interest loans for various projects, using its solid reputation to attract more funding from private or public investors.

Typically, every euro the EIB invests is matched by two euros from other investors.

"These forms of funding do offer a very substantive possibility to leverage private financing, so the impact of every euro that goes into the EIB capital is vastly greater than that euro," Zuleeg explains. "It certainly is a very cost effective way of spending the money."

Financing brought in by the increase in the bank's capital could boost growth in the European Union by an additional 0.6 percent over the next two years, which would create at least 1.2 million new jobs, according to a report by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

(Read More: Euro Zone Sentiment Rises for Third Month in a Row)

"That's a very conservative estimate," said Stephany Griffith-Jones of Columbia University, one of the report's authors. "We just looked that impact of investment in infrastructure. Lending to small and medium-sized companies would have an additional impact."

Although about 10 percent of the EIB's funding usually goes to projects outside the EU, the capital increase will be exclusively for European investments.

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The bank considers dozens of applications for funding every month. Plans taken on for appraisal this week include a $1.9 billion scheme to upgrade irrigation and waste water networks in Spain; a $204 million credit line for small businesses in Italy; and $221-million Czech highway project.

"We are committed to playing our role as a key long-term lender, to making sure that key investments that stimulate growth and address employment issues can go ahead," said Richard Willis, a press officer at the EIB's Luxembourg headquarters.

Support for small companies in the crisis-hit countries could constitute the bank's most important role. The credit squeeze has meant that even successful small businesses in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy are starved of funds and have been forced to lay off workers. "Our main focus is to address investment gaps, and where these are greater in certain countries, we are happy to play that role," Willis said.

However, no one's pretending the EIB's increased firepower will provide a silver bullet for southern Europe's recession.

"It's definitely good news that should bring forward some investment projects," says Ronald Janssen, economic adviser to the European Trade Union Confederation. "But we have to be careful and see the money is really going to those states that are in most need of it, or whether the logic of the market is playing so that the investment is actually directed to countries that are not really in need of it, such as Germany."

Countries making major contributions to the bank's capital increase, such as Germany, Britain and France, are likely to insist that some of the investment goes their way.

There are also fears that the squeeze on public and private financing in Greece, Spain and other southern countries means they won't be able to provide the minimum of 50 percent co-financing required for projects that receive EIB loans.

Similar problems may limit the reach of other elements of the EU's growth compact, such European bonds to finance transport, energy and communications projects, or front-loaded spending from the EU's development funds for poor regions.

"The growth compact doesn't go far enough," Zuleeg contends. "Even these innovative financial instruments require private investment to match the public investment, they require strong governance, the ability to put together bankable projects. This is incredibly difficult in the crisis countries."

European leaders will meet for their first summit of 2013 next week to agree the EU's budget framework up to 2020. It's expected to total around $1.3 trillion, but demands for cuts from Britain and Germany, France's refusal to accept lower farm subsidies and other countries defending their corners probably mean the budget's potential for boosting Europe's economic potential by investment in research or new power networks will be much diminished.

(Read More: Euro Zone Periphery Fixes Major Cause of Crisis)

Meanwhile, hopes of spurring growth by developing digital commerce within the EU or negotiating new free-trade deals with the United States and other global powers won't yield results for years.

Many believe more urgent action is required to slow the economic decline and ensuing risk of heightened social unrest.

"The first thing that needs to be done is to stop with these austerity policies," says Janssen, the labor union economist. "We need a temporary moratorium on new fiscal consolidation plans so that economy gets some air to grow, to stabilize and not go down any further."