Latvia’s Dombrovskis Brings Fiscal Hawk Record to EU Commission

By Mathew Dalton

Oct 5 (WSJ) — The budget hawk who steered Latvia out of economic collapse with a bruising austerity program is poised to get one of the EU’s top economic-policy jobs as Europe is heading toward a clash over austerity.

Former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis is nominated to join the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, as one of its top economic policy makers. When he appears before the European Parliament for his confirmation hearing on Monday, one of the main questions will likely be whether he plans to bring the tough policies he used in Latvia to a much bigger stage.

A host of Europe’s deep-seated economic problems await him. They include anemic growth, high unemployment and the threat of deflation, all of which may haunt the region for years to come.

The 43-year-old Mr. Dombrovskis, whose portfolio will include oversight of national budgets, will be at the center of the debate now raging in Europe about whether tight budgets will exacerbate those problems and fuel the rise of extremist, anti-EU political parties.

His most immediate problem will be how to bring the finances of the French and Italian governments back in line with the EU’s budget rules. Paris and Rome argue the dismal shape of their economies means they should be granted more time to hit EU budget targets.

Wielding degrees in economics and physics, Mr. Dombrovskis brings formidable technical skills to the debates that lie ahead, say people who have worked with him, along with a free-market—some would say right-wing—economic philosophy and a direct personal style. “He’s very focused on fiscal rigor,” said Olli Rehn, a member of the European Parliament and the EU’s previous economics commissioner, who worked with Mr. Dombrovskis on an international bailout for Latvia in 2009. “He’s quite blunt and quite straightforward. I don’t know if that is being right-wing or not.”

Under Mr. Dombrovskis’s leadership, Latvia adopted sharp spending cuts to win emergency loans from the EU and the International Monetary Fund. His government kept the Latvian currency pegged to the euro, a measure that many economists say deepened the country’s pain.

The economy ultimately shrank by 25%. Poverty soared, as did emigration. The IMF sometimes chided Mr. Dombrovskis’s government for not doing enough to shield poorer Latvians from the hardship of the crisis.

Mr. Dombrovskis said that Latvia had no other choice but to cut deeply and that he wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Latvian solution for other countries. “I don’t think we can say that something is mechanically applicable from one situation to another,” he said.But he does argue that cutting the budget deficit quickly, as Latvia did in 2009 and 2010, is the best way to stabilize government finances. That puts him at odds with some economists and European officials, who have argued that sharp cuts can actually widen the deficit by throwing the economy into a deep recession. Mr. Dombrovskis also sought to temper his image as a hard-core budget hawk: “I see my task as balancing the economic and financial side, with the social side,” he said.

Einars Repše, Mr. Dombrovskis’s finance minister, said that Mr. Dombrovskis often mediated between competing forces in the government on budget questions.

“I recollect him being more on the cautious side than myself,” Mr. Repše said. “I was much more a supporter of radical and immediate consolidation.”

Starting in 2011, Latvia posted some of the highest growth rates in the EU. Its bailout program has been hailed a success by officials in Brussels and Washington, burnishing Mr. Dombrovskis’s international profile. Yet the unemployment rate is still 11% and many of the country’s younger and better-educated workers have emigrated, facts that often go unmentioned by Latvia’s boosters.

“There is still much more to do in Latvia,” Mr. Dombrovskis acknowledges.

In the next commission, with Jean-Claude Juncker as president, Mr. Dombrovskis is expected to be the hawkish foil to Pierre Moscovici, the dovish former French finance minister with whom he will share decision-making powers over national budgets. Mr. Rehn said the turmoil of the Latvian bailout, when his government occasionally came to the brink of collapse, should serve him well as he navigates the commission’s internal debates.

“He has cool nerves and strong composure,” Mr. Rehn said, “and he can intellectually handle difficult situations under pressure.”