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The ‘Beneficial Crisis’

On the road to the European superstate.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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It would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh. Wheeled out earlier this month for celebrations to mark his 80th birthday, a rickety Helmut Kohl announced that the fate of the EU’s floundering single currency was a matter of life and death: “European unification is a question of war and peace .  .  . and the euro is part of our guarantee of peace.” 

The ‘Beneficial Crisis’

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

The former chancellor’s dire warning might have been a touch more persuasive had it not been repeated quite so many times before. To take just one example, in the course of Sweden’s 2003 referendum on whether to sign up for the euro, a “weeping” Kohl told the Swedish premier that he did not want his sons to die in a third world war. A reasonable ambition, but hardly the strongest of arguments for junking the krona. Sensible folk that they are, the Swedes voted nej and are all the better for it today. 

Panzers will not roll in the event of a euro collapse, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a decent case to be made for the $1 trillion (actually $937 billion at the time of writing, but who’s counting?) support package for the EU’s single currency union announced on May 10. The growing financial panic triggered by Greece’s economic woes was metastasizing into a crisis of confidence in the eurozone’s southern and western rim—the now notorious PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain)—a development that threatened ruin for much of the EU’s fragile banking sector and the shattering of any hopes of European economic recovery. After a dangerous delay caused by German hostility to the idea of bankrolling the Greeks, a 110 billion euro ($137 billion) EU/IMF bailout of the Augean state had been agreed. But it came too late to head off the financial markets’ mounting unease.

Financial panics are best dissipated by a swift, decisive, and dramatic response that signals that a believable lender of last resort has arrived on the scene. This is why, for all its faults, TARP worked. Uncle Sam had rolled into town. There would be no need after all to storm the ATMs. 

Jittery Europeans have had to make do with considerably less reassurance. The eurozone lacks the characteristics and resources of a unified nation. It is a hodgepodge of pacts—some observed, some not—whispered understandings, cultivated ambiguities, and clashing interests that does little to inspire confidence. The nearest it comes to a plausible lender of last resort is Germany, historically the EU’s most generous paymaster—a real nation, with real wealth but, awkwardly, real voters too. 

Those voters have been up in arms at the thought of helping out Greece. This was the real reason that German chancellor Angela Merkel dithered so long before coming to Athens’s aid. She was right to be worried. Within a day or so of the Greek bailout, her governing coalition was thrashed in regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

Something spectacular had to be done. And if $1 trillion isn’t spectacular I don’t know what is. The support package that finally emerged on May 10 falls into three main parts. The largest is the creation of a “temporary” (three-year) special purpose financing vehicle. This is authorized to borrow up to 440 billion euros ($550 billion) to fund or guarantee loans to member states who find themselves being frozen out of the capital markets. On top of this, there will be a 60 billion euro
($75 billion) “rapid reaction” facility operated by the EU Commission and designed to help any eurozone country facing an immediate cash crunch. Oh yes, the IMF agreed to throw another 250 billion euros ($312 billion) into the kitty. 

But, wait, there’s more. To make sure that struggling European financial institutions are not starved of dollars, a number of the world’s major central banks, including the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Fed, revived the emergency currency swap agreements put in place in late 2007. The ECB then topped up the punch bowl by commencing to purchase government debt from the PIIGS, a move explained by the need to move fast (it will be a while before the full support package can be put in place), but which opened the ECB to the charge that it had been reduced to printing money (“quantitative easing” is the preferred euphemism). The ECB denies this, saying the bond purchases are being “sterilized” by other maneuvers draining the excess liquidity the purchases create. 

International investors feted the support package for all of one day. Then they recognized that, as Merkel conceded, it had “done nothing more than buy time.” The rot within the eurozone continues to fester. As for claims that this was all the fault of the wicked speculators of Wall Street and the City of London (a tiresome cry from the EU’s leadership in recent months that reached a new crescendo last week), well, that’s like blaming the canary for the gas in the coal mine. 

The Greeks, Portuguese, and Spanish have all announced new austerity measures, but, even if we make the optimistic assumption that the recent riots in Greece will be the exception rather than the rule, these steps are unlikely to be enough to bring this story to happy ever after. Piled on top of existing budget cuts, the fresh rounds of slashing and taxing run the risk of crushing what’s left of domestic demand and with it an essential element in these countries’ ability to generate the additional tax revenues their treasuries so badly need. The usual remedy for such a predicament is devaluation and an export-led recovery, but with the PIIGS yoked to the euro that option is not available. The euro may be weakening against currencies outside the zone, but against their competitors within, the PIIGS are as uncompetitive as always. 

It’s not easy to unscramble an egg. For one of the PIIGS to quit the euro would almost certainly mean both default on its public debt and the bankruptcy of wide swaths of its private sector. The domino effect across the rest of the continent, and beyond, would be appalling. Another, more promising, alternative, albeit one freighted with severe technical and practical risks of its own, would be for a German-led group to depart the euro and form a separate “hard currency” union of its own, leaving the PIIGS with the deeply depreciated (down perhaps 30-40 percent) euros they so obviously need. This would be tough on the PIIGS’ unfortunate creditors, but there would be a chance that default, and all its attendant dangers, could be sidestepped. 

Yet no such alternative is on the menu. In confronting the hole into which joining the euro has dropped them, the eurozone’s leaders seem determined to dig ever deeper. We can debate their rationale, in all probability a mix of cowardice, conviction, careerism, and delusion, but not the likelihood of the conclusion to which they will come. Speaking in Aachen—the burial place of Charlemagne, an early Eurocrat—on May 13, Merkel made clear that she was still drinking the Kohl-Aid: “If the euro fails,” she warned, “Europe fails too, [and so does] the idea of European unification. We have a common currency, but no common political and economic union. And this is exactly what we must change. To achieve this, therein lies the opportunity of this crisis.” 

Long before Rahm Emanuel’s infamous dictum, the idea of a “beneficial crisis” (to borrow the terminology of Jacques Delors, a former president of the EU Commission) was common in Brussels. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that some smarter Eurocrats saw the flaws in the way that the euro had been set up as a feature, not a bug. The crisis to come would create the conditions in which the nations of the EU could be persuaded to submit to further federation. 

On May 12, the current president of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, argued that “member states should have the courage to say if they want an economic union or not. Because without it, monetary union is not possible.” The commission’s proposals include greater macroeconomic supervision, increased emphasis on deficit reduction, and the establishment of a permanent emergency financing mechanism. The most controversial idea is the suggestion EU governments submit their national budgets for review by their counterparts within the union before presenting them to their own parliaments. Whether this review would be merely advisory or carries a veto power has been left conveniently vague. 

Barroso also wants a more punitive regime imposed on governments that persist in breaking the budgetary rules that supposedly underpin the euro. There are limits, however. The commission did not back Merkel’s call for provision to be made to allow the eurozone’s more persistent reprobates to be expelled from the currency union. Permitting such a procedure, even in theory, would imply that the grand European project could sometimes go into reverse, and that would never do. 

Most of these measures will edge forward at best. Not all member states are enthusiastic about the push for what Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU’s council, has referred to as a European “gouvernement économique,” an elastic term capable of, in Van Rompuy’s sinuous prose, “asymmetric translation” in different languages, from the comparatively nebulous English “governance” to something altogether more concrete. 

But, if some governments are not enthusiastic, it’s difficult to see what else they can do—unless they are prepared to quit the eurozone. And they are even less enthusiastic about that. 

The next stage of this drama ought to have been something of an anticlimax as nerves were soothed by that calming trillion. Instead, Merkel sent markets sliding by imposing, amongst other measures, a “temporary” ban in Germany on “naked” short selling (selling securities that you do not own and have not made arrangements to borrow) of eurozone government bonds and the stocks of some of her country’s leading financial institutions. This was accompanied by promises of further regulation and yet more railing against speculators, “out-of-control” markets, and banks.  

The message sent by the new rules was grim. And it was received. By playing the populist card, Merkel had highlighted the extent of the political problems she faces back home. That’s not what investors wanted to hear. Some also fretted that the new restrictions were a hint that the finances of Germany’s banking sector were even worse than feared.  

So, what’s next? Predicting short-term currency movements at a time like this is a mug’s game. I’ll just stick with the word “choppy” and the belief that a trillion dollars ought to buy the euro some time. It won’t be a huge surprise if some of that time—and some of that money—is eventually used to smooth the increasingly inevitable “restructuring” of Greek, and possibly Portuguese, sovereign debt. Nevertheless that will not be the end of the matter. A trillion dollar band-aid is still a band-aid. This spring’s crisis has demonstrated that the existing system cannot survive as it stands. 

To succeed, a monetary union the size of the eurozone needs a high degree of central control, consistent and enforceable budgetary discipline, and spending (and thus taxing) powers sufficient to ensure that the cyclical imbalances in its constituent parts can be evened out. That reality has now essentially been accepted by the German and the French governments. Although negotiating the details of common economic governance will drag on for years, in the end the French and the Germans will, despite some truly fundamental differences, get there—and they won’t be alone. Faced with the prospect of being excluded from the EU’s tightening core, more countries than might now be imagined will choose to jump in notwithstanding its tougher disciplinary regime. While today’s “two-speed” union will continue to exist, the division will deepen, and on one side of it there will be something that looks suspiciously like a European superstate. 

The financial markets could still disrupt this transition, which is one reason that the EU’s leadership is so keen to rein them in. Trouble may also come from a group often ignored in the saga of “ever closer” union—the electorates of Europe. 

One of the more telling characteristics of the EU’s progress is the way it has been forced through regardless of the wishes of ordinary voters. The “reuniting” of Europe has been a project of the elites, the fruit of mandarin cabal and backroom deal. Voters have rarely been given much of an opportunity to demur. And when they have been asked their opinion and called for a halt to further integration, the results have been ignored or subjected to do-over until the “right” result came through.

That’s not to claim that Europe’s mainland is seething with euroskepticism. It’s not. There is, however, widespread apathy and a profound alienation. As the voters of North Rhine-Westphalia have just reminded us, there’s not a lot of fellow-feeling in that imaginary European family. 

This might have mattered less in economically more comfortable times, or in the times when Brussels was not stretching so far, blithe times when voters (foolishly) and Eurocrats (realistically) could, for the most part, pretend that the other did not exist. That’s over now. Building an economic union is messy and intrusive. It’ll be hard to slip it through on the quiet. The PIIGS are being ordered to take a long hard road. The peoples of Northern Europe will be told to pay for its paving. 

What if either says no?

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.

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