The Magazine

Do Mention the War

Germany and Greece go to the mattresses.

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Do Mention the War

Tolstoy was wrong. Every unhappy family is not unhappy in its own way. Scratch the surface of a foundering relationship, and you’ll often find that money is, if not the sole source of the misery, undeniably the most poisonous. This is certainly true within the “ever closer” family that the European Union is meant to be. Some of the EU’s most savage fights have been about cash, an awkward fact that can equally be read as underlining just how far from familial this most unnatural of unions really is. The different nations of the EU remain, emotionally at least, nations. They continue to be foreign to each other. And who wants to give their money to a bunch of foreigners?

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Germans are infuriated at the thought of having to stump up for a rescue of Greece’s Augean state. Their own economy is faltering. They have held back labor costs for years. They have, often painfully, maintained budgetary discipline. That’s not the way it’s been in Greece. With Greek government debt at 125 percent of GDP, a budget deficit of 12.7 percent, and distinctly shaky public support for any sort of austerity program, there is little, beyond beaches, about that country to appeal to citizens of the thrifty Bundesrepublik. Opinion polls show that over two-thirds of Germans reject the idea of contributing to a Greek bailout, and the venom with which that opposition is expressed suggests that exasperation has drifted into contempt. 

To give more money to the Greeks would be akin to giving schnapps to an alcoholic, argued Frank Schaeffler, deputy finance spokesman for the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Germany’s governing coalition. Focus magazine ran a cover story on “The Fraudster in the Euro-Family” (a reference to the more creative aspects of the Greek government’s accounting) and illustrated it with the Venus de Milo, one-armed and flipping the bird. The tabloid Bild raged at the “proud, cheating, profligate” Greeks. A writer for the rather more heavyweight Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung asked whether Germans should have to retire at 69 rather than 67 to pay for Greek workers striking against proposals to increase their retirement age from 61 to 63. The mood in Germany was not improved by Greece’s deputy prime minister. Stung by all the criticism of his country, he grumbled that, having made off with Greece’s gold during the war, the Germans were in no position to complain “about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings.”

Germany has long paid the largest share (currently around 20 percent) of the cost of Europe’s trudge towards union. Its annual payments into the EU now exceed what it gets back by over $10 billion. In part this has been viewed as a fair price for Germany’s readmission into polite society. It was also an expression of the once widespread belief—deluded if understandable—among Germany’s political class that an ersatz European patriotism could take the place of the German nationalism that had turned out so unfortunately just a few years before. Over six decades after Hitler perished in his bunker, however, these arguments are running a little thin.

Making matters worse is the debt (in all senses) that the Greek crisis owes to the establishment of the euro, the single currency for which German politicians ignored their voters and junked the deutsche mark in a two-stage process ending in January 2002. The deutsche mark had been one of the great successes of postwar Germany, a symbol of renewed prosperity and bulwark against any return of the hyperinflation that stalks that country’s historical memory. But, to those that counted—i.e., not German voters—the European Union mattered more. The deutsche mark perished, and the economic and budgetary rules—the Maastricht Criteria—designed to preserve the integrity of its successor (and reassure the twitchy German electorate) have not been kept in much better shape. 

The new currency proved both an enabler of Greece’s profligacy and an agent of its economic troubles—a double whammy not confined to Greece. From the first, the euro’s interest rates were primarily determined by economic conditions in the eurozone’s core—Germany, the Benelux, and France—which meant that rates were too low for the nations on the periphery. One size did not fit all. The low interest rates fueled inflation, speculative bubbles, and, in some cases, excessive government borrowing in Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, the four “PIGS” in the financial markets’ insulting jargon. (You’re welcome to throw in another I for Italy.) The usual response to disruptions of this nature is devaluation. Signing up for a single currency, however, has removed that option.  

Despite German voters’ hopes, this mess cannot safely be confined within the PIIGS’ sties. Drastic austerity programs by the debt-struck might in theory do the trick—although the wisdom of this is debatable at a time of deeply depressed domestic demand—but to succeed they require a degree of consent. Consent, however, is not the message that all those Greek strikes are delivering. So far, Brussels appears to be resting its hopes on the idea that talk of austerity, promises of support, and the prospect of closer economic supervision will be enough to persuade markets to keep funding the PIIGS’ budget deficits. Greece will for now be the sharpest test of that idea, but ultimately the country will not be allowed to fail. Even if it did not destroy confidence in the surviving PIIGS, a Greek collapse would, just as a start, trigger mark-to-market downgrades across the battered balance sheets of Europe’s largest financial institutions. German banks, for instance, have loaned the equivalent of 20 percent of their country’s GDP to the PIIGS, and their French counterparts even more.

Throwing Greece out of the eurozone might be emotionally satisfying (over half of German voters are in favor, though it probably isn’t even legally possible), but inevitably the result, pushing the country into default, would achieve nothing constructive. What would make sense is for Germany and the other countries at the eurozone’s core to abandon the currency. The euro would slump, giving the nations that still use it the devaluation they so badly need. But that’s not going to happen either. The European elites have sunk too much political capital into the single currency to give it up now. They will plough forward regardless of the current crisis. If the logic of that course provides the rationale, or at least an excuse, for the even deeper EU integration that most European voters do not want, then so much the better.  

But the opinions of the electorate no longer count for that much anywhere within the EU. With feelings running as they are in her country, Chancellor Angela Merkel has to be seen to be talking tough and doing everything she can to avoid Germany being stuck with the Greeks’ bills. At one level she may mean it, but she knows it is just theater. Merkel will huff and Merkel will puff, but she will not risk bringing down what is left of Athens’s ruins. If a rescue party has to be put together, Germany will be a prominent part of it. 

To be fair, it’s not all bad news for Germany. If Greece is indeed bailed out by some or all of its EU partners, the longer-term impact will be both to weaken the euro (which will help Germany’s important export sector) and, by preserving the eurozone as it is, keep many of Germany’s competitors within the eurozone most helpfully hobbled. The combination of higher levels of cost inflation, lower levels of efficiency, and a shared, hard currency has eroded much of the price advantage that was once the main selling point for the industries of Europe’s less-advanced economies. It is estimated that the PIIGS would have to devalue by more than 30 percent to restore their competitive position against Germany, a situation that is only going to get worse. 

Like so much to do with Brussels’s strange imperium, this story is a lot less straightforward than it first appears.

 

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


 

 

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