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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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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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