The European Union has a history of turning crisis into opportunity. At many times during its existence people thought that the project went too far, and that sovereignty would trump interdependence. There was the ’empty chair’ crisis in 1966 when De Gaulle threatened to leave the EEC (then a group of six states) if they didn’t agree that all decisions have to be unanimous.
It was for many proof that sovereignty would always win. Yet while they did let DeGaulle have his way on the issue he was angry about, the Luxembourg compromise that brought France back did not embrace DeGaulle’s principle of sovereignty first. He accepted that because he was facing a revolt from below – the French people and French business thought DeGaulle was endangering France with his brinksmanship. Already the eight year old organization had altered national interest.
In the seventies it appeared that the loss of the Bretton Woods system fixed exchange rates doomed the EC (now 9 states) to having no coherent monetary cooperation. That could undermine the whole project, it was argued. However, right when so-called Eurosclerosis was at its worst two people turned the situation around completely. Former Finance Ministers and now leaders Helmut Schmidt of Germany and Valery Giscard d’Estaing of France developed the European Monetary System, the precursor to the common monetary policy. Then when the Cold War ended many people thought the EC had run its course, that Germany would look eastward, and the organization might perish.
Instead German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand forged the treaties that created the European Union, introducing a common currency and ultimately embracing rather than fearing the states of eastern Europe. Now the EU has 27 members, 17 of them part of the Eurozone (states using the Euro as their currency).
In that backdrop the current crisis should be seen as a precursor to another step forward in bringing Europe together. However, commentators in the US and Great Britain seem eager to declare the Euro dead or something that should have never been tried. They are wrong.
The current crisis is serious, and shows some fundamental problems with Eurozone policy up until this point. When it was originally planned, leaders knew that states could only support a common currency if they had similar fiscal policies. That led to strict criteria demanding convergence on interest rates, inflation rates, budget deficits and total debt to GDP ratios. If those criteria had been strictly enforced, there would be no crisis today. Unfortunately, those criteria were loosened, often for political grounds. In order to speed the spread of the Euro, economic dangers were discarded.
The problems began when the cost of unifying Germany turned out to be immense, causing Germany to violate the original criteria. France also had an economic slowdown leading to a similar loosening of the rules. They were the ones who needed to enforce discipline, and once they broke the rules it was hard to keep others in line.
They might have tried, but the bubble economy of the first decade of the 20th Century created an illusion that all was well. Debt may be high, but the world economy was growing and investments were yielding considerable profit. In that deluded atmosphere countries like Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain and Portugal ignored the warning signs — and their problems were ignored by those in the EU who should have known better.
The southern states bring to the EU a different ethos than the northern European states. Greece is a prime example. The level of corruption and public sector employment is immense while the actual productive economy is small. Getting into government is a way to make money and gain perks. As their public sector boomed, it was funded via debt and risky investment schemes. When the bubble burst in 2008, the problems were laid bare.
Yet its not just a problem for the south. Someone had to finance that massive debt, after all — and those someones were predominately northern European banks and investors. So a default on debt or economic collapse in the south would quickly spread all through the EU, bringing down German banks as quickly as Spanish ones. The economic contraction could yield a depression that might spread far beyond Europe. In short, the bubble delusion led northern Europeans to finance the southern European excesses, making them just as vulnerable.
The problem is that the creators of the Euro were right at the start: you can’t have monetary union without strict rules forcing fiscal policy coordination. They were wrong that just setting criteria would be enough — criteria can be ditched, after all.
The solution is clear: 1) Find ways to eliminate and/or pool the debt from the southern European states. While this is often correctly decried in countries like Germany as a bailout of states with incompetent economic policies, not doing so could also bring down the financial sector of the big, rich, northern states. Therefore, Germany and others have to bite the bullet and help pay for the corrupt folly from the south. However, that also leads to 2) there needs to be a tighter set of rules and institutions to force rational fiscal policies on the southern European states. Often decried as an ‘austerity’ that simply deepens the recession in the south, it’s a necessary step to a sustainable economy. Adding to debt and spending more without restructuring those economies will simply make the problem worse.
So if Germany and states in the north have to pay more, states in the south have to give up a kind of easy money life style that allowed them to live excessively beyond their means for so long. Tax evasion, early retirements, massively large public sectors and the like will have to give way to an economy built on productivity and work.
If it works, the restructuring will be good for everyone. Southern states will start to have real rather than faux prosperity and develop their productive capacity. Not only will this save banks in the north from massive loses due to defaults, but will also be an engine of eurozone growth.
The poor/corrupt/unproductive south is unsustainable in a 21st Century European Union. The difficult but necessary transition they’re going through will ultimately end the rich/poor dichotomy between northern and southern Europe. The Euro will emerge stronger, and a Europe with much better coordinated fiscal and banking policies (overseen by real institutions not just vague rules) would be a far better bet than leaving the national economies to follow their own idiosyncratic paths.
Merkel and Hollande know the stakes. They know that they can join past Franco-German duos in turning a crisis that many thing will tear the EU apart to one that strengthens it and brings it together. The negotiations won’t be easy, but given the history of the EU and the recognition that the era of fully sovereign independent states is over in Europe, I’m confident they will be able to accomplish the task and make the EU a model of how political economy in the era of globalizationn can be structured.