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Time for Plan B
How the Euro Became Europe‘s Greatest Threat
In the past 14 months, politicians in the euro-zone nations have adopted one bailout package after the next, convening for hectic summit meetings, wrangling over lazy compromises and building up risks of gigantic dimensions.
For just as long, they have been avoiding an important conclusion, namely that things cannot continue this way. The old euro no longer exists in its intended form, and the European Monetary Union isn’t working. We need a Plan B.
Instead, those in responsible positions are getting bogged down in crisis management, as they seek to placate the public and sugarcoat the problems. They say that there is only a government debt crisis in a few euro countries but no euro crisis, citing as evidence the fact that the value of the European common currency has remained relatively stable against other currencies like the dollar.
But if it wasn’t for the euro, Greece‘s debt crisis would be an isolated problem — one that was tough for the country, but easy for Europe to bear. It is only because Greece is part of the euro zone that Athens‘ debts are a problem for all of its partners — and pose a threat to the common currency.
If the rest of Europe abandons Greece, the crisis could spin out of control, spreading from one weak euro-zone country to the next. Investors would have no guarantees that Europe would not withdraw its support from Portugal or Ireland, if push came to shove, and they would sell their government bonds. The prices of these bonds would fall and risk premiums would go up. Then these countries would only be able to drum up fresh capital by paying high interest rates, which would only augment their existing budget problems. It’s possible that they would no longer be able to raise any money at all, in which case they would become insolvent.
But if the current situation continues, the monetary union will invariably turn into a transfer union, a path the inventors of the euro were determined to prevent.
The euro’s founding fathers did not anticipate such a crisis, and thus did not include any provisions for it in the European Monetary Union’s set of regulations. The euro welds together strong and weak countries, for better or for worse. There is no emergency exit, and there are no rules to follow in an emergency — only the hope that everything will turn out well in the end. This is why the crises of a few euro countries are a crisis for the euro, as well as a crisis for the European Union, its governments and its institutions. And this is why the euro crisis has suddenly and expectedly mushroomed into a crisis for the political Project Europe, its future and its cohesion.
The fact that the countries funding the bailouts are lacking democratic legitimization is now becoming the greatest impediment to joint crisis management. Gone are the days of subtle debate over whether the European Parliament involves citizens in a just and proportional way in the decisions reached by the European Council, the body headed by the leaders of the European Union member states, and European Commission, the EU’s executive. When things get serious, as they are now, decisions will no longer be made in the somewhat democratically legitimized EU bodies, but at the more or less secret meetings of a handful of leaders.
During the German chancellor’s and the French president’s quiet walks together, and at the behind-the-scenes meetings of discrete central banks, policies are being made that are then handed to the parliaments to rubber-stamp, even though hardly any of their members understand them.
The costly decisions that are ultimately reached by the luminaries of European solidarity don’t just affect the citizens of the ailing member states in an existential way; they must also fear for their social security, their jobs and their assets.
The decisions of European politicians are just as troubling for citizens who live, like the Germans, on the sunny side of the union, and are worried that their country is running up debt that could remain on the books into a remotely distant future.
One of the reasons that Europeans are so incensed at their respective governments is that they are not involved in the decision-making process. Another is that they inevitably perceive their political leaders as being motivated by alleged factual constraints and the requirements of the financial markets, without having any plan of their own.
The euro debt crisis has already swept aside two governments, in Ireland and Portugal, and the Spanish and Greek governments could soon follow. Things are also getting precarious for the government in Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel could lose her parliamentary majority in upcoming votes on bailout measures.
Resistance to Austerity Measures
A crack now bisects the continent, running between those countries that need more and more money and those that are expected to pay. With the Greeks frustrated over the Germans and the Germans over the Greeks, the Portuguese, the Spaniards and the Italians, the political peace project of European unity threatens to end in a great economic dispute among the nations.
In the debtor countries, there is growing resistance against the constant barrage of new austerity programs, while the people of the creditor countries are increasingly incensed over the billions in new aid. The «Outraged Citizens» are taking to the streets in Madrid and Athens while the » True Finns» gain strength in the parliament in Helsinki. Some 60 percent of Germans are opposed to a new aid package for Greece, and there is at least as much resistance among the opposition and trade unions in Athens to the government’s efforts to rein in spending — a precondition for additional loans.
Last Wednesday, thousands of Greeks staged a general strike intended to block access to the parliament building, where the new austerity program was being debated. Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou’s limousine was showered with oranges, while rocks were thrown elsewhere. The police used tear gas to protect the elected representatives from the people they represent.
To secure payment of the next loan tranche under the European aid package, Papandreou intends to put together another austerity package worth more than €6.5 billion ($9.3 billion) by the end of the month. The protesters outside the parliament building, unwilling to accept the prime minister’s course of action, shouted: «Thieves, traitors. What happened to our money?»
How long will citizens in the weak euro countries — Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain — continue to accept the harsh reforms? And how long will voters in the creditor countries tolerate their own governments taking ever-higher risks to rescue the euro?
Euro Has Become Greatest Threat to Continent’s Future
Finland is a country that is often held up as a successful model for other European countries, but the success of the right-wing populist «True Finns,» who captured 20 percent of the vote in April’s parliamentary elections, came as a wakeup call to the political establishment in Brussels. As the skeptics gain ground throughout the EU, anti-European sentiments are growing in even the core countries of the union, like France and Germany.
The euro, created with the aim of permanently uniting Europe, has become the greatest threat to the continent’s future. A collapse of the monetary union would set Europe back by decades, dealing it a blow from which it might never recover, especially with Europe’s position already threatened by the fast-growing Asian economies. How is a fragmented Europe to prevail against this new competition?
This is why Europe’s politicians want to defend the euro at all costs, and why they are approving one bailout package after the next. They are playing for time, hoping that the markets will settle down and the reforms will take hold.
The business community is supporting their efforts, too. In a major advertising campaign scheduled to run in leading publications this week, top German business executives, including ThyssenKrupp Chairman Gerhard Cromme, Siemens CEO Peter Löscher and Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, promote the monetary union and insist: «The euro is necessary.» They argue that ailing member states must be assisted financially, and that the common currency is «absolutely worth this commitment.»
But the causes of the euro crisis are more deep-seated than that. The monetary union is a fair-weather construct, as a number of economists said from the beginning. American economist Milton Friedman, for example, predicted that the euro would not survive its first major crisis, and later, in 2002, he added: «Euroland will collapse in five to 15 years.»
For these reasons, the euro crisis, as suddenly as it occurred, was expected. However, the warnings had been ignored and treated as a minor nuisance. More than anything, the euro was a political project. Its advocates, most notably then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and then French President François Mitterrand, wanted to permanently unite the continent’s core countries and embed Germany, which many neighboring countries perceived as a threat following reunification, in the European community.
Politicians hoped that as a result of the common currency, the underlying problem of the euro’s design would resolve itself, namely that the member states would almost automatically settle in at the same pace of economic development.
It was a deceptive hope. In fact, it was only interest rates that converged, now that the European Central Bank (ECB) was setting uniform rates for strong and weak members alike throughout the entire economic zone. As a result, a great deal of capital flowed to Spain and Ireland, where a real estate bubble developed, while the Greeks and the Portuguese were able to live shamelessly beyond their means. They imported more than they exported and took on more new debt to pay for their consumption.
This behavior continued unabated until the financial crisis put an end to it. Suddenly money was scarce. The bubbles in Ireland and Spain burst, the economy in the euro zone collapsed, and the Greeks were forced to admit that their debts were much higher than they had ever disclosed before — and that they had falsified their numbers from the beginning and should, in fact, never have been allowed to join the monetary union in the first place.
Has the Euro Pushed Europe Apart?
Since then, the monetary union has been on the brink of collapse. Far from growing together economically, Europe has in fact grown even further apart. As a result, the chances that the euro will survive in its current form are slimmer than ever. Politicians who ignore the laws of economics cannot go unpunished in the long run.
If national currencies still existed, countries like Greece and Portugal could resort to a proven means of reducing their lack of competitiveness. They would simply have to devalue their drachma or their escudo, and then the laws of supply and demand would see to it that the flow of commodities was diverted.
The prices of Greek and Portuguese products would go down to make them more marketable abroad. At the same time, money would be worth less in Athens or Lisbon, so that residents of those countries could afford to buy fewer imported goods. This would be beneficial for the trade balance. Exports would rise and so would the foreign currency revenues, allowing the countries to service their debts more effectively. Not the government but the markets would reduce economic imbalances.
But in a monetary union, the exchange rate is no longer available as an adjustment valve. Instead, the member countries must regain their competitiveness in different ways, namely by imposing tough austerity measures and reducing wages and prices. In a monetary union, it is up to the governments to enforce what the exchange rate would do in a system of competing currencies.
If this fails, the mountain of debt will continue to grow. In the end, a country with a large deficit has three options. First, it can declare itself insolvent and, after restructuring its debt, attempt to rebuild its economy. Second, it can also withdraw from the monetary union and reintroduce its national currency. Third, it can convince the creditor countries to keep issuing new loans, thereby providing it with permanent financing.
For more than a year now, European governments have been trying out a fourth option: muddling through.
And for just as long, politicians have been assuring the people that this approach is the alternative, and that it will end up costing taxpayers nothing at all, because the ailing countries will repay the debt, with interest and compound interest, once they’ve been bailed out. In fact, they argue, the whole thing is even a good business arrangement for the rescuers.
The truth is that governments and monetary watchdogs, despite all protestations to the contrary, have continually expanded their bailout programs, have built up massive risks that could significantly burden future generations and have violated both the European treaties and the iron-clad principles of the ECB.
To date, the history of the euro rescue program has not been a successful one. In fact, it is more of a history of mistakes and broken promises.
‘There Will be No Budgetary Funds for Greece ‘
On March 1, 2010, Chancellor Merkel’s spokeswoman said: «A clear no. There will be no budgetary funds for Greece.» At that point, Athens was on the verge of bankruptcy, and politicians with Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) were suggesting that the country sell off a few islands.
On May 2, the euro countries and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a €110 billion bailout package for the beleaguered country. Although the German portion of the loans was coming from the government-owned development bank KfW and not the budget, the federal government still served as guarantor. Every euro the Greeks do not repay will constitute a burden on the German taxpayer.
It was the first lapse, the first violation of the European treaties, which categorically rule out aid payments to needy euro countries. This so-called no-bailout clause was intended to guarantee that the monetary union didn’t become a transfer union, and that the strong wouldn’t have to pay for the weak. It was crucial to the acceptance of the treaty by the national parliaments; without it the German parliament, the Bundestag, would not have agreed to the monetary union.
The second lapse occurred soon afterwards. On May 9, 2010, the first euro bailout fund was launched. Although the volume of €440 billion alone made it clear that the opposite was the case, Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble tried to downplay the importance of the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF). They insisted that the fund was purely a precaution, would not be used and, most of all, was temporary.
«An extension of the current bailout funds will not happen on Germany’s watch,» Merkel said in Brussels on Sept. 16, 2010. This promise, too, lasted only a few months. On March 25, 2011, the leaders of the euro zone approved a new, constant crisis mechanism. Although it has a different name, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), it will function on the basis of the same principle as its predecessor fund, the EFSF, beginning in mid-2013. The euro countries want to pry loose €700 billion for the fund, which will include a cash contribution for the first time. The Germans will be asked to pay at least €22 billion. To do so, Germany would have to take on additional debt.
‘Outcome Is Very Close to a Transfer Union ‘
As if this weren’t enough, in March the euro-zone member states also agreed that both the current bailout fund, the EFSF, and its successor, the ESM, would be authorized to buy government bonds from bankruptcy candidates with low credit ratings in the future. As a result, countries living beyond their means will no longer be punished with high interest rates, and market mechanisms will be eroded. Even the CDU’s Michael Meister, one of the financial policy experts loyal to Merkel, says: «The outcome comes very close to a transfer union, which we reject.»
All assurances aside, performance in return for Germany’s willingness to play along would be absent again and again. Representatives of Merkel’s government coalition government in Berlin have outdone each other in calling for strict penalties for countries that violate the euro-zone’s deficit rules. There was talk of eliminating voting rights, of freezing EU subsidies like the bloated agriculture fund and, as a last-ditch solution, even of exclusion from the monetary union.
Most of all, however, the penalties were to be imposed automatically in the future when a country’s budget deficit exceeded three percent of its gross domestic product. «We support the greatest amount of automatism possible,» Merkel said in September 2010.
After taking a walk with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the French seaside resort of Deauville, the chancellor abandoned the position that the deficit process was to be triggered automatically. Instead, the finance ministers in the euro zone must set it in motion first, meaning that any decision would be subject to the usual horsetrading in Brussels.
The reaction by the markets to what is the biggest failure to date in the efforts to rescue the euro has been very clear. The yields for Greek and Irish government bonds rose, and Ireland sought protection from the bailout fund in November 2010, followed by Portugal in April 2011.
In recent months, the governments of the euro-zone countries have gradually expanded their bailout programs, and the risks for the German people and taxpayers have grown with each step.
There are already estimates of how much the Greek crisis will truly end up costing German taxpayers if the crisis drags on for years or a debt haircut becomes necessary. Economists Ansgar Belke of the University of Duisburg-Essen and Christian Dreger of Viadrina University in Frankfurt an der Oder estimate the cost at about €40 billion.
The Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) estimates the cost to German taxpayers at €65 billion if Portugal, Ireland and Spain also become insolvent. In the event of a complete collapse of the euro zone, Germany would be liable for all the guarantees and bailout aid it has provided.
And the potential costs for German taxpayers wouldn’t stop there because they are also indirectly affected by the risks lurking in the accounts of the ECB and the state-controlled banks. Since May 2010, the ECB has spent €75 billion purchasing government bonds from ailing euro countries. Its goal was to bring calm to the markets and prevent the risk premiums for the bonds from skyrocketing. But many used the opportunity to unload the risky securities on the central bank.
The ECB is believed to have spent €40-50 billion to date on Greek government bonds. In addition, as of the end of April it had refinanced Greek banks to the tune of €90 billion.
Hardly anyone knows how high the risks are for the ECB. It has also accepted €480 billion in structured securities from the banks as collateral. The euro crisis has already turned into a threat to the ECB. German taxpayers bear 27 percent of the risk, which corresponds to the German Bundesbank’s share of ECB capital.
Back at the Brink
Despite all of these bailout measures, and despite the risks that their rescuers have assumed, the weak euro countries are back where they were a little over a year ago, namely on the brink. The risk premiums on their government bonds have climbed to new record highs. The Greeks need fresh cash to avert bankruptcy, and the risk of the crisis spreading to other euro countries is far from averted.
The aid that euro countries and the IMF have provided to Greece so far is not enough. They had naïvely assumed that the crisis would end quickly. And they had seriously anticipated that the Greeks would return to the capital markets within the next two years, in order to raise about €60 billion on their own.
The money is missing because the Greek government, despite all of its reform efforts, is still not seen as creditworthy. This is why the funding gap needs to be closed, including with fresh money from the Europeans.
In return, the Greeks must fulfill even more stringent requirements. Given the Greek government crisis, achieving this seems more uncertain than ever. When the first bailout package of €110 billion was approved, Athens reacted with tough measures. Pensions were slashed, tobacco, petroleum and value-added taxes were drastically increased, and it was made easier for companies to lay workers off.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Papandreou failed to meet the targets set by the so-called troika, consisting of the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. A maximum budget deficit of 8.1 percent of GDP had been stipulated for 2010, but in the end the deficit was 10.5 percent. After a «strong start» in the summer of 2010, the implementation of reforms has come to a «standstill in recent quarters,» the troika concludes in its latest report. It also states that the gap between the planned and the actual deficit has once again «grown significantly» in recent months.
«There are many holy cows that were not slaughtered,» explains Jens Bastian, an economist living in Athens. While more than 200,000 jobs were cut nationwide, many state-owned companies in particular are still seen as goldmines when it comes to sinecures.
In contrast to those privileged Greeks working in state-owned companies and government agencies, more and more people are now forced to live on small pensions or minimum-wage earnings of €750 to €800 a month, plus bonuses. Such incomes were hardly enough to live on in the past, and now they are to be reduced across the board or offset by drastic increases in the rate of tax on consumer goods.
Suffering and Sacrifices in Greece
«People don’t know why they are suffering and making these sacrifices,» says Athens political science professor Seraphim Seferiades. «The privilege of being in the euro zone is losing more and more of its value for people, because they benefit less and less from it.» Almost 30 percent of Greeks would prefer to return to the drachma sooner rather than later.
Now the government will have to approve additional austerity measures if it is to obtain fresh cash from the EU and the IMF, in the form of a second aid package worth between €90 billion and €120 billion for the period until 2014. Greece will have to pay off old debts and make new ones. The government debt is currently about 150 percent of GDP and will likely rise to 160 percent soon.
How can such a weak country ever pay off such a huge debt? For once, almost all economists agree: It will be impossible without a debt restructuring involving creditors writing off large parts of their debts.
But a so-called haircut on Greek debt is not politically feasible at the moment. The financial markets are still too fragile, opponents argue, warning that it could trigger a new financial crisis like the one that followed the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers.
Germany Demands Private Investor Participation
But the Germans have been insisting that private sector creditors must also make a contribution to overcoming the crisis. Members of parliament with the governing parties — the CDU, its Bavarian sister party the CSU, and the FDP — recently made it clear to the government that they will reject another aid package in parliament if that doesn’t happen. The chief budget expert with the CDU/CSU’s parliamentary group, Norbert Barthle, urged his fellow members of parliament to act quickly. «If we wait much longer,» he says, «there will hardly be any bonds left in the hands of private investors. Then taxpayers will end up shouldering the Greek bailout by themselves.»
CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer agrees wholeheartedly. He is all too familiar with the constraints imposed by the general public in Germany, the majority of whom oppose a second bailout for Greece. «Experts have been telling me for a year that a restructuring of Greek debt is necessary,» he says. «The time has come to start involving private lenders.»
The German government recently came up with a proposal that would involve lenders in a relatively painless fashion: They would exchange their bonds for new securities with longer maturities. The contribution by the euro-zone countries would be reduced accordingly.
But with this demand, the Germans found themselves largely isolated. They were already viewed as troublemakers during the first Greek bailout, when they reluctantly yielded to the will of the majority and pressure from the ECB. Now, once again, they have been pressured from all sides to go along with the majority view.
That point was reached last Friday, when Merkel and Sarkozy agreed to a toothless compromise in Berlin. They agreed that private lenders should be involved in the new bailout package for Greece, but only on a voluntary basis — a largely ineffective provision.
This solution is much too feeble for many German parliamentarians. «This is not the lender involvement that the Bundestag had demanded,» says Frank Schäffler, a financial policy expert with the FDP. His CDU counterpart, Manfred Kolbe, even characterizes it as «fraudulent labeling,» saying: «We need a debt haircut, and it won’t happen voluntarily.» CSU European expert Thomas Silberhorn calls for «binding regulations with the mandatory participation of private investors.»
But from Sarkozy’s standpoint, a tougher solution could jeopardize French banks. They are heavily exposed to Greek debt and could face serious difficulties.
German banks and insurance companies have systematically reduced their holdings of Greek government bonds. Since the beginning of 2010, they have reduced their total exposure from €34.8 billion to €17.3 billion, not including debt held by the state-owned development bank KfW. Insurance companies have reduced their investment in Greek bonds from €5.8 billion to only €2.8 billion in the last year.
In Germany, it is state-owned banks who have the greatest exposure to Greek debt. Commerzbank, a quarter of which is owned by the federal government, holds €2.9 billion in Greek bonds. The state-owned regional banks known as Landesbanken and their so-called bad banks hold additional risks of more than €4 billion.
The biggest dangers by far lurk on the books of FMS Wertmanagement, the bad bank for the nationalized mortgage lender Hypo Real Estate. It holds Greek government bonds and loans that constitute an economic risk of €10.8 billion. In the event of a debt restructuring, taxpayers would be hit hardest in Germany. A haircut would mean that FMS alone would need several billion in fresh equity capital.
ECB Considers Debt Crisis Greatest Risk To Banks
Now that the Germans and the French seem to be largely in agreement, they merely have to convince the ECB, the most determined opponent to date of the German proposal to require private sector involvement. The Frankfurt-based central bankers fear that this would trigger massive turmoil on the international money markets. In its new financial market stability report, the ECB categorizes the euro-zone sovereign debt crisis as the greatest risk to banks.
Most of all, the ECB doesn’t want investors to be forced to write off part of their debt. The monetary watchdogs warn that the consequences would incalculable.
They argue that as soon as the powerful rating agencies gain the impression that the Greek government is not fulfilling its obligations without the complete consent of its creditors, they will have to downgrade its credit rating to D, the lowest level. The letter stands for «default.» Even if the maturities of Greek bonds were extended with the consent of the lenders, they would have to be downgraded to a rating of SD, or «selective default.»
Either way, under its statutes the ECB would no longer be allowed to accept such securities as collateral in returning for providing liquidity to banks. The consequences would be catastrophic. Greek banks would be largely cut off from the European money cycle and would thus run the risk of becoming illiquid. The Greek banking system would find itself on the brink of collapse.
Paving the Path to Euro Bonds
This is precisely where a compromise proposal that Finance Minister Schäuble plans to present to the ECB and to his counterparts from the euro-zone countries comes in. Under the proposal, if Greek bonds are no longer accepted as collateral following the participation of private lenders, the ECB will simply have to be offered bonds that satisfy its requirements.
A 10-member «Greece Task Force» at the German Finance Ministry has worked out how this could function. The experts propose that the Greek government, in addition to the €90 billion-€120 billion in fresh cash it may receive from the euro-zone countries and the IMF as part of a second bailout, also be given access to bonds issued by the EFSF, the euro rescue fund. It could pass on these securities, which have the rating agencies’ highest rating of AAA, to Greek banks, which in turn could use them as collateral to obtain liquidity from the ECB.
The problem is that this measure would make the new bailout package significantly more expensive. To ensure that the EFSF had sufficient funds for the operation, its financial scope would have to be increased so that it could really make €440 billion available, as it was originally intended to do. To achieve this, the member states would have to double the scope of their respective guarantees. Germany, for example, would be liable for €246 billion in the future, instead of the current €123 billion.
The would-be euro rescuers are also considering accessing the so-called Hellenic Financial Stability Fund. This fund, set up as part of the first Greek bailout package in May 2010, contains €10 billion, which could be used to boost the capital of Greek banks in an emergency. The fund hasn’t been touched yet.
The details of the new bailout plan are to be worked out by July. This is absolutely necessary, because if the next tranche of aid is not paid by mid-July, Greece will be bankrupt.
Despite all of these hiccups, the money will flow to the Greeks. But no one, including the German government, believes that this will solve the problems in the euro zone. After more than a year of uninterrupted attempts at fighting the crisis, officials in Berlin are expecting the worst and intend to be ready just in case.
For this reason, Schäuble’s crisis team has been instructed to review all possible scenarios. For example, what happens if a country can no longer meet its payment obligations or if a member leaves the monetary union? And how can imbalances in a common currency zone be averted?
There are essentially two alternatives. The first is a radical one, in which the governments pull the plug and leave the beleaguered countries to fend for themselves. The second, more pragmatic solution is to continue muddling along, though somewhat more efficiently, and to hope that things improve. Neither option will be cheap.
The radical cure works like this: Disappointed by the lack of progress and prospects for improvement, the euro-zone countries leave Greece to fend for itself. They refuse to throw even more money at Athens after all the money they have already spent.
The country would quickly become insolvent, because it would no longer be able to borrow any money on the markets. Because Greek lenders still shoulder a substantial portion of the government debt, the country’s banking sector could see a number of bankruptcies.
This approach also carries with it the threat of contagion. If Greece slides into uncontrolled bankruptcy, investors might refuse to invest their money in other ailing euro-zone members. Even more banks could collapse in the ensuing chain reaction.
The Nuclear Option
In light of these incalculable developments, many are now considering the nuclear option as a real alternative: Greece withdraws from the monetary union and reintroduces the drachma. The government in Athens was already toying with the idea weeks ago, and now even internationally respected economists are recommending it. «A withdrawal from the euro would be the lesser of two evils,» says Hans-Werner Sinn, head of the respected Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research.
Nouriel Roubini, an economist at New York University, also supports the idea. The renowned professor argues Greece’s only chance is to devalue its own currency and thus improve its competitiveness. Roubini was one of the few to predict the financial crisis three years ago.
In every financial crisis to date, it has taken a devaluation of the currency to reinvigorate the economy of a crisis-stricken country, Roubini argues. But historic examples can only be applied to the conditions in a monetary union to a limited extent.
The crisis would not end after Greece’s withdrawal. In fact, it could even get worse. The country’s debts would still be denominated in euros, which would turn them into foreign-currency debts overnight. Their value in the new national currency would rise rapidly, because the drachma would be devalued. Greek borrowers would be all but unable to meet their obligations.
Banks, in turn, would come under pressure, both in Greece and in the rest of the euro zone. And costly bailout measures for the banking industry would be needed once again.
At the end of such a development, the monetary union could disintegrate into a hard-currency bloc and a group with its own, weaker currencies. Critics of the common currency, like former Bundesbank board member Wilhelm Nölling, favor such a solution. Nölling and a group of like-minded people once filed and lost a suit against the introduction of the euro before Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court, and now he is suing the government once against over the euro bailout fund. The court’s decision is still pending.
The alternative to the breakup of the monetary union is hardly any less threatening, leading as it does directly to a transfer union. After a year of Greek bailouts, the beginning is already underway, and starting in 2013 the planned permanent bailout fund, the ESM, (which EU finance ministers approved on Monday) will be yet another step on this dangerous path.
Echoes of Italy’s Mezzogiorno and Belgium’s Wallonia
The end result could look something like this: The deficit countries would require permanent financing from the more stable north. What was treated as a loan in the past would be transformed into a subsidy, and thus requiring neither interest nor repayment. The monetary union would become a financial union and the debtor countries the permanent recipients of subsidies, dependent on contributions from their economically more powerful neighbors — much like the Mezzogiorno in Italy or Belgium’s Wallonia region.
To prevent this from happening, many politicians specializing in financial and economic affairs recommend bringing about the political union of Europe as quickly as possible, a union with a strong central government. They argue that if the nations in the euro zone formed a closer union, they could coordinate their financial systems more effectively, thus providing the common currency with a political foundation.
This would make it easier to implement reforms in the recipient countries and improve their competitiveness. Just recently, ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet proposed installing a European finance ministry equipped with the right to intervene in the individual member states.
A Cautionary Tale in German Reunification
But it isn’t quite that easy. More integration doesn’t necessarily mean that economic imbalances would disappear as a result. No one understands this better than the Germans, who had similar experiences with the monetary union between the two Germanys about 20 years ago. Effective July 1, 1990, the deutschmark became the official currency of East Germany. It was largely exchanged for the former East German mark at a ratio of one-to-one. The East German states joined the Federal Republic of Germany only three months later. It was the model case of a monetary union that was accompanied by a political union.
But anyone who believed that rapid unification would lessen the economic shock of the monetary union between the two Germanys was soon disappointed. In fact, the economic imbalances in reunified Germany became entrenched after that. Thousands of companies in the former East Germany went out of business, because they were unable to bring productivity up to Western standards.
The unemployment figures exploded, and financial transfers between the two parts of the country soon exceeded the trillion mark. To this day, the former East German states still lag behind the former West German states in terms of economic strength, productivity and income.
German reunification did nothing to change this. It merely helped to financially cushion the negative consequences of the monetary union. The states of the former East Germany were incorporated into the West German inter-state fiscal adjustment system (under which money is transferred from richer to poorer states) under favorable terms, and the former East Germans were suddenly given access to the blessings of the generous West German social system.
The lesson is clear: German unification is not a valid role model for European politicians, but rather a cautionary tale. It shows how quickly a poorly designed monetary union can lead to a permanent transfer union.
Such a model would in any case be incompatible with the European treaties. New agreements would have to be negotiated and ratified by all national parliaments, and perhaps even approved in referendums.
But perhaps the people of Europe and their representatives will decide the fate of the monetary union first. It could happen in Athens or in Lisbon, if the necessary reforms fail as a result of popular protests. Or in Berlin — should the billions in loan guarantees actually come due.
REPORTED BY THOMAS DARNSTÄDT, ARMIN MAHLER, PETER MÜLLER, CHRISTOPH PAULY, CHRISTIAN REIERMANN, MICHAEL SAUGA AND ANNE SEITH
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan