This is an extended version of an opinion piece published in the Irish Examiner Saturday 25 May 2012
So another European summit concludes inconclusively, with the poor ole can again booted down the road, hopefully avoiding the fork that said road will take when, as seems probable, Greece departs the euro. To be fair, while inconclusive in terms of its outcomes there was a clear sense that the ground has shifted, away from the coordinated austerity for all pushed by Germany for the last two years towards a more balanced approach. Perhaps we should recall and amend the words of Churchill, substituting European for American and noting that Europeans will do the right thing only when all other alternatives are exhausted. Eurobonds, where a central or pooled treasury issues bonds and then doles out the cash to members of the pool, are at least back on the table, there is a recognition that growth needs to be at least as much a focus as fiscal discipline and there is an acceptance that bank recapitalization costs cannot fall only on the taxpayer.
However there is still a massive problem. Europe is mired in recession. Recent PMI indices, indicators of future economic activity, are all pointing recently to a deep slowdown. Spanish banks are treading the same dreary path as did Irish banks, with each deep look at the depth of the damage caused by its property boom revealing deeper and deeper holes, and the state adopting sequentially more and more drastic action to stem these holes. At least so far they have avoided a NAMA or bank guarantee fiasco. Meanwhile Greece continues to fester and the dreadfully dangerous precedent of an exit from the monetary union (which would render it no more than a fixed exchange rate zone, and we know how the last one of those in Europe ended) inches closer.
There can be no doubt looking at the economic history of the last decade that the biggest winner from the adoption of the euro was and is Germany. It has achieved massive relative competitive advantages over the other nations, mainly it must be admitted by the less than optimal actions of these countries, but also by reducing the labour share of the German cake. From close to 70% in the 2000 period employees compensation as a % of GDP is now closer to 60%, and German net exports to the Eurozone rose nearly fourfold in the ten years to 2006. A very crude characterization of the euro might be that the core lent money to the periphery that bought core goods and now the bills have come due.
The reality is that in this environment sides, the core and the periphery (which now seems to be everybody bar Germany and Finland…) are locked in a symbiosis. Coordinated austerity is not going to allow the peripheral nations to grow and in not growing they will neither consume core goods nor indeed repay core credits advanced to stem the losses arising from the credit bubbles or to shore up fiscal ssytems that were not fit for purpose.
The sad reality for Europe is that we have a weak german leader in a strong german economy who for too long was propped up by an even weaker French leader in a weakened france. The European experiment, of which the euro is the latest embellishment, is predicated on france and Germany being strong and democratic and working together to keep each other in check and at peace. In that it has succeeded but the reality now is that to get Europe out of the mess Germany is the only feasible paymaster. It will have to pay in one or more of four ways. First, there is a debate on an arcane interbank settlement system called Target 2. In essence there is nothing to be worried about absent a break in the euro, but were that to happen then Germany would be left with a large hole in the bundesbank. While that might appear problematic it can equally be argued that the net cost would be minor. But that would in any case be unthinkable to the money hawks in the German economic apparatus. A break of the euro would entail the return to the DM, which would result in a massive appreciation, resulting in lower German exports and lower German economic growth. While Germany has shown that it can survive and even thrive with a hard currency the dislocation would be large. Again, a break in the euro would also result in massive losses to German financial institutions, running potentially into hundreds of billions of euro, which would have to be recapitalized by the German taxpayer. The alternative to these is some form of Eurobond (which is constitutionally difficult and politically anathema to Germany) resulting in a rise in German borrowing costs, or a fiscal union including transfers from Germany and eventually France. . The latter in particular would insist that there be tax harmonization in some guise as a condition of entry.
Thus, we face more weeks of high political economy drama and economic highwire acts . Germany and to a lesser extent France need to accept that the costs of saving the Eurozone are going to be (short run and ongoing) high, and weight these against the incalculable disruption and losses of it collapsing. A Greek exit would be in my view an irreparable damage, as it would show that the Eurozone is not a monetary union. For Ireland the question will arise sooner than later: what are we willing to give up to remain in the enhanced European system, or do we take our chances on the outside. The stakes could hardly be higher.
“Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”
Germany under Merkel has committed most of these follies, insisting that only german management of the economy is the right way (6), that there must be no increase in money supply regardless of the pressing need (4), that Eurobonds or debt monetization are so anathema to them that they are impossible (3), that if only the rest of Europe were German then there would be Germanic economic ordoliberalism prevailing (2) and that we must all simultaneously engage in austerity while exporting to each other (1, 2, 4 and 6).
At least German culture remains as refined as ever. Maybe we should reach into the shared common stock of European culture and recall the words of Voltaire, as echoed by Uncle Ben Parker in Spiderman, who noted that with great power comes great responsibility. It is time that Germany took that responsibility as seriously as its power demands.