Stripped of ambitions for a political and economic union, the bloc changes into a utilitarian project
The shadow of a protestor waving the Greek national flag is seen through a European Union (EU) flag, during a pro European Union (EU) demonstration in Thessaloniki, Greece, on Monday, June 22, 2015. After a day of talks on Monday, leaders from Greece’s 18 fellow euro-zone countries agreed that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s government was finally getting serious after it submitted a set of reform measures that began to converge with the terms demanded by creditors.
few things that many of us took for granted, and that some of us believed in, ended in a single weekend. By forcing Alexis Tsipras into a humiliating defeat, Greece’s creditors have done a lot more than bring about regime change in Greece or endanger its relations with the eurozone. They have destroyed the eurozone as we know it and demolished the idea of a monetary union as a step towards a democratic political union.
In doing so they reverted to the nationalist European power struggles of the 19th and early 20th century. They demoted the eurozone into a toxic fixed exchange-rate system, with a shared single currency, run in the interests of Germany, held together by the threat of absolute destitution for those who challenge the prevailing order. The best thing that can be said of the weekend is the brutal honesty of those perpetrating this regime change.
nor even the total capitulation of Greece. The material shift is that Germany has formally proposed an exit mechanism. On Saturday, Wolfgang Schäuble, finance minister, insisted on a time-limited exit — a “timeout” as he called it.
I have heard quite a few crazy proposals in my time, and this one is right up there. A member state pushed for the expulsion of another. This was the real coup over the weekend: not only regime change in Greece, but also regime change in the eurozone.
The fact that a formal Grexit may have been avoided for the moment is immaterial. Grexit will be back on the table when you have the slightest political accident — and there are still many things that could go wrong, both in Greece and in other eurozone parliaments. Any other country that in future might challenge German economic orthodoxy will face similar problems.
This brings us back to a more toxic version of the old exchange-rate mechanism of the 1990s that left countries trapped in a system run primarily for the benefit of Germany, which led to the exit of the British pound and the temporary departure of the Italian lira. What was left was a coalition of countries willing to adjust their economies to Germany’s. Britain had to leave because it was not.
What should the Greeks do now? Forget for a moment the economic debate of the past few months, over issues such as the impact of austerity or economic reforms on growth. Instead ask yourself this simple question: do you really think that an economic reform programme, for which a government has no political mandate, which has been explicitly rejected in a referendum, that has been forced through by sheer political blackmail, can conceivably work?
The implications for the rest of the eurozone are at least as troubling. We will soon be asking ourselves whether this new eurozone, in which the strong push around the weak, can be sustainable. Previously, the strongest argument against any forecasts of break-up has been the strong political commitment of all its members. If you ask Italians why they are in the eurozone, few have ever pointed to the economic benefits. They wanted to be part of the most ambitious project of European integration undertaken so far.
„We will soon be asking ourselves whether this new eurozone, in which the strong push around the weak, can be sustainable“
But if you take away the political aspiration, you may end up with a different judgment. From a pure economic point of view, we know that the euro has worked well for Germany. It worked moderately well for The Netherlands and Austria, although it produced quite a degree of financial instability in both.
But for Italy, it has been an unmitigated economic disaster. The country has seen virtually no productivity growth since the start of the euro in 1999. If you want to blame the lack of structural reforms, then you have to explain how Italy managed decent growth rates before then. Can we be sure that a majority of Italians will support the single currency in three years’ time?
The euro has not worked out for Finland either. While the country is considered the world champion of structural reforms, its economy has slumped ever since Nokia lost the plot as the world’s erstwhile premier mobile phone maker. Whether the euro is sustainable for Spain and Portugal is not clear. France has performed relatively well during the euro’s early years, but it, too, is now running persistent current account deficits. It is not only Greece where the euro is not optimal.
Once you strip the eurozone of any ambitions for a political and economic union, it changes into a utilitarian project in which member states will coldly weigh the benefits and costs, just as Britain is currently assessing the relative advantages or disadvantages of EU membership. In such a system, someone, somewhere, will want to leave sometime. And the strong political commitment to save it will no longer be there either.