In the boom phase the EU was what the psychoanalyst David Tuckett calls a „fantastic object“ – unreal but immensely attractive. The EU was the embodiment of an open society – an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in which no nation or nationality would have a dominant position.
The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called „piecemeal social engineering“. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble. That is how the Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the EU, step by step. [ . . . ]
The process culminated with the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro. It was followed by a period of stagnation which, after the crash of 2008, turned into a process of disintegration. The first step was taken by Germany when, after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Angela Merkel declared that the virtual guarantee extended to other financial institutions should come from each country acting separately, not by Europe acting jointly. It took financial markets more than a year to realize the implication of that declaration, showing that they are not perfect.
The Maastricht Treaty was fundamentally flawed, demonstrating the fallibility of the authorities. Its main weakness was well known to its architects: it established a monetary union without a political union. The architects believed however, that when the need arose the political will could be generated to take the necessary steps towards a political union.
But the euro also had some other defects of which the architects were unaware and which are not fully understood even today. In retrospect it is now clear that the main source of trouble is that the member states of the euro have surrendered to the European Central Bank their rights to create fiat money. They did not realize what that entails – and neither did the European authorities. [ . . . ]
Then came the crash of 2008 which created conditions that were far removed from those prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty. Many governments had to shift bank liabilities onto their own balance sheets and engage in massive deficit spending. These countries found themselves in the position of a Third World Country that had become heavily indebted in a currency that it did not control. Due to the divergence in economic performance Europe became divided between creditor and debtor countries. This has far reaching political implications [ . . . ].
History repeating. It took some time for the financial markets to discover that government bonds which had been considered riskless are subject to speculative attack and may actually default; but when they did, risk premiums rose dramatically. This rendered commercial banks whose balance sheets were loaded with those bonds potentially insolvent. That constituted the two main components of today's problem: a sovereign debt crisis and a banking crisis which are closely interlinked.
The eurozone is now repeating what had often happened in the global financial system. There is a close parallel between the euro crisis and the international banking crisis that erupted in 1982. Then the international financial authorities did whatever was necessary to protect the banking system: they inflicted hardship on the periphery in order to protect the center. Now Germany and the other creditor countries are unknowingly playing the same role.
The details differ but the idea is the same: the creditors shift the burden of adjustment to debtor countries and avoid their own responsibility for the imbalances. [. . .] In the 1980s Latin America suffered a lost decade; a similar fate now awaits Europe. That is the responsibility that Germany and the other creditor countries need to acknowledge. But there is no sign of this happening. The European authorities had little understanding of what was happening. They were prepared to deal with fiscal problems but only Greece qualified as a fiscal crisis; the rest of Europe suffered from a banking crisis and a divergence in competitiveness which gave rise to a balance of payments crisis. The authorities did not even understand the nature of the problem, let alone see a solution. So they tried to buy time.
Usually that works. Financial panics subside and the authorities realize a profit on their intervention. But not this time because the financial problems were reinforced by a process of political disintegration. [. . .]
At the onset of the crisis a breakup of the euro was inconceivable: the assets and liabilities denominated in a common currency were so intermingled that a breakup would have led to an uncontrollable meltdown. But as the crisis progressed the financial system has been progressively reordered along national lines. This trend has gathered momentum in recent months. The Long Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) undertaken by the European Central Bank enabled Spanish and Italian banks to engage in a very profitable and low risk arbitrage by buying the bonds of their own countries. And other investors have been actively divesting themselves of the sovereign debt of the periphery countries.
If this continued for a few more years a breakup of the euro would become possible without a meltdown – the omelet could be unscrambled – but it would leave the central banks of the creditor countries with large claims against the central banks of the debtor countries which would be difficult to collect. [. . .]
The Bundesbank has become aware of the potential danger. It is now engaged in a campaign against the indefinite expansion of the money supply and it has started taking measures to limit the losses it would sustain in case of a breakup. This is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the Bundesbank starts guarding against a breakup everybody will have to do the same.
This is already happening. Financial institutions are increasingly reordering their European exposure along national lines just in case the region splits apart. Banks give preference to shedding assets outside their national borders and risk managers try to match assets and liabilities within national borders rather than within the eurozone as a whole. The indirect effect of this asset-liability matching is to reinforce the deleveraging process and to reduce the availability of credit, particularly to the small and medium enterprises which are the main source of employment.
So the crisis is getting ever deeper. [. . .] The real economy of the eurozone is declining while Germany is still booming. This means that the divergence is getting wider. The political and social dynamics are also working toward disintegration. Public opinion as expressed in recent election results is increasingly opposed to austerity and this trend is likely to grow until the policy is reversed. So something has to give.
In my judgment the authorities have a three months' window during which they could still correct their mistakes and reverse the current trends. By the authorities I mean mainly the German government and the Bundesbank because in a crisis the creditors are in the driver's seat and nothing can be done without German support. I expect that the Greek public will be sufficiently frightened by the prospect of expulsion from the Union that it will give a narrow majority of seats to a coalition that is ready to abide by the current agreement. But no government can meet the conditions so that the Greek crisis is liable to come to a climax in the fall. By that time the German economy will also be weakening so that Chancellor Merkel will find it even more difficult than today to persuade the German public to accept any additional European responsibilities. That is what creates a three months' window.
Correcting past mistakes. Correcting the mistakes and reversing the trend would require extraordinary policy measures to bring conditions back to normal and bring relief to the financial markets and the banking system. These measures must, however, conform to the existing treaties. The treaties could then be revised in a calmer atmosphere so that the current imbalances will not recur. It is difficult, but not impossible to design some extraordinary measures that would meet these tough requirements. They would have to tackle simultaneously the banking problem and the problem of excessive government debt, because these problems are interlinked. Addressing one without the other, as in the past, will not work.
Banks need a European deposit insurance scheme in order to stem the capital flight. They also need direct financing by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) which has to go hand-in-hand with eurozone-wide supervision and regulation. The heavily indebted countries need relief on their financing costs. There are various ways to provide it, but they all need the active support of the Bundesbank and the German government.
That is where the blockage is. The authorities are working feverishly to come up with a set of proposals in time for the European summit at the end of this month. Based on the current newspaper reports the measures they will propose will cover all the bases I mentioned, but they will offer only the minimum on which the various parties can agree while what is needed is a convincing commitment to reverse the trend. That means the measures will again offer some temporary relief, but the trends will continue. But we are at an inflection point. After the expiration of the three months' window the markets will continue to demand more, but the authorities will not be able to meet their demands.[ . . . ]
It is impossible to predict the eventual outcome. As mentioned before, the gradual reordering of the financial system along national lines could make an orderly breakup of the euro possible in a few years' time and, if it were not for the social and political dynamics, one could imagine a common market without a common currency. But the trends are clearly non-linear and an earlier breakup is bound to be disorderly. It would almost certainly lead to a collapse of the Schengen Treaty, the common market, and the European Union itself. [...] Unenforceable claims and unsettled grievances would leave Europe worse off than it was at the outset when the project of a united Europe was conceived.
But the likelihood is that the euro will survive because a breakup would be devastating not only for the periphery but also for Germany. It would leave Germany with large unenforceable claims against the periphery countries. [. . .] So Germany is likely to do what is necessary to preserve the euro – but nothing more. That would result in a eurozone dominated by Germany in which the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments. That would turn the European Union into something very different from what it was when it was a „fantastic object“ that fired peoples imagination. It would be a German empire with the periphery as the hinterland.
I believe most of us would find that objectionable, but I have a great deal of sympathy with Germany in its present predicament. The German public cannot understand why a policy of structural reforms and fiscal austerity that worked for Germany a decade ago will not work for Europe today. [. . .]
We need to do whatever we can to convince Germany to show leadership and preserve the European Union as the fantastic object that it used to be. The future of Europe depends on it.
Die Rede wurde am 2. Juni in Trient gehalten.
("Die Presse", Print-Ausgabe, 10.06.2012)