Germany's choice: To lead or to leave?

Wie die Eurokrise ausgeht, hängt vor allem davon ab, ob Deutschland bereit ist, die Führung in der Union zu übernehmen. Tut es das nicht, wäre ein Ausstieg der Deutschen aus dem Euro die beste Variante.

Germanys choice lead leave
Germanys choice lead leave
(c) EPA (Wolfgang Kumm)

I have been a fervent supporter of the European Union as the embodiment of an open society – a voluntary association of equal states that surrendered part of their sovereignty for the common good. The euro crisis is now turning the European Union into something fundamentally different. The member countries are divided into two classes – creditors and debtors – with the creditors in charge, Germany foremost among them.

This is the result not of a deliberate plan but of a series of policy mistakes that started when the euro was introduced. It was general knowledge that the euro was an incomplete currency – it had a central bank but did not have a treasury. But member countries did not realize that by giving up the right to print their own money they exposed themselves to the risk of default. Financial markets realized it only at the onset of the Greek crisis. The financial authorities did not understand the problem, let alone see a solution. So they tried to buy time. But instead of improving, the situation deteriorated. This was entirely due to the lack of understanding and the lack of unity.

The course of events could have been arrested and reversed at almost any time but that would have required an agreed-upon plan and ample financial resources to implement it. Germany, as the largest creditor country, was in charge but was reluctant to take on any additional liabilities; as a result every opportunity to resolve the crisis was missed. The crisis spread from Greece to other deficit countries and eventually the very survival of the euro came into question. Since breakup of the euro would cause immense damage to all member countries and particularly to Germany, Germany will continue to do the minimum necessary to hold the euro together.

The euro's end is the end of the Union. The policies pursued under German leadership will likely hold the euro together for an indefinite period, but not forever. The permanent division of the European Union into creditor and debtor countries with the creditors dictating terms is politically unacceptable for many Europeans. If and when the euro eventually breaks up it will destroy the common market and the European Union. Europe will be worse off than it was when the effort to unite it began, because the breakup will leave a legacy of mutual mistrust and hostility. The later it happens, the worse the ultimate outcome. That is such a dismal prospect that it is time to consider alternatives that would have been inconceivable until recently.

In my judgment the best course of action is to persuade Germany to choose between becoming a more benevolent hegemon, or leading nation, or leaving the euro. In other words, Germany must lead or leave. The first alternative would be by far the best.

The breakup scenario. In an amicable breakup of the euro it matters a great deal which party leaves, because all the accumulated debts are denominated in a common currency. If a debtor country leaves, its debt increases in value in line with the depreciation of its currency. The country concerned could become competitive; but it would be forced to default on its debt and that would cause incalculable financial disruptions. The common market and the European Union may be able to cope with the default of a small country such as Greece, especially when it is so widely anticipated, but it could not survive the departure of a larger country like Spain or Italy. Even a Greek default may prove fatal. It would encourage capital flight and embolden financial markets to mount bear raids against other countries, so the euro may well break up as the Exchange Rate Mechanism did in 1992.

The Gerexit scenario. By contrast, if Germany were to exit and leave the common currency in the hands of the debtor countries, the euro would fall and the accumulated debt would depreciate in line with the currency. Practically all currently intractable problems would dissolve. The debtor countries would regain competitiveness; their debt would diminish in real terms and, with the ECB in their control, the threat of default would evaporate. Without Germany, the euro area would have no difficulty in carrying out the U-turn for which it would otherwise need Chancellor Merkel's consent.

A German exit would be a disruptive but manageable onetime event, instead of the chaotic and protracted domino effect of one debtor country after another being forced out of the euro by speculation and capital flight. There would be no valid lawsuits from aggrieved bond holders. Even the real estate problems would become more manageable. With a significant exchange rate differential, Germans would be flocking to buy Spanish and Irish real estate. After the initial disruptions the euro area would swing from depression to growth.

After the initial shock, Europe would escape from the deflationary debt trap in which it is currently caught; the global economy in general and Europe in particular would recover and Germany, after it has adjusted to its losses, could resume its position as a leading producer and exporter of high-value-added products. Germany would benefit from the overall improvement. Nevertheless the immediate financial losses and the reversal of its relative position within the common market would be so large that it would be unrealistic to expect Germany to leave the euro voluntarily. The push would have to come from the outside.

The hegemony scenario. By contrast, Germany would fare much better if it chooses to behave as a benevolent hegemon and Europe would be spared the upheaval the German withdrawal from the euro would cause. But the path to achieving the dual objectives of a more-or-less level playing field and an effective growth policy would be much more tortuous. I will sketch it out here.

The first step would be to establish a European Fiscal Authority (EFA) that would be authorized to make important economic decisions on behalf of member states. This is the missing ingredient that is needed to make the euro a full-fledged currency with a genuine lender of last resort.

The EFA would automatically take charge of the EFSF and the ESM. The great advantage of having an EFA is that it would be able to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, like the ECB. Another advantage of the EFA is that it would reestablish the proper distinction between fiscal and monetary responsibilities. For instance, the EFA ought to take the solvency risk on all government bonds purchased by the ECB.

The scheme I proposed was rejected out of hand by the Germans on the grounds that it did not conform to the requirements of the German constitutional court. In my opinion their objection was groundless because the constitutional court ruled against commitments that are unlimited in time and size, while the Debt Reduction Bills would be limited in both directions. If Germany wanted to behave as a benign hegemon it could easily approve such a plan. It could be introduced without any treaty change. Eventually the Debt Reduction Bills could provide a bridge to the introduction of eurobonds. That would make the level playing field permanent.

What can bring Germany to decide whether to stay in the euro without destroying the European Union or to allow the debtor countries to solve their problems on their own by leaving the euro?

The campaign to change German attitudes will therefore have to take a very different form from the intergovernmental negotiations that are currently deciding policy. European civil society, the business community, and the general public need to mobilize and become engaged.

At present, the public in many eurozone countries is distressed, confused, and angry. This finds expression in xenophobia, anti-European attitudes, and extremist political movements. The latent pro-European sentiments, which currently have no outlet, need to be aroused in order to save the European Union. Such a movement would encounter a sympathetic response in Germany, where the large majority is still pro-European but under the spell of false fiscal and monetary doctrines.

Waking up from the nightmare. In short, the current situation is like a nightmare that can be escaped only by waking up Germany and making it aware of the misconceptions that are currently guiding its policies. We can hope Germany, when put to the choice, will choose to exercise benevolent leadership rather than to suffer the losses connected with leaving the euro.

kommt George Soros in Budapest zur Welt. Soros überlebt den Krieg und die Judenverfolgung der Nazis in Budapest und emigriert 1947 nach London. An der „London School of Economics“ studiert Soros unter Karl Popper, 1956 zieht er nach New York und beginnt als Trader an der Wall Street. 1970 gründet er „Soros Fund Management“ und wird zum zigfachen Dollar-Milliardär.

Vergangene Woche war Soros zu einer von der „Presse“ mitveranstalteten Podiumsdiskussion in Wien. Der vorliegende Text erscheint im ungekürzten Original im „New York Review of Books“ am 25. September.

("Die Presse", Print-Ausgabe, 16.09.2012)

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Germany's choice: To lead or to leave?

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