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The Fate of Europe, nearing the point of decision

13 September 2011

Summary:  Will Europe become a collection of pawns?  Or unify into a great nation?  The time of decision approaches.   Our news media ignore key aspects of the situation, making the actions of Europe’s leaders look foolish.  They’re not.  Here we will look at the challenges that lie ahead, and what’s at stake for Europe.  See part 2:  Europe drifts towards the brink of a cataclysm.

In July 2008 I asked  Can the European Monetary Union survive the next recession?  My answer was “probably not”.  So far that forecast has proven wrong.  Other chapters in this series:

(3)  Europe drifts towards the brink of a cataclysm

(4)  Delusions about easy fixes for Europe, dreaming during the calm before the storm

Contents of this chapter

  1. The challenges ahead
  2. Why unify?
  3. The path ahead divides:  unify or divorce
  4. What will they do?

(1)  The challenges ahead

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled on February 7 that “Constitutional complaints lodged against aid measures for Greece and against the euro rescue package {are} unsuccessful; no violation of the Bundestag’s budget autonomy”  (see the ruling here).  This ended the current phase of unification, during which the Federal Cabinet made decisions for Germany — creeping federalism, incremental steps unifying Europe.  Opinions differ on the implications of the ruling for the future; it certainly made future bailouts more difficult by requiring Bundestag involvement.

The European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) probably enters the endgame during the next year, as one of the following emerges suddenly and unexpectedly — every week a challenge.  Greece is the firebreak; once through Greece the fire probably quickly spreads to the other PIIGS.

  1. Any member of the EMU can abort the process, not just Greece and Germany (e.g., Netherland’s and Finland’s demand for collateral on future loans to Greece).
  2. This becomes more likely as public support continues to decline in both creditor and debtor nations. Hence partisan maneuvering, legislative votes, and  elections can have outsize effects — or even spark the endgame. Like Berlin State election on 18 September, or the September 29 Bundestag vote on the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).  A trial vote did not go well (see Reuters).
  3. The ECB and IMF might impose such tight conditions that Greece bolts (They are unlikely on their own to end the bailouts).
  4. An economic slowdown or recession in Europe probably destroys the enthusiasm for bailout and austerity programs.
  5. A loss of confidence by bank investors might spark a run on Europe’s banks (EU banks are weak; a slow run has been happening in Greece; perhaps one starting in France), by sovereign bond investors might destabilize government finances.
  6. Speculators’ hot money might destabilize the situation (much as its driven the Swiss Franc to crazy levels).  So far they’re pushing down the Euro, boosting Europe’s exports.
  7. The high-growth emerging nations fighting inflation (e.g., China) are depressing global growth, hurting Europe’s exports.  Ditto for the slowing America and Japanese economies.

Updates:

  • Many decisions lie ahead for Europe, with complex and often misunderstood consequences.  For instance, a Greek default does not guarantee its expulsion (or departure) from the EMU (Edward Harrrison and Tyler Cowen agree).  And vice versa (although it seems VERY likely that default follows expulsion).
  • After they decide, much depends on governments’ executions of new policies. Skillful or clumsy?
  • Government defaults come in many forms, from soft to hard.  For details see Governments cannot go bankrupt.

(2)  Why unify?

US conservatives often describe Europe’s unification as quixotic or a leftist plot.  It’s neither, but something America refuses to do:  prepare for the 21st century.

Europe`s leaders have worked to unify Europe since WWII (Of course, that’s an over-simplification.  They are not a unitary element, and many oppose unification).  Success would bring a host of economic benefits.  Failure would make them small powers kicked around by the 21st century’s great powers (e.g., USA, China, Russia, Brazil).  Germany, France, and Britain have done it to others for centuries; they do not want it done to them.  But e pluribus unum takes time, effort, and often war.

Due to our long English heritage, we often forget the short history of Europe`s nations.  Belgium began in 1839 (on weakly together even today); Germany and Italy a few decades later.  Going from young nations to a supra-national state so quickly has few or no historical precedents.

Nor was it easy.  Italy and Germany unified smoothly in the 19th century — compared to some.  America and France overcome regional differences far smaller than across Europe, in nations already unified, only through wars (Napoleonic and Civil).  America’s regions despised one another until the late 1800’s, forged into a strong union by the Civil War.  Only about 1 of 8 Frenchman spoke proper French in 1800; most spoke somewhat mutually incomprehensible regional dialects.

Europe’s leaders slowly brought Europe together after 1945.  Then they gambled, attempting a currency union before political union.  Success will bring applause from future historians for their boldness; failure will bring mockery at their foolishness. It might have worked if they had more time before a recession induced massive strains in the EMU fabric.  But the recession arrived, and revealed the primary failure in the project:  Europe’s peoples do not support it.

Europe has come so far, and I`ll bet they will join together. Eventually.  But the current phase of the process looks likely to end badly, setting it back decades or generations.

(3)  The path ahead divides:  unify or divorce

What happens if Greece leaves the EMU? Nobody knows the political or economic consequences. Experts disagree, and guesses remain guesses no matter how confidently stated.  What happens if they decide to remain together, taking the next steps to unification?  Ditto, more unknowns.  Starting the endgame (e.g., Greece defaulting) does not answer these questions:  it initiates a series of decsisions with unpredictable effects, both immediate and long-term.

The one certain-to-fail choice:  failure to choose.  A tree lies ahead in the intersection.  As they dither the tree grows larger in the windscreen.

This series of crises helps (forces) Europe’s peoples adapt to change.  Each crisis forces them to adjust and prepare.  Eventually they accept the need to change, which initiates the endgame.  That point appears close, as seen here:  “German Finance Minister Prepares for Possible Greek Bankruptcy“, Der Spiegel, 10 September 2011 — Excerpt:

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who is reportedly doubtful that the country can be saved from bankruptcy, is preparing for the possibility of Greek insolvency. Officials in his ministry are currently reviewing scenarios for handling such a situation, exploring what it might mean for the rest of the euro zone. Under the first scenario for a Greek bankruptcy, the country would remain in the euro zone. Under the other, Athens would abandon the common currency and reintroduce the drachma.

(4)  What happens next?

Amidst the clatter of delusionally confident predictions about the unknowable, all we can only say that Europe’s leaders have successfully held the EMU together during four years of the worst recession since the 1930’s.  Quite an accomplishment.

Despite the critics, Europe does not face now economic failure, as the core EMU nations have the capacity to easily support the PIIGS through the restructuring process.  And the PIIGS are restructuring — and fast.  The Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese have accepted the EU-imposed depression better than many expected (me, too), showing a remarkably high level of social cohesion. I wonder if America could do so well.

This is not just a European event.  Chaos there will echo around the world.  Coordination among governments in Europe and globally will be essential to minimize the shocks, but might prove impossible to achieve.

There are no easy solutions.  Both paths have high costs.  There are two widespread views about the endgame.

  • The costs of unification are too high to pay; the public support too low for success.  Breakup is certain.
  • The costs (and complexity) of breakup are too high to suffer; the benefits of unification are too great to lose.  The cost in the first year might be 25% of GDP for Germany (and the other creditor nations), and 50% of GDP for Greece (and the other creditor nations).   Unification is likely.

The first ignores Europe’s history since WWII, the need to unify, and the determination of its leaders to unify.  The second represents the Norman Angell theory of history.  His 1909 book, The Great Illusion, showed that Europe’s economic integration made war illogical. People interpreted that to mean that war was unlikely or impossible.  In 1914 Europe acted illogically.  Europe might do so again soon.

We cannot see what lies ahead because Europe’s people have not yet chosen which path to take.  We cannot see beyond choices not yet made.

Other posts about Europe on the FM website

  1. Can the European Monetary Union survive the next recession?, 11 July 2008
  2. The periphery of Europe – a flashpoint to the global economy, 8 February 2010
  3. Our government’s finances are broken. How do we compare with our peers?, 8 April 2010
  4. Governments cannot go bankrupt, 2 April 2010
  5. The EU does Kabuki for Greece. Is it the next domino to fall?, 14 April 2010
  6. About the Euro crisis: the experts are wrong; the German people are right., 7 May 2010
  7. Former Central Bank Head Karl Otto Pöhl says bailout plan is all about ‘rescuing banks and rich Greeks’, 20 May 2010

For other posts about the events taking place today see the FM Reference Page about the End of the post-WWII geopolitical regime.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 September 2011 11:30 am

    Good post.

    Of course, as you point out, European unification was not a left wing plot. It’s inception was quite pragmatic: link Germany and France into an interdependent economic union through coal & steel so they would be so dependent on these core industries that they could no longer go to war.

    Even though I think they expanded too rapidly from the EU’s original founding, there was great impetus to do so: 1) Provide some sort of counter-weight to the newly acquires hyper-power status of the US. 2) Solidify the withdrawal of the Soviet Union/Russia from Easter Europe by letting its former satellites join the West.

    The EU is a fine idea, but in practical terms, it law, its Acquis Communautaire, is a rambling document of 25,00 pages that quite often pisses off the locals because some folks in Brussels tell a lady in Malta a new way to make cheese even though she’s been making it the right way since her mother taught her 70 years ago.

    And, a large number of former Soviet satellites are massively corrupt, have no rule of law, and have never been a part of the Enlightenment Tradition, that seems to me to be a prerequisite for a successful democracy.

    However, a large number of citizens across the political spectrum support the EU and, most importantly, Germany and France want it.

    Like

  2. Roberto Buffagni permalink
    13 September 2011 9:04 pm

    Europe will not be unified until it will not be independent (in her mind, first of all).
    Independence will begin when Europeans will begin to seriously wonder why they have hundreds of American military, often with nuclear weapons, bases on their soil: 66 years after the end of WWII, 20 after the end of URSS.
    When this will happen, well, as Napoleon used to say, “l’intendance suivra”, logistics (i.e., economy) will follow.

    Like

  3. Soros asks "Does the Euro have a Future?" permalink
    15 September 2011 7:45 pm

    A concise and brilliant analysis of the situation: “Does the Euro have a Future?“, George Soros, New York Review of Books, 13 October 2011

    Like

  4. Roubini says "Greece should default and abandon the Euro" permalink
    16 September 2011 1:09 pm

    Greece should default and abandon the Euro“, Nouriel Roubini (Prof Economics, NYU), Roubini Global Economics, 16 September 2011 — Subscription only. Opening:

    Greece is insolvent, uncompetitive and stuck in an ever-deepening depression, exacerbated by harsh and excessive fiscal consolidation. It is time for the country to default in an orderly manner on its public debt, exit the eurozone (EZ) and return to the drachma to rapidly restore solvency, competitiveness and growth.

    Exit will require a conversion of euro liabilities into the new currency to limit the balance sheet effects that the depreciation of the new national currency will entail.

    Greece can exit the monetary union in an orderly and negotiated manner …

    Like

  5. "Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don’t: Life After Greece’s Mega-Exchange (If it Actually Happens)" permalink
    16 September 2011 6:48 pm

    Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don’t: Life After Greece’s Mega-Exchange (If it Actually Happens)“, By David Nowakowski and Arnab Das, Roubini Global Economics, 16 September 2011 — Subscription only. Excerpt:

    The bank-friendly Greek mega-exchange amounts to yet another nail in the coffin of Greece sovereign debt sustainability: At realistic discount rates, it would offer almost no debt relief, even though it would almost eliminate refinancing risk for 10 years.

    … In the immediate future, everything hangs on Greece, which is the tip of an iceberg; just one of group of {Eurozone} members handicapped by elevated real exchange rates and a lock of economic dynamism and competitiveness …

    … If the prospects of orderly rescheduling improve, the threat of even more aggressive and widespread contagious runs on public and bank debt, sparking cascading, disorderly defaults would be mitigated.

    … There is precedent for orderly exchanges to avert default, providing a “time out” for counties to get through a recession, shore up banks, implement reforms, privatize, restore growth and regain access to markets. … However, there are les benign examples, which unfortunatle bear more similarity with Greece today, and demonstrate that even a successful exchange is far from a panacea …

    Like

  6. Results from today's state elections in Germany permalink
    18 September 2011 4:40 pm

    More bad news for Prime Minister Merkel, and for the European Monetary Union

    Reuters reports reults from today’s election in Berlin (one of Germany’s 16 states)

    1. Social Democrats (SPD, center-left) retailned control with 29.5%, down from 30.8% in 2006
    2. Chirstian Democrats (CDU, largest party in the Bundestag) took 23.5%, up from 21.3%
    3. Greens took 18.0% up from 13.1%
    4. Left Party took 11.5%, down from 13.4%
    5. Pirate Party took 8.5% (taking seats for the first time in a German state)
    6. Free Democrats (FDP, a party of the right; the CDU’s partner in the Bundestag) took 2.0%, down from 7.6% (below the 5% minimum, getting no seats)

    Like

    • Update: "eurosceptic allies beaten in Berlin" permalink
      18 September 2011 7:36 pm

      Reuters looks at the election results, suggesting that the initial interpretation was wrong. This might not be a defeat for Merkel’s pro-EU policy.

      Merkel’s centre-right coalition suffered a further setback when their junior coalition partners at the national level, the Free Democrats (FDP), failed to clear the 5% threshold needed to win seats — for the fifth time this year. The beleaguered FDP, which had attempted to attract voters in Berlin with its increasingly euro-sceptic tactics, plunged to 2% from 7.6% in 2006, exit polls showed.

      Their eroding support nationwide could destabilise Merkel’s centre-right coalition, analysts said. … “We would be wise to show humility about this result,” said a visibly stunned FDP deputy party leader, Christian Lindner. “It’s a low-point but also a wake up call. We knew it was going to be a difficult year and that’s been dramatically confirmed.”

      … “The best part of the result tonight is that the voters showed the FDP they won’t get anywhere with populist attacks against Europe,” said SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, celebrating his centre-left party’s sixth win in seven regional votes this year. “It shows the voters are smarter than the FDP campaign strategists and that you can’t win an election by campaigning against Europe. The FDP tried that and failed.”

      … The SPD and Greens have pledged support for boosting the euro zone bailout fund for countries like Greece in a crucial vote in parliament vote on Sept. 29, when Merkel may face a revolt from more eurosceptic members of her coalition. Greens leader Cem Oezdemir said the FDP had “tried to turn this election into an anti-European plebiscite” after its party leader, Economy Minister Philipp Roesler, said it should not be taboo to debate an “orderly” Greek debt default.

      “Losing the election with 2% is a dramatic setback for the FDP and I hope they draw the right lessons,” Oezdemir said. “Anti-European populism has no support in Europe and in Germany, thank goodness, and that’s good news for our country.”

      Like

  7. Big news: Greeks to try democracy, vote on eurozone OR default permalink
    19 September 2011 11:57 pm

    This is brilliant, even if just as pushback on their creditors. Either way, it will build legitmacy for whatever they decide to do. Of course, it probably will not happen. Voting — creates a bad precedent and gives the proles ideas above their station in life.

    Greeks to vote on future in eurozone?“, Kathimerini (Athens newspaper), 19 September 2011:

    As pressure from Greece’s foreign creditors and austerity-weary citizens mounts on the government, Prime Minister George Papandreou is considering calling for a referendum on whether Greece should continue to tackle its debt crisis within the eurozone or by exiting the single currency. According to sources, Papandreou hopes that the outcome of such a vote would constitute a fresh mandate for his Socialist government to continue with an austerity drive backed by Greece’s international lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

    A bill submitted in Parliament, paving the way for a referendum to be carried out, is to be discussed in coming days.

    Sources told Kathimerini that many of Papandreou’s close aides had proposed the idea of a referendum to the premier earlier this summer. Since then, pressure has mounted on the government from all sides with Greece’s foreign creditors pushing for quicker and more effective reforms, citizens reacting to the cuts and even members of PASOK’s political council objecting to plans to slash the public sector.

    During an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday, several ministers are said to have pressed for drastic action, with some of them calling for early elections. Interior Minister Haris Kastanidis noted that a negative outcome in a referendum would prompt snap polls. Agriculture Minister Costas Skandalidis reportedly opposed the idea of a referendum and proposed that the government call snap polls as it lacks the mandate to take any new measures, while Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou suggested that PASOK investigate alliances with other political parties

    Like

  8. Roubini: "Greece Should Default and Abandon the Euro" permalink
    25 September 2011 3:19 pm

    Advice they should listen to, from someone with a great record (unlike the austerians, who have a record of false predictions and disasterous prescriptions going back to 1929): “Greece Should Default and Abandon the Euro“, Roubini Global Economics, 22 September 2011

    Like

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  1. Information Clearing House Newsletter 13 September, 2011: 6 Big Lies About The Economy « William Bowles.info

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