How about this for irony: Remember the solid, strong economies of Northern Europe, the ones that signed up for one bailout after another of their less well-off brethren to the south? Remember how, together with the guiding hand of the European Central Bank (ECB), they pulled the eurozone back from the brink of disaster? Not so fast. Now it's their turn to feel economic pressure, meaning they could soon risk going from being part of the solution to being part of the problem. That should be of interest to markets around the world.
This is exactly what's happening in Europe today. And it speaks to a phenomenon captured brilliantly decades ago by John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist, who observed: "If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has."
At the outset of the eurozone debt crisis more than three years ago, everyone looked to a group of AAA-rated countries (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) to anchor the European ship and throw life preservers to the struggling peripheral countries (initially Greece, Ireland, and Portugal). Their intervention was to be surgical, temporary, and reversible. They were to commit to direct lending, and they were to support additional funding from regional organizations like the ECB. And they were to do so combined with cleverly designed incentives to encourage the weaker countries to reform and, so the plan went, regain economic and financial strength.
That was, at least, the widely telegraphed intention, one that was critical to securing sufficient political and popular buy-in among the skeptical citizens of Germany and its rich neighbors. Three years later, the reality is different.
Although you might not know it from reading the newspapers, the situation in Europe remains worryingly fragile. Yes, financial markets have been calmed substantially by the "whatever-it-takes" commitment of the ECB. But underlying economic conditions continue to deteriorate at a worrisome pace. Every month Europe's stronger economies are getting pulled deeper and deeper into a crisis they neither can control nor have fully explained to their citizens.
In the coming months, Germany and others will feel forced yet again to make additional loans -- this time knowing that they will not be repaid in full. They will see their economies disrupted by a more generalized slowdown in the European trading bloc. And when these events inevitably collide, the underpinnings of the current regional economic integration, including the effectiveness and credibility of the European Union itself, will again be at risk.