The EU summit: Will the center hold?

On the eve of the EU Summit, Mark Sheetz offers the following commentary, which differs in some respects from mine. 

In several recent blogs on the euro crisis, Stephen Walt has expressed exasperation with European leaders and pessimism on the fate of the eurozone. His reaction is understandable and consistent with virtually all journalists and economists who study the issue. They are frustrated at the slow pace of European decision-making and the fact that a solution seems obvious. In recent days, demand for action has become nearly hysterical, with analysts, columnists, and editorial writers for the New York Times suggesting that time for a solution is "running short," that "the endgame is fast approaching," that the eurozone is facing a "meltdown," and that a collapse is "perhaps inevitable."

So, what is the solution? Conventional economic wisdom insists that either Germany acquiesce to some sort of bailout or the eurozone is finished. Germany must consent either (a) to the issuance of joint and severally liable Eurobonds or (b) to a policy of monetary easing by the European Central Bank (ECB). The problem is being treated as a technocratic economic matter.  Hence, technocrats have come to power in Greece and Italy. But the matter is essentially political and the crisis turns on central problems of international relations theory, like anarchy, sovereignty, and power.   

Economists believe that the basic problem of the eurozone is economic: that national economic imbalances can no longer be restored through the traditional method of currency devaluation.  But the problems of the eurozone are fundamentally political: (a) it expanded too fast, wider won out over deeper, (b) there is no commitment to common budgetary policies, and (c) there is no mechanism to enforce agreements.

The debate is congealing around two poles, a pessimistic pole predicting the breaking apart of the eurozone versus an optimistic pole of closer integration. The solution includes both. On the one hand, wide economic disparity among members of the eurozone will force weaker members to leave. Greece, as well as those countries that use the euro but cannot afford it (PIGS), will be cast off from the eurozone by a mounting centrifugal force.

On the other hand, the remaining members will converge on tighter economic policy along the German model. As a corollary to more restricted membership, those countries remaining in the eurozone will harmonize their policies regarding deficits and government pensions and achieve some sort of convergence in the major items affecting budget deficits. This will have the effect of bringing Europe closer together, or at least those countries that can achieve convergence. It may also create a more politically coherent Europe, with those remaining in the eurozone leading the European Union economically and politically. Such a situation might even give a common foreign policy the chance to develop and cohere around a small group of stronger European countries.

Some believe that a Greek expulsion from the eurozone will be catastrophic. They assume that a Greek default within the eurozone is manageable, while a Greek exit would make contagion worse. My own feeling is that contagion -- and the accompanying collapse of the European project -- would be the result of Greece staying in the euro, not the result of Greece getting out.  The recent evidence of market contagion to Italy and Spain appears to support this claim. A referendum in Greece would have cleared the air. It would have restored a stark reality that European leaders would not be able to evade. If Greeks had voted "no" on the referendum, Greece would have had little choice but to return to the drachma. That would have been a lesson to others. They would have recognized that they have only two choices: (a) converge fiscal and monetary policies or (b) press the "eject" button. The problem now is that European leaders may still think they can muddle through by patching up a country here and there. That will destroy the clarity exposed by a Greek default.

The divide, as usual, is between France and Germany over monetary policy. The French, along with their southern European allies in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, favor easy money, while the Germans, along with northern Europeans in the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland, insist on a tight money policy. Any hint of German capitulation to French demands of easier money will be the end of the euro. The first sign of wavering, the first inkling that a compromise is afoot, will signal to the markets that the floodgates for a river of euros are open, that fiscal and monetary discipline are history, that inflation will be rampant, and that the euro will be worthless.

Germans will not pay for the profligacy of their neighbors. Otherwise, where would it stop? Any concession towards easy money will only reinforce the "moral hazard" of further risk-accepting behavior. It is a story as old as Aesop: the ant and the grasshopper. Germany entered into the euro under assurances that all members would conduct their economic affairs responsibly. If this is no longer the case, then Germany will reserve the right to withdraw. A former British chancellor of the exchequer agrees, insisting that Germany would sooner withdraw from the euro than see its integrity compromised. Another (not insignificant) factor is the survival of Angela Merkel as chancellor. Any suggestion of Merkel wavering at the prospect of easy money is tantamount to political suicide. So all the speculation that the ECB or the EFSF will "stabilize" (rescue) the euro is so much folderol.

The power calculus, then, favors Germany. France will be dragged along kicking and screaming, but two points suggest eventual French capitulation. One is that Germany will otherwise threaten to secede from the euro, which would put France in a nasty competitive economic position. And the second is that, without the unity embodied in a common currency, French hopes of ever again exerting influence on the world scene will have evaporated. Europeans understand that they cannot meet global challenges as individual nations because they are no longer great powers. As President Sarkozy conceded, "If Europe does not change quickly enough, global history will be written without Europe."

The original path to the common currency was through a convergence of economic policies. Nations would have budget deficits of no more than 3 percent of GDP, and total debt of no more than 60 percent of GDP. If euro members had stuck to these criteria, they would be in dandy shape now. So a return to that mechanism, with additional penalties for non-compliance, might work. The problem is to create binding agreements.

On the question of enforcement, one possibility mentioned is an automatic increase in taxes to offset a budget deficit beyond acceptable limits. Other devices to ensure compliance with EU oversight of national budgets are available for the same purpose. These sanctions would be imposed by a central authority that can override national budget decisions. The European Court of Justice and the European Commission have been suggested as ultimate arbiters, but such supranational enforcement has its limits in a union of sovereign states.

Sovereign governments may oppose such measures for domestic political reasons. As long as sovereignty remains, national governments may negate previous agreements. Even within national governments, as in the U.S. Congress, existing legislatures may negate the agreements of previous legislatures. Therefore, a more severe penalty is required. 

The ultimate penalty for non-compliance is, of course, expulsion. The eurozone could expel any country that fails -- after a suitable time period -- to adhere to budgetary guidelines set forth in a new agreement. The ultima ratio of economic union is expulsion, just as the ultima ratio of politics is war. It lurks behind every decision as the final alternative.

So the demise of the euro, as a proxy for the EU itself, is not on. Neither is a consolidation on the German federal model. A big push for more Europe is not in the cards now. The loss of that much national sovereignty is unrealistic, given the immature development of a European identity. That is why convergence of fiscal and economic policies is the most likely outcome, not complete structural reform.

But convergence will not save the euro if member states refuse to comply with agreed guidelines. Both France and Germany violated the guidelines in 2003, breaking through the barriers of 3 percent budget deficits and 60 percent debt for more than a year. If the founding members of the eurozone fail to comply or to remedy violations within prescribed time periods, then the euro will well and truly collapse. In a union of sovereign powers, political will is the ultimate arbiter.

Mark S. Sheetz is an Associate in the International Security Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. He is currently writing a book on France, Germany, and the Transformation of Europe.  

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