Magazine | December 19, 2011, Issue

Euro Melee

It’s Europe vs. the Europeans

The euro may not have brought Europe together, except in shared misery, but it has divided it in previously unimaginable ways. Votes can now be won in Finland by bashing faraway Greece, a place hitherto thought of in Helsinki (if at all) as a helpful supplier of beaches. Europe being Europe, the troubles of the single currency have also given a boost to more traditional antagonisms and, Europe being Europe, revived plans for a nasty new tax.

That tax, the financial-transaction tax, is now being pushed by Germany (with France scampering behind). Britain, already in the doghouse for allegedly not doing enough to help out the single currency it had rejected, is talking veto, while Germany, being Germany, is threatening to proceed regardless. Fleet Street being Fleet Street, there are warnings of a “Fourth Reich.” Many Greeks are saying (and shouting) the same thing, much to the fury of those German taxpayers bailing out a nation they see as idle, dishonest, ungrateful, and — old prejudices bubble up — a little too swarthy to be trusted.

It’s time to calm down. The financial-transaction tax is a thoroughly bad idea, with a dose of old-fashioned national nastiness thrown in (Britain would pick up a huge percentage of the tab), but Merkel’s demands for better budgetary discipline within the eurozone are, in theory, rather more easy to justify. If Germany is, one way or another, to underwrite the common currency, insisting that its money is not frittered away is good housekeeping, not empire-building. Not an empire in any traditional sense.

But Merkel is pfennig-wise but mark foolish (or she would be if such splendidly sound money still existed). She is set on defending Germany’s interests, but only within the parameters of the EU’s transnationalist, post-democratic agenda, to which, it seems, she subscribes. The appealing idea that Germany should, for its own good, quit the eurozone, either alone or in the company, say, of the frugal Dutch, remains off limits, and there is absolutely no prospect that Germany’s voters will be given any direct say on that topic. They never wanted the euro, but they got it. Now they are stuck with it.

And that’s how the EU, born out of a distrust of nation-states and their voters, was always meant to work. The difficulty for Brussels is that this system is now being tested as never before: The eurozone has become the site of a dangerous, chaotic, and half-hidden power struggle between its political and bureaucratic leaderships (which are themselves deeply divided on how far to take deeper integration, but that’s mainly a tale for another day), nervous financial markets, and increasingly riled-up voters.

This wasn’t on the program. To the extent that Brussels had any strategy at the time of the single currency’s launch beyond finger-crossing and prayer, it was that the eurozone’s inherently flawed nature (very different economies joined in monetary, but not fiscal, union) would eventually lead to an over-by-Christmas “beneficial crisis.” Financial markets would force through the closer fiscal union that politics could not deliver. Once that had been achieved, the zone’s individual nation-states would count for very little, and their voters for even less.

That’s not how it has worked out. The mechanics of currency union (more on that later) have combined with irresponsible sovereign borrowing and the economic horrors of recent years to foment a financial storm that may be too devastating to be harnessed in quite so “beneficial” a way. The crisis could yet work out (in that cynical Eurocratic sense), but the terrible damage it has already caused has driven home the real costs — political, economic, and financial — of the monetary union to electorates that have long been denied an effective say in its future. Now that they know what they now know, it will be more difficult to keep them on the sidelines.

But over in the PIIGS they are still huddled there for now. In the last few weeks, Prime Ministers Berlusconi and Papandreou have been forced out with shocking ease, replaced by technocrats bearing the Brussels stamp. Italy was issued a former EU commissioner, and Greece a former vice president of the European Central Bank. Neither man had previously been elected to anything. Who cares? The message to Italian and Greek voters was clear — beggars cannot expect to be, so to speak, choosers — and so far surprisingly few of the beggars have objected. So long as it is seen to be better to be in the zone than out, hairshirts and all, this argument will fly. Underlining this, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland have all held elections, and, in each case, the electorate supported austerity. But if virtue’s reward is too long delayed, that consensus could easily shift, and if that change in sentiment is not addressed by those in charge, there could well be serious disorder.

#page#A kinder, gentler eurozone, fueled by the printing presses of a looser, laxer European Central Bank and, once fiscal union has been safely set up, significantly higher transfers from the frugal “north” to the PIIGS, might be one way of smoothing the path to some sort of recovery. But the rise of the populist True Finns, the collapse of the Slovak government, and the continuing success of Holland’s Euroskeptical Geert Wilders all suggest that growing numbers of northern voters are in not such a generous mood. The only fiscal union they would be likely to support would be more Scrooge than Santa. These voters are signing checks, not receiving them. Their concerns ought to count for far more than those of the pauperized periphery. And they just might.

Even in Germany, there is some evidence that portions of the overwhelmingly Eurofederalist political class are becoming unnerved not only by popular discontent (as a proxy for that, nearly 80 percent of German voters are opposed to the issuance of Eurobonds guaranteed by all the eurozone’s members) but also by clear signals of unease from the country’s powerful constitutional court over the liabilities Germany may be taking on. Merkel’s grudging responses to the bailout requests of the last two years may have been an attempt to maintain financial discipline, but they are also a recognition that her domestic voters once again count for something. And maintaining that tough stance is playing well at home. According to a new ZDF poll, the percentage of German voters who approve of Merkel’s handling of the crisis has risen sharply (from 45 to 63 percent) over the last month.

To the extent that Merkel is a fan too of a Scrooge-style fiscal union, this may actually strengthen her hand as the eurozone’s bad cop. That’s something that alarms another key participant in this drama: the financial markets. Market players are fond of a quick fix. They are not very interested in the plight of the eurozone voter. Most are pushing for closer integration (preferably Santa-style) as the only way to make the single currency work. Merkel has not appreciated this pressure, or the turbulence that has come with it, and she is not alone. The currency union echoes with the rage of a European political/bureaucratic class that prefers to blame the crisis on wicked “Anglo-Saxon” speculators rather than on overspending and the shortcomings of a gimcrack currency union that should never have seen the light of day.

And it’s in the operation of the latter that the immediate danger lies. As Paul de Grauwe of Belgium’s University of Leuven has noted, if markets panic about one of the eurozone’s members, euros will pour out of that country (let’s call it Greece), and unless that flow is somehow reversed, that country (unable to print its own money) will simply run out of cash, and it will go bust. As I said, let’s call it Greece.

That gives markets the whip hand, and that does not play well on a continent that has never really shaken off its command-and-control traditions. So long as financial markets bought into the euro dream, their exuberance was welcome and, indeed, encouraged in Brussels, Frankfurt, and elsewhere. There were few complaints about ratings agencies, banks, or speculators back then. Now the bubble has burst. The markets have woken up, and, as we all know, the results have not been pretty to see — and they are visible to all.

This has not pleased the eurozone’s leaders one bit. They have responded with an onslaught of measures — from bans on certain kinds of short sales, to the financial-transaction tax, and, even, an aborted plan to censor the ratings agencies — all designed to throw sand in the gears of the free market, cut financiers (whose pay, even higher than that of the Brussels elite, has long been a source of irritation) down to size, and, in particular, give those semi-detached Brits, arrogant Yanks, the greedy City, and even greedier Wall Street a very good kicking.

To be continued . . .

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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