Has the eurozone reached the limits of the politically possible ?

Pour sauver la monnaie unique, les dirigeants européens devraient prendre des décisions ambitieuses pour faire progresser l’intégration, y compris au risque d’être désavoués par leurs opinions publiques. S’ils ne le font pas, la zone euro risque d’éclater, avec toutes les conséquences économiques et politiques négatives qu’on peut imaginer, estime Simon Tilford, du Centre for European Reform de Londres.

June’s EU summit was the first to agree measures that address the core of the crisis : inflated government borrowing costs that weaken public finances and ultimately make sovereign insolvency self-fulfilling ; and a vicious cycle in which worries about bank and sovereign solvency feed on and amplify each other. Unfortunately, the agreed measures were modest and have already prompted a backlash in various countries, not least in Germany and the Netherlands. Indeed, much of what was agreed at the summit is unlikely to come into effect. All this suggests that the limits of the politically possible may already have been reached.

Many commentators have raised the possibility of a grand bargain under which the Germans sign up to debt mutualisation and the French agree to cede sovereignty over budgetary policy. Germany has not ruled out debt mutualisation and a banking union, but argues that there must be a political union first. The problem with Germany’s position is that the French have never ruled-out a loss of budgetary sovereignty in return for a proper fiscal union. Nor have the Spanish or the Italians. They are not opposed to political union, but argue that there must be crisis management first. 

This French-Italian-Spanish argument makes sense ; there is not time to create a political union before acting. Also, countries cannot cede sovereignty without getting something immediate in return. For example, if Mario Monti signed up to whatever the Germans mean by political union without extracting a concrete commitment to mutualise debt, he would be out of power very quickly. If the Germans offered some form of risk mutualisation in return for much closer political integration, the French, Italians and Spanish would no doubt readily sign up. The Germans know that. The problem is not how to strike a grand bargain ; the question is whether the Germans want it or are able to deliver on their part of it.

The necessary institutional reform can hardly be pushed through under the radar, but must win democratic approval. This will clearly not be easy to secure. Of course, while Germany is running a big trade surplus with the rest of the eurozone which Germany’s private sector is no longer willing to finance, transfers of one sort or another are inevitable. But no-one should be under any illusions about how difficult this is for politicians to explain to their electorates, even if they understand themselves. In the public’s eyes and in the minds of many politicians, a trade surplus just shows that their country is more competitive. What could be wrong with that ?

And the Germans and others do have legitimate concerns about the sustainability of a fiscal union. It will require a high degree of solidarity between its component parts. We see that solidarity within Germany, or in the UK or US, but it is less clear that it exists in the eurozone. Even if they could win democratic approval for such measures, German politicians understandably fear that a fiscal union would be difficult to sustain politically. This would especially be the case if the performance of eurozone’s southern members failed to improve, creating a kind of giant Mezzogiorno. German politicians fear that this could give rise to populism and anti-EU feeling. There are similar concerns in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

In short, there is a far from negligible risk that the Germans and their allies are not going to move far enough to save the euro, or that they fail to get the necessary political buy-in for whatever they do agree to. Under such a scenario the euro really could unravel. If – and it is hard to see how they can avoid it under the current policies – Spain and Italy get caught in a vicious cycle of slump and rising debt, Spanish and Italian borrowing costs will continue to rise, shutting them out of the market. The ESM is too small to bail-out them out, and there is no chance of it being granted a bank license so as to borrow unlimited sums from the ECB. The ECB itself could enter the market itself and buy large volumes of Spanish and Italian debt, but the central bank may not be able to do this in the face of staunch opposition from Germany and a number of others. Could Germany and its allies be outvoted on the ECB ? This is possible. But if they were, this would put paid to the possibility of the Germans, Dutch and other sceptical countries making concessions on the institutional questions, so it could prove a pyrrhic victory.

At this point the politics would start to look decidedly dicey in the struggling economies, and between them and the core of the eurozone. Politicians may start to feel trapped. Italy could prove pivotal. With Monti gone and replaced by a more populist leader, at the head of a coalition including the new anti-euro movement led by Beppe Grillo, the Italians could threaten to quit the euro unless the costs of sharing the currency are pooled. This would be a credible threat. Italy has a primary budget surplus (that is, a surplus before the payment of interest). The Italians would be loath to play such a card, but Italy could come to perceive departure as the lesser of two evils. If Italy withdrew, so would Spain. France would then come under massive pressure. The Germans would probably offer France a debt union, but would the latter go for it ? They would have a hugely overvalued currency and would be a very junior partner.

To many this scenario will sound far-fetched – how could something that will have such far-reaching implications for the European economy, the region’s political stability and its security, be allowed to happen ? Because the solution to the crisis requires governments to do things for which they have no mandate. And the longer the crisis festers, the more difficult it will be to win such a mandate. This is the tragedy of the eurozone’s handling of the crisis. Had the ECB been allowed to intervene in the markets and dispel fears for the solvency of the Spain and Italy, and had the region’s creditor countries refrained from imposing self-defeating fiscal austerity on the struggling economies, the eurozone would have had much more time to prepare the ground for the necessary institutional reforms, which could have been implemented incrementally. But the crisis has now deepened to such a point that only big institutional steps will restore the credibility of the eurozone. This puts politicians in the eurozone’s creditor countries in an invidious position : save the euro and be voted out of office, or open the way for an unravelling of the single currency with all the resulting economic and political fall-out.