Economy Euro

Finance: Eurozone overhaul

12 February 2010
Die Zeit Hamburg

The euro is under pressure, long live the euro. Parade for the launch of the common currency, Paris, January 1999. (AFP)

The euro is under pressure, long live the euro. Parade for the launch of the common currency, Paris, January 1999. (AFP)

It’s the rebirth of the euro. The EU has decided to bail out Greece, even if it means breaching the terms of its own treaties. The rescue will help not only the Greeks, but also the euro – and even the reluctant German taxpayer, rejoices Die Zeit.

This extraordinary summit of European heads of state in Brussels will go down in history for having overhauled the European monetary union. The euro will never again be the currency it was before.

This is a golden opportunity. The EU states have agreed in principle to provide financial aid to Greece if need be – even though money has yet to change hands: the Greeks have to wait till April to tap the capital markets first. What this means for the financial markets is that the Community won’t leave a deeply overindebted member to its own devices, but stand by the country if necessary to avert a national bankruptcy. Whether that will involve loans, guarantees or the purchase of government bonds remains to be seen – but that is merely a logistical matter.

Circumventing the 'No-Bailout' Clause

The point is that one of the foundations of the monetary union was pried loose today in Brussels: the rule that member countries are not allowed to help one another out. It was Germany, incidentally, that insisted on enshrining that principle in the European treaties to ensure budgetary self-discipline. It no longer applies now that every member country knows it can count on the others in an emergency. In other words, Europe agreed on a de facto breach of its own treaty. And it was a conservative German chancellor, of all people, who urged the move, which may pose legal problems, but was economically overdue.

After all, the non-intervention rule failed to prevent certain excesses – such as Greece’s spiralling debts and Germany’s over-dependence on exports. That is partly due to the system’s built-in reliance on financial markets as a corrective force. In the past, however, the markets did not penalise deeply indebted states with higher interest rates so as to force them to consolidate their budgets, but willingly lent them more money, which in turn gave rise to one wave of speculation after another. Now, though, as a result of the financial crisis, the interest rates charged on loans to the Greek government have been soaring. So speculators had trained their sights on the euro.

German pledges solidarity but not on any terms

Basically, the EU leaders made up their minds to replace the market mechanism with a state-run mechanism: the EU helps out countries in distress and, in return, obtains oversight over their economic policies. It has to penalise the Greeks if they don’t put their budget back on an even keel, just as it has to penalise the Germans if they snatch market shares from their neighbours through wage dumping. There was no alternative: if Greece were to go down, it would take other teetering EU states down with it. German banks holding billions in Greek and other government bonds would have collapsed in its wake, German exporters would have lost markets. Saving Greece is not only an act of solidarity, it’s in Germany’s best interest.

The EU’s decision has tremendous political ramifications. The monetary union will only work in future if every participating country gives up a chunk of its sovereignty. The Greek government will have to put the Brussels austerity regimen across, taxpayers in Germany and other countries will have to foot the rescue bill. That will either blow Europe apart – or solder it together into a real political union. The euro has always been a rickety construct, a currency without a state. If all goes well, it will now be fitted out with the requisite political underpinnings. That will harden, not soften, the common currency.