eurozone

One reason why the eurozone is sliding into ever deeper trouble is because its political and bureaucratic elites do not like, do not understand and have no wish to understand financial markets.  This is an attitude embedded in European history and culture.  Think of the 1793 Law of the General Maximum, an arbitrary attempt to fix prices at the height of the French Revolution.  Or think of the social status attached for the past 150 years to being a state-employed soldier, teacher, office clerk or railway worker rather than a banker in Germany. Read more

One frequently aired proposal for overcoming the ever more dangerous strains in European monetary union is to encourage Germany, which enjoys a large current account surplus, to buy more from Greece and other southern European countries struggling with large deficits.  This, so the argument goes, would rectify the imbalances that are destabilising the eurozone and would demonstrate Germany’s sense of responsibility and solidarity with its 15 euro area partners. Read more

With good reason the eurozone’s political leaders have been criticised for reacting too slowly to the Greek sovereign debt crisis.  But what’s new about that?  Slowness often seems to be a defining feature of Europe’s approach to policymaking.

Consider the proposals that are in the air for the creation of a European Monetary Fund to manage Greek-style crises in the future.  There is widespread support for such a fund, ranging from the European Commission to Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s centre-right finance minister, and socialists in the European Parliament. Read more

Nothing captures Germany’s anger and frustration with Greece better than the story – if you can call it that – in Tuesday’s Bild, the mass-circulation German tabloid.  “Goodbye, euro. Bild gives the drachma back to the bankrupt Greeks.”  Beneath the headline is a picture of a well-dressed, bespectacled young man, presumably German, handing a wad of drachmas – a defunct currency – to a rather frightened-looking, middle-aged Greek lady.  The message is brutally clear: we Germans don’t want to share the same money as you lot.  Drop out of the eurozone and leave us alone. Read more

George Papandreou, Greece’s socialist prime minister, is an honourable and courageous politician who has done a great deal in his career to improve his country’s image in the eyes of its European Union partners.  So it cannot have been easy for him to announce today that he was requesting the activation of the €40bn-€45bn eurozone-International Monetary Fund financial rescue package for Greece.

No eurozone member-state has suffered such a humiliation since the euro’s launch in January 1999.  But Papandreou must have feared, as soon as he took office after last October’s election, that emergency foreign assistance was going to be necessaryRead more

Today’s European Union summit in Brussels will set out the framework for a financial rescue operation for Greece.  This much is clear is from various briefings being given by officials from countries as varied as Austria, Lithuania, Poland and Spain.  But financial markets will have to wait until next week to see the full details of the plan.

The central question is how far Germany has been pushed to swallow its words and offer help for Greece, after weeks of denying that it would do anything of the sort.  Only this morning Otmar Issing, the German former chief economist of the European Central Bank, was telling German television viewers that Greeks enjoyed “one of the most luxurious pensions systems in the world” and it was unreasonable to expect German taxpayers to fund it. Read more

An unambiguous message of solidarity among eurozone states will come from Thursday’s European Union summit in Brussels, but it is still unclear if this will translate into a specific financial rescue plan for Greece.  Debate among governments is continuing.  However, expectations in financial markets have been raised so high over the past 24 hours, what with European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet flying in for the summit from Sydney and officials in Berlin hinting at a German-led rescue, that it would be risky for the EU leaders not to commit themselves to some sort of initiative.

There are various possibilities: bilateral loans from Germany and France, with perhaps Italy and the Netherlands chipping in; an International Monetary Fund-style standby facility, organised among the 16 eurozone countries; or an EU-wide loan, involving a show of support from all 27 member-states.  It is quite likely that the IMF will be asked to continue providing Greece with expert technical advice, but I don’t think the eurozone countries will go further and call on IMF financial resources.  Apart from anything else, there is a fear that the US may raise objections on the grounds that the IMF’s firepower should be reserved for fighting emergencies not in prosperous Europe but in other, more disadvantaged financial hotspots. Read more

Europe’s leaders are getting radical.  On Thursday the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of the European Union will meet for a day of economic policy discussions in Brussels – but not in their normal location, the marble-and-glass Council of Ministers building, famous for its charmless, disinfected atmosphere and its 24km of headache-inducing corridors.  No, this time they will get together in a nearby building called the Bibliothèque Solvay, which is a pleasant old library rented out for dinners and receptions.

The switch of location was the brainwave of Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s first full-time president, who thought it would encourage a more creative, informal exchange of views.  He has introduced another innovation: each leader is to be restricted to just one adviser at the talks.  This isn’t a problem for countries with leaders who are masters of economic policy detail.  But others are less happy about the arrangement.  It is whispered that the Italians are swallowing especially hard, wondering what on earth Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will say once he’s on his own. Read more

The expression “it never rains but it pours” may seem inappropriate for a Mediterranean country such as Greece.  But it was the phrase that sprang to mind when I heard last week that Greek tax collectors are planning to go on strike in protest at the government’s austerity measures.  Like the political manipulation of budget data, the inefficiency of the tax system is one of the Greek state’s most glaring weaknesses.  How will a tax collectors’ strike help matters?

That said, I do not share the view of German and French government officials who insisted vehemently last week that the solution to Greece’s problems lies almost entirely with the Greeks themselves.  If this were the answer, nothing would be simpler than for the Greeks to roll up their sleeves and get on with a 10-year programe of wage restraint and productivity growth. Read more

How can Greece dig itself out of crisis?  From the sunny shores of south-eastern Europe, it could do worse than take a look at the windswept, north-western corner of the continent and study what the Irish government is doing.

As I noted last week, Greece, in spite of the disastrous condition of its public finances, has hardly suffered at all so far in terms of the living standards of ordinary citizens.  Gross domestic product is thought to have slipped by a mere 1.1 per cent last year.  By contrast, Ireland has experienced a vicious recession: between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009, Irish GDP slumped by more than 10 per cent. Read more

There is a need to clear up some misconceptions about how Greece, or some other fiscal miscreant in the 16-nation eurozone, would be rescued by its partners in the event that it was unable to refinance its debts.

Quite a few commentators seem to think eurozone governments would find it hard to sidestep the ban on bail-outs specified in European Union treaty law.  The European Central Bank, the European Commission and certain EU governments, not least that of Greece itself, have contributed to the confusion by insisting in public that a rescue is undesirable and unnecessary (while quietly planning for precisely this contingency). Read more

Greece’s fiscal emergency is a most mystifying crisis.  At one level, it is the most serious test of the eurozone’s unity since the launch of the euro in 1999.  Unless correctly handled, the problem with Greece’s public finances could shake the foundations of Europe’s monetary union.

At another level, however, Greece itself seems to be getting off remarkably lightly.  Germany suffered a 5 per cent slump in gross domestic product last year; Greece is expected to have suffered a fall of about 1.1 per cent.  Spain has a 19 per cent unemployment rate; Greece’s rate is only 9 per cent.  The Irish government is imposing extreme austerity measures on its citizens to protect Ireland’s eurozone membership; Greece’s government is, so far, doing nothing of the sort.  No wonder Greece’s 15 eurozone partners, the European Commission and the European Central Bank are furious with the political classes in Athens. Read more

Buried in this month’s “Annual Report on the Euro Area 2009″ from the European Commission is some absorbing material on competitiveness in the eurozone.  Some countries, above all Germany, Europe’s export champion, have consistently outshone others in terms of business competitiveness since the euro’s launch in 1999.  The result has been the accumulation of large current account deficits in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain – but also in Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.

As the Commission says, in impeccably understated language: “The build-up of large external liabilities has increased exposure to financial shocks…  In the current downturn, financial markets have become more responsive to the net external financial asset position for the euro area countries.  Even if to a large extent the net external position is related to the private sector, the public sector can be affected by private sector debt in the form of potential bail-outs and other fiscal implications.” Read more

Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty on Friday should in principle be about the treaty’s contents, not the state of the Irish economy.  But the economy’s collapse over the past 12 months compels both pro-Lisbon and anti-Lisbon forces to confront the question of whether membership of the European Union – and, specifically, of the eurozone – has helped (even saved) Ireland, made things worse, or not made much difference one way or the other.

An interesting angle from which to approach this question is to ask whether Ireland has fared better than another island off the north-west coast of Europe that was thrown into turmoil at almost exactly the same moment last year – namely, Iceland.  Iceland isn’t a EU member and doesn’t use the euro.  Has this accelerated Iceland’s recovery or held it back? Read more

One day I’ll break the habit of only visiting Ireland when there’s a referendum on a European Union treaty.  It can easily mislead you into thinking that the Irish people like nothing better than a passionate ”national conversation” (as the latest faddish expression puts it) about Europe.  In fact, it is closer to the mark to say, as Eamon Delaney does in an article for the Irish magazine Business & Finance, that “Ireland is an island with a self-absorbed political culture which is not all that interested in overseas affairs”.

Be that as it may, I’m back in Dublin and the contrast with the political atmosphere of June 2008, when Irish voters rejected the EU’s Lisbon treaty on institutional reform, is pretty startling.  Fifteen months ago, businessmen and economists I talked with were in no doubt that Ireland was heading into a recession, but none predicted the whirlwind that has wrought unmatched havoc on the economy and come close to destroying the national banking system. Read more

From a European Union perspective, it’s somewhat surprising that the extraordinary financial crisis we’ve been living through has not generated more pressure for another big push at EU integration – if not in the political sphere, then at least in the economic one.  According to conventional EU wisdom, it usually takes a crisis to make Europeans understand why closer integration is a good thing.  But on this occasion, it’s not happening – or at least, not yet.

For the perfect explanation as to why this should be so, I recommend an article by Otmar Issing, the European Central Bank’s former chief economist, in the latest issue of the journal Europe’s World.  Issing’s article discusses the merits of issuing common bonds for the 16-nation eurozone – an initiative that would, in theory, mark a major step forward in European integration – and comes down firmly against the proposal. Read more