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Europe cannot afford to rescue Greece March 12, 2010

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Yunanistan.
Tags: , ,

To bail out Greece or not? The question is grabbing headlines daily. Supporters of a bail-out argue that if Greece collapses, others would follow. Financial markets have already identified the next candidates. As such, European economic and monetary union is at risk. Only financial aid and “solidarity” with highly indebted members can rescue the euro.

It is certainly true that this is a decisive moment for Emu – but for the opposite reason. Greece will continue to receive support from several European Union funds. But financial aid from other EU countries or institutions that amounted, directly or indirectly, to a bail-out would violate EU treaties and undermine the foundations of Emu. Such principles do not allow for compromise. Once Greece was helped, the dam would be broken. A bail-out for the country that broke the rules would make it impossible to deny aid to others.

It seems that quite a number of observers have forgotten what Emu is, and what it is not. The monetary union is based on two pillars. One is the stability of the euro, guaranteed by an independent central bank with a clear mandate to maintain price stability. The other is fiscal solidity, which has to be delivered by individual member states. Member countries are still sovereign. Emu does not represent a state; it is an institutional arrangement unique in history.

In the 1990s, many economists – I was among them – warned that starting monetary union without having established a political union was putting the cart before the horse. Now the question is whether monetary union can survive without such a political union. The current crisis must be handled in such a way as to produce a positive answer. The viability of the whole framework – nothing less – is at stake.

By joining Emu, a country accepts its rules. Greece, moreover, also knew that adopting a stable currency that was not controlled by its own central bank implied a total break with the past. Devaluation of the national currency and an inflationary monetary policy were no longer options. A single monetary policy is implemented by the European Central Bank and it is the responsibility of each country to adjust its economic policies so that this one size fits all.

Participation in Emu brings huge advantages. The benefits of joining a stable economic area are greatest for countries that were unable to deliver such conditions before. Thanks to the euro, Greece has enjoyed long-term interest rates at a record low. But instead of delivering on its commitment at the time of entry to reduce public debt levels, the country has wasted potential savings in a spending frenzy. The crisis with which it is now confronted is not the result of an “external shock” such as an earthquake, but the result of bad policies pursued over many years. Bailing out Greece would reward such behaviour and create moral hazard of a dimension hardly seen before.

In this context, one conclusion becomes obvious: financial assistance for countries that violated the terms of their participation in Emu would be a major blow for the credibility of the whole framework. By its construction, Emu is a “no transfers” community of sovereign states. Transferring taxpayers’ money from countries that obeyed the rules to those that violated them would create hostility towards Brussels and between euro area countries. Among ordinary people, it would undermine a badly needed sense of identification with the great project of European integration.

This moment is a turning point for Emu, and for the future of Europe. Most observers point to the high risks – which cannot be denied. However, any crisis also presents an opportunity. This is a big chance – probably the last for Greece, and others – to adapt fully to a regime of stable money and solid public finances.

For Emu, the crisis represents a final test of whether such an institutional arrangement – a monetary union without a political union – is viable for an extended period of time. Lax monitoring and compromises when it comes to observing implementation of rules have to stop. Emu is a club of states with firm rules accepted by entrants. These rules must not be changed ex-post. Governments should not forget what they promised their citizens when they gave up their national currencies.



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