Greek Debt Crisis Raises Doubts About the European Union May 8, 2010Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Yunanistan.
Tags: EU, Greece, Greece economy
Europe’s consistent inability to move quickly enough to get ahead of the financial markets during the Greece crisis is shaking the euro and the foundations of the European Union itself, as critics of the euro have long predicted would happen.
The question being raised with increasing urgency is whether the European Union can fashion a mechanism to speed decision-making before irreversible damage is done and the euro itself slips into history.
The delays are inevitable, most experts say, stemming from the nature of the European Union and its own institutional voids: no single government, no single treasury, no effective fiscal coordination, no mechanism for crisis management.
Every major decision on the euro must be negotiated among member states and European institutions, a torturous process that also plays up political fissures both within and among member countries. That breeds uncertainty and even panic among investors, who already doubt that the Greek deal that the European leaders finally sealed on Friday night will forestall an eventual restructuring of Athens’ crippling debt.
“The European Union is running behind events,” said Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a political scientist at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. While, for example, the United States could “shock and awe” the markets early in the global financial crisis with the TARP bailout money and a huge stimulus program to restart the economy, there is no single European institution that can do the same. By contrast, every decision about Greece has been a painful, time-consuming bargain among the different national governments, with their own political requirements and concerns, and their own views of economic virtue.
“There are no more bullets in the gun right now,” said a senior French official who spoke on the condition of anonymity before the Brussels summit meeting on Friday that confirmed the $140 billion relief package for Greece. The deal was reached over a period of months with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. “Markets are reacting now because they think it’s too little, too late,” Ms. Le Gloannec said. “And because it’s too late, it’s too little.”
The European Central Bank, too, has been largely inadequate to the task. On Thursday, the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, failed to calm the markets with his assurances that Greece would not default and that the bank was not considering buying up Greek, Portuguese or Spanish bonds, which many analysts consider an obvious next step.
Investors dismissed Mr. Trichet’s words as insufficient, saying that politicians were in denial. They say that governments have no credible exit strategy, that Greek debts will need to be restructured and that the budget rules that are supposed to limit member nations’ budget deficits to 3 percent of gross domestic product have been used as a floor, rather than a ceiling.
Instead of dealing with these substantive matters, however, European leaders have sharply attacked the markets and the ratings agencies that have downgraded Greek, Portuguese and Spanish bonds, calling them improperly regulated, unjust and greedy. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, called it “a battle of the politicians against the markets” and vowed, “I am determined to win.”
José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, attacked financial “speculators.” Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero of Spain told traders to look at economic data instead of “unfounded off-the-wall suggestions and speculation.”
Pierre Lellouche, the French minister for European affairs, said in an interview about the ratings agencies: “I’d be interested to know what these 30-year-old boys know about the disaster they are causing to people in Spain or Portugal or anywhere else. Where states have to renationalize the losses and people are out of a job and out of their houses. Where’s the accountability of these judges?”
European leaders have talked of a European Ratings Agency and a European Monetary Fund, at least for the future, and are slowly moving to trim budget deficits. But the problem is more fundamental, said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform in London. “Most of the time, the gap between European rhetoric and reality is just an annoyance,” he said. “But that gap is simply lethal when it comes to the euro.”
Instead of attacking markets and forming a new European agency, he said, “the leaders need to focus on the issue that is driving the markets: the dire growth prospects for the southern rim” of the euro zone, meaning Greece, Portugal, Spain and even Italy. No matter how big the loan package, “the only way to ensure debt sustainability is to get them growing,” he said, and that means significant structural changes to the euro zone.
The southern countries are so uncompetitive compared with the others, especially Germany, that there are permanent trade imbalances that will destroy the euro, Mr. Tilford said, unless European leaders either fix the imbalances or accept more political and fiscal integration. “But the course we’re on is unsustainable,” he said, and Germany seems uninterested in changing its economic model to benefit the poorer south.
While individual countries will bear continual transfers of funds to poorer areas within the nation — to eastern Germany, for example, or to Corsica or Wales — “I don’t see the necessary social solidarity in the wider euro zone to provide this kind of fiscal supranationalism,” Mr. Tilford said. “The myth of European integration and solidarity has been exposed as wishful thinking.”
On Friday, the Austrian finance minister, Josef Pröll, took a firm northern line. Asked if Greek debt needed to be restructured, he said: “Most certainly not. We are providing 110 billion euros in loans. Greece has to plow through. I see no reason whatsoever to let the Greeks off the hook.”
Asked about necessary reforms, Mr. Pröll, who is on a European Union task force to propose them, was restrained. He talked about tough rules for national budgeting, even to the point of personal accountability in cases of outright fraud. But even these measures, he said, cannot be implemented until at least next year.
Sunday is the 60th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration, the proposal by France’s foreign minister, Robert Schuman, to create a supranational organization of states in war-ravaged Europe. It is now celebrated as Europe Day, and while it led first to a French and German trade zone on coal and steel, the European Union still lacks a common energy policy. And while that early pact led to the free-trade zone known as the European Economic Community, the European Union still lacks serious economic cohesion.
“Sixty years later, where is Europe?” Ms. Le Gloannec asked. “A lot has been built, but a lot has been taken for granted. Europe is living out of old policies and sleeping on its laurels. There is no love lost for Europe, but there is also no way out.”