Friday, 9 September 2011

Europe after the End of the Euro

[this is the English original of my article published in Le Monde]:

Europe after the Death of the Euro

For years, countries struggled to defend the rigid link between their currencies. Speculators attacked; country after country implemented austerity programs to make debts sustainable, to win the trust of international investors. At the same time, the economic downturn deepened. Unrest became more common; political systems buckled under the strain of more cut-backs, surging unemployment, and unsustainable debts. And still, the common currency was widely regarded as the best way to assure stability. Without it, no trust in governments, in economic management, no end to economic turmoil, or so the refrain went. And then it all disappeared, almost overnight. Countries abandoned the common currency. And the earlier they did so, the faster their recovery. None of the terrible predictions about the end of the world as we know it actually turned out to be true.
            The time? The early 1930s. The common currency? The gold standard. What sounds like a description of modern-day Europe is actually very similar to the drama played out some 80 years earlier. Cutting the link with gold turned out to be the single best policy measure politicians could take. Britain left early – in 1931 – and only suffered a mild downturn, compared to the US which stuck with gold at the old parity until 1933, or France, which hung on even longer. Where the link with gold was severed, deflation and austerity measures came to an end, debts became more sustainable, growth recovered, unemployment fell. And when people looked back at the interwar gold standard, they soon asked – how could we be so wrong? Sacrifice so much for such a misguided policy?
            Europeans after the end of the Euro will ask the same questions. Why did they waste more than a decade with interest rate policies that were too high for some, too low for others, creating boom and bust as well as unsustainable debt burdens and banks that eventually implode? How did they stomach all these austerity programs and bailout packages, for so little gain? Presented to electorates as a policy without alternative, the Euro is actually a poorly designed currency arrangement that was always more about political symbolism than about sound economics. Today, member countries of the EU have eleven currencies – the euro and ten national ones of members states that have not joined EMU. The European Union will not fall apart if eleven currencies become twelve or fifteen. The Euro can only survive if the German, Austrian, Dutch and Finnish taxpayers are willing to sign a blank cheque; or if economic reforms and austerity packages on a truly frightening scale are implemented. Neither option is politically feasible. It may take a few more rescue packages and a few more years for politicians to finally realize this, but electorates in Europe are already growing restless. Once the true economic and political costs of “rescuing the Euro”, again and again, are fully understood, it will need to be abandoned.    
With the Euro gone, we will see a return to the currency world before 1999. Some countries will follow German monetary policy, either by sharing a currency or by copying everything that Frankfurt does. This is the future for Holland, Finnland, Austria, perhaps the Scandinavian countries. The southern European countries will probably stick with a rest-Euro. Interest rates will be set appropriately; growth recovers; unemployment falls; asset price bubbles become less likely. Some countries may default, and banks in several countries may need to be nationalized, as they were in Scandinavia in the early 1990s. The euro will devalue against the new Deutschmark; exports from Italy, France, and Spain will be more competitive, and German export surpluses will shrink, reducing economic imbalances in the European Union. At the same time, vacations by the Mediterranean, French wine and Italian cars become cheaper for the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans. This is not a vision of economic apocalypse – it is the way rebalancing should work.
What does this mean for Europe’s political future? Surprisingly little. To be sure, many prominent European politicians will have a lot of egg on their faces. Megalomaniac fantasies about the “United States of Europe” will be laid to rest. The so-called bicycle theory – that Europe has to move ahead or crash – will be forgotten. We will have more pragmatic policy-making, with Brussels starting to look out for the things that actually matter, and trying much harder to make them work. What matters are the single market – free trade, freedom of movement, intellectual exchange, fair play for European companies trying to compete for government contracts elsewhere, or trying to buy another firm.
Instead of the grand visions and grand pronouncements, Brussels will have to focus on the hard, boring, beneficial nitty-gritty. Implementation of existing rules and schemes is important, and Europe currently leaves much to be desired. The single market works only in part; mutual recognition of degrees, for example, is often only a legal fiction. My dubious Oxford PhD cannot be validated in Spain, for “technical reasons”. Don’t ask why it needs to be “validated” at all. Germans are not allowed to buy holiday homes in Denmark; European governments often stop the sales of companies to foreign buyers for no good economic reason; and so on. European integration should be guided by what is good for its citizens and companies.
Sharing the same pieces of paper in the wallets of Europeans turned out to be a bad idea. It has failed at its only conceivable purpose, making the lives of Europeans better than they otherwise would be. Giving up the Euro now will do less damage to the European project than several “lost decades” of unemployment, stagnation, austerity, and riots. The European Union is much more than monetary union, and Europe is so much more than the EU. European citizens know this, but politicians need reminding that this prestige pet project is not the same as Europe’s future.

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