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It’s the politics, stupid

14 March 2012 By Edward Hadas

The euro zone debt crisis shows that something is seriously wrong with Europe. But what is it?

Most financial professionals think the problem is economic. They have long considered continental Europe something of a mess – slow GDP growth, inept governments, smothering regulation and a culture that doesn’t “get” markets. European residents seem equally gloomy, especially about the economy. In the most recent Eurobarometer survey, 71 percent of respondents did not expect the crisis to be over two years hence.

The economic worries of both financiers and citizens are misplaced. Even if the slow patch does last a few more years, the European economy will continue to do what a modern economy is supposed to do. European consumers are basically as well off as Americans after adjusting for longer European holidays and different lifestyle choices. There is probably greater justice in the distribution of incomes and consumer goods in Europe than in the United States. The euro zone’s low trade deficits – less in total since 1990 than the United States ran in the last six months – suggest that Europe is globally competitive. Europe probably has a worse unemployment problem than the United States, but national governments are belatedly trying to remedy that.

Where Europe is really weak is not in economics but politics. A lack of political cohesion turned relatively minor financial problems – one small reprobate government (Greece) and two small careless ones (Portugal and Ireland) – into a disproportionately large struggle to avoid a devastating financial meltdown. Despite the risk, politicians and bureaucrats spent years bickering. They may have finally found the necessary toughness and solidarity, but there are enough unanswered questions to suggest that further crises are a lively possibility.

The indecision and discord needs to be kept in proportion. Politically, Europe is far more stable than it was a century ago, when a much smaller trigger set off the First World War. It is more unified – fiscally and financially – than it was in that war’s aftermath, when the anti-solidarity policy of reparations and the anti-flexibility of the gold standard wreaked havoc.

Still, Europe could do better. I suggest a three-pronged effort to make the region stronger.

The first is supposedly underway: balanced national budgets in normal economic times. An earlier effort to mandate this, the Stability and Growth Pact, failed, but the intervening crisis may have concentrated minds and strengthened resolve. If it hasn’t, then the euro project is liable to topple over as soon as economic challenges arrive.

Second, national politicians and the European Central Bank should agree – and state it publicly in no uncertain words – that the fiscal compact implies that the cost of future national fiscal failures will be shared between debtor and creditor nations. There will always be disputes about how to apportion the losses, but those can be resolved if everyone accepts the principle of shared responsibility. A bad loan is a sign that both sides messed up. A multi-country currency union cannot survive without solidarity among its members.

Third, Europe needs to make the economy the servant of something greater, something with more political resonance than a prosperity pact. A merely materialist agreement will always be vulnerable to economic downturns.

Half a century ago, when the predecessor to the European Union was founded, there was a good reason to emphasise economic unity: other sorts of multi-national convergence were much more challenging. Europe is not like the United States, which can boast of a single “American way of life” both culturally and politically. (U.S. states’ rights were effectively crushed 150 years ago in the Civil War.) Nor is Europe like China, which established a national language and culture three millennia ago.

On the contrary, European nations have basically been moving apart for centuries, developing their own national languages and cultures. The nations often behaved like teenage gang members, convinced of their own superiority and always up for a mutually destructive fight.

After the biggest fight, World War Two, the peacemakers followed their profession’s best practice: build trust by focusing on a common effort in the least controversial area – the economy. It has worked, although almost every step has been difficult. The last step, the merger of monetary and fiscal policies, proved traumatic.

But after 60 years of economic success, it should be clear that greater unity need not destroy national diversity. Italians may never be as much like Germans as New Yorkers are like Californians, or as Shanghainese are like Beijingers. But Europeans should be able to find enough common ground – if only as an entity able to hold its own against the United States and China – to give the EU stronger support than mere economic self-interest. If not, there really will be something wrong with Europe.

 

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