Sunday, November 6, 2011

The European Union's Only Option

The downfall of George Papandreou, prime minister of Greece, illustrates the European Union's only option for survival. Germany and France dictated the terms of the latest iteration of the bailout for Greece, which included tough austerity requirements and a 50% haircut for creditors. Both Greeks and creditors squawked, but ultimately knuckled under. Then, Papandreou threw a wrench in the works by calling for an ad hoc national referendum on the deal. Why he latched onto this misguided notion remains unclear. Whatever the reason, it threw the financial markets into a tizzy.

The prime ministers of Germany and France summoned Papandreou to be chewed out in Cannes. Most likely, George didn't get much time to work on his tan. Back in Athens, he called off the referendum. His next move was to maneuver for a coalition government, while his opposition called for snap elections. Germany and France stepped in again and made it clear that they wanted Greece to have a unity government that would implement the terms of the revised bailout.

Next thing you know, Greece is announcing that it has reached a tentative deal for a unity government. Tomorrow, Greek politicians will spar over who their next national leader will be. It won't be Papandreou.

What's happened in Greece was dictated by Germany and France. The Greeks weren't given a choice. They were told what bailout they would get and what governmental process they would use to implement it. In essence, Germany and France have assumed supervisory political control over Greece. This--the political unification of the EU--is the union's only chance for survival. Economically speaking, the EU's continuation depends on a transfer of wealth from the well-off nations of northern Europe to creditors of the more profligate EU members. The price of this transfer is political domination by the north.

Germany's been through this once before. When the Berlin Wall fell, prosperous West Germany unified with moribund East Germany. West Germany paid a very high price in bringing its formerly Communist sibling into the world of free enterprise. But the West Germans wanted unity and they were willing to pay for it. Now, Germans depend on the Euro Zone to sustain their prosperity, and they are gradually coming to realize their reluctant willingness to pay for the survival of the EU. The continued fecklessness of Greece and its government in dealing with the crisis has forced Germany and France to take charge. By the most contorted of processes, the EU is evolving toward political unity.

It's not inevitable the process will continue. Other nations are in trouble. Italy is the next target of the sovereign bond vigilantes. Interest rates on its bonds are rising sharply vis-a-vis German bonds, and it has recently agreed to be monitored by the IMF. Many Italians are irked by this infringement on their sovereignty. If Greeks and Italians feel put upon enough, they can simply leave the EU. That might seem highly irrational, since it could lead to the collapse of their financial systems and steep recessions. But let's not forget that twice in the last century Europe descended into horrific world wars that killed tens of millions of people. Europeans are eminently capable of highly irrational and self-destructive behavior.

No one knows all this better than the Germans, who were the most irrational and paid an enormous price for their self-destructiveness. That's why they're willing to pick up the tab now for the profligacy of their neighbors, but only if they can exercise political control over the spendthrifts. The question is whether Europeans, with their vast cultural differences--far greater than those between folks north of the Mason-Dixon Line and those to the south--can achieve the compromises and concessions needed for lasting political unity. The post-Communism breakups of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia tell us that Europeans don't always have a preference for political unification. Expect a bumpy ride in the financial markets while the EU works things out.

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