Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Greek Referendum: What European Union?

Is there even such a thing as the European Union? The Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, has just announced an impromptu referendum to be held toward the end of this year, in which the Greek people will decide if they will accept the austerity and other measures required by the EU's bailout of Greece. The referendum was not previously mentioned by Greek leaders to the EU, and the EU is displeased, to put it mildly. It's holding back a bailout payment of 8 billion Euros that was to have been given to Greece in mid-November. Greece hasn't back down, and EU leaders are suggesting that Greek voters be asked to decide whether or not Greece should remain in the EU. Who knows? The Greek electorate may respond with a digital salute.

The Greek prime minister also faces a no confidence vote this Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. His legislative majority has been shrinking, and he officially has just barely enough votes to survive. If the no confidence vote fails, Greece will hold early elections. Those could further delay implementation of the EU's bailout plan.

The referendum and no confidence vote throw a massive wrench into the EU's governance "process." As it is, the EU has no established way to deal with a problem like the ongoing sovereign debt crisis, in which its very existence could be threatened. Europe's leaders have been winging it, meeting every week, and issuing innumerable upbeat press releases to manipulate the financial markets upward. Somehow, this ad hoc process produced a back of the envelope bailout that might at least delay the day of reckoning. But all the EU's efforts have now been suspended by the unexpected announcement of the Greek referendum and no confidence vote.

The referendum and no confidence vote demonstrate that there simply is no European Union. At its moment of greatest crisis, the fate of the EU rests on a snap decision by a Greek politician to hold a plebiscite and a no confidence vote. No one else in the EU signed off on this sui generis procedure. Yet, the EU, its currency, its financial system and its economic fortunes rest on the political vagaries of a country whose GDP is maybe 2% of the EU's GDP. There isn't a European Union. The EU has no rules, no governance process, no decision makers and no efficacy. It's like a group of people who have jammed themselves onto a very small life raft and are working against each others' efforts to keep the thing from tipping over.

If the EU blows up, the rest of the world will be dragged down as well. All this because of the political dysfunction of a nation with 0.5% of the world's GDP. That the fate of the European Union, and the world's financial system and economy, should rest on the electoral process of a small nation like Greece suggests that the interconnectedness of the world's financial system and economy has gone too far. Technology, derivatives and other linkages allow capital--and more importantly, financial risk--to flash around the globe almost instantaneously. While that's good when life is copacetic, reality is that some days are rainy. Today's hyperquick, hyperactive, and opaque financial system guarantees not only that capital flows immediately to the most attractive profit opportunity, but also that risk and financial contagion move equally fast in unpredictable, and therefore unhedged, ways. It may be time to establish significant limits on the extent to which financial risk can be palmed off. When faced with risk, people have a tendency to become responsible. But when you can pass the hot tamale to someone else, expediency trumps maturity. What we desperately need today is responsible behavior.

The only firewall left for the financial system is the taxpayer. Because taxpayers are becoming increasingly stressed, central banks have printed or will resort to printing money. This isn't a solution, just a kick of the can down the road. The Greek prime minister's decision to hold a referendum and no confidence vote serves as a reminder of a truth that is rarely acknowledged: there is no way of the current financial crisis without serious pain for everyone. The Greek prime minister is asking Greeks to grow up, face the fact that they will have to endure tough times, and agree to take their castor oil. Sooner or later, the rest of the world will have to do the same. But their politicians and other leaders continue to spin tales of Lake Wobegon, where everyone is in the top 1% and occupies only executive suites.

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