FRANKFURT – The euro crisis has already transformed the European Union from a voluntary association of equal states into a creditor-debtor relationship from which there is no easy escape. The creditors stand to lose large sums should a member state exit the monetary union, yet debtors are subjected to policies that deepen their depression, aggravate their debt burden, and perpetuate their subordinate position. As a result, the crisis is now threatening to destroy the EU itself. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions, which only German leadership can prevent.
The causes of the crisis cannot be properly understood without recognizing the euro’s fatal flaw: By creating an independent central bank, member countries have become indebted in a currency that they do not control. At first, both the authorities and market participants treated all government bonds as if they were riskless, creating a perverse incentive for banks to load up on the weaker bonds. When the Greek crisis raised the specter of default, financial markets reacted with a vengeance, relegating all heavily indebted eurozone members to the status of a Third World country over-extended in a foreign currency. Subsequently, the heavily indebted member countries were treated as if they were solely responsible for their misfortunes, and the structural defect of the euro remained uncorrected.