Saturday, November 22, 2014

France’s Broken Dream

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis in the eurozone is the result of France’s persistent pursuit of the “European project,” the goal of political unification that began after World War II when two leading French politicians, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, proposed the creation of a United States of Europe.

Monnet and Schuman argued that a political union similar to America’s would prevent the types of conflict that had caused three major European wars – an appealing idea, but one that overlooked America’s horrific Civil War. A European political union could also make Europe a power comparable to the United States, and thereby give France, with its sophisticated foreign service, an important role in European and world affairs.

The Monnet-Schuman dream led to the 1956 Treaty of Rome, which established a small free-trade area that was later expanded to form the European Economic Community. Establishing the EEC had favorable economic effects, but, like the North American Free Trade Area, it did not reduce national identification or create a sense of political unity.

That was the purpose of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the European Union. The influential report “One market, one money,” issued in 1990 under the leadership of the former French Finance Minister Jacques Delors, called for the creation of a single currency, relying on the specious argument that the single market could not function well otherwise. More realistically, advocates of a single currency reasoned that it would cause people to identify as Europeans, and that the shift to a single European Central Bank would herald a shift of power away from national governments.

Germany resisted the euro, arguing that full political union should come first. Since there was no chance that the other countries would accept political union, Germany’s position seemed like a technical maneuver to prevent the establishment of the single currency. Germany was reluctant to give up the Deutsche Mark, a symbol of its economic power and commitment to price stability. Germany eventually agreed to the creation of the euro only when French President François Mitterrand made it a condition of France’s support for German reunification.

Moreover, under pressure from France, the Maastricht Treaty’s requirement that countries could introduce the euro only if their national debt was less than 60% of GDP was relaxed in order to admit countries that were seen to be “evolving” toward that goal. That modification allowed Greece, Spain, and Italy to be admitted.

The pro-euro politicians ignored economists’ warnings that imposing a single currency on a dozen heterogeneous countries was bound to create serious economic problems. They regarded the economic risks as unimportant relative to their agenda of political unification.

But the creation of the euro caused a sharp fall in interest rates in the peripheral countries, leading to debt-financed housing bubbles and encouraging their governments to borrow to finance increased government spending. Amazingly, global financial markets ignored the credit risks of this sovereign debt, requiring only very small differences between interest rates on German bonds and those of Greece and other peripheral countries.

That ended in 2010, after Greece admitted that it had lied about its budget deficits and debt. Financial markets responded by demanding much higher rates on the bonds of countries with high government debt ratios and banking systems weakened by excessive mortgage debt.

Three small countries (Greece, Ireland, and Portugal) have been forced to accept help from the International Monetary Fund, and to enact painful contractionary fiscal cuts. The conditions in Greece are now hopeless, and are likely to lead to further defaults and a withdrawal from the eurozone. Spain, too, is in serious trouble, owing to the budget deficits of its traditionally independent regional governments, the weakness of its banks, and its need to roll over large sovereign-debt balances each year.

It is already clear that the EU’s recently agreed “fiscal compact” will not constrain budget deficits or reduce national debts. Spain was the first to insist that it could not meet the conditions to which it had just agreed, and other countries will soon follow. French President François Hollande has proposed balancing deficit limits with growth initiatives, just as France had earlier forced the EU’s Stability Pact to become the Stability and Growth Pact. The fiscal compact is an empty gesture that may be the last attempt to pretend that EU members are moving toward political unification.

The European project has clearly failed to achieve what French political leaders have wanted from the beginning. Instead of the amity and sense of purpose of which Monnet and Schuman dreamed, there is conflict and disarray. Europe’s international role is shrinking, with the old G-5 having evolved into the G-20. And, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel setting conditions for the eurozone, France’s ambition to dominate European policy has been thwarted.

Even if most eurozone countries retain the single currency, it will be because abandoning the euro would be financially painful. Now that its weaknesses are clear, the euro will remain a source of trouble rather than a path to political power.

Read more from our "Are the French Toast?" Focal Point.

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    1. CommentedH Gerken

      The mistake of the author is that he thinks the US as a world power but the US only became a world power after WWII. So France didn't aim to match with the US, that is clear nonsense, but sure they witnessed the defeat of their nation in no time in WWII. "Germany eventually agreed to the creation of the euro only when French President François Mitterrand made it a condition of France’s support for German reunification." - As if they had the powers to deny the people reunification. No, the bargaining shows that these nations just pursue their self-interest.

    2. CommentedMiriano Ravazzolo

      Mr. Feldstein has surely some points in his analysis, but unfortunately, as Alexis Lefranc underlines, misses some extremely significant details like the Wall Street crash which has had such a significant part in the current Euro troubles.

      Any case I wanted to underline that within the countries now in difficulties Italy stands in quite a different perspective. The size of its economy is way, way larger than the others (actually, larger than all the others together) and while it has indeed significant problems it is also more structurally sound, with significant exports.

      This means that while Italy is indeed within the troubled countries it is as well in a quite different position, starting with the simple fact that this is really the flag case of "too big to fail", and should therefore be considered appropriately.

        CommentedStephan Heller

        Poeple may claim a thousand times that the Wall Street Crash has a signifcant role in the Euro crisis. It does not become any more true. The countries now in crisis -except Ireland- had only minor exposure to the US and, therefore, the crash did not contribute to debt burdens in Southern Europe in any significant way. The Euro crisis is as European as Wall Street is American and we in Europe need to face our problems without seeking excuses for our failed policies across the Atlantic.

    3. Portrait of Michael Heller

      CommentedMichael Heller

      Martin Feldstein:

      “Mitterrand made it [the euro] a condition of France’s support for German reunification.”

      That must have been a torturous trade! There are invaluable paragraphs of history here. May today’s critics of Germany be reminded of France’s recklessness and the extent of the arm-twisting to get Germany’s reluctant agreement for premature currency union. I listened to an interview with Joachim Bitterlich -- foreign and security adviser to Kohl -- which also points the finger at France. Germany was able at least to insist on an *independent* central bank. Bitterlich’s half-excuse is they thought then they could “afford” the Greek and Italian risk, but later EU administrations did not adapt the governance structures to financial innovation and globalization.

        CommentedH Gerken

        Yes, a lack of order policy. But here again it's the negative influx from Washington ideology and 1990ths globalisation to Brussels. Germany and France in 1989 were governed on different principles. they didn't knew that Brussels would become a sort of corporate stakeholder rule, not a Europe of the citizens and sound exercise of state powers. The Europe of 1989 was small.

    4. CommentedWojciech Corluka

      Ofcourse the eurozone is dealing with severe risks right now and we have been shown the weaknesses of the single currency but that does not mean that it " will remain a source of trouble rather than a path to political power". This crisis was caused by the inablility of some countries ( Greece, Spain, Portugal etc) to manage their fiscal policies the right way, which does not necessarily mean there's no way back to balanced budgets, debt reduction and competitiveness. There is just the urgent need of strict persuance of the rules ( i.e. the Maastricht criteria rules). There might be the need for Greece and some others to leave the eurozone which probobly bring strong negatice reactions from the markets in the short run, but in the long-run the Euro would continue with the its strongest members and would eventually return to its normal level. Also, the USA's national debt exceeds the gross domestic product, which is a clear sign on unsustainability. Therefore, the times when the world is discussing on saving the USD might not be far

    5. CommentedDaniel Breyer

      The European project hasn't completely failed, it has achieved one major aim which you mention yourself in that it has prevented any major European conflict. Also it has laid the foundation for the future. There may be current troubles however this could just be the long path to success. With the largest single market, and most likely staying together due to "abandoning the euro would be financially painful" surviving now and if the politicians learn from their mistakes the next step is toward political union.

    6. CommentedManfred Dix

      This is the final triumph of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady always opposed a "Euro-style" type of European unification, but favored a European Economic Community of trading nations. She used to say "the Germans will be Germans always, the Italians will be Italians, and the British will be British", signifiying that Europe should be a huge customs union with free trade and free flow of labor, but still with national policies and national governments.
      She was right, it seems.

    7. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      Germany is a rising star in the world economy and dominates a German Economic Zone including the Netherlands and Austria plus Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic and extending east in the Ukraine, etc. (Warsaw will be the new Paris!)

      France, Spain, and Italy are going to be supplicants using the euro-zone institutions to mediate with the German zone for credit and fiscal subsidy. The politics is going to be about how much subsidy they can extract out of the German Zone and upon which terms.

      Euro-zone politics will no longer be about the brave new world but rather will be the oscillating politics between the dynamic and the non-dynamic.

    8. CommentedMichael Booth

      "More Europe" is the answer, but it is failing because "more Europe" has come to mean "less democracy". A continent that invented Communism and Fascism and failed will not find some new autocratic format successful either. "Political union" has come to mean "more autocracy", with the dictatorship of the bureaucracy in Brussels being the symbol of all that the people of Europe reject.

      The American Republic, after years of failed confederation, was offered to the citizens, not rammed down their throats. "Technocratic" PM's and elections criticized as "unhelpful" are the root problem of the entire EU mess.

      The EU needs to be rebuilt; the current track as Feldstein says correctly, is broken. The EU Parliament, not the Council, needs to have the final say. Police powers need to reside with the nations, and specific powers reserved for the EU, such that bureaucratic dictat ends. Which powers are given to the EU, and which retained by the nations, is precisely what election after election must be about.

      The Euro mess will never be fixed unless the EU is first, and that requires not "more Europe" autocratically imposed but "more Europe" democratically created. Rebuild the EU in election after election, upon the common needs and desires of European peoples, and moving to "more Europe" will be welcomed. Only thus will the Euro will find the political base it requires.

        CommentedTim Colgan

        “The American Republic, after years of failed confederation, was offered to the citizens, not rammed down their throats. ”

        Michael: What history book did you read this in?

        Federalism in the US has had a long and stormy history. Yes, the initial Confederation had its failings, but there was far from universal accord in the forming of a stronger union. The initial Federalists met in secret and writers of the Federalist papers used pseudonyms. During the formation of the government, populist revolts (Shay’s Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion) had to be put down in order to establish the government’s authority. Later, the Civil War was fought to re-enforce the consolidation. To this day “Don’t Tread on Me” flags are flown in every town in the country as a statement of opposition of federal power.

        Humans have a natural aversion to centralized power. Anarchy (each of us being a government in ourselves) is our fantasy. Yet the advantages of sharing in a common-wealth pulls us to union. A balancing act of powers determines our final state.

    9. CommentedWilliam Wallace

      Excellent summary of events. There was of course a bit more to it, such as the instability of the exchange rate mechanism ("snake in a tunnel"), which made a common currency seem like a better idea at the time.

      But the fact remains that the euro is a political currency lacking in fundamental mechanisms, a fiat currency if there ever was one.

      I think the best bet now is to prepare for the exit of those countries already under IMF tutelage. Spain and Italy, though weaker than their northern neighbors, can however prove competitive within the euro with a bit more internal devaluation. Beyond proper support via eurobonds or their equivalent, the remaining union will also be rather forced to move forward toward much greater political unity, or relive the current horrors another day.

    10. CommentedAlexis Lefranc

      It is interesting the the European political union should be seen (rather shortsightedly) as an emulation of the US federal framework. Integration in the European political structure has been a trend for at least 500 years, through Westphalian and Concert of Nation systems. This begun long before America was even discovered by the Europeans who then founded the US.

      Laying the ground for peaceful coexistence was indeed the inspiration behind the European defence et energy communities that led to the Treaty of Rome, and the EU has been quite successful at that since its beginnings, securing the first lengthy period of peace in its long history. Integration has steadily increased as well as the development of its institutions and democratic representation over 55 years. The Euro that was predicted to fail within a year has proven to be a strong currency now key to world financial balance. More stable than the dollar and pound, more tradable than the yen or yuan, it fills a crucial vacuum in the global financial system.

      But really the unacceptable omission in Mr Feldstein's article is to not even mention the Wall Street 2008 financial crisis and its influence on the European economy.

      The Euro's situation is certainly not helped by the weakness of some EU peripheral economies, nor by lack of coordination in its members' economic and monetary policies. But these only aggravating factors in a global financial context still suffering from inconsistent and unsustainable deregulation of security trading in the US.

      Perhaps the reason for Mr Feldstein's memory lapse is to be found in the substantial personal profits he has made from such deregulation, while advising US governments to go ahead with it. Are they not the same policies that have led to systemic failures he is now trying to blame others for?

        CommentedR Kumar

        Blaming 2008 wall street crash for "causing" Eurozone problems is intellectual dishonesty. One can argue that the crisis merely exposed them.

        Financial crisis occur and will continue to occur in future (esp in relatively deregulated economies like US). If a currency union structure can't stand up to a financial crisis, then it is better to critically analyse the structure itself.

    11. CommentedPaul Jacobson

      The problem is that national desires for dominance still are the main objective rather than European goals.