Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Le rêve brisé français

CAMBRIDGE – La crise de la zone euro est le résultat de la poursuite française persistante du « projet européen », objectif d’unification politique fixé aux lendemains de la Seconde Guerre mondiale par deux politiciens français, Jean Monnet et Robert Schuman, partisans de la création des États-Unis d’Europe.

Monnet et Schuman faisaient valoir qu’une union politique semblable à celle de l’Amérique permettrait d’empêcher les conflits du genre de ceux qui avaient engendré trois guerres européennes majeures – une idée tout à fait séduisante, bien qu’elle fît abstraction d’une guerre de Sécession américaine terrible. Une union politique européenne pourrait également faire de l’Europe une puissance comparable aux États-Unis, et ainsi conférer à la France, dotée d’un service extérieur sophistiqué, un rôle important dans les affaires européennes et mondiales.

Le rêve de Monnet et Schuman a conduit au Traité de Rome de 1956, établissant une zone de libre-échange de superficie réduite qui s’est par la suite étendue jusqu’à former la Communauté économique européenne. L’apparition de la CEE a été porteuse d’effets économiques positifs ; cependant, de même que la zone de libre-échange nord-américain, elle n’a en rien estompé le sentiment d’appartenance nationale, ni créé de sentiment d’unité politique.

Telles étaient les aspirations du Traité de Maastricht de 1992, qui a instauré l’Union européenne. L’influent rapport « Un marché, une monnaie », publié en 1990 sous la houlette de l’ancien ministre français des Finances Jacques Delors, préconisait la création d’une monnaie unique, sur la base de l’argument trompeur selon lequel le marché unique n’eût pu fonctionner autrement. Plus réalistement, un certain nombre de partisans de la monnaie unique faisaient valoir que celle-ci contribuerait à amener les individus à s’identifier comme européens, et que le passage à une Banque centrale européenne unique annoncerait un transfert des pouvoirs en provenance des gouvernements nationaux.    

L’Allemagne s’est opposée à l’euro, estimant que l’union politique était préalablement nécessaire. Sachant qu’il n’y avait aucune chance pour que les autres pays acceptent une union politique, la position de l’Allemagne apparaissait comme une manœuvre technique destinée à empêcher l’instauration d’une monnaie unique. L’Allemagne était réticente à abandonner le Deutsche Mark, symbole de sa puissance économique et de son engagement à l’égard de la stabilité. Les Allemands n’ont finalement accepté la création de l’euro que lorsque le président français François Mitterrand en a fait une condition du soutien de la France à la réunification de l’Allemagne.   

De plus, sous la pression de la France, la disposition du Traité de Maastricht exigeant des pays désirant adopter l’euro une dette nationale inférieure à 60% du PIB a été assouplie pour finalement admettre l’entrée de pays apparaissant simplement comme « évoluant » dans cette direction. C’est cet assouplissement qui a permis l’entrée de la Grèce, de l’Espagne et de l’Italie

Les politiciens pro-euro ont ignoré les mises en garde des économistes sur le risque de sérieux problèmes économiques que présentait l’instauration imposée d’une monnaie unique dans une douzaine de pays hétérogènes. Ils ont considéré les risques économiques comme peu importants comparés à leur projet d’unification politique.

La création de l’euro a néanmoins provoqué une forte baisse des taux d’intérêt dans les pays de la périphérie, engendrant des bulles immobilières financées par la dette, et encourageant ces États à emprunter afin de financer les dépenses gouvernementales. Étonnamment, les marchés financiers mondiaux ont ignoré les risques de crédit de cette dette souveraine, ne réclamant que de très faibles différences entre les taux d’intérêt sur les obligations allemandes et ceux portant sur la Grèce et les autres pays de la périphérie.

Cette situation a pris fin en 2010, après que la Grèce ait admis qu’elle avait menti sur ses déficits budgétaires et sur sa dette. Les marchés financiers ont réagi en exigeant des taux d’intérêt plus élevés sur les obligations des pays caractérisés par de hauts ratios de la dette et un système bancaire affaibli par des créances hypothécaires excessives. 

Trois petits États (la Grèce, l’Irlande et le Portugal) ont été contraints d’accepter de l’aide de la part du Fonds monétaire international, et de procéder à des restrictions budgétaires douloureuses. La situation de la graisse est désormais sans espoir, et est susceptible de conduire à de nouveaux défauts et à une sortie de la zone euro. L'Espagne est également en sérieuse difficulté, en raison des déficits budgétaires de ses gouvernements régionaux traditionnellement indépendants, de la faiblesse de ses banques, et de son besoin de combler chaque année l'équilibre de sa dette souveraine.

Il est d'ores et déjà évident que les « compressions budgétaires » récemment convenues par l’UE ne régleront ni le problème des déficits budgétaires ni celui des dettes nationales. L'Espagne a été la première à insister sur le fait qu'elle ne pourrait satisfaire les conditions auxquelles elle venait d'adhérer, et que d’autres pays la suivraient bientôt. Le président français François Hollande a proposé d'équilibrer le déficit par des initiatives de croissance, de la même manière que la France avait auparavant procédé à une conversion forcée du Pacte de stabilité de l’UE en un Pacte de stabilité et de croissance. Les récentes compressions budgétaires constituent un faux-semblant qui pourrait bien être la dernière tentative d'illusion d'unification politique de la part des membres de l'UE.

Le projet européen a clairement échoué à atteindre l'objectif souhaité depuis le départ par les dirigeants politiques français. Le rêve d'amitié et de sens des objectifs auquel aspiraient Monnet et Schuman n'est caractérisé aujourd'hui que par le conflit le désarroi. Le rôle international de l'Europe s'affaiblit, l'ancien G5 étant devenu G20. Et la chancelière allemande Angela Merkel établissant les conditions de la zone euro, l'ambition de la France de dominer la politique européenne a été désarmée.

Si la plupart des pays de la zone euro conservent la monnaie unique, cela ne se fera qu'en raison de la douleur financière que présenterait un abandon de l'euro. Maintenant que ses faiblesses sont évidentes, l'euro est voué à demeurer une source de difficultés plutôt qu'un garant de puissance politique.

Traduit de l’anglais par Martin Morel

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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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. 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?

    1. 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.

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