Wednesday, November 26, 2014
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El sueño roto de Francia

CAMBRIDGE – La crisis en la eurozona es el resultado de la persistente búsqueda por parte de Francia del "proyecto europeo", el objetivo de unificación política que comenzó después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial cuando dos políticos prominentes franceses, Jean Monnet y Robert Schuman, propusieron la creación de los Estados Unidos de Europa.

Monnet y Schuman sostenían que una unión política similar a la de Estados Unidos impediría los tipos de conflicto que habían causado tres guerras europeas importantes -una idea atractiva que, sin embargo, pasaba por alto el horror de la Guerra Civil de Estados Unidos-. Una unión política europea también podía convertir a Europa en una potencia comparable a Estados Unidos y así darle a Francia, con su sofisticado servicio exterior, un papel relevante en los asuntos europeos y mundiales.

El sueño de Monnet y Schuman llevó al Tratado de Roma de 1956, que estableció una pequeña área de libre comercio que luego se expandió para formar la Comunidad Económica Europea. La creación de la CEE tuvo efectos económicos favorables, pero, al igual que el Área de Libre Comercio de Norteamérica, no redujo la identificación nacional ni creó una sensación de unidad política.

Ese era el objetivo del Tratado de Maastricht de 1992, que estableció la Unión Europea. El

influyente informe “One market, one money” (Un mercado, una moneda), difundido en 1990 bajo el liderazgo del ex ministro de Finanzas francés Jacques Delors, instaba a la creación de una moneda única, con el argumento engañoso de que, de no ser así, el mercado único no podía funcionar bien. En términos más realistas, los defensores de una moneda única razonaban que, de existir, haría que la gente se identificara como europea, y que la creación de un Banco Central Europeo único presagiaría un alejamiento del poder de los gobiernos nacionales.

Alemania se resistió al euro. Sostenía que antes debía existir una unión política plena. Como no existía ninguna posibilidad de que los otros países aceptaran la unión política, la postura de Alemania parecía una maniobra técnica para impedir el establecimiento de la moneda única. Alemania se negaba a abandonar el marco alemán, un símbolo de su poderío económico y de su compromiso con la estabilidad de precios. Finalmente, Alemania estuvo de acuerdo con la creación del euro sólo cuando el presidente francés François Mitterrand lo puso como condición para el respaldo de la reunificación alemana por parte de Francia.

Es más, bajo la presión de Francia, el requisito del Tratado de Maastricht de que los países sólo podían introducir el euro si su deuda nacional era inferior al 60% del PBI se relajó para admitir a otros países que parecían estar "evolucionando" hacia ese objetivo. Esa modificación permitió que Grecia, España e Italia fueran admitidos.

Los políticos pro-euro ignoraron las advertencias de los economistas de que imponer una moneda única a una docena de países heterogéneos indefectiblemente crearía serios problemas económicos. Consideraban poco importantes los riesgos económicos en relación con su agenda de unificación política.

Pero la creación del euro causó una marcada caída de las tasas de interés en los países periféricos, lo que llevó a burbujas inmobiliarias financiadas por deuda y alentó a sus gobiernos a endeudarse para financiar un mayor gasto público. Curiosamente, los mercados financieros globales ignoraron los riesgos crediticios de esta deuda soberana, y sólo exigieron diferencias muy pequeñas entre las tasas de interés sobre los bonos alemanes y los de Grecia y otros países periféricos.

Eso culminó en 2010, después de que Grecia admitió que había mentido sobre sus déficits presupuestarios y su deuda. Los mercados financieros respondieron exigiendo tasas mucho más altas sobre los bonos de los países con ratios de deuda gubernamental altos y los sistemas bancarios se debilitaron por la excesiva deuda hipotecaria.

Tres países pequeños (Grecia, Irlanda y Portugal) se vieron obligados a aceptar ayuda del Fondo Monetario Internacional, y a implementar dolorosos recortes fiscales contraccionistas. Las condiciones en Grecia hoy son desesperanzadoras, y probablemente se traduzcan en otros incumplimientos de pago y un retiro de la eurozona. España también está en serios problemas, debido a los déficits presupuestarios de sus gobiernos regionales tradicionalmente independientes, la debilidad de sus bancos y su necesidad de refinanciar grandes balances de deuda soberana cada año.

A esta altura ya resulta evidente que el "compacto fiscal" recientemente acordado por la UE no limitará los déficits presupuestarios ni reducirá las deudas nacionales. España fue el primer país en insistir en que no podía cumplir con las condiciones que acababa de aceptar, y otros países pronto harán lo mismo. El presidente francés, François Hollande, propuso equilibrar los límites del déficit con iniciativas de crecimiento, de la misma manera que Francia antes había exigido que el Pacto de Estabilidad de la UE se convirtiera en el Pacto de Estabilidad y Crecimiento. El compacto fiscal es un gesto vacío que puede ser el último intento por pretender que los miembros de la UE avanzan hacia la unificación política.

Claramente, el proyecto europeo no logró lo que los líderes políticos franceses querían desde un principio. En lugar de la amistad y el sentido de determinación con el que soñaron Monnet y Schuman, hoy cunde el conflicto y la confusión. El papel internacional de Europa se está achicando: el antiguo G-5 evolucionó para convertirse en el G-20. Y, mientras la canciller

alemana, Angela Merkel, establece las condiciones para la eurozona, la ambición de Francia de dominar las políticas europeas se ha visto frustrada. 

Incluso si la mayoría de los países de la zona del euro conservan la moneda única, lo harán porque abandonar el euro sería doloroso en términos financieros. Ahora que sus debilidades son claras, el euro seguirá siendo una causa de problemas más que un camino hacia el poder político.

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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.

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