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A Centerless Euro Cannot Hold

CAMBRIDGE – With youth unemployment touching 50% in eurozone countries such as Spain and Greece, is a generation being sacrificed for the sake of a single currency that encompasses too diverse a group of countries to be sustainable? If so, does enlarging the euro’s membership really serve Europe’s apparent goal of maximizing economic integration without necessarily achieving full political union?

The good news is that economic research does have a few things to say about whether Europe should have a single currency. The bad news is that it has become increasingly clear that, at least for large countries, currency areas will be highly unstable unless they follow national borders. At a minimum, currency unions require a confederation with far more centralized power over taxation and other policies than European leaders envision for the eurozone.

What of Nobel Prize winner Robert Mundell’s famous 1961 conjecture that national and currency borders need not significantly overlap? In his provocative American Economic Review paper “A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas,” Mundell argued that as long as workers could move within a currency region to where the jobs were, the region could afford to forgo the equilibrating mechanism of exchange-rate adjustment. He credited another (future) Nobel Prize winner, James Meade, for having recognized the importance of labor mobility in earlier work, but criticized Meade for interpreting the idea too stringently, especially in the context of Europe’s nascent integration.

Mundell did not emphasize financial crises, but presumably labor mobility is more important today than ever. Not surprisingly, workers are leaving the eurozone’s crisis countries, but not necessarily for its stronger northern region. Instead, Portuguese workers are fleeing to booming former colonies such as Brazil and Macau. Irish workers are leaving in droves to Canada, Australia, and the United States. Spanish workers are streaming into Romania, which until recently had been a major source of agricultural labor in Spain.