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A Greek Burial for German Austerity

BERLIN – Not long ago, German politicians and journalists confidently declared that the euro crisis was over; Germany and the European Union, they believed, had weathered the storm. Today, we know that this was just another mistake in an ongoing crisis that has been full of them. The latest error, as with most of the earlier ones, stemmed from wishful thinking – and, once again, it is Greece that has broken the reverie.

Even before the leftist Syriza party’s overwhelming victory in Greece’s recent general election, it was obvious that, far from being over, the crisis was threatening to worsen. Austerity – the policy of saving your way out of a demand shortfall – simply does not work. In a shrinking economy, a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio rises rather than falls, and Europe’s recession-ridden crisis countries have now saved themselves into a depression, resulting in mass unemployment, alarming levels of poverty, and scant hope.

Warnings of a severe political backlash went unheeded. Shadowed by Germany’s deep-seated inflation taboo, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government stubbornly insisted that the pain of austerity was essential to economic recovery; the EU had little choice but to go along. Now, with Greece’s voters having driven out their country’s exhausted and corrupt elite in favor of a party that has vowed to end austerity, the backlash has arrived.

But, though Syriza’s victory may mark the start of the next chapter in the euro crisis, the political – and possibly existential – danger that Europe faces runs deeper. The Swiss National Bank’s unexpected abandonment of the franc’s euro peg on January 15, though posing no immediate financial threat, was an enormous psychological blow, one that reflected and reinforced a massive loss of confidence. The euro, as the SNB’s move implied, remains as fragile as ever. And the subsequent decision by the European Central Bank to purchase more than €1 trillion ($1.14 trillion) in eurozone governments’ bonds, though correct and necessary, has dimmed confidence further.