Thinking Smaller in Europe

NEW YORK – To resolve a crisis in which the impossible has become possible, it is necessary to think the unthinkable. So, to resolve Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, it is now imperative to prepare for the possibility of default and defection from the eurozone by Greece, Portugal, and perhaps Ireland.

In such a scenario, measures will have to be taken to prevent a financial meltdown in the eurozone as a whole. First, bank deposits must be protected. If a euro deposited in a Greek bank would be lost through default and defection, a euro deposited in an Italian bank would immediately be worth less than one in a German or Dutch bank, resulting in a run on the deficit countries’ banks.

Moreover, some banks in the defaulting countries would have to be kept functioning in order to prevent economic collapse. At the same time, the European banking system would have to be recapitalized and put under European, as distinct from national, supervision. Finally, government bonds issued by the eurozone’s other deficit countries would have to be protected from contagion. (The last two requirements would apply even if no country defaulted.)

All of this would cost money, but, under the existing arrangements agreed by the eurozone’s national leaders, no more money is to be found. So there is no alternative but to create the missing component: a European treasury with the power to tax and, therefore, to borrow. This would require a new treaty, transforming the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) into a full-fledged treasury.