The Re-Division of Europe

ATHENS – As the eurozone debt crisis has steadily widened the divide between Europe’s stronger northern economies and the weaker, more debt-laden economies in the south (with France a kind of no man’s land economy in between), one question is on everyone’s mind: Can Europe’s monetary union – indeed, the European Union itself – survive?

While the eurozone’s northern members enjoy low borrowing costs and stable growth, its southern members face high borrowing costs, recession, and deep cuts in incomes and social spending. They have also suffered substantial output losses, and have far higher unemployment rates than their northern counterparts. Unemployment in the eurozone as a whole averages about 12%, compared to more than 25% in Spain and Greece (where youth unemployment now stands at 60%). Indeed, while aggregate per capita income in the eurozone remains at 2007 levels, Greece has been pushed back to 2000 levels, and Italy today finds itself somewhere in 1997.

Europe’s southern economies owe their deteriorating circumstances largely to excessive austerity and the absence of measures to compensate for demand losses. Currency devaluation – which would boost the competitiveness of domestic industry by lowering export prices – obviously is not an option in a monetary union.

But Europe’s stronger economies have resisted pressure to undertake more expansionary fiscal policies, which would lift demand for its weaker economies’ exports. The European Central Bank did not follow the lead of other advanced-country central banks, such as the US Federal Reserve, in pursuing a more aggressive monetary policy to cut borrowing costs. And no financing has been offered for public-investment projects in the southern countries.