της Robin Wells
Sometimes, just sometimes, economics and politics are like physics – one can recognize immutable forces. One of those times is now, as Greece is inexorably pushed out of the euro. It took no particular talent to have seen this coming, just the recognition that it has always been a fantasy to believe that the Greeks would democratically choose to destroy their economy for the better part of a decade in order to pay foreign creditors.
The fact is that Greece never was a suitable member of the eurozone. That the Greek economy was extremely inefficient, that corruption was rife, that the government budgets were perpetually out of control, and that the official statistics were not to be believed were widely known. But, as in many marriages, Greece's entry into the euro was a triumph of sentimentality and wilful blindness over realism.
The pity – in addition to the actual damage already inflicted on millions of Greeks – of this debacle is that it was never clear, and still isn't clear, that other countries, like Spain, will also be inexorably forced out. For the adjustment that Spain needs to make in order to stay in the euro was never as drastic as it was for Greece. While undoubtedly painful, it is probably still do-able.
But what has become unavoidably clear is that Germany, the linchpin of the eurozone, has been hopelessly stuck in an attitude that makes the break-up of the eurozone almost unavoidable. If Germany cannot pull itself together to keep Spain in the euro, then the markets can no longer ignore the fact that the lack of leadership and governance is a fatal flaw in the system.
What accounts for this? I would argue that the heart of the problem lies in the political culture of Germany and the mindset of its political and economic elites, which have never been willing to admit to their own voters the sacrifices that must be undertaken in order to be the leader of Europe. Instead, they have led Germans to believe that they can have it both ways: enjoying the fruits of the eurozone while times were good, and lobbing the burden of adjustment onto others when times got bad.
By doing this, the German elites set a trap for themselves with their own voters from which they cannot easily escape. Greece has been the perfect storm for the flaws of the eurozone and the vacuum of German leadership. Early in the crisis, the best course of action – the one I believe most likely to have preserved the core of the eurozone – would have been to admit the mistake of admitting Greece into the euro. From that recognition, Greece should have been eased out of the euro, while the German and French banks that were on the hook for losses could have been recapitalized. Finally, a massive firewall of monetary and fiscal support for Spain would have been announced.
But to achieve all this would have required a huge loss of face to the German voters – and a willingness to assume the burdens of leadership.
Instead, in the German mindset, Greece became a convenient but bogus template for assigning blame to other periphery countries – particularly, Ireland and Spain. Rather than acknowledging that these countries suffered from the bursting of a property bubble, greatly inflated by German and French lending, German elites pilloried them alike for having out-of-control budgets and inefficient workers. In the end, it was easier to blame and to moralize than to admit the truth.
Now that the elections in Greece, France and the Netherlands have smashed any illusion that all of the adjustment necessary to make the eurozone work can be foisted on other countries, will Germany step up to the plate? Will it advocate for a higher inflation rate, for a common fund for bank recapitalization, and a policy of direct government bond-purchases by the ECB? In other words, will it finally be truthful with its voters about what must be done in order to save the euro?
Sunday's regional German elections offer a small ray of hope. Merkel's party received a thrashing in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to nearly one in five Germans. Rejecting the conservatives' hard-line platform of more austerity and finger-pointing, German voters instead voted for the Social Democrats, for a platform of more spending and, shockingly, for more debt. This caps a series of defeats in state elections for Merkel and makes it increasingly clear that her government is in serious jeopardy.
Perhaps, just perhaps, German voters are waking up. And therein lies the possibility that the euro can be saved.
But it's a race against time at this point. Precious time, credibility and resources have been lost. Lives have been up-ended and shattered, voters are angry and restive, markets are in a hostile and unforgiving mood. It is said that leaders are born of great crises. It is now or never for Germany.