The Tragedy of the European Union and How to Resolve It

In a fast-moving situation, significant changes have occurred since this article went to press. On August 1, as I write below, Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann objected to the assertion by Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, that the ECB will “do whatever it takes to preserve the euro as a stable currency.” Weidmann emphasized the statutory limitation on the powers of the ECB. Since this article was published, however, it has become clear that Chancellor Merkel has sided with Draghi, leaving Weidmann isolated on the board of the ECB.

This was a game-changing event. It committed Germany to the preservation of the euro. President Draghi has taken full advantage of this opportunity. He promised unlimited purchases of the government bonds of debtor countries up to three years in maturity provided they reached an agreement with the European Financial Stability Facility and put themselves under the supervision of the Troika—the executive committee of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

The euro crisis has entered a new phase. The continued survival of the euro is assured but the future shape of the European Union will be determined by the political decisions the member states will have to take during the next year or so. The alternatives are extensively analyzed in the article that follows.

—September 7, 2012

Markus Schreiber/AP Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande during their first meeting after his election, Berlin, May 15, 2012

I have been a fervent supporter of the European Union as the embodiment of an open society—a voluntary association of equal states that surrendered part of their sovereignty for the common good. The euro crisis is now turning the European Union into something fundamentally different. The member countries are divided into two classes—creditors and debtors—with the creditors in charge, Germany foremost among them. Under current policies debtor countries pay substantial risk premiums for financing their government debt, and this is reflected in the cost of financing in general. This has pushed the debtor countries into depression and put them at a substantial competitive disadvantage that threatens to become permanent.

This is the result not of a deliberate plan but of a series of policy mistakes that started when the euro was introduced. It was general knowledge that the euro was an incomplete currency—it had a central bank but did not have a treasury. But member countries did not realize that by giving up the right to print their own money they exposed themselves to the risk of default. Financial markets realized it only at the onset of the Greek crisis. The financial authorities did not understand the problem, let alone see a solution. So they tried to buy time. But instead of improving, the situation deteriorated. This was entirely due to the lack of understanding and the lack of…

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