The EU as Last-Ditch Escape Artist

April 9, 2013 1:16 am Last Updated: April 9, 2013 1:16 am

Europe’s progress toward greater unity over the past half century has always been a messy business, marked by recurrent warnings of collapse followed by compromises that fully satisfy nobody but keep the show on the road. So why is the 40-month old eurozone crisis any different? With the embarrassing case of Cyprus handled, won’t this all end with yet another patched-together solution?

The answer is probably, no, and the ramifications of what is happening reach far beyond the kind of late-night settlements, which European leaders have been so adept at cobbling together in the past. The crisis that started with Greece’s 2009 disclosure of a black hole in its budget is broader in scope and more interconnected from what went on before.

The eurocrisis involves fundamental issues, which European leaders skirted as the Common Market trading block of the 1950s evolved into today’s highly complex machine based on Brussels with a common currency that remains a work in progress.

Cyprus was dealt with, for the moment at least, by the kind of draconian measures, which powerful members can impose on a small, weak member of their club. Without the last-minute settlement reached in the early hours of March 25, the island would have been bust, abandoned not only by its European partners but also by the Russians who had taken advantage of the lax banking regulations to put their money in its banks.

So the country must now pay the price with austerity, the closing of one big bank and the restructuring of another plus levies on bank savings that will destroy dreams of a would-be thriving offshore financial center and leave those with the largest deposits much worse off.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch head of Eurogroup, a formal intergovernmental organization of the zone’s finance ministers, then upped the stakes by saying that this would set a model for the future. Shareholders in insolvent banks in countries needing rescue would be hit first followed by bondholders and uninsured depositors. Though Dijsselbloem swiftly withdrew that statement, the future seems plain as other smaller eurozone members come under scrutiny and investors face the prospect of finding their capital expropriated as the result of decisions by politicians desperate to prevent the common currency from unraveling.

Riding the tide of cheap money flowing from quantitative easing, markets have taken this calmly, but, if similar medicine was applied to a bigger country, the rush for the door could turn into a stampede.

The make-it-up-as-you-go-along style applied through the crisis, and most evident in the shambolic handling of Cyprus, is all the more dangerous because of the context surrounding the common currency.

Given the commitment to austerity to get the continent out of its troubles, as adopted by its leaders, it’s hard to see a significant overall pickup in economic expansion; even President Hollande, the great growth advocate, is promising spending cuts. That will increase the already high level of unemployment in many of the zone’s larger members as the public sector is slimmed down and companies hold back from investment or remodel their businesses to become more competitive with fewer staff.

The need for structural reform, including labor markets, has been evident for decades, but the easy early years of the eurozone lulled governments and citizens into complacency.

Now the price is being paid and the battle lines are drawn between the austerity-minded north European states, generally in good shape, and their southern partners, which are not. Political factors now come into play in some of the continent’s biggest nations. Italy is in the grips of a governmental crisis after inconclusive elections. Hollande is at a record low in the polls and failed to deliver a convincing message in a major television interview last week. Spain’s ruling party is accused of involvement in a funding scandal.

With federal elections later this year, the continent’s strong woman, Angela Merkel, cannot afford to offer concessions that German voters would see as pandering to countries which, in their view, have already been allowed to get away with fecklessness for far too long. Extremist parties and movements that denounce the political establishment have made ground in Italy and Greece while a quarter of the electorate opted for anti-European candidates in the first round of last year’s French presidential election.

Behind such immediate problems lurks the fundamental question of whether the construction of the eurozone can be completed by the fiscal union it requires to operate as a true common currency. That would involve a surrender of sovereignty, which would stick in the throat of some states, starting with France.

The balance of power means that advancing the process that began with the Treaty of Rome in 1957 would inevitably be done on terms set by Germany and its economically strong allies in northern Europe. That would be difficult to resolve by the kind of muddling through we have seen in the current crisis. So far, politicians may congratulate themselves on having engineered a series of last-ditch escapes, but the longer this goes on, the more difficult it will be to keep up the act.

Jonathan Fenby, a London-based commentator, is author of “The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved” and is currently working on a history of modern France. With permission from YaleGlobal Online. Copyright © 2013, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.