Given the barrage of economic volatility and challenges the eurozone has confronted in recent quarters and the challenges presented by housing such divergent geography and history under one monetary roof, it is easy to forget why the eurozone was originally formed.
The Cold War made the European Union possible. For centuries, Europe was home to feuding empires and states. After World War II, it became the home of devastated peoples whose security was the responsibility of the United States. Through the Bretton Woods agreement, the United States crafted an economic grouping that regenerated Western Europe’s economic fortunes under a security rubric that Washington firmly controlled. Freed of security competition, the Europeans not only were free to pursue economic growth, they also enjoyed nearly unlimited access to the American market to fuel that growth. Economic integration within Europe to maximize these opportunities made perfect sense. The United States encouraged the economic and political integration because it gave a political underpinning to a security alliance it imposed on Europe, i.e., NATO. Thus, the European Economic Community – the predecessor to today’s European Union – was born.
When the United States abandoned the gold standard in 1971 (for reasons largely unconnected to things European), Washington essentially abrogated the Bretton Woods currency pegs that went with it. One result was a European panic. Floating currencies raised the inevitability of currency competition among the European states, the exact sort of competition that contributed to the Great Depression 40 years earlier. Almost immediately, the need to limit that competition sharpened, first with currency coordination efforts still concentrating on the U.S. dollar and then from 1979 on with efforts focused on the deutschmark. The specter of a unified Germany in 1989 further invigorated economic integration. The euro was in large part an attempt to give Berlin the necessary incentives so that it would not depart the EU project.
But to get Berlin on board with the idea of sharing its currency with the rest of Europe, the eurozone was modeled after the Bundesbank and its deutschmark. To join the eurozone, a country must abide by rigorous “convergence criteria” designed to synchronize the economy of the acceding country with Germany’s economy. The criteria include a budget deficit of less than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); government debt levels of less than 60 percent of GDP; annual inflation no higher than 1.5 percentage points above the average of the lowest three members’ annual inflation; and a two-year trial period during which the acceding country’s national currency must float within a plus-or-minus 15 percent currency band against the euro.
As cracks have begun to show in both the political and economic support for the eurozone, however, it is clear that the convergence criteria failed to overcome divergent geography and history. Greece’s violations of the Growth and Stability Pact are clearly the most egregious, but essentially all eurozone members – including France and Germany, which helped draft the rules – have contravened the rules from the very beginning.
Europe therefore finds itself being tied in a Gordian knot. On one hand, the Continent’s geography presents a number of incongruities that cannot be overcome without a Herculean (and politically unpalatable) effort on the part of Southern Europe and (equally unpopular) accommodation on the part of Northern Europe. On the other hand, the cost of exit from the eurozone – particularly at a time of global financial calamity, when the move would be in danger of precipitating an even greater crisis – is daunting to say the least.
The resulting conundrum is one in which reconstitution of the eurozone may make sense at some point down the line. But the interlinked web of economic, political, legal and institutional relationships makes this nearly impossible. The cost of exit is prohibitively high, regardless of whether it makes sense.
Source: John Mauldin’s Outside The Box