18
May

It’s Here, It’s Unclear, Get Used to It

By R. Daniel Kelemen

The eurozone’s troubles no longer qualify as a crisis, an unstable situation that could either quickly improve or take a dramatic turn for the worse. They are, instead, a new normal — a painful situation, to be sure, but one that will last for years to come. Citizens, investors, and policymakers should let go of the idea that there is some magic bullet that could quickly kill off Europe’s ailments. By the same token, despite the real possibility of Greek exit, the eurozone is not on the brink of collapse. The European Union and its common currency will hold together, but the road to recovery will be long.

It has been nearly two and a half years since the incoming socialist government in Greece revealed the extent to which its predecessor had accumulated debt, precipitating an economic storm that has left slashed budgets, collapsed governments, and record unemployment in its wake. With each dramatic turn, observers have anticipated the story’s denouement. But again and again, a definitive resolution — either a policy fix or a total collapse — has failed to emerge.

The truth is that there are no quick escapes from the eurozone’s predicament. Divorce is no solution. Although some economists suggest that struggling countries on the periphery could leave the euro and return to a national currency in order to regain competitiveness and restore growth, no country would willingly leave the eurozone; doing so would amount to economic suicide. Its financial system would collapse, and ensuing bank runs and riots would make today’s social unrest seem quaint by comparison. What is more, even after a partial default, the country’s government and financial firms would still be burdened by debt denominated largely in euros. As the value of the new national currency plummeted, the debt would become unbearable, and the government, now outside the club, would not be able to turn to the eurozone for help.

Some economists go further and argue that countries on Europe’s periphery could thrive outside the euro straitjacket. This is equally unconvincing. Southern European countries’ economies suffer from deep structural problems that predate the euro.  Spanish unemployment rates fluctuated between 15 and 22 percent throughout most of the 1990s; Greece has been in default for nearly half of its history as an independent state. These countries are far more likely to tackle their underlying problems and thrive inside the eurozone than outside it. Read more…

As published in www.foreignaffairs.com on May 17, 2012.

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