How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The European Council summit, held in Brussels on March 24–25, presented an all-too-familiar tableau: European leaders in Brussels squabbling over questions of economic governance and how to stabilize the eurozone in the midst of roiling financial markets and mounting political crises. As investors questioned the European Union’s willingness to address ongoing financial turmoil in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, Portuguese bond spreads skyrocketed and Prime Minister José Sócrates’ minority government collapsed.
By the end of the summit, EU countries had agreed to build and fund the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a permanent bailout facility for the eurozone that extends the temporary European Financial Stability Facility enacted last year. They also agreed to strengthen macroeconomic policy rules to encourage good fiscal housekeeping. But these achievements seem tepid in the face of the European Union’s instability after the financial crisis and may prove to be too little, too late.
Observers could be forgiven for viewing the summit as the last chapter in the failed experiment of European governance. But in fact, if one looks beyond the son et lumière, the European Union remains a remarkably solid and vital political structure nowhere near the brink of collapse. The dramatic headlines mask the ongoing evolution of an extraordinary constitutional order that is more robust than any other interstate relationship. It has profoundly Europeanized national policies, laws, and practices, and its institutions touch almost everything, from citizens and politicians to private firms and government bureaucracies. Despite the operatic drama surrounding the Brussels summit, the real action of the European Union happens daily at a lower level, from the generation of trucking laws through the enforcement of gender equity. No longer rooted only in treaty law, the European Union is enmeshed in the domestic laws of each member state. As such, it would be extremely difficult to disentangle.
Of course, that does not mean that high-level political bargaining and institutional reform are not needed. At this point, the European Union can only move forward if European leaders, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, finally seize the ongoing financial crisis as an opportunity for deepening the European Union’s economic governance system. If they do not, harder economic times and increasing political tensions will be difficult to avoid.
The only long-term solution to the European Union’s currency problems is for eurozone states to commit to enhanced fiscal institutional capacity at the EU level. This way, the entire union’s economic health would not depend solely on a set of unrealistic macroeconomic rules based on the 1997 Growth and Stability Pact, which caps national deficits and debts, and on ad hoc bailouts whenever a country’s economy collapsed. Such a reform would require further political integration, which, in the long run, would calm national markets. Like all other currencies, the euro would finally become a part of a broader confederal government, rather than a political tool masquerading as a technocratic solution to a putative economic problem (the costs of transacting in different currencies across a single European market), as it was originally promoted by euro supporters.
The creation of the ESM at this year’s summit is a step in the right direction. If the eurozone is to hold together economically, it needs financing at the EU level to deal with the insolvency crises of member states. But the ESM is most certainly too little, too late, because the amount of money on the table -- 700 billion euros -- will most likely be inadequate to deal with another major financial crash. Moreover, amassing enough funding after a crisis has already begun is always a Sisyphean task.
A more effective way to ensure eurozone stability would be to create a new EU bond. At the moment, there is no EU-wide official debt-financing instrument. National bonds are denominated in euros but are backed solely by the issuing government. This means that eurozone bond markets are fragmented, with each pooling a relatively small amount of financing. Much as U.S. Treasury bonds are stable and attractive investments because of the broad strength of the U.S. economy, a Eurobond would overcome individual European countries’ economic weaknesses by reflecting the total economic heft of the European Union.
Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister and the chairman of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, recently endorsed a proposal to gradually create a Eurobond market equal to 40 percent of EU GDP. But Merkel quickly squashed the proposal, fearing that Germany’s less fiscally stringent neighbors would push up the interest rates on the bonds -- and make all of the European Union collectively responsible for maintaining the eurozone’s stability. It seems unlikely, however, that the small, troubled states (for example, Portugal, which accounts for about two percent of EU GDP) would have such a large impact on its worth, and the overall benefits of financial stability are greater than the potential risks. After all, the wealthier countries, such as Germany, have a huge stake in eurozone-wide financial stability. Their banks are heavily invested in the same countries that are facing crises. And although the German public may resent putting money into European financing schemes, Irish citizens are equally angry at the notion that they must pursue draconian austerity regimes to pay back private German banks as the European Union sits idly by. These types of disputes would likely be lessened with an EU-wide bond.
Nonetheless, the creation of the Eurobond would represent a politically difficult transformation: it would move the European Union ever closer toward a traditional nation-state model and require a clear-eyed assessment of the politics involved in creating a workable economic and monetary union -- something that, if the recent summit is any indication, EU leaders do not currently have the will to do.
The summit’s second key decision, now being called the “Euro Pact Plus,” builds on the eurozone’s old macroeconomic code of conduct, the Stability and Growth Pact. It extends the original pact’s rules into new areas, such as wage negotiation procedures, and gives the European Union a stronger legal framework to increase compliance. The new pact also tightens budget planning, reporting, and surveillance to prevent states from running excessive deficits. Finally, it coordinates EU macroeconomic policy to promote convergence and competitiveness.
Yet this initiative is more a dead end than a step forward. The Stability and Growth Pact has never worked, because it is too rigid and thus often ignored, a problem that the new compliance measures are insufficient to overcome. Even Germany, a major supporter of the goals of the Stability and Growth Pact, found itself in noncompliance when, earlier last decade, it ran higher budget deficits for several years. And instead of creating a set of EU-level institutions similar to a national treasury or department of finance, the Euro Pact Plus only reinforces the old nationally enforced Stability and Growth Pact rules. Moreover, its German supporters have suggested relying on the markets to act as a disciplining force. But the subprime crisis and global financial meltdown should have made politicians wary of relying on markets to assess government positions appropriately.
Of course, the creation of a Eurobond and a European federalist fiscal system are not small steps. They certainly would not be possible without a new political grand bargain, which can only happen with constructive and enthusiastic commitments from Germany and France. The single-market program of 1986, which dramatically deregulated product markets, and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which created the monetary union, were revolutionary, moving the European Union from national governance to a true supranational entity. But they came amid some degree of consensus among Europeans about how to best manage markets. Today, there is a palpable lack of convergence on policies for government spending, taxing, and borrowing.
The process of fiscal confederation is politically different than monetary union, too. The Single European Act’s changes and the Maastricht Treaty’s rules for monetary instruments were relatively opaque and sheltered from partisan politics. Fiscal policies’ winners and losers are clear, and the effects of fiscal choices can be socially wrenching -- yet so, too, are the consequences of the intensive budget cuts that the eurozone may have to implement to crawl out of the current financial pit. But it would be far better to make hard decisions and put the eurozone on a path to financial stability, growth, and employment by developing a eurozone debt and fiscal capacity now, rather than trying to avoid these wrenching decisions and wait until another financial meltdown raises the stakes even higher.
In the eyes of markets and skeptical observers, the European Union is more than an intergovernmental organization but not yet a state. When the European Union bickers and dithers, the markets have no idea what may happen. The euro is the only single currency in history that has not been tightly linked to broader state- and nation-building efforts (often following wars, during which military action required budgeting and taxation). Although the euro is an extraordinary peacetime achievement, it suffers from a lack of supporting political institutions that can make broader macroeconomic policy. The European Union needs to change that and move beyond the structure of its current economic and monetary union -- which were seemingly designed for a world in which private and public actors never over-borrow and financial markets never question their ability to repay -- to real political and economic cohesion, something international markets would recognize as parallel to a nation state.
Such a grand bargain would be incredibly difficult to achieve and would require a real change in the recent German intransigence over further integration. That, of course, is what makes the whole proposal so difficult to pursue, but it may be the only way to make Europe financially, and politically, viable in the long run.