May 14, 2010 | 21:39 GMT

13 mins read

Germany: Creating Economic Governance

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said May 13 that if the euro collapses, European unity would fray. She also characterized the current economic crisis, precipitated by excessive Greek debt, as an opportunity to enact economic reforms to prevent such a crisis from happening again. Germany is at the forefront of calls for economic reform, and other eurozone member states are lending support out of their own interests, but once the sense of urgency passes the ardor for reform is likely to decline.
The European Commission's Recommendations for Reinforced Economic Governance(STRATFOR is not responsible for the content of other websites.) German Chancellor Angela Merkel said May 13 that if the euro collapses, European unity would follow. She called the current economic crisis "the greatest test Europe has faced since 1990, if not in the 53 years since the passage of the Treaties of Rome," referring to the original pact that formed the early iteration of the EU. Most importantly, Merkel posited that the ongoing economic crisis is an opportunity "to make up for the failures that were also not corrected by the Lisbon Treaty." Merkel's speech comes a day after the European Commission proposed a set of reforms for the bloc intended to prevent another economic crisis like the current one from happening again by reinforcing "economic governance." It is not a coincidence that Merkel reaffirmed her desire to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to enact such reforms. (click here to enlarge image) Berlin has written some very large checks to ameliorate the economic crisis — Germany's combined contributions to the Greek bailout and the eurozone rescue fund are about 151 billion euros ($192 billion), not counting the German portions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) contributions — but in return, Germany wants to redefine how the eurozone is run. In the short term — and likely with record speed — this will prompt potentially momentous institutional changes in Europe. In the long term, however, it could lead to more problems within the EU as member states deal with the idea of a clearly German-led bloc.

The Eurozone's Geopolitical Grounding

The EU project has its roots in the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. As originally conceived it had two purposes. The first was to lock Germany into an economic alliance with its neighbors that would make future wars between Western Europeans not only politically unpalatable but also economically disastrous. The second was to provide a politico-economic foundation for a Western Europe already unified under NATO in a military/security alliance led by the United States against the Soviet Union. The memory of World War II provided the moral impetus for European integration, while the Cold War largely provided the geopolitical context. At the end of the Cold War — and as memories of World War II began fading — the EU needed new incentives to continue to exist. It found them in the reunification of Germany and the opening of former Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe to Western influence. Despite public rhetoric, Germany's reunification was not a welcome event and Berlin's Western European neighbors, particularly France, sought to keep Germany focused on the EU project. The way to maintain Berlin's interest was the euro, a currency styled on the German deutschemark, with a central bank modeled after the inflation-fighting Bundesbank. Central and Eastern European countries were approved for EU membership in return for opening their capital and export markets to the eurozone. Germany essentially was given a currency it wanted and an economic sphere of influence it had longed for since 1871. (click image to enlarge) As STRATFOR has said, the eurozone had a political logic but was economically flawed from the start. It attempted to wed 16 fiscal policies with one monetary policy and further tried to combine Europe's northern and southern regions into a single currency union despite their geographic, social, cultural and economic incongruence. The capital-poor and inefficient south was not as competitive as the efficient and capital-rich north and ended up importing capital to make up the difference. The end result was profligate spending among the Club Med countries (Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy) that now has all of Europe — and the world — staring at an economic precipice.

Germany's 'Choice' Revisited

As the economic crisis spurred by the Greek sovereign debt crisis unfolded, Germany faced what seemed like a choice. On one hand was the fiscally prudent, domestically popular (in the short term) and emotionally satisfying option of letting Greece (and probably Spain and Portugal) fall by the wayside and reconstituting the eurozone on a smaller scale based on the countries of the North European Plain with economies similar to Germany's. However, the eurozone has thus far been exceedingly economically beneficial to Germany. Berlin's 151 billion euro contribution to the two bailout funds pales in comparison to the overall boost in exports that Berlin has received since forging the eurozone. Furthermore, Germany's banks are looking at approximately 520 billion euros worth of direct exposure to various forms of debt in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. In other words, Berlin has gained much from the eurozone and stands to lose even more from seeing it collapse. And this is not taking into account the possibility that a Greek economic collapse could precipitate another global economic crisis akin to the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. That would hurt Germany's troubled banking sector beyond its direct exposure to Club Med countries and could derail the nascent global economic recovery. Furthermore, if the euro were to fragment or disintegrate, the EU would essentially end as a serious political force. Currencies are only as stable as the political systems that underpin them. A collapse of a currency — such as those in Germany in 1923, Yugoslavia in 1994, and Zimbabwe in 2008 — is really just a symptom of the underlying deterioration of the political system and is usually followed closely by exactly such a political crisis. For Germany, the EU and the eurozone are essential if it wants to project power globally. Germany depends on the EU and the eurozone to purchase the majority of its exports, which account for nearly 50 percent of its gross domestic product. The EU allows Berlin to harness Europe's resources and 500 million-strong market in order to remain on comparable footing with other "continental powers' like India, Brazil, China and Russia. Without the economic and political union of the EU, Germany has a population the size of Vietnam and faces the very likely prospect of rising tariffs and competitive devaluations among its European neighbors looking to compete against its economy. The choice was therefore a false one from the start. Germany benefits from the eurozone too much to let it collapse. Berlin did try to "rescue" Greece by offering informal guarantees throughout the early days of the crisis hoping that it would calm the markets with vague reassurances. But the problem was that while German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was trying to reassure the markets, Merkel was trying to reassure the German public that she was not being "soft" on the Greeks. The tough talk for the domestic audience undermined the guarantees. This made the second option — rescuing Greece with actual cash — the preferred solution. However, the initial stalling on the Greek bailout led to market uncertainty that spread to the rest of the eurozone, forcing Germany to eventually underwrite the 750 billion euro bailout for the eurozone as a whole. The latter bailout may never be called upon, however, because Berlin and the rest of the eurozone also managed to get the European Central Bank (ECB) to intervene directly to support the sovereign debt markets through a number of mechanisms including buying government debt directly. Implementing this eurozone-wide bailout and getting the ECB to intervene has necessitated breaking essentially every rule in the EU book to buy the time required to make the necessary adjustments. But in exchange, Germany is demanding that the eurozone adopt much clearer rules on economic monitoring and punishment for violating eurozone regulations. The immediacy of the crisis is the impetus for such radical changes to Europe's "economic governance." French President Nicolas Sarkozy actually proposed something similar in the wake of the September 2008 crisis, but Berlin sternly rejected him at the time. The crisis that has followed, however, has changed Germany's mind.

The Consequences of 'Economic Governance'

As the first salvo of changes in the eurozone, the European Commission proposed on May 12 a set of reforms that have three main points: Non-compliance with EU rules on budget deficits and government debt would be more consistently punished, the surveillance of member states' economic imbalances would be improved, and member states would subject their national budgets to European Commission and peer review before implementing them. The first proposal — on punishing fiscal irresponsibility — tracks with earlier statements, including Merkel's, that countries that consistently skirt EU fiscal rules should have their EU voting rights temporarily suspended. Normally, a slew of EU member states would have serious problems with these measures. Europe's profligate spenders in Club Med countries do not want their public finances scrutinized. Traditional euro skeptics — such as Denmark, the United Kingdom and Ireland — undoubtedly would view such an intrusion as a breach of their national sovereignty. Germany itself scrapped a proposal for enhanced monitoring in 2005 precisely because of sovereignty issues. However, since the economic crisis in Greece, Berlin has championed the idea that Eurostat — Europe's supranational statistical agency — receive auditing powers over member state budgets, which would go a long way toward enhancing oversight. The crisis has spurred member states toward economic reform for different reasons. The Club Med countries will do anything to get financial support, while Germany and its fellow thrifty Northern European economies will put sovereignty issues on the back burner because of legitimate concerns that a Greek collapse will harm their own economies. The responses betray an underlying nationalist calculus, not an integrationist "European" one. The Greek crisis prompted the EU to trump a number of ostensibly sacrosanct laws. First, a member state was bailed out; second, the ECB intervened directly to buy government debt. Furthermore the decisions on both measures were made in a largely ad hoc manner and with unprecedented alacrity (most EU decisions of such magnitude take years). If Germany intends to push for an overhaul of the union's institutions, it must move quickly. This means Berlin is likely to pressure individual EU member states behind the scenes to keep reform processes out of the spotlight. This is similar to how the 750 billion euro bailout was agreed upon in a late-night, marathon session May 10. Spain and Portugal came out immediately after the meeting and agreed to "voluntary" austerity measures, but it is obvious that greater austerity was part of the overall bailout agreement. The idea with reforms will likely be the same: rush the decision at the EU level and then speed it through the various national parliaments while the fear of financial Armageddon still exists.

Obstacles Ahead

However, dissent is already appearing. For example, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt immediately voiced his opposition to budgetary monitoring for all EU member states, especially for states like Sweden, "a shining exception with good public finances." Sweden's response indicates the response that many EU member states may revert to once the immediacy of the crisis passes. The bottom line is that Germany and other member states are shelling out cash and breaking EU treaties because it is in their national interests to do so at this particular moment. If they are to institutionalize such rules for the long term, it is inevitable that they will be broken once national interests revert back to the standard concerns of sovereignty over fiscal policy. This was, in the end, the reason the EU rules on budget deficits and government debt were ignored to begin with: Enforcement was supposed to come from the European Commission, the EU's technocratic arm headquartered in Brussels. But the only way for the rules to work is if they have actual enforcement mechanisms that sting — ones that only Germany can support by showing that it is serious the first time a member state skirts the rules (it would also help if Berlin is not one of the first to break the rules, as it was with the original budget deficit and government debt rules). The EU member states are notorious for ignoring the commission's attempts to reprimand them, and they tend to band together against the commission, which has no public to answer to and no real enforcement powers against a sovereign nation. It is also very rare that one member state will vote to sanction another for fear that it will have to deal with repercussions when it is in the hot seat itself. Any new rules will have to take these dynamics and traditions into account to be effective. This therefore poses a serious problem for Germany's efforts to reform the eurozone. Berlin will emerge from this crisis with a 150 billion euro bill and clear intentions to see new rules on monitoring and enforcement followed. Once the immediacy of the crisis is (most likely falsely) perceived to have passed, however, the EU member states will feel less threatened by the economic crisis. But Germany will not want to see the rules ignored again and will likely have no compunction about punishing economic scofflaws — and that is where the true test will begin. Once Germany has paid for its leadership of Europe, will it also be willing to enforce its leadership with direct punitive actions? And if it does, how will its neighbors react?

Key Upcoming Dates in the European Economic Crisis

  • May 19: Athens must have at least 8.5 billion euros to service a maturing bond, which means IMF or eurozone bailout funds must reach Greece by then.
  • May 20: Greek public and private unions will hold a general strike.
  • May 26: The ECB will tender unlimited three-month funds for eligible collateral.
  • June 2: There will be a public-sector strike in Spain to protest new austerity measures.
  • June 9: The Netherlands will hold general elections. All the major parties have grudgingly decided to accept the need for bailouts, but the right-wing Party of Freedom is against it and could stand to gain seats because of its opposition to bailouts.
  • June 12: Slovakia will hold general elections. Prime Minister Robert Fico has indicated that no bailout money will be forwarded to Greece before this date.
  • June 13: Belgium will hold general elections.
  • June 30: The ECB will tender unlimited 3-month funds for eligible collateral.

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