For the first time ever, a clear majority (60%) of Germans no longer sees any benefits to being part of the Eurozone, given all the risks, according to a poll published September 16 (FAZ, article in German). In the age group 45 to 54, it jumps to 67%. And 66% reject aiding Greece and other heavily indebted countries. Ominously for Chancellor Angela Merkel, 82% believe that her government’s crisis management is bad, and 83% complain that they’re kept in the dark about the politics of the euro crisis.
“There cannot be any prohibition to think” just so that the euro can be stabilized, wrote Philipp Rösler, Minister of Economics and Technology, in a commentary published on September 9 (Welt, article in German). “And the orderly default of Greece is part of that,” he added. Instantly, all hell broke loose, and Denkverbot (prohibition to think) became a rallying cry against the onslaught of criticism that his remarks engendered.
Even Timothy Geithner, who attended the meeting of European finance ministers in Poland, fired off a broadside in Rösler’s direction. In the same breath, he proposed the expansion—through leverage, of all things—of the European bailout mechanism, the EFSF. According to Austrian Finance Minister, Maria Fekter, who witnessed the scene, he warned of “catastrophic” economic risks due to the disputes among the countries of the Eurozone and due to the conflicts between these countries and the ECB. Then he demanded in dramatic terms, she said, that “we grab money with our hands to stabilize the banks and expand the EFSF unconditionally.”
The smack-down was immediate. German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, took Geithner to task and explained to him in no uncertain terms, according to Fekter, that it was not possible to burden the taxpayers to that extent, particularly not if only the taxpayers of Triple-A countries were to be burdened. A bailout “with tax money alone in the quantity that the USA imagines will not be feasible,” Schäuble said. (Wiener Zeitung, article in German).
Vocal support for Rösler came today from a group of 16 prominent German economists. If the government in its efforts to stabilize the euro didn’t consider the insolvency of a member country, they warned, Germany would become subject to endless extortion (FAZ, article in German). And to impose a Denkverbot concerning it would be a step back into “top-down state thinking.” They further lamented that these policies would turn the Eurozone into a transfer union. If the government wanted to establish a transfer union, it should discuss that with the German voters, they demanded, because it would be a fundamental change in the E.U. constitution and should be legitimized by vote. Otherwise, Germany would be “threatened by a populist movement to exit the E.U.”
Meanwhile, on his visit to Rome, Rösler had to face down Italian Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti, who’d “vehemently” demanded the creation of Eurobonds, sources of the German delegation said (Zeit, article in German). President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, supported Tremonti’s demands. But Rösler, like Merkel and others, rejected the idea. Transferring liabilities to other countries would remove pressure from debtor nations to reform, he said, differences in yields being a market-driven incentive to get the budget in order. Eurobonds are also legally impossible, he added, based on a recent decision by the German Federal Constitutional Court.
Eurozone must be honest: Big haircuts for bond holders, debt limits for all, says Die Zeit (article in German). The drama of saving European banks that hold Greek debt, and the debt of other tottering Eurozone nations, has been going on for a year and a half. Each effort to keep Greece on track follows the familiar script. Politicians promise spending cuts. Greeks demonstrate. E.U. inspectors check things out and leave angry. Germans declare that Greece will not get any relief until it fixes its problems. Then Greece notices that it needs yet more money and threatens to default. Germany nods. And the next installment gets paid.
By now, all hope for a happy ending has dissipated. Greece is suffering from a multitude of problems that defy quick fixes, among them a huge pile of debt, an inept and corrupt fiscal system where taxes are simply not collected, dysfunctional institutions, and a government-dominated economy. Even unlimited amounts of money can only defer the end game.