Everyone learned a lesson from the “bail-in” of the Cypriot banks: Russian account holders who’d laundered and stored their money on the sunny island; bank bondholders who’d thought they’d always get bailed out; Cypriot politicians whose names showed up on lists of loans that had been extended by the Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Bank but were then forgiven and written off. Even brand-new Finance Minister Michael Sarris who got axed because he’d been chairman of Laiki when this was going on. His lesson: when a cesspool of corruption blows up, no one is safe. And German politicians learned a lesson too: that it worked!
“With the Cyprus aid package, it was proven that countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland, if they stick together, are able to push for a strict stability course,” Hans Michelbach told the Handelsblatt. The chairman of the finance committee in the German Parliament and member of the CSU, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, called for deeper collaboration of the triple-A countries in the Eurozone “to strengthen the confidence of citizens and investors in the common currency.”
There are still five in that euro triple-A club: Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, and Luxembourg. “It would be good if we could also convince Luxembourg to participate more strongly in this stability collaboration,” he said. It would be in the best interest of Luxembourg as major financial center, he added. A reference to Luxembourg’s precarious status, as Cyprus had learned, of being a tiny country with outsized banks that it could not bail out by itself.
To protect the euro, the alliance of the triple-A countries must be united firmly against large euro countries like Italy and France, he said. “Strong signals of stability would be of great importance for the Eurozone,” particularly now, given the “unclear situation” in Italy, renewed doubts about Greece, and the failure of the French government in its stability policies.
Exactly what French President François Hollande needs: the euro triple-A club breathing down his neck. He’s already in trouble at home. To reverse the slide, he got on state-owned France 2 TV last Thursday to speak to the French people so that they could see how his sincerity, wisdom, and economic policies would stop the country from sinking ever deeper into a quagmire.
And a quagmire it is: double-digit unemployment, a Purchasing Managers Index just above Greece’s, new vehicle sales that plunged almost 15% so far this year, a budget deficit that refuses to be brought under control…. He has tweaked some policy measures here and there. And he dug up a new version of the 75% income-tax bracket that had been squashed by the Constitutional Court. But Jérôme Cahuzac, the Budget Minister who’d tried to get the first version through the system, went up in flames over allegations of tax fraud and “tax fraud laundering.”
Now the people have had it. After the TV appearance, his approval rating, ten months into his term, plummeted another 6 points to 31%, a low that scandal-plagued Nicolas Sarkozy took four years to reach. And only 27% approved of his economic policies. “The French simply don’t want austerity,” lamented an unnamed government insider.
France was suffering the consequences of the “socialist experiments” of its government and was becoming less and less competitive, explained Michelbach. He emphasized that France would remain an important partner of Germany. He wasn’t kidding: France buys 10% of Germany’s exports and is crucial to the German economy. But if France didn’t change course, he said, that could become a “serious problem” for the Eurozone.
As opposed to the mere hiccups of Cyprus or Greece. More banks and more countries will require bailouts—Slovenia, Spain, Italy, and Malta are on the list. And no one wants to see France on that list. Even Italy is too large to get bailed out by other countries.
But in Germany, a revolt against these save-the-euro bailouts has been brewing for a while. With elections in September, it’s taking on volume and voices, and the structure of a political party, the Alternative for Germany, not unpalatable radicals but the educated bourgeoisie, and they want to stop the bailouts and dump the euro.
The government is feeling the heat. No one can afford to lose votes. Michelbach’s triple-A club, a line of demarcation in the Eurozone, is one of the reactions. Merkel might benefit from it in the elections. The other four countries might find if appealing, though it will be of dubious appeal in the rest of the Eurozone. But if efforts fail to fix the Eurozone’s problems—and the Eurozone lumbering that way—a tightly knit triple-A club could weather the storm together, more stable and more unified than the Eurozone ever was. And Michelbach had just floated a version of that idea.