The Eurozone wasn’t supposed to be a house of cards. And as long as there was “confidence” that it would work, it worked: the financial markets offered cheap no-questions-asked loans to the most profligate governments, and even tiny countries like Cyprus were able to suck up and disperse in record time phenomenal amounts of money. The elites got immensely rich, and even other members of society were able to pick up some crumbs. But all that remains from this drunken frenzy are mountains of decomposing debt—and a cacophony of discord, shouting matches about defaults, and visions of impossibility. Former taboos are violated, sacred cows are slaughtered, and the euro has been tossed on the chopping block.
There was billionaire Frank Stronach who’d announced he’d start an anti-euro political party in Austria. While the European Union should guarantee peace and the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital, he said, it could only function “if every country has its own currency.” He called the ESM, the not yet existing bailout fund that is supposed to save the Eurozone but is still hung up in the German Constitutional Court, “insolvency procrastination.” And he exhorted Austrians to ditch the euro.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger (ÖVP) would take the opposite tack. Worried about exports—half the jobs in Austria depended on them—he’d rather not get rid of the euro. Instead, “We need possibilities to kick someone out of the monetary union,” he said, particularly “countries that don’t stick to their commitments.” And he jabbed at Greece because it had lied about its numbers in order to be allowed into the Eurozone.
Alas, being able to kick a country out would require treaty changes, which would take five years, Spindelegger said. But he’d already started discussions with other foreign ministers. While many of them supported treaty changes, unanimity of all 27 EU countries would be required, he said, possibly aware of his illusions.
He immediately caught heat from stalwarts in the coalition government. Some called it “populist”—as opposed to elitist, perhaps. Chancellor Werner Faymann was worried about “the negative consequences of a breakup of the Eurozone”—even he used breakup of the Eurozone, a concept now as common as the currency itself, though for top politicians, it had been an unmentionable not long ago. And in Germany, the discussion had already come to a boil.
In Finland, Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja poured gasoline on the fire: “We have to face openly the possibility of a euro-break up,” he said. “Our officials, like everybody else, and like every general staff, have some sort of operational plan for any eventuality.” The only handicap? “A Eurozone break-up would cost more in the short-run or medium-run than managing the crisis.” So it was just a matter of when to recognize the costs incurred in prior years: publicizing them now or sweeping them under the rug via the bailout funds that Stronach had correctly called “insolvency procrastination.”
Like Stronach, Tuomioja wanted to preserve the EU, and dumping the euro would make it “function better,” he said. He confirmed the scenario that either the south or the north would escape “because this currency straitjacket is causing misery for millions and destroying Europe’s future.” It didn’t help that he called the euro “a total catastrophe.”
Not a day passes by when the concept of a Eurozone breakup doesn’t flare up in public. Each time, it saps confidence in the euro even more, though “confidence” is the only thing that separates that house of cards from collapse. The 21 EU summits to save the Eurozone, the waves of half-hearted dog-and-pony shows, and the alphabet soup of tangled-up and ineffectual bailout measures have all failed to stem the slide. There is nothing to indicate that a magic potion could eventually be found. And the fact that “breakup of the Eurozone” is such a common topic at the top of the political power structure has infused it with a life of its own.
“Default is not necessarily destructive,” said Panayiotis Lafazanis, a Greek politician. For the Greeks. But highly destructive for the European Central Bank that ended up with the Greek bonds, and for banks with derivative exposure to them. Hence the bailouts. To keep them afloat, not the Greeks.
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