You are here: Home
5. Trichet’s test
OF THE SENIOR FIGURES IN THE EURO ZONE, it was Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, who gave the clearest warnings of the danger of growing deficits. He was a hawk about respecting the stability and growth pact. Moreover, from 2005, he would turn up every month at ministerial meetings with charts setting out his concerns about economic imbalances. A favourite one showed the divergence in unit labour costs across the euro zone. Another tracked the giddy rise of public-sector wages. His main concern was that the loss of competitiveness would harm growth. But he also knew the euro zone was not a federal country; there was no central budget to help countries that got into trouble. The countries of the euro zone, he would say, were like La Cigale et la Fourmi, Jean de la Fontaine’s fable about the improvident cicada and the hard-working ant. Those in the periphery sang in the warm sunshine, while the industrious Germans held down their wages and put money aside for a rainy day. But when winter came, Trichet could scarcely stand aside. Central banks wield the power of financial alchemy, able to produce an endless quantity of money out of thin air.
Often only the ECB had the means to provide the vast amounts of liquidity needed to stop a run on sound banks, or on solvent sovereigns.
The ECB’s treaty-prescribed independence gives it a peculiarly remote, Olympian status. In public, the dialogue between governments and the central bank is detached and reverential.
Governments are frowned upon if they demand action from the ECB too vehemently in public. Behind the scenes, the ECB has been an intensely political actor, from designing and monitoring bail-out programmes to engaging in hand-to-hand combat with leaders over reforms. The Gallic rows between Trichet and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, became legendary. Of the ECB’s component banks, Germany’s Bundesbank is the most important and pure in its conviction that it is not the job of central bankers to get politicians out of fiscal trouble. Its president, Jens Weidmann, believes the ECB should act like Odysseus before the sirens: lash itself to the mast with strict rules and tell the sailors to stuff their ears with wax to shut out the politicians’ calls. This is the backdrop to the crisis as it developed from 2007.
Chacun sa merde
As global credit dried up after the collapse of subprime mortgages in the United States, the ECB was the first to open the cash tap on August 9th 2007, making an extra €95 billion available to banks, soon followed by the central banks of the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia. The trigger was the announcement that BNP Paribas, a French bank, was suspending withdrawals from two funds heavily exposed to subprime credit. It said a shortage of liquidity made the assets impossible to value. Any doubts that Europe would feel the force of the financial crisis were quickly dispelled. A few days earlier IKB, a German bank that had played recklessly with asset-backed investments, had been bailed out; a month later there was a run on Northern Rock, a British lender that would eventually be nationalised. Trichet’s quick and firm response prompted the Financial Times to pick him in December 2007 as its “Person of the Year”.
It was the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15th 2008 that really caused global panic.
The decision by Ireland a fortnight later to extend an unlimited guarantee to all banking debt provoked both anger at a rash move that was sucking deposits from the rest of Europe and a scramble by other countries to issue their own guarantees. Sarkozy, whose country held the rotating presidency of the EU, sought to control the free-for-all by calling a summit of leaders of the four biggest European economies on October 4th. He pushed for the creation of a common European bank-rescue fund, worth perhaps €300 billion, but was slapped down by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. “Elle a dit, chacun sa merde” (“she said everybody should deal with his own shit”) was how Sarkozy scathingly recounted the conversation to his aides. At another summit in Paris eight days later, this time of all euro-zone leaders plus the UK’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, Merkel changed her tune. Her mind concentrated by the collapse between the two summits of Hypo Real Estate, she now accepted the need for a massive European response. It would be worth €1.9 trillion in loan guarantees and capital injections to prop up the banks. The move was co-ordinated and subject to EU state-aid rules, but each country would still have to clean up its own banking mess. The hyperactive Sarkozy then flew off to Camp David (taking along the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso) to persuade President George Bush to call a global summit on the financial crisis (it would become the G20 summit).
Under the Irish single-market commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, the Commission had hitherto favoured light-touch regulation of finance. But in October Barroso enlisted a former IMF boss and French central-bank governor, Jacques de Larosière, to produce a report on how to tighten control over the financial sector. It was delivered within three months. After much resistance from the UK, the report would lead to the creation in 2011 of four new European financial supervisory bodies: three new regulators for banks, insurance and markets, and the European Systemic Risk Board to monitor threats to the overall financial system. The task would be pursued with zeal after 2010 by McCreevy’s French successor, Michel Barnier, who vowed that no aspect of finance would escape regulation.
Soon after Lehman’s demise, staff at the IMF’s European department predicted that “it’s going to rain programmes”. The first came in the form of a classic balance-of-payments crisis that hit the newer, fast-growing eastern EU members that were outside the euro. As foreign money fled and currencies came under pressure, Hungary and then Latvia applied for IMF bail-outs in October and December 2008, respectively. Romania followed in March 2009. These bail-outs were co-financed by the EU, the World Bank and others. The eastern turmoil fed the illusion that the euro had brought protection from the worst of the crisis. Trichet called the single currency “a shield” against global turbulence. Slovakia was more than glad to be able to slip into the single currency on January 1st 2009. To the fury of some, the euro zone resisted pressure to soften its admission criteria so that others could follow.
But the combined impact of bank rescues, fiscal stimulus and the start of recession aggravated the public finances of several countries. Might the crisis spread to the euro zone after all? Ireland and Cyprus were likely candidates for assistance because of their outsized banking sectors. Spain looked fragile because of its property bust. Others thought that Austria was vulnerable because of its banks’ exposure to central and eastern Europe. However, the first euro-zone debt crisis would begin in a country whose banks were reasonably sound, but whose public spending had run out of control and whose statistics were dodgy: Greece.
Oddly, perhaps, the first blow to Greek debt was not financial but political. The death of a 15-year-old schoolboy, shot by the police in December 2008, set off a fortnight of riots across the country. Even for people used to a degree of ritualised street clashes, the scale of the unrest was unprecedented since the restoration of democracy in 1974. The violence seemed to reflect a deep malaise over high youth unemployment, a dynastic political system based on patronage, a kleptocratic and ineffective public administration, educational reforms – and the public bail-out of banks. Other European leaders worried that the rebelliousness might spread (Sarkozy cancelled a planned school reform, fearing “regicidal” mobs).
The teetering Greek Prime Minister, Kostas Karamanlis, sacked his finance minister, George Alogoskoufis, a month later and then loosened the public purse-strings ahead of an election. Greek bond yields had been drifting upward from the start of the credit crunch in 2007. But with the riots the spread over German bonds blew out, rising from about 160 to 300 basis points in late January 2009, after Standard & Poor’s had downgraded Greece’s debt. The European Commission placed Greece (and five others) under surveillance for breaching the 3% deficit limit. It said Greece and Ireland should step up deficit-cutting.
Senior French and German officials held secret meetings about how to respond should Greece lose access to bond markets. But the problem seemed to resolve itself, helped by reassurances from the German finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, that weaker euro-zone members would be helped if they got into trouble. The comments were echoed by the Commission and the ECB. For a while the unspoken assumption that countries of the euro zone would stand behind each other in case of trouble appeared to have been reaffirmed. Spreads narrowed again. Then the Greek Socialist opposition party, Pasok, won a landslide victory in the election on October 4th 2009. Its leader, George Papandreou, son and grandson of previous Greek prime ministers, had campaigned on a policy of fiscal stimulus. He had promised above-inflation pay rises, investment in green energy and other spending to “kick the economy back into action again”. Output was at a standstill because of a drop in summer tourism and shipping revenues had fallen because of shrinking global trade. But Papandreou breezily declared that “the money exists”.
It didn’t. On October 16th, less than a fortnight after coming to power, Papandreou announced that the previous government had left an enormous hole in the budget. His finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, said the deficit for 2010 would be above 10% of GDP, a figure promptly revised up to 12.7%. Yet surprisingly, fellow European leaders at first paid little attention to this opening act of the Greek tragedy. Policy debate focused on financial regulation, how to end stimulus programmes amid signs of a tentative recovery and the conclusion of the long saga of the Lisbon treaty. An EU summit in November did not even discuss Greece, but rather who should fill the two big jobs created by the treaty: the eventual choices were Herman Van Rompuy as European Council president and Catherine Ashton as foreign-policy chief. Meanwhile, as ratings agencies downgraded Greece, finance ministers chastised the country. At a summit in December Papandreou delivered an unusually candid admission of Greek corruption before fellow leaders. Yet many still hoped that Greece would somehow get itself out of trouble by tightening its belt.
Solvay doesn’t solve it
Van Rompuy’s inaugural act was to call an informal summit at the Bibliothèque Solvay in Brussels on February 11th 2010 to hold a general debate on the EU’s growth-promotion strategy. But as Greek bond yields spiked over the 7% mark in late January, he realised something would have to be done, or at least said. Van Rompuy had little idea how much his presidency would be dominated by the Greek crisis. But his mild, self-deprecating manner – and his experience as Belgium’s budget minister in bringing down his country’s debt – made him an ideal backroom dealmaker. He delayed the start of the summit for more than two hours, closeting himself with Papandreou, the leaders of France, Germany, the European Commission and the ECB. The previous year French and German officials had spoken privately of extending bilateral lines of credit should Greece get into trouble, but the German coalition had since changed and the public mood was hostile to any idea of lending money. Germans had been promised they would never have to pay for other countries. Perversely, perhaps, it was easier to help non-euro EU countries in financial trouble than to lend money to the likes of Greece.
From the outset the discussion reflected national prejudices and personal traits that would shape the subsequent response. The imperious Sarkozy wanted European leaders to react quickly and forcefully; the cautious Merkel was in no rush to respond. The former thought the crisis would go away if governments just put up enough money to see off the speculators; the latter was convinced that the crisis would be assuaged if Greece just took serious action to cut its deficit and reform its economy. In a country that had not run a budget surplus since 1974, French voters did not share the same resentment as German ones over Greek profligacy. Sarkozy also rejected the involvement of the IMF as an affront to Europe. Trichet concurred, perhaps also because he thought the IMF would try to impose conditions on the ECB. Both men may have been conscious that the IMF was run by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential Socialist challenger to Sarkozy. Yet after sharing these initial qualms, Germany came round to insisting on IMF involvement to ensure rigour.
Van Rompuy papered over these differences with a statement that declared support for Greece “to do whatever is necessary” to curb its deficit, and announced that the Commission would “monitor” the implementation of the promised deficit-cutting, “drawing on the expertise of the IMF”. He said eurozone members “will take determined and co-ordinated action, if needed, to safeguard financial stability in the euro area as a whole”. But to get Merkel to swallow the implicit commitment to a bailout, he added a final sentence: “The Greek government has not requested any financial support.”
Irrational ultima ratio
By March everybody knew the request would come. The “troika” that would negotiate the bail-out –consisting of the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB – was born and made an initial secret visit to Greece in early March. Amid ugly German headlines telling Greeks to “sell your islands” and a magazine cover depicting Venus de Milo giving Europe the middle finger, a summit on March 25th prepared what Greece called a “loaded gun”. Member countries declared that they stood ready to pool bilateral loans into a fund that, along with the IMF, was ready to bail out Greece. Germany attached several conditions: a decision had to be taken unanimously and include “strong conditionality” to reform, and loans would be extended at “non-concessional” interest rates, reflecting the risk of lending to Greece. Above all, the mechanism could be used only on the basis of ultima ratio, as a last resort to prevent Greece from defaulting on its debt. This German doctrine, born of tactical, domestic and legal considerations, would come repeatedly to hamper the euro zone’s ability to respond decisively.
Germany believed, with good reason, that countries would cut their budget deficits and reform their economies only under extreme pressure from markets. Moreover, Merkel could hope to win over her outraged voters to the idea of a bail-out only if she could demonstrate that it was needed to save the euro. And given that opponents would inevitably petition the constitutional court in Karlsruhe, she could justify the breach of the no-bail-out rule in European treaties only on the grounds of a genuine emergency, on the well-known principle of Not kennt kein Gebot: “Necessity knows no law”. Lawyers in Brussels also noted that the no-bail-out rule was hardly categorical. The Lisbon treaty says only that countries that shall “not be liable for or assume” the debt of others; it says nothing of lending money.1
That the euro zone would later invoke another article dealing with assistance for natural disasters says much about the legal discomfort.2
The loaded gun did not frighten the markets. The Euro group then cocked the weapon on April 11th, saying that it stood ready to lend Greece €30 billion in the first year of a programme, to which the IMF would add another €15 billion. A premium of 300 basis points would be added to the borrowing costs – a steep price, but not as steep as the 7% yield that markets were demanding for Greek ten-year bonds. This still provided no deterrent. In late April Standard & Poor’s downgraded Greek debt to junk status, and also cut its ratings for Portuguese and Spanish bonds. On May 2nd, responding to a formal request for help from Papandreou, who said his country was “a sinking ship”, the Euro group agreed to the inevitable bail-out. It had grown to €110 billion over three years – the largest ever provided to a single country – as it became obvious that private investors would not roll over existing debt.
Even so, the deal was filled with contradictions. Greece was supposedly being rescued, but it was subjected to an unworkable programme and punitive rates of interest (Merkel boasted that Germany would make a profit on the loans). IMF staff thought there should be less up-front austerity and more structural reforms, but the Europeans were still focused on fiscal rules. The debt-sustainability assessment relied on optimistic assumptions. One IMF official was blunter: “We lied.” Indeed, it would emerge later that many members of the IMF’s board had deep misgivings about the programme.3 Brazil’s executive director, Paulo Nogueira Batista, was prescient when he argued that the risks of the programme were immense. Rather than a bail-out of Greece it could become a bail-out of investors and banks as they dumped their bonds onto official lenders. The whole thing could prove “ill conceived and ultimately unsustainable”. Critics argued that Greece’s huge debt should instead have been restructured immediately. That said, even the most hawkish IMF staff members thought it was too dangerous to do this in the middle of a market panic. But the lingering dispute would, later on, harden the IMF’s attitude to Greece and future rescues. Even the tripling of the Greek bail-out failed to quell the markets. And the crippling adjustment demanded of Greece – deficit reduction of 11 percentage points over three years in the teeth of a recession, nearly half of it front-loaded in the first year – provoked riots outside the Greek parliament, and the death of three people when anarchists set fire to a bank. As Greek bonds rose beyond 12%, contagion pushed Irish yields close to 6% and Portuguese ones up above 7%. Stock markets around the world slumped as investors fretted about the financial and political stability of a block that made up around a quarter of global output.
Save the euro
After months of indecision and half measures, the euro was now in mortal danger. The mood of foreboding grew darker still on May 6th 2010, the day of a strange “flash-crash” on Wall Street, in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average collapsed by about 1,000 points before recovering within minutes, perhaps because of a technical glitch. The ECB’s governing council, in Lisbon that day for its monthly meeting, faced a momentous decision: should it start buying sovereign bonds to stop the panic? The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England had been doing so under their policy of quantitative easing to bring down long-term borrowing costs. But the ECB had not gone so far, wary of the prohibition against anything resembling “monetary financing”, that is, printing money to finance public debt. After the official meeting, Trichet told journalists that the subject of bond-buying had not been discussed. Later on over an informal dinner, however, the council had reached a tentative agreement to start selectively buying the bonds of vulnerable countries.4 The next day, as leaders gathered in Brussels for a euro-zone-only summit, ostensibly to endorse the bail-out of Greece, many participants seemed unaware that they would be called upon to do something much bigger: set up a safety net for the whole euro zone.
Trichet delivered a stern lecture. He told leaders the euro was in danger, and that they were to blame for the mess through reckless policies. It was now their responsibility to fix it. Trichet would not disclose his readiness to buy bonds until the leaders had taken decisive action; the ECB would not risk acting alone, or being seen to do so under political pressure. The summit could not reach agreement, so finance ministers were told to take up the task two days later, a Sunday, before markets reopened in Asia. The Commission then tabled a proposal, based on its aid programme for central and eastern Europe, to create a €60 billion war chest for the euro zone. The money would be raised by issuing bonds on the market guaranteed by the EU budget. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who had just lost a general election on May 6th, had to be asked for his approval. Member countries, including the non-euro UK, would be liable for possible losses.
Yet too little money could be raised this way. And ministers would not extend loan guarantees to the Commission to expand the fund. Instead, a special-purpose company, incorporated in Luxembourg and backed by government guarantees, would be created to ensure national governments retained full control over the money. The final deal could not be concluded until nightfall, after polling stations closed in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia (Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost).
Consensus was then quickly reached on the amount: €440 billion. Thus were born the Commission’s European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (EFSM) and the larger inter-governmental European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). The IMF would match every two Euros put up by the euro zone with one of its own, an unusual entry into rich-world affairs. The total made available to defend the euro zone amounted to €750 billion, or roughly around $1 trillion. Trichet now had the political cover he needed. The ECB announced that it would buy bonds under the Securities Market Programme (SMP), not to help crippled countries but on the grounds that dysfunctional markets were “hampering the monetary policy transmission mechanism”. At the same time, the ECB opened the tap for liquidity to the banks, while the Federal Reserve and other central banks helped out by reopening dollar swap lines, in essence a means for the Federal Reserve to extend dollar liquidity in the global financial system via other countries’ central banks (which would continue to bear the credit risk). The enormous sums mobilised that weekend were supposed to be a deterrent, a weapon never to be used. But, just as with the “big bazooka” that Hank Paulson, then the American treasury secretary, had talked about in 2008, it would not be long before it had to be deployed.
The ECB’s U-turn on bond-buying, following an earlier U-turn on taking Greek bonds as collateral for banks, raised questions about its independence. Tellingly, Merkel gave the bank the nod to buy bonds even though Axel Weber, the Bundesbank president, who briefly flirted with the idea, opposed the move. It is easier for politicians to have the central bank put up the money than ask for it from taxpayers. Moreover, governments could not make up their minds about markets. They denounced speculators for plotting to destroy the euro, yet set out to borrow hundreds of billions from the same financiers to save the single currency. They blamed ratings agencies for ignoring the dangers of dodgy financial engineering, then excoriated them for exaggerating the threat of sovereign default. But the events in May established one principle: faced with catastrophe, governments would act. The ECB would act too, though only if governments moved first. Yet delay raised the price of resolving the crisis, and also fed doubts about whether the euro could survive.
Merkozy in Deauville
The European summits in June and September 2010 were more or less routine affairs, although spreads started creeping up again in the summer after the market euphoria in May. Governments turned to reforming the institutional set-up of the euro. Part of the price Merkel demanded for bailing out Greece was a strengthening of the stability and growth pact, and closer co-ordination of economic policies to improve the competitiveness of the weaker countries. This became part of her mantra: greater control in exchange for greater solidarity. Sarkozy was not keen on such notions. But he liked the idea of creating a smaller, more exclusive core club that would keep out pesky liberal free traders from the UK and other north European countries. In March Sarkozy had started pushing an old French concept of an economic “government” for the euro zone, later softened in official communiqués as “governance”. To his mind, economies should be run by leaders with lots of discretion, not by rule bound bureaucrats. One undeclared aim was to restrain competition by harmonising taxes and social spending to French levels.
Reconciling these positions was made harder by two problems. First, the Franco-German relationship, the traditional engine of European integration, was working poorly. Second, both Sarkozy and Merkel were deeply suspicious of the European Commission. So in March 2010 EU leaders appointed Van Rompuy, not Barroso, the Commission president, to draw up a plan to toughen fiscal rules. But the Commission then pre-empted Van Rompuy’s report by publishing its own package of six legislative proposals on economic governance (later known as the “six-pack”). Beyond deficits, the six-pack put greater emphasis on reducing the stock of debt (to Italy’s dismay). And beyond the fiscal targets, EU surveillance would look at a broader range of economic indicators to detect underlying imbalances. Lastly, it inverted voting rules so that sanctions against miscreants no longer required a qualified majority of countries; instead, penalties recommended by the Commission would be approved unless blocked by a qualified majority.
Germany also pushed two more radical ideas. One was to suspend the voting rights of profligate countries. Such provisions existed for countries breaching fundamental values of democracy and human rights; the same should apply for breaches of the euro zone’s fiscal rules, thought Merkel. Her other demand was a mechanism for the “orderly insolvency” of governments. This idea was not new.
After Argentina’s default on its foreign debt in 2001, the IMF proposed a statutory “sovereign debt restructuring mechanism”, an insolvency regime for governments akin to the US bankruptcy for companies. The aim was to make default less messy and painful, and ensure that bailouts do not serve just a few lucky creditors. But the proposal ran into insurmountable opposition, not least from the United States, which did not want to cede power to a supranational authority to coordinate the process. The crisis in Greece brought the idea back to the fore. In the euro zone, at least, the idea of a supranational body was well-established though at times accepted only grudgingly.
All this was part of Germany’s determined effort to minimise the risk that it would be called upon again to bail out another country or, indeed, to bail out Greece a second time. Tougher fiscal rules, monitoring and sanctions would reduce the chances of countries getting into trouble. And if another debt crisis did take place, and the country needed a bail-out, the taxpayer should not be made to carry the whole burden. Moreover, the threat of losses should sharpen the vigilance of bond markets.
Other countries for the most part accepted the need to strengthen the stability and growth pact. But governments, and above all the ECB, were resistant to any notion of facilitating debt restructuring. One reason was a reluctance to bear the stigma: defaulting on debt was something that happened in poorer countries, not the industrialised world. Another was a concern that, in a world in which countries could more easily restructure debt, the borrowing costs for all sovereigns might be raised. A third was the fear of rekindling market turbulence. Instead of ensuring that markets enforced discipline on governments in future, debt restructuring might prompt another panic that would push governments into immediate bankruptcy. After all, Greece was not the only European country with a large burden of debt.
Some of the changes that Germany demanded would require a change of the treaties, which many countries were reluctant to embark on after the political agony they suffered over the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. But Merkel favoured treaty change anyway, despite the promise that Lisbon would be the last revision in a generation. She worried that the legal basis of the EFSF might not stand up to challenge in the Karlsruhe court. Even if it did, the fund was due to expire in 2013 and would surely have to be replaced by something more permanent.
On October 18th Van Rompuy called a last meeting of his taskforce of finance ministers in Luxembourg. Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister, predictably sought to amend the “automaticity” of the sanctions. But all were astounded to hear the then German deputy finance minister, Jörg Asmussen, declare he was in complete agreement with her. What were France and Germany up to? The answer came later in the evening from the French seaside resort of Deauville, where Sarkozy was hosting Merkel for a Franco-German summit (as well as a three-way summit with Russia). France and Germany now supported a new treaty to make possible the creation of a “robust and permanent” crisis-resolution system. Germany got a promise that, in future bail-outs, there should be an “adequate participation by the private sector”; in other words, private bondholders would have to bear part of the pain in future crises. France obtained a softening of the “automatic” sanctions.
In Brussels the accord was seen as the worst of political deals. Many worried about the weakening of the commitment to fiscal discipline and feared that the threat of future debt restructuring, known as private-sector involvement (PSI), might cause alarm in markets that seemed to be calming down. Even Sarkozy’s senior advisers warned him against it. They worried that the implicit assumption of solidarity within the euro zone was being explicitly rejected through PSI, with unforeseeable consequences. But he overruled them.
Deauville thus marks the start of the “Merkozy” era. Merkel became the dominant figure in Europe while Sarkozy decided that the only way to manage the crisis, and to keep markets off France’s back, was to hug her close. Deauville also marked a second, more dangerous phase of the story. Investors started to walk away from vulnerable sovereigns and, within days, to run after a spate of bad news. A statistical revision raised Greece’s 2009 deficit above 15% of GDP, and its overall debt by about 12 percentage points to 127% of GDP; Greece admitted it was having problems collecting taxes; and PIMCO, one of the biggest fixed-income managers, predicted that Greece was likely to default within three years.
The mood at the next EU summit on October 28th was grim. Leaders of smaller countries were annoyed by the Franco-German diktat and the pressure to reopen the treaties. And Trichet, who had demanded that the Van Rompuy report formally note his reservations over weakened sanctions, warned leaders over dinner that the threat of debt restructuring would spook markets. “You don’t realise the gravity of the situation,” began Trichet. But he was cut off by Sarkozy: “Perhaps you speak to bankers. We, we are answerable to our citizens.” Merkel joined in: taxpayers could not be asked to foot the whole bill, not when they had just paid to save the banks. And Merkel got most of what she wanted, with surprising ease. The summit agreed to revise the treaty although, to make sure it was a “limited” change that could be passed with a smaller risk of referendums, Merkel had to abandon the demand to suspend voting rights, which Sarkozy had conceded at Deauville.
The euro zone thus abruptly moved from the idea of bailing out debtor countries to bailing in bondholders. The principle was sound but the execution contradictory, not least because, as explained initially by the Germans, PSI was likely to apply to all future bailouts. In May governments had declined to impose haircuts on Greek bonds for fear of destabilising markets, thus pretending that Greece’s insolvency was merely a matter of a shortage of liquidity. Now they seemed to be threatening all future investors in euro-zone bonds with possible losses; in other words, even countries with liquidity problems might be treated as insolvent. For Trichet this was a betrayal of the ECB’s politically risky decision to start buying government bonds to hold down borrowing costs. By the time of the G20 summit in Seoul on November 12th, yields on Portuguese and Irish bonds were well over their previous peaks in May. European finance ministers said the issue had been misunderstood: existing bonds were safe; only new bonds issued from 2013 might be subject to haircuts. But the damage of Deauville was done.
No luck for the Irish (or Portuguese)
Alarm now focused on Ireland. Having already poured billions into the banks, the government announced in September 2010 its “final estimate” for bank losses. Anglo Irish Bank, the most cavalier of the lot, would cost €30 billion. Added to Ireland’s already large budget gap, the one-off cost of the banking bust pushed Ireland’s budget deficit in 2010 to 32% of GDP. Fears for the solvency of the state pushed up bond yields. Deauville made a bad situation impossible. In mid-November Ireland started negotiating the terms for a bail-out, despite protests that it had enough cash to survive for months to come. But the ECB had had enough of propping up Irish banks. By the end of November Ireland had agreed to a €67.5 billion assistance package from the euro zone and the IMF, with bilateral loans from the UK and Sweden.
The liquidity provided by the ECB had proved to be a mixed blessing. It allowed Ireland to avoid a sudden stop in funding, as had previously happened in Iceland (which was not in the EU). But the ECB also prevented the Irish government from protecting taxpayers by imposing losses on senior bank creditors, again as had happened in Iceland (it also wiped out foreign depositors). Even so, the banking bust was not the only or even the main cause of Ireland’s economic troubles; the recession caused by the bursting of the property bubble created a budget deficit of 12% of GDP in 2010. But the bad banks, and Deauville, tipped Ireland into seeking a bail-out. It also led to an early election and the fall of the Fianna Fail-led government of Brian Cowen in February 2011.
In Portugal, meanwhile, it was the resignation of the Socialist government of José Sócrates, which had failed to win parliamentary support for a fourth austerity budget in March 2011 that pushed the country into the arms of euro-zone rescuers. Portugal applied for a bail-out in April and finalised the negotiation for a €78 billion package on May 4th. Its debt was not as high as Greece’s, nor did it have an out-of-control banking sector like Ireland. Instead, its woes were more like Italy’s: years of chronically low growth. And whereas the euro zone had been reluctant to help Greece, it was now keen for both Ireland and Portugal to apply for assistance to try to stop contagion from spreading to bigger countries like Spain or Italy.
The programmes for Ireland and Portugal were devised with more plausible figures than the one for Greece. The two countries benefited from having fully functional governments and, especially in the case of Ireland, had export sectors that could benefit from the process of “internal devaluation”. In contrast with Greece, moreover, both had opposition parties that for the most part agreed with the bail-out programmes. The election of Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny in Ireland and of Pedro Passos Coelho of the Social Democratic Party in Portugal (both fiscal conservatives, despite the misleading name of the latter’s party) caused little disruption to the troika’s programme for fiscal consolidation and structural reforms.
The new bail-outs in the winter of 2010–11 pushed European leaders to seek what they called a “comprehensive solution”. There was, inevitably, much disagreement about what this would entail.
Some thought the priority should be more “solidarity” to help countries cope with high bond yields. In December 2010 Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s veteran prime minister and president of the Euro group, co-authored a call with Italy’s finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, for the euro zone to start issuing common Eurobonds, guaranteed jointly by all euro-zone countries. This would “send a clear message to global markets and European citizens of our political commitment to economic and monetary union, and the irreversibility of the euro”.5 But Germany would have none of it. To begin with, joint bonds were illegal under the treaties, Germany argued. Moreover, guaranteeing the debt of others would mean taking on large and potentially unlimited liabilities, and would provide an incentive for profligacy. Instead, Germany wanted more control and discipline.
Its priority was the finalisation of the treaty change to create a permanent bail-out fund, to be known as the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). This was followed by moves to encourage more structural reforms. Over two summits in March 2011 leaders agreed to a voluntary pact to promote labour-market flexibility and other action. It was first known as the Competitiveness Pact, then the Pact for the Euro and, in its final form, the Euro Plus Pact. Once a year, countries would make reform commitments that would be scrutinised by peers. Some countries, like Belgium, disliked the challenge to their wage-indexation systems; others, like Ireland, worried about the pressure to raise their low corporate taxes. But perhaps the strongest reaction came from non-euro countries that disliked the commitment, pushed by France, to hold special euro-zone summits at least once a year. The Euro Plus Pact turned out to be ineffectual, and was soon forgotten. Many aspects of economic policy remained the competence of national governments, so the commitments would not be binding. A bit of peer pressure from Europe could not overcome the resistance at home that such reforms would inevitably provoke.
The question of solidarity could not be avoided for long. By spring it was apparent that the EFSF was underpowered, not just because it was starting to use up its resources for Ireland and Portugal, but because its real lending capacity was only about €250 billion, not the advertised €440 billion. Its ability to borrow on AAA terms was limited by the fact that only six countries had that credit rating.
There was also growing pressure to turn the EFSF into a more flexible crisis-management tool, not just a fund of last resort. The “comprehensive package” announced on March 24th allowed both the temporary EFSF and the new ESM to buy bonds on the primary market (but not the secondary market). The ESM would not be operational until 2013. But the final agreement to enhance the EFSF, by increasing loan guarantees so that it could borrow to its full headline level, would have to wait until June, after an election in Finland.
On April 7th, the day that Portugal applied for its bail-out, the ECB decided perversely to raise its interest rate. The change was small – just 0.25% – but it was a wrong-headed signal nonetheless.
Recovery in the euro zone was weak, with the notable exception of Germany. Headline inflation was slightly higher than the ECB’s target of “below but close to 2%” because of higher oil prices, but core inflation was around 1%. The real argument was political. The ECB’s bond-buying policy had prompted the resignation in February of Axel Weber, president of the Bundesbank and the most obvious successor to Trichet. It must have seemed a good moment for any hopefuls to establish their inflation-busting credentials.
By March 2011 the Greek problem was returning to the fore. Early on Papandreou had earned praise for some brave belt-tightening, but worries grew that structural reforms were falling behind and privatisation had made no progress at all. Matters were not helped by successive statistical revisions, which revealed Greece’s fiscal hole to be deeper than expected. And the recession was also worse than expected. Behind closed doors at a summit on March 11th, Papandreou spoke about the grim options facing his country: leave the euro, impose haircuts on bondholders or change the market’s perceptions.
A softening of the bail-out terms was an attempt to keep the third option alive: interest would be reduced by a point and loan maturities extended to 7.5 years (against a promise to step up privatisation). Ireland was denied the same terms because Kenny resisted pressure from Germany and especially France to raise its low rate of corporate tax, even though attracting investment and boosting exports offered the best hope of repaying its debt.
Despite the concession to Greece, the focus would quickly shift to debt restructuring. Talk at Deauville about PSI was pushing Greek bonds into a self-fulfilling spiral. Greek yields rose from mid-April amid growing talk of haircuts and even of Greece leaving the euro. Plainly, Greece would not be able to start borrowing from markets in 2012, as its bail-out programme projected. And unless the financing gap was filled, the IMF would have to suspend payments because of its rule that programmes be fully financed for a year in the future. The choice came down to granting Greece a second bail-out, belatedly restructuring its debt mountain, or some combination of the two. Germany and some IMF staff favoured imposing at least some losses on private bondholders. But they ran into two separate problems. The first was the arrest on charges of sexual assault (eventually dropped) of Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s chief. His deputy, John Lipsky, opposed debt restructuring; IMF hawks would have to bide their time until the arrival of Lagarde in July. The second and greater obstacle was the implacable resistance of the ECB to any of the various degrees of failure to repay debt fully and on time. No selective default, no credit event, no default, insisted Trichet; nothing should cast doubt on the “sovereign signature”.
Greek politics also became more fraught. In June Papandreou replaced his finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, with Evangelos Venizelos, a party heavyweight. The new man made a poor impression at his first Eurogroup meeting when he insinuated that the euro zone could not afford to let Greece go bust.
No PSImple haircut
The summit in July 2011 turned into two separate negotiations, one among leaders and a parallel one with bankers, represented by the Institute of International Finance, for a “voluntary” contribution.
After more than seven hours of talks, euro-zone leaders agreed to give Greece a second bail-out worth €109 billion. “Voluntary” PSI would bring in an extra €37 billion, resulting in an estimated cut of 21% in the debt burden (calculated in terms of net present value). The repayment terms on loans were greatly softened. The interest rate was brought down by another 150 basis points, to around 3.5%, and the maturities extended from 7.5 to between 15 and 30 years, with a ten-year grace period. Crucially, the same terms were extended to Ireland and Portugal, with a promise that the euro zone would continue to fund countries until they regained access to markets, as long as they complied with reform conditions. The decision proved to be a godsend for Ireland, whose bond yields progressively dropped, against the trend in southern Europe.
Leaders more or less buried Deauville when they declared that PSI had been an “an exceptional and unique” solution for Greece; all other countries would “honour fully their own individual sovereign signature”. This had been one of three conditions set by Trichet in return for relenting on a limited debt restructuring. The others were that the ECB’s holdings of Greek debt would be spared the haircut, and that the ESM would relieve the ECB of the burden of buying bonds on the secondary market. Indeed, the ESM was made more flexible in other ways too. It was also allowed to lend money to governments to recapitalise banks and extend precautionary loans.
The deal would prompt ratings agencies to declare a temporary “selective default” (the EFSF would have to offer the ECB alternative collateral), but its voluntary nature ensured it would not count as a “credit event” that triggered payments of credit-default swaps, a form of insurance against sovereign defaults. However, the deal proved to be the worst of both worlds: the haircut was too small to turn around Greece’s public finances, but big enough to spread fear that other bonds were at risk. Markets had other reasons to worry. The original banking crisis had never been satisfactorily resolved; it had only been masked by the Greek turmoil and, to a great extent, worsened by the sovereign-debt crisis. The second round of bank stress tests in July turned out to be another half-baked job. Plainly, sovereign bonds could no longer be treated as risk-free. But only the bonds in banks’ trading books were accounted for at market value; those in the banking books were counted at face value because they would supposedly be held to maturity. Analysts derided the effort (only 9 out of 90 banks tested were found to require additional capital), but for senior officials, particularly in France, the tests already went too far in questioning the value of sovereign bonds. Even more alarming was a sharp warning by Lagarde, in her first speech as the new IMF chief, delivered at the annual central bankers’ retreat in Jackson Hole at the end of August, when she called for mandatory recapitalization of banks:
Banks need urgent recapitalisation. They must be strong enough to withstand the risks of sovereigns and weak growth. This is key to cutting the chains of contagion. If it is not addressed, we could easily see the further spread of economic weakness to core countries, or even a debilitating liquidity crisis.
In many ways, the euro crisis was always about Italy. A collapse of the third-largest economy in the euro zone, and its second-largest debtor in absolute terms, would surely sink the euro. Spain mattered not only because it was larger than the other bailed-out states, but also because it was the the last link in the chain of contagion before Italy. The size of the euro zone’s firewall was inadequate because it could not protect Italy. Eurobonds were unacceptable because they would mean Germany having to guarantee Italy’s gargantuan debt. And the fear of moral hazard was acute, in part because nobody trusted Italian politicians to reform. Italy at least had the foresight not to engage in fiscal stimulus, and its primary budget (that is, before interest payments) was in surplus. Moreover, its banks seemed in reasonable shape, and domestic savings were high. Even so, by the start of August its borrowing costs had spiked above the 6% mark (matched by Spain’s yields). Everybody knew Italy was too big to save. Only the ECB could help it stay afloat.
On August 5th 2011 Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, received a stern letter signed jointly by Trichet and Draghi. It urged him to take “immediate and bold” measures to speed up Italy’s deficit cutting and balance the budget by 2013, a year earlier than planned. It also set out a list of “significant measures to enhance potential growth”, including the liberalisation of professional services and more labour-market flexibility. In the longer term there had to be a constitutional reform to enshrine fiscal rules, an overhaul of the public administration and the abolition of costly layers of government. A similar letter was sent to Spain’s Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, though its contents did not leak for two years.
A day earlier the ECB had revived its bond-buying programme, initially only for Portugal and Ireland. The implied message was clear: if Italy and Spain wanted help they had to reform fast, as if they were under a troika programme. As the bank started buying up unprecedented amounts of Spanish and Italian bonds, Jürgen Stark, the German chief economist on the ECB’s executive board, announced his resignation “for personal reasons”: that is, his disapproval of bond-buying. Predictably enough, Berlusconi soon started watering down his proposed austerity budget, and did virtually nothing by way of structural reforms to accelerate Italy’s sclerotic growth. His government was crumbling and his relationship with his finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, had all but broken down. On September 20th Standard & Poor’s downgraded Italy, expressing doubt about its ability to reform. The ECB downgraded it silently, by sharply slowing down bond purchases. Amid mounting scandals over allegations of fraud and whore mongering, trade unions and bosses alike called for Berlusconi to resign.
The Merkozy duo vowed to deal with the crisis decisively in two summits in October (or rather four summits, given that each was split into an EU summit of 27 followed by a euro-zone meeting of 17). At the first gathering on October 23rd, Berlusconi was given an ultimatum to present credible reforms at the next meeting three days later. Asked at a press conference whether they were reassured by his response, Merkel and Sarkozy hesitated a bit too long, looked at each other and, as the room erupted in laughter, smiled and smirked. Involuntary, perhaps, but it was a humiliation for Berlusconi and a gesture of no confidence in Italy.
On October 26th the euro zone announced yet another “comprehensive solution”. Italy promised to reform labour markets and pensions, cut red tape, abolish minimum charges for professional services and more. It would be subject to special monitoring by the Commission. And after another round of negotiations between leaders and banks, which barely seemed to involve the hapless Papandreou, Greek bonds would be subject to a 50% cut in face value (resulting in a 76% cut in terms of net present value). The aim was to bring Greece’s debt down to 120% of GDP by 2020, a threshold chosen to match Italy’s debt, which, by definition, had to be solvent.
To contain the impact, the euro zone needed bigger firewalls. Germany had been unwilling to increase its guarantees to the EFSF and many others were unable to do so, given the risk to their credit rating. France favoured giving the EFSF a banking licence, so that it could borrow from the ECB. But Trichet blocked the idea at a bad-tempered impromptu meeting on October 19th on the fringes of his official farewell celebration at Frankfurt’s old opera house. So the summit set out two options. The EFSF could offer “credit enhancements” to insure investors against part of the loss on sovereign bonds; or it could create a special-purpose vehicle in which other countries willing to help Europe could invest. Leaders also agreed to bolster rickety banks by forcing them to find about €106 billion of extra capital by the end of June 2012 to meet a higher 9% threshold of “highest quality capital”, after marking sovereign debt to market prices.
The deal was sealed with another layer of the favourite Franco-German mix: Sarkozy secured a commitment to hold twice-yearly euro-zone-only summits with the option, in future, of having a separate president; Merkel obtained support for yet another revision of the treaty aimed vaguely at “strengthening economic convergence within the euro area, improving fiscal discipline and deepening economic union”. Yet within days the markets were struck by another bombshell: the Greek prime minister announced on October 31st that he would hold a referendum to approve the terms of the new rescue programme. Markets tumbled. The ECB worried that bank runs would start in Greece. After two years of crushing austerity, nobody could be expected to vote for more of it. Greek bond yields shot up, pulling everyone else along. Italian bonds again pushed past the 6% mark. The euro zone was close to breaking.
Caned in Cannes
The system of peer-pressure, shy at first and then ever more insistent as the crisis worsened, reached its logical and brutal climax at the G20 summit hosted by Sarkozy in Cannes on November 3rd–4th 2011. Papandreou was summoned before Sarkozy, Merkel and leaders of European institutions on the eve of the summit. He was told he had shown himself “disloyal” after fellow leaders had worked hard to lift a large chunk of debt off Greece’s shoulders. Until Greece approved the new programme, neither the euro zone nor the IMF would disburse a cent (pas un sou), said Sarkozy. And if Papandreou insisted on the referendum, the question should not be about the terms of the bailout but about Greece’s membership of the euro. If the cost of saving the euro was to let Greece go, so be it. Perhaps Greece could come back in after ten years, the French president suggested.
At a joint press conference by Sarkozy and Merkel the ultimatum was made public: “Does Greece want to remain in the euro zone, or not?” asked Sarkozy. For the first time in the crisis, the prospect of the euro breaking up was being openly discussed by its most important leaders. Papandreou vacillated. He left Cannes saying the question would indeed be about Greece’s future in the euro, but once in Athens he declared it would be about the bail-out terms after all. Venizelos, who had been a brooding presence at the encounter in Cannes and was urged by some of those at the meeting to help stop the referendum, made his move: he declared his opposition to the ballot and led a revolt that precipitated Papandreou’s downfall a week later.
On the morning of November 3rd, it was Berlusconi’s turn to be roasted. Sarkozy and Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister standing in for Merkel, demanded that Italy should apply for a precautionary line of credit from the IMF. Lagarde bluntly told the Italian prime minister that nobody believed him. With Zapatero in the room, the French president noted with disappointment that a Spanish-style political solution – an early election in which the prime minister would not stand again – was not on offer in Italy. There was a touch of personal animosity: Sarkozy blamed Berlusconi personally for Italian newspapers’ attacks on the French first lady, the Italian-born model and singer Carla Bruni.
For his part, Berlusconi seemed detached from the severity of his predicament and unprepared for the assault; “he was completely depressed,” recounted one witness. Italy had always lived with high debt, Berlusconi told his peers; it could survive for a long time with higher interest rates and domestic savers could be counted on to buy bonds. He would refuse to take the IMF’s line of credit – doing so would be tantamount to admitting that Italy had become another Greece, said his officials – but he would agree to intense monitoring by the Fund and the Commission. If Berlusconi was deflated inside the room, outside he tried to brazen his way out of isolation. “There is no crisis,” he told journalists.
“The restaurants are full and you cannot find a seat on the flights.” The Italian prime minister still enjoyed a degree of understanding from at least some in the room, including the placid Van Rompuy and the more irascible Barroso. Both thought a precautionary line of credit worth some €80 billion was far too small to help Italy’s finances, and would only raise doubts about its solvency. That night Berlusconi also got unexpected support from Barack Obama, who normally had little time for Berlusconi but on this occasion sided with the doves. The American president all but took control of a side meeting of European leaders at the G20 summit. He urged the Europeans to act decisively, and concentrated his efforts on trying to convince Germany to enhance the European firewall. If the ECB persisted in refusing to intervene in an unlimited manner (for example, by issuing the EFSF a banking licence), how about contributing the Europeans’ unused allocations of “special drawing rights”? SDRs are created by the IMF as a reserve asset, a sort of virtual gold, and their supply was greatly boosted in 2009 to give countries extra liquidity in the financial crisis. Now the tables were turned on Merkel. The idea was firmly blocked by the Bundesbank, which held Germany’s allocation and regarded their use as tantamount to printing money. The German chancellor said she might relent if Italy accepted an IMF precautionary programme, but the idea did not fly. Merkel came under such concerted pressure, some of those in the room reported, that she was in tears, saying: “I was the hero, and now I am the villain.”
Goodbye George and Silvio. And David too?
Within days of the Cannes summit, the pressure from Europe, markets and internal dissent had forced both George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi to resign, on November 8th and November 12th respectively. In their place came two technocratic prime ministers. Lucas Papademos, governor of the Greek central bank and a former vice-president of the ECB, was appointed in Athens. Mario Monti, a former European commissioner, was installed in Rome. Both were chosen, with a private nod from Brussels, for their close links to European policymakers. Their main task was to restore the credibility of their countries before their European peers and the faceless markets. Indeed, the arrival of the technocrats may have saved their countries from imminent economic disaster. But though they were called upon to clean up the mess created by the politicians, and endorsed in parliamentary votes, the manner of their appointment left a profound worry about democracy in Europe: as well as dictating economic policies, Europe was now, directly or indirectly, dictating the choice of political leaders.
Papademos and Monti could not, on their own, deal with a market crisis that was corroding the entire euro zone. Given the failure of the Cannes summit to bolster the firewall, the last line of defence was now the ECB. All eyes turned to the new man in Frankfurt, Mario Draghi. Appearing for the first time before the European Parliament on December 1st, he spoke opaquely about the advisability of a “fiscal compact”, some kind of additional commitment to budgetary discipline. The effects of previous reforms and of the arrival of technocrats in Italy and Greece were not yet being felt, he explained. A compact enshrining new balanced-budget rule in a more formal framework would send an additional signal of credibility. He thus allied himself to Germany’s cause for yet another treaty change.
The idea of a revision horrified just about everybody – even those outside the euro zone. For David Cameron, the British prime minister, the idea of a treaty revision was bound to stir his increasingly restive backbenchers to demand that he use the opportunity to win something for the UK. Cameron’s diplomatic campaign was ill-prepared, particularly in his misreading of Merkel. His officials did not spell out the UK’s demands – essentially the protection of the City of London from new EU financial regulation – until the eve of the December summit. The British had been lulled by EU legal experts into believing that the euro zone could not get around a UK veto. But when the crunch came in the small hours of December 9th, Cameron’s attempt to veto the new fiscal compact treaty backfired.
First, the EU’s lawyers said the compact could, after all, be adopted as a separate agreement outside the EU’s treaty. Second, most of the euro “outs” signed up to it, leaving the UK isolated. Back home Cameron was briefly hailed as a conquering hero, even though he had vetoed nothing at all. Sarkozy boasted privately that “we gave the British a slap in the face”.
The brutality of the politics at the end of 2011 reflected the desperation of the moment. After nearly two years of errors and missed opportunities, the euro was close to breaking point. It was apparent that the Greek bail-out programme had been badly misjudged. The euro zone leaders tended to pin the blame on the impossible Greeks. If only they were more like the stoical Balts and just got on with controlling their deficit, said advocates of hard front-loaded austerity, they would have got over their pain more quickly. Latvia had suffered large losses of output, pegged its currency to the euro, suffered a banking bust and had to be bailed out by the IMF and European Commission. Yet Latvia rejected the IMF’s advice to devalue the currency, and chose instead the agony of internal devaluation. It subsequently emerged as one of the fastest-growing countries in the EU. In the view of its leaders, the key ingredient was political will. Estonia underwent a similar experience. And as it joined the euro in 2011, Estonia intensely resented having to contribute to the bail-out of the far richer Greeks. Internal devaluation is difficult at the best of times. The IMF’s deputy managing director, Nemat Shafik, once memorably compared the process of recovering competitiveness to painting a house: If you have an exchange rate, you can move your brush back and forth. If you don’t have an exchange rate, you have to move the whole house.
Successful adjustment requires flexible labour markets and an open economy that can export its way back to growth, as well as a population willing to put up with the pain. Greece had none of these: it was a closed, rigid economy and its politics was polarised by a history of occupation, civil war and military rule. As such, Greece was the most recalcitrant of the euro-zone countries to be rescued.
Greek leaders, even as they slashed the budget, did not understand how extensive structural reforms needed to be, and made no progress on privatisation. IMF experts returning from missions to Greece were increasingly alarmed by the dysfunctional public administration they found. And the Greek government was not helped by the opportunistic opposition that it had to contend with from the New Democracy party, which had, after all, run up the deficit in its last stint in government.
Even so, it was plain to all that Greece was being pushed into a recession that was far deeper than anyone had predicted. The situation was aggravated by successive statistical revisions that kept pushing back the country’s starting point, and the crushing loss of investor confidence caused by the growing talk of Greece leaving the euro.
To many, the Deauville bargain is the grievous error that turned an admittedly risky Greek programme into a catastrophe. In reality, Deauville was only part of a wider confusion that gripped the Europeans from the start. They were in a muddle about whether Greece was solvent or bust, and thus vacillated over how to deal with its accumulated debt. They first chose a complete bail-out; then at Deauville suddenly flirted with the idea of across-the-board bail-in of creditors; and then backed away from the idea more or less entirely. By July, when they got around to cutting Greece’s debt, the haircut was too modest and came too late. Months were wasted seeking a “voluntary” contribution from private creditors that would not trigger credit-default swaps (CDS); in the end CDS contracts were paid out anyway. The same uncertainty affected their judgment about the pace of fiscal consolidation.
To make the numbers fit within the money made available by the euro zone and the IMF, Greece was forced into excessively harsh deficit-cutting (and at first had to pay high rates of interest). In contrast with Latvia, which cut its budget as its main trading partners were still stimulating their economies, Greece was trying to consolidate its budget while others were reducing deficits as well. Crucially, the Baltic States also had low debts to begin with; even after the worst of its recession, Latvia’s debt stood at about 45% of GDP, less than half of Greece’s at the start of its troubles.
A sober assessment in May 2010 should have judged that Greece’s debt was unsustainable, and that it would have been better to cut the debt sooner rather than delay the inevitable. This would have resulted in a more realistic programme, focused less on austerity and more on structural reform, and better able to absorb the inevitable political and economic bumps. At the time, however, it might have been difficult to convince Germany that its banks had to take losses on Greek debt even as German taxpayers were being called upon to lend enormous sums to Greece. That said, even a large debt write-off would not have spared Greece a painful adjustment to close a budget deficit gap of 15% of GDP and a current-account deficit of similar magnitude.
Fudged assessments, unsustainable debt, inadequate financing, Greece’s many political failures and uncertainty about the euro all fed the constant fear of a chaotic default. The Greek death spiral, and the incoherence of the euro zone’s leaders, threatened to take down the whole currency. Contagion threatened to bring down Italy, the scariest debtor of all. Even with the will to act more decisively, governments would have struggled to find the money to stabilise the euro zone once Italy started to wobble. By the end of 2011, only the central bank had the resources to stabilise the system. What would it take for it to stand as the euro zone’s lender of last resort?
4. Build-up to a crisis
IF THERE IS AN ORIGINAL SIN in the creation of the euro, it is, for many in Berlin and Brussels, the breach of the stability and growth pact in 2003. Germany and France colluded to block any official rebuke or sanctions for letting their budget deficits rise above the Maastricht ceiling of 3% of GDP. After a battle with the European Commission that ended up at the European Court of Justice, they negotiated a looser version of the pact in 2005 that, to critics, rendered it toothless. From then on, so the story goes, all semblance of fiscal discipline was abandoned. Today’s German ministers castigate their predecessors for leading the euro zone into sin rather than virtue. Yet this account offers at best only a partial explanation of what went wrong.
It is true that countries that tightened their belts to qualify for membership of the single currency relaxed their reforming effort after it started life in 1999. Many felt that it was enough to have proved wrong the doom-mongers in the UK and the United States who had predicted either that the euro would never arrive or that it would quickly break up (at one point in 1999, when it fell in value, it was christened a “toilet currency” by traders in London; others referred to the euro as the “zero”). Moreover, as Europe then entered a mild recession in 2001–02 there were others, beyond France and Germany that were in excessive deficit. In purely economic terms, though, the original stability pact was too rigid, pushing countries into procyclical austerity whenever they found themselves in a downturn. The reformed version made greater allowances for the impact of the economic cycle, and tried to strip out one-off measures through which countries sought to game the numbers.
Most euro-zone countries remained within the limits and, in subsequent years, the number of sinners gradually declined. The real failing of the pact was that an obsession with budgets, especially the annual deficits, blinded ministers and officials to more serious underlying problems in the euro zone. “The whole system was looking at the economy through the keyhole of fiscal policy,” says one Commission veteran. By 2007 the fiscal situation had seemingly never been better. All members of the euro zone were out of the excessive deficit procedure (EDP) by mid-2008, and so formally deemed to have their public finances in order though the credit crunch was intensifying. The Commission boasted that reform of the pact had promoted discipline and national “ownership”. Even Greece was released from the EDP in 2007, despite persistent doubts about the reliability of its figures. But, rather as with the enforcement of the pact, governments would not hear of the Commission being given the power to audit their national figures.
It is significant that, on the eve of the crisis, three of the five countries that would later have to be bailed out – Ireland, Spain and Cyprus – were virtuous by the standards of the stability and growth pact. They were running budget surpluses and had a stock of debt well below the Maastricht ceiling of 60% of GDP. Their problem was not a matter of poor enforcement, or of fabricated statistics, but of a misguided belief that controlling fiscal policy was all that really mattered. The crisis revealed the much greater importance of several other factors: economic imbalances, particularly in the current account of the balance of payments; private debt; and the role of the financial sector in financing external deficits.
The focus on fiscal rules had been justified by two beliefs. The first was that, in a single currency with a common exchange rate and monetary policy, fiscal sinners were less likely to be punished by markets that might otherwise speculate against a country in danger of running into problems of high inflation or debt. Profligacy in one country could thus drive up borrowing costs for all. The second, conversely, was that a euro-zone country that got into trouble would not be able to devalue or loosen monetary policy, and would not enjoy the sorts of automatic transfers that operate in federal countries, so the main tool to absorb a shock would be greater borrowing by the government: hence the need for sound public finances.
In countries with their own currencies, markets and policymakers closely watch the current account for signs of an economy getting out of line. The current-account balance is a measure of the balance of trade, foreign income and transfers. A deficit can be a problem if, say, it highlights a country’s loss of competitiveness and export share; or it can be benign, if it reflects greater returns on capital flowing into a country undergoing a period of fast catch-up growth. Current-account deficits must by definition be financed by capital inflows. Yet there was a widespread belief, echoed on occasion by the Commission and the ECB, that, in a single-currency zone with an integrated financial market, current-account imbalances did not matter any more than they did within federal countries like the United States.
In the early 2000s, years that became known as the “great moderation”, when money was cheap, euro-zone countries were able to build up large external imbalances (15% of GDP in Greece). Had they still had national currencies, this would surely have provoked a response from markets. Instead, everybody benefited from low interest rates. Thus was born the great paradox of economic and monetary union. In order for countries to survive within it, they needed to make deeper structural reforms to improve their competitiveness; and yet the pressure to push through those reforms was reduced by the benign mood of financial markets. Many had hoped the creation of the euro would force ossified countries like Italy to change their ways. Losing the ability to devalue meant that competitiveness could be recovered only by “internal devaluation” (that is, bringing down wages and prices relative to others), boosting productivity, or both. This meant liberalising labour and product markets, and promoting competition. But for countries used to high inflation and high interest rates before the launch of the euro, any loss of competitiveness could be masked for a long time by cheaper money.
By about 2005 it was apparent that national economies, far from converging as they had been expected to do, were pulling apart. The differences were no greater than the dispersion in growth rates in American states, but they were worryingly persistent. Some were growing fast with high inflation, among them Ireland, Greece and Spain. All were enjoying a boom fuelled by low interest rates. At the other end of the spectrum, mighty Germany was growing anaemically, but with very low inflation. To some extent the ECB’s one-size-fits-all interest rate exacerbated this polarisation: interest rates were too low for overheating countries, but too high for Germany (the situation is reversed today). The two oddities were Italy and Portugal, which seemed to be suffering the worst of both worlds with, simultaneously, slow growth and higher-than-average inflation.
There were, indeed, marked differences among both the hares and the tortoises. Among the fastgrowing countries, Greece had a government that was spending recklessly and fiddling statistics, whereas Spain and Ireland had public finances seemingly in good order, but private sectors that were running up high debt as a side-effect of housing booms. Too few questioned whether buoyant tax revenues might not just be a windfall from a property bubble. When it burst, they would collapse and spending would shoot up to pay for unemployed construction workers. Ireland’s net exports were booming even as it was overheating, but Spain’s were shrinking. Over two decades, Ireland had gone from being the poorest EU country to being one of the richest. But while the Celtic Tiger put on real muscle in the early years, boosting productivity by turning itself into an export base for multinationals, later it just gorged itself on cheap credit.
Among the laggards, Germany’s sickliness masked a process of protracted reform, especially Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010 labour-market and welfare changes, pushed through after 2003. Germany was still digesting the cost of absorbing the former East Germany, and had entered the euro with an overvalued currency. But in a country accustomed to living with a hard currency and low inflation, and relatively consensual industrial relations, German bosses and workers set off on the long slog of wage restraint to regain competitiveness. Internal demand was so weak that almost all Germany’s growth came from increasing exports. But in Italy and Portugal slow growth was an unmistakable signal of reform paralysis. Both were losing export share. Higher inflation was pushing up wages, while productivity was stagnant. Italy had higher debt than Portugal, but Portugal was running higher budget deficits.
One cause of the problem was that southern European countries were hit harder than northern ones by China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation at the end of 2001. China’s exports of textiles, clothing and footwear grew sharply; those of Italy and Portugal declined markedly. Another issue was that foreign direct investment had shifted from the Mediterranean countries to the new countries from central and eastern Europe which joined the EU in 2004. There cheap skilled labour was plentiful.
Germany made full use of the opportunity by shifting factory production eastward. But France, among others, resisted. Rather it regarded low-cost, low-tax eastern Europe resentfully as a source of competition and “social dumping”. According to the World Bank, which in 2012 produced a detailed report on Europe’s economic model,1 another drawback in southern Europe was that many of its small family-run businesses were unsuited to competing in a big European market.
The striking north-south divide that has emerged in Europe may have even more profound historical and sociological roots. Many cite Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic. Others speak of Catholics’ greater readiness to absolve sins. When giving lectures, Vítor Constâncio, vice-president of the ECB and a former economics professor from Portugal, would sometimes hold up a colour-coded map of Europe and ask audiences what the darker colours in the north and lighter shades in the south might represent. The usual reply was GDP per head. In fact, they denoted literacy rates in the 19th century, with bible-reading northern Protestants more literate than the priest-dominated southern Catholics. Plainly debt and deficits are not the only or even the best measure of economic health. The trend in unit labour costs (flat in Germany but rising fast in the periphery) and current-account balances (surpluses in Germany and deficits in the periphery) is crucial.
Some of the euro zone’s problems might have been alleviated by reforms, both national and European, to make wages and prices more responsive. But along with reform fatigue in member countries, there was also integration fatigue across the EU. Deepening the single market might have provided a source of growth and competitive impulse. Much of the EU’s productivity lag, in comparison with the United States, is due to underperforming services. But the EU’s services directive, designed to break down some of the barriers, was watered down after the defeat of the constitutional treaty in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. One reason was the panic in France over the supposed threat of the “Polish plumber”. Soon afterwards Roberto Maroni, an Italian minister from the Northern League, caused a stir by excoriating the euro for Italy’s poor performance and calling for a return to the lira.
Slow growth, economic divergence and political tension led some economists to start asking as early as 2006 whether the euro might break apart. Daniel Gros of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think-tank in Brussels, thought that sluggish Germany and roaring Spain would soon swap places (he also worried about Italy).2 Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform in London painted a scenario in which markets might lose confidence in Italy, with its slow growth and reluctance to reform, pushing up its borrowing costs and debt, in turn prompting demands that Italy leave the euro.3
Banking on the euro
The launch of the euro greatly increased financial integration. Often banks grew large in comparison to their home countries’ GDP, and in comparison to banks in the United States, in part because European firms relied more heavily on bank loans than on the corporate-bond market. But it was a lopsided sort of integration. Cross-border lending to banks and sovereigns grew fast, but retail lending remained Balkanised in national markets. Cross-border ownership of banks grew only slowly. Mergers and acquisitions tended to happen within a country’s borders, a sign of strong economic nationalism in the banking sector.
Cross-border ownership was most apparent in the EU’s new members from central and eastern Europe. Among members of “old” Europe it remained for the most part tiny. But by late 2007, partly as a result of the Commission’s efforts to chip away at internal barriers, there was enough crossborder expansion to prompt at least one economist, Nicolas Véron, to publish a paper for the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels titled: Is Europe Ready for a Major Banking Crisis?4 He noted that banks had become too large and diversified for national supervisors, even if they met in the then Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS), to oversee properly. He said:
The prudential framework for pan-European banks has become a maze of national authorities (51 are members of CEBS alone), EU-level committees (no fewer than nine) and bilateral arrangements (some 80 recently mentioned by European Commissioner Charlie McCreevy).
In an early hint at the future “banking union” that would emerge five years later, Véron argued that the largest cross-border banks (including British ones, given London’s large financial centre) should be supervised by an EU-level body, with a single set of rules to deal with failing banks and a harmonized deposit-insurance system.
Financial integration, it was widely hoped, would stimulate a more efficient allocation of capital across the EU. And in the euro zone, it was supposed to provide a means of absorbing country-specific shocks given the lack of adjustment tools. But when crisis struck, financial integration provided an open channel for financial contagion to spread. The fact that banks were large, and that their bond holdings were strongly biased in favour of their own sovereign’s debt, helped create a deadly feedback loop between weak sovereigns and weak banks. And because most of the banks’ cross-border assets were in the form of lending, rather than equity, the international flows that had financed euro-zone imbalances could more easily be cut off when credit became scarce.
Most or all of these problems were reasonably well understood and, indeed, predicted before the launch of the euro. In the Commission’s book on the euro, EMU@10,5 published in 2008 just ahead of the tenth anniversary of the start of the monetary union, there is mention of worries about imbalances, the divergence of economies and the dangers lurking in the banking system. But nowhere in its 320 turgid pages did it issue a clear warning, of the sort that some independent economists were voicing, about the risks of a self-fulfilling market panic, or of a destructive doom-loop between banks and sovereigns, or of large contingent liabilities in banks ending up on the books of already overindebted sovereigns. The clearest message was one of self-congratulation over the “resounding success” of the euro. It had boosted economic stability, cross-border trade, financial integration and investment, declared the authors. Traumatic exchange-rate crises were a thing of the past, and fiscal stability had been enhanced. Indeed, the euro had become “a pole of stability for Europe and the world economy”.
The euro having survived a decade, and regained its strength against the dollar, it was perhaps natural for European officials to boast of its achievements and dismiss the doomsayers, particularly those from the English-speaking world.
A much deeper mystery is the complacency of financial markets. They utterly failed to distinguish between the dodgy credit of Greece and the rock-solid dependability of Germany. The yield on government bonds (which moves inversely to price) fell in peripheral countries in the early years of the euro so that it became almost identical across the euro zone. Italy sometimes had to pay six percentage points more than Germany in interest to borrow money in the 1990s. By 2007, this “spread” had fallen to a fraction of a percentage point (about 20 basis points). Getting markets to impose discipline on governments had been one reason for enshrining the no-bail-out rule and forbidding the ECB from monetising government debt.
Perhaps investors were simply chasing anything that offered a marginally better yield. Markets often overshoot in both directions, after all. Some were still convinced the euro would lead to convergence among European economies. Others assumed that default within the euro zone was unthinkable: whatever the treaties said, solidarity among members would prevail, one way or another.
In his 1989 report on setting up a single currency, Jacques Delors himself had argued that, far from penalising imbalances, financial markets might for a while finance them because of the attraction of a large pool of euro-denominated debt:6
Rather than leading to gradual adaptation of borrowing costs, market views about the creditworthiness of official borrowers tend to change abruptly and result in the closure of access to market financing.
Before EMU yields were spread far apart, reflecting the market’s perception of each country’s risk of inflation, devaluation and default. They then narrowed as the launch of EMU approached before becoming closely entwined through the first decade of the euro. Then, with the onset of the euro crisis in late 2008, they spread out once more as markets suddenly started to worry about the risk of default. Greece and Ireland were to be the first strands to come loose.
3. How it all works
THE EUROPEAN PROJECT (and thus the euro) suffers both from a lack of clarity over its precise nature and end-point and from the dull complexity of its institutional structure. Like a pantomime horse, it has long had a dual character, reflecting an initial compromise between those countries wanting a United States of Europe and those preferring a club of nation-states. Thus it has federalist elements such as the European Commission, a (now directly elected) European Parliament, a European Court of Justice and a European Central Bank. But it also has strong inter-governmental bodies: the Council of Ministers, representing national governments, and the European Council of heads of state and government. An important force throughout the euro crisis has been the tension between those preferring federal answers (often called the “community” method) and those favouring intergovernmental solutions (sometimes referred to as the “union” method).1
At the heart of both the EU and the euro stands the European Commission, to which each of the currently 28 national governments appoints one commissioner for a five-year term (the next Commission takes office at the end of 2014). Commissioners, based in Brussels, are legally required to be wholly independent, although in practice they usually do what they can to advance national interests. The “college” of 28 commissioners sits above a 20,000-strong bureaucracy that functions as the European Union’s executive branch. The Commission is the guardian of the treaties, has the nearexclusive right of legislative initiative, administers competition and state-aid law and conducts certain third-party negotiations, for instance on trade, on behalf of the EU as a whole.
The Council of Ministers is the senior legislative body. It consists of ministers from national governments, meeting in different formations (finance or EcoFin, agriculture and fisheries, environment, and so on). In many areas the Council takes decisions by qualified majority, a system of weighted votes that, under the 2009 Lisbon treaty, is due to change in late 2014 into a new arrangement of a “double majority” that takes greater account of population size. Council meetings are prepared by officials in the Committee of Permanent Representatives in Brussels (COREPER); EcoFin meetings are often prepared by the official-level Economic and Financial Committee; and there is also a euro working group. The Council presidency rotates every six months from one country to another, though this system has been modified, under Lisbon, by the arrival of a permanent president of the European Council and a high representative for foreign policy, who chairs Council meetings of foreign ministers as well as being a vice-president of the Commission.
The European Council is, in effect, the most senior formation of the Council of Ministers. It did not exist at the start of the European project, but over time the practice of calling occasional summit meetings of heads of state and government to give general direction and to resolve the most contentious disputes became habitual. Under Lisbon, the European Council has a full-time president, currently Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy, who serves for a maximum of five years (his term expires at the end of 2014). Van Rompuy has set the pattern of holding European Council meetings every two months or so. These summits have often received much publicity, especially during the euro crisis when they have often drifted into weekends and the early hours of the morning. Over time, the European Council has become the strategic engine of the European Union, largely displacing the Commission, a switch that has become even clearer as a result of the euro crisis.
The Commission makes most of its legislative proposals jointly to the Council and the European Parliament, the second legislative body in the EU. The Parliament, which has been directly elected since 1979, now has 751 members. At French insistence, it is formally based in Strasbourg for most of its monthly plenary sessions, although its committees and most of its members (MEPs) are generally based in Brussels. Elections are held every five years: the 2014 ones are scheduled to take place between May 22nd and May 25th. Successive treaties have given the Parliament ever-greater powers, and it is now more or less co-equal with the Council of Ministers in legislation. The European Parliament must approve the annual budget as well as the multi-annual financial framework. It can reject the budget (it did so in December 1979). Unlike the Council, it can also sack the Commission (it used this power to force the Santer Commission’s resignation in 1999). And, again under Lisbon, the Parliament now has the power to “elect” the Commission president, after he or she is nominated by the European Council, a provision that creates an obvious risk of a huge institutional bust-up.
The most important remaining institution is the European Court of Justice, based in Luxembourg, which acts as the European Union’s supreme court and adjudicates on disputes both among the institutions and between countries in areas of EU competence (so it has no role in the criminal law, for example). The court has one judge per country, though there is also a Court of First Instance to reduce its workload. Cases are usually decided by simple majority. The Court of Justice (not to be confused with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, part of the Council of Europe) has advanced European integration in several judgments, notably the 1963 Van Gend en Loos case, which established the principle of the supremacy of European over national law, and the 1979 Cassis de Dijon judgment, which laid down that goods sold in one country must be able to be sold in all. Other EU bodies include the Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank, both based in Luxembourg, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions, both based in Brussels – and a plethora of smaller agencies scattered right across Europe.2
These institutions operate collectively by the “community method”. This describes the classical path of EU legislation: a proposal is made by the Commission; it is adopted by co-decision between the Council and the European Parliament, often followed by “trilogue” between the two and the Commission to reconcile their positions; it is then implemented by national authorities and is subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice. But at many times in the past, and again during the euro crisis, national governments, especially those of the UK and France, have jibbed against the community method. President de Gaulle’s Fouchet plan would have set up inter-governmental institutions alongside the Brussels machinery. The Maastricht treaty introduced two new “pillars” for foreign and security policy and for justice and home affairs, in which the roles of the Commission and the Parliament were limited and legislation was not generally justiciable at the Court of Justice, unlike most other EU activities.
In practice most such efforts to work outside the “community method” have proved unsatisfactory. The Fouchet plan did not get anywhere. The Maastricht pillars have, under the Lisbon treaty, been subsumed back within the first pillar. Yet many national governments, including now Germany, still like the simplicity of working inter-governmentally. During the euro crisis, Angela Merkel has often praised the “union method”, which downgrades the roles of the Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice.
Enter the ECB
Several institutions for the single currency were bolted onto the system after the Maastricht treaty was ratified. Foremost among these is the European Central Bank, which started work in June 1998 (it had a forerunner, the European Monetary Institute, set up in 1994). The ECB, which at German insistence is based in Frankfurt, home of the Bundesbank, sits at the apex of what is called the European System of Central Banks, to which all national central banks belong (even those from EU countries still outside the euro). The ECB has a six-strong executive board, headed by a president and a vicepresident, all of whom serve single eight-year terms. Its governing council consists of this board plus the governors of the national central banks of countries in the euro. It normally takes decisions by simple majority. The initial system of one vote per council member is to be superseded, most probably during 2015, by an arrangement that will give the executive board six votes, add four votes that rotate among the five biggest euro members and give the rest, no matter how many there are, 11 votes in total (this change creates at least the theoretical possibility that the Bundesbank’s president might not always have a vote on the council).
The ECB was modelled on the German Bundesbank but is in many ways even more powerful and independent. Its goal, fixed by the Maastricht treaty, is price stability (close to but below 2%), whereas the Federal Reserve, its American counterpart, is also required to pay attention to employment. Its operational independence in delivering the goal of price stability, which it defines itself, is also guaranteed by the same treaty. Unlike other central banks, it has no single government or finance ministry to interact with and report to, though its president testifies before the European Parliament and attends most meetings of the European Council and often EcoFin and the Eurogroup as well. In line with the Bundesbank model, when EMU arrived the ECB was not given overall responsibility for bank supervision, which stayed at national level, an arrangement that has since been deemed unsatisfactory, with the planned “banking union” giving supervision of most large European banks to the ECB. It also had no obligation to act as the system’s lender of last resort, a huge potential problem once it took over the operation of monetary policy from national central banks. One big difference between the ECB and most other central banks is that it is much smaller (it has a staff of less than 1,000) and also, because of the continuing role of the national central banks, a lot more decentralised. That makes the role of the president, the ECB’s public face, especially important.
Given this, it was foolish and dangerous when the European Council chose to welcome the new bank with an all-day wrangle in May 1998 over who should be its president. The job had long been intended to go to Wim Duisenberg, a former Dutch central banker who had run the European Monetary Institute. But at the last minute the French president, Jacques Chirac, put forward Jean-Claude Trichet for the job. The outcome was a botched and undignified compromise in which the term was informally split between the two men. Duisenberg stepped down in 2003, leaving Trichet to serve a complete eight-year term, until he in turn was replaced by an Italian, Mario Draghi, in 2011.
The lack of any strong political authority to act as a counterpart to the ECB was obvious from the start. The Commission has scarcely more accountability than the bank. The European Parliament is elected, but it has no executive authority. The European Council and EcoFin include non-members of the euro. From an early stage the French pushed for the creation of some form of “economic government”, but the Germans resisted the concept in order to safeguard the ECB’s independence.
Instead, in 1998 European governments came up with the idea of a “Eurogroup” of finance ministers.
Finance ministers from non-euro countries fiercely resisted the Eurogroup’s establishment. The UK’s Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, tried hard to join as an observer at the group’s first meeting at the Château de Senningen in Luxembourg in June 1997, only to be told by his French counterpart, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that the euro was like a marriage and that, in a marriage, one did not invite strangers into the bedroom (a precept that Strauss-Kahn has followed only erratically in his own life).
In any event the Eurogroup soon became accepted, and it even acquired its own permanent chairman: first, Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister and finance minister, and then, from the end of 2012, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister. By this time it had also become accepted, once again over objections from countries outside the euro, supported by Germany, that European heads of government should meet periodically in euro-zone summits, usually just after full European Councils. In either formation, the Eurogroup has no statutory basis and no legislative powers. But it has become an essential part of the single currency’s architecture.
Another component is the “excessive deficit procedure”. This began in the Maastricht treaty and was reformulated into the stability and growth pact, which was approved in 1997. However, from the very beginning the rules against excessive deficits and public-debt levels were interpreted flexibly, not least so that Belgium and Italy could join the single currency. The stability pact’s provisions for sanctions were watered down in negotiation from being automatic, as the Germans originally wanted, to requiring qualified-majority approval by the Council. Even so, the pact attracted much criticism from economists, who felt that, given euro-zone countries’ loss of an independent monetary and exchange-rate policy, more not less fiscal flexibility might be needed. It was also thought that imposing central rules might undermine the force of the treaty’s “no-bail-out” provisions, because it would imply a high degree of central intrusion. Better, many argued, to rely on the bond markets to impose discipline on any country that borrowed so much that it looked to be at risk of defaulting.3
The pact’s credibility was further dented in 2002 when Romano Prodi, president of the Commission, called it “stupid”. Portugal was the first country to get into difficulties, and it was duly required to amend its budget to comply with the pact. But it was never likely to constrain bigger countries and, in late 2003, its potency was almost entirely destroyed when France and, ironically, Germany itself persuaded the Council to override a Commission recommendation that both countries should cut their budget deficits, which had drifted above 3% of GDP.4
The gutting of the stability pact made it less of a surprise, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, that the deficits and debt levels of most euro-zone countries went above the Maastricht ceilings.
Naturally, the crisis also prompted calls for a revival of the excessive deficits procedure, but with new teeth. Its new incarnation, adopted in late 2011, includes the “two-pack” and “six-pack” and sets out a “European semester”. Euro-zone countries now have to submit their draft budgets to the Commission in advance, and the Commission can request changes before national parliaments even have a chance to consider them. A new excessive imbalances procedure has also been added, enabling the Commission to monitor and make recommendations for countries that, among other things, run large current-account imbalances (defined, with a nod to chronically underconsuming Germany, as 4% of GDP for deficits but 6% of GDP for surpluses).
In terms of sanctions, the new procedures look similar to the old except that now a Commission recommendation will be automatically adopted unless a qualified majority in the Council votes against it. Such a negative qualified-majority procedure is also enshrined in the “fiscal compact” treaty, which was approved and ratified in 2012 as an inter-governmental treaty using the “union method”, partly because several governments including France’s and Germany’s liked it that way, partly because the UK and the Czech Republic refused to sign it (the Czechs now plan to do so) and partly because it allowed the treaty’s drafters to provide that it would come into force even if some countries failed to ratify it. The fiscal compact requires all signatories to insert debt brakes into their national constitutional arrangements. It also formalises, with the Euro Plus Pact, the existence of euro summits, alongside European Councils.
The euro crisis has added a set of further, ad hoc pieces to the single currency’s institutional architecture, many of them also set up on the union method. First came the temporary European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), an inter-governmental vehicle set up in a rush after the rescue of Greece in May 2010. Alongside this there is a smaller European Financial Stability Mechanism, which uses the EU budget as collateral. Both funds are being subsumed into the permanent treaty-based European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The ESM was set up as an organisation under public international law with a board of governors (that is, finance ministers) and a managing director, Klaus Regling, previously the Commission’s economics director-general. Although an inter-governmental body, the ESM has operational links to the Commission and is also subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
One reason it is often hard for outsiders to understand how either the EU or the euro works is that, for the past 25 years or so, the entire European project has been going through a veritable orgy of treatymaking.
After the Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht treaty, signed in February 1992, there was but a short pause before the Amsterdam treaty of 1997 and then the Nice treaty of 2001.
Each time, it seemed, the driving force for successive treaties was a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction at what had been done on the previous occasion and at what had failed to be agreed or had been left out. The expansion of the European Union to take in Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995 and, in a far bigger challenge, eight central and eastern European countries from the former Soviet block plus Cyprus and Malta in 2004 was another consideration.
Even as the euro emerged from infancy in December 2001, just before the date for the issue of euro notes and coins, EU leaders, meeting in Laeken in Belgium, decided to have one more go at their governing treaties. This time they set up a convention on the future of Europe, chaired by a former French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, which swiftly decided, amid much excited chatter drawing analogies with Philadelphia in 1787, to draw up a complete new constitution for the EU. The text of this constitutional treaty was broadly endorsed by an inter-governmental conference and then adopted at a European Council meeting in 2004. But after that the trouble began, because no fewer than ten countries announced plans to put the draft constitution to national referendums before ratification.5
Several treaty referendums had been held before, and in some cases treaties had been rejected only to be put to the vote again (this happened in Denmark over Maastricht and Ireland over Nice). But never had so many referendums been promised at once. In the event, it should not have come as a huge surprise when two of the first four said no: in France on May 29th 2005 and then in the Netherlands on June 3rd 2005, in both cases by large majorities. The expedient of making a few modifications and asking single small countries to vote again was clearly not going to work with such large founder members. So the constitution was abandoned.
The immediate impact of this setback on the euro may have seemed slight. But it fostered a broader sense of crisis in the EU as a whole. One reason was that it made everybody leery of further attempts at treaty change, a feeling that has persisted into the euro crisis. The gloom was intensified by the coincidence of yet another row over the EU’s budget. Although the budget is small, at little more than 1% of EU-wide GDP, its excessive spending on agriculture and its skewed net benefits have caused repeated arguments at least since Margaret Thatcher came to power in the UK in 1979 and promptly demanded “my money back”. Her determined handbagging of fellow European leaders eventually produced a series of ad hoc rebates, followed by a permanent abatement of the net British budget contribution, which was agreed at a European Council in Fontainebleau in 1984.6
Despite this deal, subsequent negotiations on the EU’s multiannual financial framework have proved almost equally contentious, and the one in 2005 was no exception. The UK, which wanted a smaller budget, less spending on agriculture and to preserve its rebate untouched, was once again in the doghouse, but several other countries favoured budgetary cuts while the new members from central and eastern Europe wanted far more spending. A compromise was reached only at the end of the year, when the British prime minister, Tony Blair, gave up part of the rebate to ensure that the UK would bear a fair share of the costs of enlargement to the east. But the sour atmosphere helped to cloud much other business, including that of the euro. Juncker, as president of the Council, declared that the EU was “in deep crisis”.
The gloom also spilt over into the other big issue facing European leaders at the start of 2006: what to do about the failed constitutional treaty. On this the key person was the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who took office in late 2005 at the head of a “grand coalition” between her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. She was determined to revive as much as she could from the constitution, not least because the new voting system that it proposed at long last recognized that Germany’s population is larger than that of other EU countries. After her fellow centre-right leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, became French president in mid-2007, the two pressed ahead with what later became the Lisbon treaty, which incorporated most of what had been in the constitution but in a disguised and less comprehensible fashion.
Critics complained that reviving the treaty in this way was a backdoor route around the negative votes in France and the Netherlands. They objected even more vociferously when almost all EU leaders, including the French and the Dutch, said they would not try to ratify Lisbon by referendums but use parliamentary votes instead. The exception was Ireland, which was constitutionally required to hold a referendum. Yet again, Irish voters said no, this time in June 2008. But just over a year later, after the financial crisis had struck, they were persuaded to change their minds in a fresh vote, so Lisbon was finally approved in late 2009. The new permanent president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium, and the new high representative for foreign and security policy, Baroness Catherine Ashton of the UK, were chosen at a summit shortly afterwards, after yet another wrangle. But by then the focus of attention was starting to shift to the crisis in Greece – and particularly to the fiscal problems of a newly elected Greek Socialist government
2. From the origins to Maastricht
THE EUROPEAN PROJECT was a consequence of the second world war and the cold war. How to tame the German problem that had led to two world wars? How to harness its economic power to rebuild Europe? And how to reconstitute the German army to help fend off the Soviet threat? The answer to these conundrums was to fuse the German economy within a common European system, and to embed its armed forces within a transatlantic military alliance.
Already in 1946, just a year after the war had ended, Churchill called in his Zurich speech for the creation of a “kind of United States of Europe”, to be built on the basis of a partnership between France and Germany:1
At present there is a breathing-space. The cannon have ceased firing. The fighting has stopped; but the dangers have not stopped. If we are to form the United States of Europe or whatever name or form it may take, we must begin now.
Four years later, with a strong nudge from the United States, the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, produced a plan to integrate the coal and steel industries of France, Germany and anyone else who would want to join the project. This led directly to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951.2
The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible. The setting up of this powerful productive unit, open to all countries willing to take part and bound ultimately to provide all the member countries with the basic elements of industrial production on the same terms, will lay a true foundation for their economic unification.
This was the germ of the idea of European economic integration. Today the anniversary of the speech (May 9th) is celebrated as a holiday by the European institutions (known as Schuman Day).
The ECSC encompassed not only France and Germany, but also Italy and the three Benelux countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Jean Monnet, a French civil servant and scion of a cognac-trading family, who was in many ways the éminence grise behind the entire European project, acted as the first president of its high authority.3
Schuman and Monnet followed the successful establishment of the ECSC with an attempt to set up a pan-European army, the European Defence Community. But this was a step too far for France. The plan was blocked by a vote in the French National Assembly in August 1954. Henceforth NATO would provide the necessary security umbrella, while European integration would focus on economic matters.
The Messina conference of 1955 prepared the ground for the signing in 1957 of the Treaty of Rome, under which the six European countries that had joined the ECSC established a European Economic Community (EEC), which proclaimed the objective of an “ever closer union”. The treaty established a customs union and envisaged the progressive creation of a large unified economic area based on the “four freedoms” of movement – of people, services, goods and capital. The EEC is the direct forerunner of today’s European Union.
Despite Churchill’s ringing call in 1946, the UK, always a sceptic about European political integration, had stood aside from the process. Indeed, Churchill himself was clear that the UK would encourage but not join European integration. The British Labour government refused to sign up to Schuman’s plan, with the then home secretary (and grandfather to a later European commissioner, Peter Mandelson), Herbert Morrison, declaring bluntly that “it’s no good: the Durham miners won’t wear it”.4 A later Tory government sent only a junior official to Messina, with clear instructions not to sign up to anything. Yet by 1961, only four years after the Treaty of Rome, the Macmillan government lodged an application for membership, only to see it blocked by Charles de Gaulle’s veto in January 1963.
The notion of a single currency was present at the very creation of the European project. Jacques Rueff, a French economist, wrote in the 1950s that “Europe will be made through the currency, or it will not be made”.5 The idea of a common currency has even earlier roots. Various exchange-rate regimes emerged in 19th-century Europe, including the Zollverein (customs union) and the gold standard. The Latin Monetary Union, set up in 1866, embraced a particularly unlikely sounding group:
France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria (even more bizarrely, Venezuela later joined it). When it started Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist, delivered a warning that has a curious echo today:6
If we do nothing, what then? Why, we shall be left out in the cold … Before long, all Europe, save England, will have one money, and England be left standing with another money.
In the event, the Latin Monetary Union fell apart when it was hit by the disaster of the first world war.
The 1930s was another period of currency instability in Europe – and the world. The UK and the Scandinavian countries all chose to do the unthinkable in 1931 by leaving the gold standard and devaluing. A rival “gold block” led by France and including Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, chose to stay on the gold standard until 1935–36. As Nicholas Crafts showed in a 2013 paper for Chatham House, the early leavers did much better in terms of GDP and employment than the stayers – and France, which suffered a lot from clinging so long to gold, played a role equivalent to today’s Germany by hoarding the stuff and also insisting on running large current-account surpluses.7
Although the desire for currency stability carried through into the early years of the European project, the global system of fixed exchange rates linked to the dollar (and thus to gold) set up after the 1944 Bretton Woods conference that established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank seemed sufficient for most countries. But over time, and especially in France, the perception was growing that this system gave the Americans some sort of exorbitant privilege. This was one reason why the European Commission first formally proposed a single European currency in 1962. By the end of the decade, the revaluation of Germany’s Deutschmark against the French franc in 1969 created fresh trauma in both countries, which turned into renewed worries when the United States formally abandoned its link to gold two years later.
As the difficulty of living with a dominant but devaluing dollar increased, Willy Brandt, then German chancellor, revived plans for a currency union in Europe. His plan was taken up in the 1971 Werner report, named after a Luxembourgish prime minister, which argued for the adoption of a single currency by 1980. The report was endorsed in 1972 by all European heads of government, including those from the three countries that planned to join the club in 1973: Denmark, Ireland and the UK. Indeed, at a summit meeting of heads of government in Paris in December 1972, all nine national leaders, including the UK’s Edward Heath, signed up blithely not only to monetary union but also to political union by 1980. A last-minute attempt by the Danish prime minister to ask his colleagues exactly what was meant by political union was ignored by the French president, Georges Pompidou, who was in the chair.8
It was the final collapse of Bretton Woods, followed by the Arab-Israeli war and oil shock and then by the global recession of 1974–75, that upset most of these ambitious plans. Yet by then West Germany, always on the look-out for greater currency stability, had already set up a system linking most of Europe’s currencies to the Deutschmark, swiftly dubbed the “snake in the tunnel”. The idea was to set limits to bilateral currency fluctuations, enforced by central-bank intervention. However, it turned out that the snake had only a fitful and unsatisfactory life. The UK signed up in mid-1972, only to be forced out by the financial markets six weeks later. Both France and Italy joined and left the snake twice. Devaluations within the system were distressingly frequent. By 1978 there was still no sign of a general return to the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. So Europe’s political leaders came up with the idea of creating a grander version of the snake in the form of a European Monetary System (EMS). The EMS was mainly the brainchild of the French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and the German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, although the president of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins, acted as midwife. In March 1979, the EMS came into being. Its main provision was an exchange-rate mechanism that limited European currency fluctuations to 2¼% either side of a central rate (or to 6% for those with wider bands). All nine members of the European Community joined the system – except, as so often, the UK (this meant, incidentally, that the EMS broke up one of Europe’s few existing monetary unions, that between the UK and Ireland).
Yet for all its ambitions, the EMS proved only a little more permanent and solid than the snake. Italy was at best a fitful and wobbly member. And the election in 1981 of François Mitterrand as France’s first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic led to repeated devaluations of the franc – until the president, under the guidance of his new finance minister, Jacques Delors, and his most senior treasury official, Jean-Claude Trichet, adopted a new policy of le franc fort. When a year or two later Delors arrived in Brussels as the new president of the European Commission, he was quick once again to dust down the old plans for a European single currency.
The result was the Delors report, commissioned by European leaders in June 1988, which advocated a three-stage move towards European economic and monetary union (EMU). First, complete the single market, including the free movement of capital. Second, prepare for the creation of the European Central Bank and ensure economic convergence. Third, fix exchange rates and launch the euro, first as a currency of reckoning and then as notes and coins. The Delors report went on to form the basis of the Maastricht treaty, negotiated over 18 months and finally agreed on, with much fanfare, in the eponymous Dutch city in December 1991. The treaty was formally signed only in February 1992.
Maastricht laid the foundations for a new ECB and a single European currency, to be brought in either in 1997 or (at the latest) 1999. It also promised to make progress towards the parallel objective of political union; and it symbolically renamed the European Community the European Union.
The new treaty reflected above all the changed political situation in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire. Mitterrand, in particular, was minded to accept German unification after the fall of the wall only if France could secure some control of the Deutschmark, which he feared would otherwise become Europe’s de facto currency. In effect, he had no wish to replace the dominance of the dollar with the dominance of the Deutschmark. Hence the underlying Franco-German deal at Maastricht.
The French had long favoured a new single currency, over which they hoped (vainly, as it turned out) to exert greater influence, in large part to offset the growing might of a newly powerful united Germany. In his turn, the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, accepted the idea of giving up the Deutschmark, which many German voters as well as the Bundesbank were against, as a price for unification and as a giant step towards building a political union in Europe. Other countries signed up to this with more or less enthusiasm. As usual, the British concern was mainly to be allowed to opt out if they wanted, an objective that was easily secured by John Major, the prime minister, who told the press that the result was “game, set and match” to the UK.9
Besides a general (especially German) desire for currency stability and a wish to contain the power of a united Germany, two other forces were important in driving Europe along the road towards Maastricht and the decision to adopt a single currency. One was theoretical: the literature on shared currencies that began with Robert Mundell’s 1961 article outlining a theory of “optimum currency areas”. Mundell, a Canadian economics professor, posited that substantial welfare gains were to be had if a group of countries shared a currency – because of more transparent prices, lower transaction costs, enhanced competition and greater economies of scale for businesses and investors. But these gains needed to be weighed against the possible costs from losing both monetary and exchange-rate independence.10
Such costs, according to optimal currency-area theory, risked being especially high if the countries concerned suffered from internal labour-or product-market rigidities, had very different economic structures or were likely to be subject to asymmetric shocks. The theory went on to look at how groups of countries that did not meet these conditions could be changed to make them more suitable. The obvious remedies were more flexibility, notably in labour and product markets; greater labour mobility, so that workers who lost jobs in one country could move freely to countries with more job opportunities; and a substantial central budget that could transfer resources to countries that got into trouble. The 1977 MacDougall report had argued that, in the early stages of a European federal union, a central budget would have to be at least 5–7% of Europe-wide GDP, excluding defence (that is, 5–7 times the size of the existing European budget), if it was to be effective.11
The second force driving monetary union was a more practical one: the move towards a full single market that was being pushed forward by the Delors Commission, most notably by the British commissioner of the time, Arthur Cockfield. The Single European Act, approved and ratified in 1986–87, had paved the way for much greater use of qualified-majority voting (that is, a system of weighted majority as opposed to unanimity) on most directives and regulations. This was crucial to the adoption of the 1992 programme for completing the single market. With this step, what was about to become the European Union at last embraced, more or less in full, the four freedoms that had supposedly underpinned the project from its very beginnings: free movement of goods, services, labour and capital (the last remaining capital controls were abolished in 1990).12
The link between the single market and the single currency is not always clear, especially to Eurosceptics, who tend to prefer the first to the second. The reason it exists lies mostly in the fourth of the four freedoms: movement of capital. It is best summed up by the notion of the “impossible trinity” that became popular in the economics literature in the 1980s: the combination of free movement of capital, wholly national monetary policies and independent control of exchange rates was declared to be unworkable or even impossible because the three were likely to contradict each other. The solution, it was held both in the literature and by Europe’s political leaders, was not to revert to constraints on capital flows, still less to unpick the single market, but instead to press forward to a single currency.
Yet Mundell’s work also showed quite clearly that, outside a limited central group, Europe was a long way from being an optimal currency area. Labour and product markets were inflexible and overregulated. Workers’ mobility was limited, not just for obvious linguistic and cultural reasons between countries but even within them. Asymmetric shocks, far from being rare, were worryingly common: German unification was itself an example of one, as was the collapse of Finland’s trade with Russia in 1990 and the bursting of various property bubbles in the 1980s. And countries’ economies varied widely: Germany was strong in manufacturing but weak in services, whereas the UK was the reverse, for example, while national housing and mortgage markets differed hugely in their structure, operation, importance and sensitivity to interest-rate changes. The Maastricht negotiators were well aware of such problems, although many were swift to point out that the United States had a single currency without really being an optimal currency area either. But there were crucial differences between the American system and the euro zone.
Perhaps ironically, it was the UK’s David Cameron, prime minister of a country that will probably never join the single currency, who best summed up these defects, speaking 12 years after the euro was launched at a Davos World Economic Forum. As he then put it:13
There are a number of features common to all successful currency unions: a central bank that can comprehensively stand behind the currency and financial system; the deepest possible economic integration with the flexibility to deal with economic shocks; and a system of fiscal transfers and collective debt issuance that can deal with the tensions and imbalances between different countries and regions within the union. Currently it’s not that the euro zone doesn’t have all of these; it’s that it doesn’t really have any of these.
Instead of creating such structures, the creators of the euro limited themselves to devising a set of “convergence criteria” that national governments would be required to meet in order to qualify for membership of the European single currency. Yet, as many argued even at the time, they quite irresponsibly chose ones that had little to do with transforming Europe into something that might have more closely resembled an optimal currency area.
The right debate at Maastricht would have been about how best to push forward structural reforms to labour and product markets, how to improve countries’ competitiveness and current-account positions, how to create a backstop system of transfers or insurance and how to make sure that the putative European Central Bank could act properly as a lender of last resort. Plenty of commentators, including many from the United States and the UK, made such observations. One example was an article in The Economist in October 1998, which concluded:14
The current set-up looks unsatisfactory.The ECB should be recognised as lender of last resort. It could also be given central responsibility for financial-sector supervision.
In the event, the five criteria chosen for the Maastricht treaty were: low inflation and low longterm interest rates; two years’ membership of the exchange-rate mechanism of the EMS; and, most controversially of all, ceilings on public debt of 60% of GDP and on budget deficits of 3% of GDP.
Why were these last two tests chosen? The leaders of more prudent countries (that is, Germany and the Netherlands) argued that, if the single currency were to pass muster with sceptical financial markets and public opinion, limits would have to be set on potentially profligate public borrowers (by which they chiefly meant Italy and the Mediterranean countries).
But the truth was a lot more political. German voters were still hostile to the idea of giving up the Deutschmark. One reason was a widespread fear that Germany might end up having to bail out Europe’s most indebted countries, especially the most indebted of all: Italy. Thus the debt and deficit criteria were devised not so much on their economic merits, but rather in the expectation that they would keep Italy (and presumably also Spain, Portugal and Greece) out of the single currency, as these countries were expected to find it all but impossible to pass the two fiscal tests. The hope, in short, was that EMU would begin smoothly but with a small core group, essentially the Deutschmark zone plus (almost certainly) France.
Ready, steady, go
Two big events overturned this tidy plan. The first, which coincided ominously with the negotiation and signature of the Maastricht treaty, was yet another bout of financial-market jitters. Throughout the trauma of German unification, the EMS and its exchange-rate mechanism had continued to operate. Indeed, the UK chose to join in mid-1990, after a long and politically controversial experiment by the then chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, to “shadow” the Deutschmark without informing his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The strain of keeping up with a strong Deutschmark soon began to tell, and it was considerably increased in November 1990 by the ousting of Thatcher, largely over the issue of the UK’s attitude to plans for the new European treaty that later became Maastricht.
But it was the aftermath of German unification in that same month that really got the markets going. This asymmetric shock may have cost West Germany a lot of treasure and required massive new investment, but its effect in the marketplace was to increase demand for the German currency.
That sent the Deutschmark soaring, hitting German competitiveness at a time when much of Europe was on the verge of recession or actually in it. The markets became even more jittery when, in a June 1992 referendum, the Danes narrowly said no to the recently signed Maastricht treaty. In early September French voters said yes, but by the thinnest possible majority. By then the strains on the UK, Italy and France itself of supporting their exchange rates to keep up with the Deutschmark had grown intolerable. In a dramatic week in mid-September, first Italy and then the UK were forced out of the EMS’s exchange-rate mechanism. And the German Bundesbank had to intervene heavily to keep France in (a trick it repeated in late 1993, when the permissible bands in the exchange-rate mechanism were widened to 15%).
Those involved in what the British later came to call “Black Wednesday” drew very different conclusions from it. France became convinced that a single currency, over which it still hoped to exert some political control, was more essential than ever, for without it the Bundesbank would remain paramount. The UK concluded that a currency straitjacket was a bad idea and that it could never rely on German support, so Black Wednesday came to be seen as another reason to stay out of a single currency, if one ever came into being (it is worth recalling that a young Cameron was a political adviser to the chancellor of the exchequer, Norman Lamont, at the time of Black Wednesday). Italy, Spain and other Mediterranean countries drew a different lesson still: they decided that, while a single currency might well impose pain on them, it would be better to do whatever they could to hop on board from the beginning rather than risk falling further behind.
Hence also the second big development in the 1990s: the response of the Mediterranean countries, most of which the Germans still wanted to keep out. The test case was Italy. In the early 1990s its budget deficit and, even more obviously, its public debt were way above the Maastricht targets. Yet there was bound to be some flexibility in the system, not least because Belgium, which as the seat of the European institutions and part of the Benelux trio was seen by all as an essential founder member of EMU, also had a public debt in excess of 100% of GDP. In 1996 Romano Prodi, who had become Italian prime minister just over a year earlier, spoke to his Spanish counterpart, José Maria Aznar, about the possibility of jointly standing aside from the third stage of EMU when it came. But Aznar replied that he, at least, was determined to join from the start. That drove Prodi not only to rejoin the EMS but also to redouble his efforts to cut Italy’s budget deficit to below 3% of GDP. Given the Belgian position, it was always going to be hard to exclude Italy on the grounds of its public debt alone. This became truer still when France and to some extent Germany itself had to massage their budget numbers to get below the 3% ceiling in 1997 and 1998.
As the likelihood that Italy would be a founder member of the single currency became ever more obvious, the German finance minister, Theo Waigel, started to press harder for a formalisation and tightening of the rules limiting budget deficits and debts after EMU had started, as well as before. The Maastricht treaty had laid down an excessive deficits procedure, but Waigel felt that it was too flexible. Instead, he demanded a new “stability pact” that would automatically impose swingeing fines on any country that ran a budget deficit above 3% of GDP. Most other countries, led by France, naturally resisted any automatic sanctions.
Eventually Waigel was forced to give ground: the fines would be imposed only with the approval of a “qualified majority” of member governments (excluding the miscreant). When in France a new Socialist government was formed after the party won the parliamentary election of June 1997, he even had to concede a change of name to turn it into a “stability and growth pact”. Ironically enough, his own boss, Helmut Kohl, lost his job just over a year later to his Social Democratic challenger. This meant that the two original champions of the euro – Kohl and Mitterrand – had both left office by the time it actually began (and the two countries also had nominally centre-left governments in 1999).
Their successors as German and French leaders, Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac, felt less committed either to the euro in general or to the stability and growth pact in particular. Indeed, they were to become the first to breach its terms, in late 2003.
By late 1997, then, it was clear that all EU countries except Denmark, Sweden and the UK, all of which had opted out in one way or another, and Greece, which was miles from meeting any of the criteria, would join the euro when it began life in 1999. Physical notes and coins followed only in 2002, partly because of the time said to be needed to print and mint them in sufficient quantities. In the meantime Greece quietly slipped in to join the single currency at the start of 2001, at a time when few people were looking. Perhaps worryingly, this echoed the story of Greece’s entry into the EEC in 1981. The Commission had given a negative opinion on Greece’s application, but it was overruled by national governments largely on the basis that, as France’s classically minded president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, put it, “one does not say no to Plato”.15 It also helped that Greece’s prime minister in 2001, Costas Simitis, was bothwas both Germanophile and German-speaking. After Greece joined, the fun really began.