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Thursday, November 17, 2011

What is the real European Crisis ?

Is it the fact that an irrational and stubborn Greek public won't accept onerous conditions of austerity ? Or is there more to this story ? Of course there is, and George Friedman of STRATFOR elegantly explicates what's really going on in his latest post, "Greece and the Struggle of the European Elite"
Excerpts follow.

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Greece and the Struggle of the European Elite

Now we are seeing this elite struggle to preserve its vision. When Papandreou called for a referendum on austerity, the European elite put tremendous pressure on him to abandon his initiative. Given the importance of the austerity agreements to the future of Greece, the idea of a referendum made perfect sense. A referendum would allow the Greek government to claim its actions enjoyed the support of the majority of the Greek people. Obviously, it is not clear that the Greeks would have approved the agreement.

Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European elite did everything possible to prevent such an outcome. This included blocking the next tranche of bailout money and suspending all further bailout money until Greek politicians could commit to all previously negotiated austerity measures. European outrage at the idea of a Greek referendum makes perfect sense.

Coming under pressure from Greece and the European elite, Papandreou resigned and was replaced by a former vice president of the European Central Bank. Already abandoned by Papandreou, the idea of a referendum disappeared.

Two dimensions explain this outcome. The first was national. The common perception in the financial press is that Greece irresponsibly borrowed money to support extravagant social programs and then could not pay off the loans. But there also is validity to the Greek point of view. From this perspective, under financial pressure, the European Union was revealed as a mechanism for Germany to surge exports into developing EU countries via the union’s free trade system. Germany also used Brussels’ regulations and managed the euro such that Greece found itself in an impossible situation. Germany then called on Athens to impose austerity on the Greek people to save irresponsible financiers who, knowing perfectly well what Greece’s economic position was, were eager to lend money to the Greeks. Each version of events has some truth to it, but the debate ultimately was between the European and Greek elites. It was an internal dispute, and whether for Greece’s benefit or for the European financial system’s benefit, both sides were committed to finding a solution.

The second dimension had to do with the Greek public and the Greek and European elites. The Greek elite clearly benefited financially from the European Union. The Greek public, by contrast, had a mixed experience. Certainly, the 20 years of prosperity since the 1990s benefited many — but not all. Economic integration left the Greek economy wide open for other Europeans to enter, putting segments of the Greek economy at a terrific disadvantage. European competitors overwhelmed workers in many industries along with small-business owners in particular. So there always was an argument in Greece for opposing the European Union. The stark choice posed by the current situation strengthened this argument, namely, who would bear the burden of the European system’s dysfunction in Greece? In other words, assuming the European Union was to be saved, who would absorb the cost? The bailouts promised by Germany on behalf of Europe would allow the Greeks to stabilize their financial system and repay at least some of their loans to Europe. This would leave the Greek elite generally intact. The price to Greece would be austerity, but the Greek elite would not pay that price. Members of the broader public — who would lose jobs, pensions, salaries and careers — would.
Essentially, the first question was whether Greece as a nation would deliberately default on its debts — as many corporations do — and force a restructuring on its terms regardless of what the European financial system needed, or whether it would seek to accommodate the European system. The second was whether it would structure an accommodation in Europe such that the burden would not fall on the public but on the Greek elite.

The Greek government chose to seek accommodation with European needs and to allow the major impact of austerity to fall on the public as a consequence of the elite’s interests in Europe — now deep and abiding — and the ideology of Europeanism. Since by its very nature the burden of austerity would fall on the public, it was vital a referendum not be held. Even so, the Greeks undoubtedly would seek to evade the harshest dimensions of austerity. That is the social contract in Greece: The Greeks would promise the Europeans what they wanted, but they would protect the public via duplicity. While that approach might work in Greece, it cannot work in a country like Italy, whose exposure is too large to hide via duplicity. Similarly, duplicity cannot be the ultimate solution to the European crisis.

The Real European Crisis

And here we come to the real European crisis. Given the nature of the crisis, which we have seen play out in Greece, the European elite can save the European concept and their own interests only by transferring the cost to the broader public, and not simply among debtors. Creditors like Germany, too, must absorb the cost and distribute it to the public. German banks simply cannot manage to absorb the losses. Like the French, they will have to be recapitalized, meaning the cost will fall to the public.

Europe was not supposed to work this way. Like Immanuel Kant’s notion of a “Perpetual Peace,” the European Union promised eternal prosperity. That plus preventing war were Europe’s great promises; there was no moral project beyond these. Failure to deliver on either promise undermines the European project’s legitimacy. If the price of retaining Europe is a massive decline in Europeans’ standard of living, then the argument for retaining the European Union is weakened.
As important, if Europe is perceived as failing because the European elite failed, and the European elite is perceived as defending the European idea as a means of preserving its own interests and position, then the public’s commitment to the European idea — never as robust as the elite’s commitment — is put in doubt. The belief in Europe that the crisis can be managed within current EU structures has been widespread. The Germans, however, have floated a proposal that would give creditors in Europe — i.e., the Germans — the power to oversee debtors’ economic decisions. This would undermine sovereignty dramatically. Losing sovereignty for greater prosperity would work in Europe. Losing it to pay back the debts of Europe’s banks is a much harder sell.

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