By Peter Zeihan
Europe is on the cusp of change. An EU heads-of-state summit Dec. 16 launched a process aimed to save the common European currency. If successful, this process would be the most significant step toward creating a singular European power since the creation of the European Union itself in 1992 — that is, if it doesn’t destroy the euro first.
Envisioned by the EU Treaty on Monetary Union, the common currency, the euro, has suffered from two core problems during its decade-long existence: the lack of a parallel political union and the issue of debt. Many in the financial world believe that what is required for a viable currency is a fiscal union that has taxation power — and that is indeed needed. But that misses the larger point of who would be in charge of the fiscal union. Taxation and appropriation — who pays how much to whom — are essentially political acts. One cannot have a centralized fiscal authority without first having a centralized political/military authority capable of imposing and enforcing its will. Greeks are not going to implement a German-designed tax and appropriations system simply because Berlin thinks it’s a good idea. As much as financiers might like to believe, the checkbook is not the ultimate power in the galaxy. The ultimate power comes from the law backed by a gun.
Europe’s Disparate Parts
This isn’t a revolutionary concept — in fact, it is one most people know well at some level. Americans fought the bloodiest war in their history from 1861 to 1865 over the issue of central power versus local power. What emerged was a state capable of functioning at the international level. It took three similar European wars — also in the 19th century — for the dozens of German principalities finally to merge into what we now know as Germany.
Europe simply isn’t to the point of willing conglomeration just yet, and we do not use the American Civil War or German unification wars as comparisons lightly. STRATFOR sees the peacetime creation of a unified European political authority as impossible, since Europe’s component parts are far more varied than those of mid-19th century America or Germany.
Northern Europe is composed of advanced technocratic economies, made possible by the capital-generating capacity of the well-watered North European Plain and its many navigable rivers (it is much cheaper to move goods via water than land, and this advantage grants nations situated on such waterways a steady supply of surplus capital). As a rule, northern Europe prefers a strong currency in order to attract investment to underwrite the high costs of advanced education, first-world infrastructure and a highly technical industrial plant. Thus, northern European exports — heavily value added — are not inhibited greatly by a strong currency. One of the many outcomes of this development pattern is a people that identifies with its brethren throughout the river valleys and in other areas linked by what is typically omnipresent infrastructure. This crafts a firm identity at the national level rather than local level and assists with mass-mobilization strategies. Consequently, size is everything.
Southern Europe, in comparison, suffers from an arid, rugged topography and lack of navigable rivers. This lack of rivers does more than deny them a local capital base, it also inhibits political unification; lacking clear core regions, most of these states face the political problems of the European Union in microcosm. Here, identity is more localized; southern Europeans tend to be more concerned with family and town than nation, since they do not benefit from easy transport options or the regular contact that northern Europeans take for granted. Their economies reflect this, with integration occurring only locally (there is but one southern European equivalent of the great northern industrial mega-regions such as the Rhine, Italy’s Po Valley). Bereft of economies of scale, southern European economies are highly dependent upon a weak currency to make their exports competitive abroad and to make every incoming investment dollar or deutschemark work to maximum effect.
Central Europe — largely former Soviet territories — have yet different rules of behavior. Some countries, like Poland, fit in well with the northern Europeans, but they require outside defense support in order to maintain their positions. The frigid weather of the Baltics limits population sizes, demoting these countries to being, at best, the economic satellites of larger powers (they’re hoping for Sweden while fearing it will be Russia). Bulgaria and Romania are a mix of north and south, sitting astride Europe’s longest navigable river yet being so far removed from the European core that their successful development may depend upon events in Turkey, a state that is not even an EU member. While states of this grouping often plan together for EU summits, in reality the only thing they have in common is a half-century of lost ground to recover, and they need as much capital as can be made available. As such variation might suggest, some of these states are in the eurozone, while others are unlikely to join within the next decade.
And that doesn’t even begin to include the EU states that have actively chosen to refuse the euro — Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom — or consider the fact that the European Union is now made up of 27 different nationalities that jealously guard their political (and in most cases, fiscal) autonomy.
The point is this: With Europe having such varied geographies, economies and political systems, any political and fiscal union would be fraught with complications and policy mis-prescriptions from the start. In short, this is a defect of the euro that is not going to be corrected, and to be blunt, it isn’t one that the Europeans are trying to fix right now.
The Debt Problem
If anything, they are attempting to craft a work-around by addressing the second problem: debt. Monetary union means that all participating states are subject to the dictates of a single central bank, in this case the European Central Bank (ECB) headquartered in Frankfurt. The ECB’s primary (and only partially stated) mission is to foster long-term stable growth in the eurozone’s largest economy — Germany — working from the theory that what is good for the continent’s economic engine is good for Europe.
One impact of this commitment is that Germany’s low interest rates are applied throughout the currency zone, even to states with mediocre income levels, lower educational standards, poorer infrastructure and little prospect for long-term growth. Following their entry into the eurozone, capital-starved southern Europeans used to interest rates in the 10-15 percent range found themselves in an environment of rates in the 2-5 percent range (currently it is 1.0 percent). To translate that into a readily identifiable benefit, that equates to a reduction in monthly payments for a standard 30-year mortgage of more than 60 percent.
As the theory goes, the lower costs of capital will stimulate development in the peripheral states and allow them to catch up to Germany. But these countries traditionally suffer from higher interest rates for good reasons. Smaller, poorer economies are more volatile, since even tiny changes in the international environment can send them through either the floor or the roof. Higher risks and volatility mean higher capital costs. Their regionalization also engenders high government spending as the central government attempts to curb the propensity of the regions to spin away from the center (essentially, the center bribes the regions to remain in the state).
This means that when the eurozone spread to these places, theory went out the window. In practice, growth in the periphery did accelerate, but that growth was neither smooth nor sustainable. The unification of capital costs has proved more akin to giving an American Express black card to a college freshman: Traditionally capital poor states (and citizens) have a propensity to overspend in situations where borrowing costs are low, due to a lack of a relevant frame of reference. The result has been massive credit binging by corporations, consumers and governments alike, inevitably leading to bubbles in a variety of sectors. And just as these states soared high in the first decade after the euro was introduced, they have crashed low in the past year. The debt crises of 2010 — so far precipitating government debt bailouts for Ireland and Greece and an unprecedented bank bailout in Ireland — can be laid at the feet of this euro-instigated over-exuberance.
It is this second, debt-driven shortcoming that European leaders discussed Dec. 16. None of them want to do away with the euro at this point, and it is easy to see why. While the common currency remains a popular whipping boy in domestic politics, its benefits — mainly lower transaction costs, higher purchasing power, unfettered market access and cheaper and more abundant capital — are deeply valued by all participating governments. The question is not “whither the euro” but how to provide a safety net for the euro’s less desirable, debt-related aftereffects. The agreed-upon path is to create a mechanism that can manage a bailout even for the eurozone’s larger economies when their debt mountains become too imposing. In theory, this would contain the contradictory pressures the euro has created while still providing to the entire zone the euro’s many benefits.
Obstacles to the Safety Net
Three complications exist, however. First, when a bailout is required, it is clearly because something has gone terribly wrong. In Greece’s case, it was out-of-control government spending with no thought to the future; in essence, Athens took that black card and leapt straight into the economic abyss. In Ireland’s case, it was private-sector overindulgence, which bubbled the size of the financial sector to more than four times the entire country’s gross domestic product. In both cases, recovery was flat-out impossible without the countries’ eurozone partners stepping in and declaring some sort of debt holiday, and the result was a complete funding of all Greek and Irish deficit spending for three years while they get their houses in order.
“Houses in order” are the key words here. When the not-so-desperate eurozone states step in with a few billion euros — 223 billion euros so far, to be exact — they want not only their money back but also some assurance that such overindulgences will not happen again. The result is a deep series of policy requirements that must be adopted if the bailout money is to be made available. Broadly known as austerity measures, these requirements result in deep cuts to social services, retirement benefits and salaries. They are not pleasant. Put simply: Germany is attempting to trade financial benefits for the right to make policy adjustments that normally would be handed by a political union.
It’s a pretty slick plan, but it is not happening in a vacuum. Remember, there are two more complications. The second is that the Dec. 16 agreement is only an agreement in principle. Before any Champagne corks are popped, one should consider that the “details” of the agreement raise a more than “simply” trillion-euro question. STRATFOR guesses that to deliver on its promises, the permanent bailout fund (right now there is a temporary fund with a “mere” 750 billion euros) probably would need upwards of three trillion euros. Why so much? The debt bailouts for Greece and Ireland were designed to completely sequester those states from debt markets by providing those governments with all of the cash they would need to fund their budgets for three years. This wise move has helped keep the contagion from spreading to the rest of the eurozone. Making any fund credible means applying that precedent to all the eurozone states facing high debt pressures, and using the most current data available, that puts the price tag at just under 2.2 trillion euros. Add in enough extra so that the eurozone has sufficient ammo left to fight any contagion and we’re looking at a cool 3 trillion euros. Anti-crisis measures to this point have enjoyed the assistance of both the ECB and the International Monetary Fund, but so far, the headline figures have been rather restrained when compared to future needs. Needless to say, the process of coming up with funds of that magnitude when it is becoming obvious to the rest of Europe that this is, at its heart, a German power play is apt to be contentious at best.
The third complication is that the bailout mechanism is actually only half the plan. The other half is to allow states to at least partially default on their debt (in EU diplomatic parlance, this is called the “inclusion of private interests in funding the bailouts”). When the investors who fund eurozone sovereign debt markets hear this, they understandably shudder, since it means the European Union plans to codify giving states permission to walk away from their debts — sticking investors with the losses. This too is more than simply a trillion-euro question. Private investors collectively own nearly all of the eurozone’s 7.5 trillion euros in outstanding sovereign debt. And in the case of Italy, Austria, Belgium, Portugal and Greece, debt volumes worth half or more of GDP for each individual state are held by foreigners.
Assuming investors decide it is worth the risk to keep purchasing government debt, they have but one way to mitigate this risk: charge higher premiums. The result will be higher debt financing costs for all, doubly so for the eurozone’s more spendthrift and/or weaker economies.
For most of the euro’s era, the interest rates on government bonds have been the same throughout the eurozone, based on the inaccurate belief that eurozone states would all be as fiscally conservative and economically sound as Germany. That belief has now been shattered, and the rate on Greek and Irish debt has now risen from 4.5 percent in early 2008 to this week’s 11.9 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively. With a formal default policy in the making, those rates are going to go higher yet. In the era before monetary union became the Europeans’ goal, Greek and Irish government debt regularly went for 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Continued euro membership may well put a bit of downward pressure on these rates, but that will be more than overwhelmed by the fact that both countries are, in essence, in financial conservatorship.
That is not just a problem for the post-2013 world, however. Because investors now know the European Union intends to stick them with at least part of the bill, they are going to demand higher returns as details of the default plan are made known, both on any new debt and on any pre-existing debt that comes up for refinancing. This means that states that just squeaked by in 2010 must run a more difficult gauntlet in 2011 — particularly if they depend heavily on foreign investors for funding their budget deficits. All will face higher financing and refinancing costs as investors react to the coming European disclosures on just how much the private sector will be expected to contribute.
Leaving out the two states that have already received bailouts (Greece and Ireland), the four eurozone states STRATFOR figures face the most trouble — Portugal, Belgium, Spain and Austria, in that order — plan to raise or refinance a quarter trillion euros in 2011 alone. Italy and France, two heavyweights not that far from the danger zone, plan to raise another half-trillion euros between them. If the past is any guide, the weaker members of this quartet could face financing costs of double what they’ve faced as recently as early 2008. For some of these states, such higher costs could be enough to push them into the bailout bin even if there is no additional investor skittishness.
The existing bailout mechanism probably can handle the first four states (just barely, and assuming it works as advertised), but beyond that, the rest of the eurozone will have to come up with a multitrillion-euro fund in an environment in which private investors are likely to balk. Undoubtedly, the euro needs a new mechanism to survive. But by coming up with one that scares those who make government deficit-spending possible, the Europeans have all but guaranteed that Europe’s financial crisis will get much worse before it begins to improve.
But let’s assume for a moment that this all works out, that the euro survives to the day that the new mechanism will be in place to support it. Consider what such a 2013 eurozone would look like if the rough design agreed to Dec. 16 becomes a reality. All of the states flirting with bailouts as 2010 draws to a close expect to have even higher debt loads two years from now. Hence, investors will have imposed punishing financing costs on all of them. Alone among the major eurozone countries not facing such costs will be Germany, the country that wrote the bailout rules and is indirectly responsible for managing the bailouts enacted to this point. Berlin will command the purse strings and the financial rules, yet be unfettered by those rules or the higher financing costs that go with them. Such control isn’t quite a political union, but so long as the rest of the eurozone is willing to trade financial sovereignty for the benefits of the euro, it is certainly the next best thing.