Timothy Garton Ash may be on to something. 2010 was clearly a turning point, when the Eurozone decided to engage in generalized pro-cyclical austerity — whether they did this because of the dodgy ideas that were floating around at the time, or simply because conservative politicians were more adept at using the crisis to further their long term goals (in their case, to shrink the state) than Europe’s useless left is something historians can debate in the future.
Garton Ash suggests that 2012 may also have been a turning point, or rather a turning point that never was: with Hollande and Monti newly installed, there was a clear demand for a more symmetric adjustment policy from pro-European Southern leaders, and an opportunity for Germany to respond favourably– after all, Monti was their man. That response never came. All we got was a June summit declaration on banking union on which there has subsequently been much backtracking. There was nothing on making short run macroeconomic adjustment less asymmetric. And now the German government is busily making matters even worse on the fiscal front.
I don’t see any way that the Eurozone can avoid a major political crisis. If the current policy mix continues unabated for the foreseeable future, then the real economy in the southern periphery will continue to worsen — unless of course something miraculously turns up, which is a possibility which we can however safely discount. Since this situation will ultimately prove politically unsustainable, the ‘steady as she goes’ scenario implies an eventual political crisis that could be quite nasty, at some unknowable date in the future — a year, or two years, or even — God help us — five or ten years from now.
But can we envisage a shift in the short run macroeconomic policy mix — looser monetary policy, more debt restructuring, a countervailing core fiscal stimulus channelled either through Germany or some EU body like the EIB — and moves towards an appropriate Eurozone architecture — a real banking union, which will require at least some element of fiscal union, and ideally some other elements of fiscal union as well — which is brought about in the absence of crisis? We have all seen how OMT has bred complacency and allowed German politicians to wriggle off the hooks on which they had been impaled last June. 2012 was a pretty good year to force change from that point of view as well; another way in which the year was a turning point that never was.
The problem of course is that a political crisis serious enough to force major reform may also lead to the collapse of the Eurozone: otherwise it won’t succeed in forcing major reform. Germany’s leaders can prove me wrong, by heeding Garton Ash’s advice and seizing their second chance. But I am afraid that they will not do so.