Political asymmetries and EMU
This post was written by Kevin O’Rourke
In a must-read article, Chris Pissarides states that “far from the currency bloc acting as a partnership of equals, it is a disjointed group of countries where the national interests of the big nations stand higher than the interests of the whole.”
This sums up perfectly where the European project is today. Indeed, there isn’t even solidarity among the smaller countries, as Malta and Luxembourg seek to distance themselves from Cyprus, reminding us of many similar protestations by individual PIIGS in the past, Ireland included. Not that it did any of them any good.
Was it not bizarre to see so many anti-German posters in Nicosia last week, when by all accounts it was the Cypriot President (among others) who wanted to see small depositors hit? Actually, no, it wasn’t. We have seen several statements by German politicians saying that the Cypriot business model is dead, and I’m sorry, but irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue this is simply unacceptable. The IMF has the right, and duty, to opine on such matters. So does the ECB, which is supposed to care about financial stability, whatever about how it behaves in practice. Perhaps one could find a rationale for the Commission, or maybe even the Eurogroup, to express an opinion on matters such as this. But an individual member state? Formally speaking, and in any club such formalities matter, it’s none of their business. Even if it is an election year.
The EU is supposed to work according to a set of well-understood principles. If we want to re-regulate the banking sector, and we should, then the recent decision to cap bankers’ bonuses is an example of how the system is supposed to work (again, irrespective of the merits of the issue). There are proposals, there is a vote, there is a decision. Fine. I’ll have more of that please.
But that is not what we are seeing here.
It might be less difficult to swallow if the German government were caped crusaders seeking to bring the entire European financial system to heel. But we all know who has been undermining the drive to have a meaningful European system of banking supervision, and it isn’t Cyprus. And is Mr Schaüble really going to try to prevent German banks from touting for business in that island, as the FT recently reported? I don’t think so. None of this means that Merkel and Schaüble are any worse than anyone else’s politicians, but if you are the arbiter of other countries’ fates, and you aren’t any better either, then there’s going to be a backlash. Which is terrible news for Germany in the long run.
My quote of the week is from another must-read article, this time by Wolfgang Münchau, who says that
I have believed for some time that it is impossible for Germany, Finland and the Netherlands to be in a monetary union with Cyprus, Greece and Portugal. Either the two sides agree to adjust more symmetrically, politically and economically, or this experiment should end.
The argument about economically asymmetric adjustment has at this stage been done to death, and almost everyone understands it, although the German government remains resolutely, proudly, and vocally, macroeconomically illiterate. Another reason why anti-German posters at mass demonstrations are something that we will have to get used to, which is tragic. But Wolfgang’s point about politically asymmetric adjustment is just as important, and gets to the heart of the matter.
When the EU club works according to its rules, people accept the outcomes, but in crises policies are made on the hoof, and it is the powerful who call the shots. This is inevitable, but it is also very dangerous, especially since the decisions that are made at times like this have a much bigger impact on peoples’ lives than anything that typically comes out of Brussels. We have been in crisis mode for much too long now, the crisis shows no signs of going away any time soon, and the political asymmetry is becoming intolerable.
A meaningful banking union, that had the power to stick its nose into the German banking system, and had a set of ex ante mutually agreed principles regarding how to resolve banks in all member states, would help reduce political asymmetries. More expansionary monetary and fiscal policies would help make economic adjustment more symmetric. I suspect we’re going to get neither, in which case we need to end the EMU experiment before it drags the broader European project down with it.