How to solve a problem like Greece? Former queen of daytime chat Fern Britton was flummoxed on the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday night. And like David Mitchell, I don’t really know either. However, on the wider issue of the durability and endurance of the European Single Currency – and to evoke that quote widely attributed to Mark Twain – some obituaries are prematurely written. Even as early as the turn of the Millennium, the late Milton Friedman prophesied its demise.
But claims of the Euro’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The current membership may change slightly with the most damaged economies perhaps opting to revert to their former national currencies, or in another scenario we could see the emergence of two monetary unions: a ‘Debtor €’ comprising the Med countries and a ‘Creditor €’ including Germany and other low-inflation states.
Personally, I’ve felt largely ambivalent on Euro membership. The fanatics for and against frequently bore me and the whole debate is couched using hyperbolic language. Nonetheless, I don’t think the Euro per se is intrinsically flawed or irredeemable. In the case of Greece, Europe would have been a lot better off if it had stuck rigidly to the rules set out at Maastricht, thus avoiding premature or inclusive membership.
Greece consistently breached the 3% deficit limit even prior to the current crisis and went unpunished despite the legal duty to comply with convergence criteria. Their unreformed public sector and high and unstable rates of inflation should have raised eyebrows prior to Eurozone accession. It is widely recognised that they were economical with the actualité and massaged the figures in order to meet entry requirements, something acknowledged by the former ECB Chief Economist Otmar Issing:
“When I worked for the ECB, I suffered every time countries didn’t meet the criteria. Greece cheated to get in, and it’s difficult to know how we should deal with cheaters…There should have been better monitoring, better scrutiny and more sanctioning. This crisis wasn’t unavoidable.”
As in any other private members club, individuals are obliged to abide by the rules. Accepting EMU rules, devaluation or inflationary monetary policy were no longer avenues the Greeks could go down. They did nothing to lower their public debt but instead went on a spending binge. It does not seem fair or just that taxpayers’ money is being moved from countries who stuck (by and large) to the respective criteria to those who did not.
European leaders should not use the Greek crisis purely as a catalyst for more integration which would only further embitter sceptical national populations but rather to end the slack monitoring of the fundamental rules of the club.
Other Member States should not end up with a hangover for a party they did not attend.