The Lesser Evil for the Eurozone

For three decades, the consensus within the European Commission and the European Central Bank on the need for market reforms and sound public finances has been strong enough to overcome opposition in small countries and outlast procrastination in large ones. Today, however, the Eurozone playing field has become a battleground.

By: Date: April 4, 2018 Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation

This opinion piece has been published in Project Syndicate

It was not supposed to happen like this. The formation of a new German government took so long that it was only after the Italian general election on March 4 resulted in a political earthquake that France and Germany started to work on reforming the eurozone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have now resolved to sort out their differences and deliver a joint reform roadmap by July. But they cannot ignore changes brought by the landslide victory of Italy’s anti-system parties. Until then, populism had seemed contained. It has now become mainstream.

For those who will have to draw the Franco-German blueprint, the message from Italy is that the policy framework that has dominated Europe since the mid-1980s no longer commands broad support. For three decades, the consensus on the need for market reforms and sound public finances has been strong enough to overcome opposition in small countries (Greece) and outlast procrastination in large ones (France). In the coming years, however, the eurozone playing field may well become a battleground.

The first casualty is bound to be the European Stability and Growth Pact, with its plethora of fiscal rules, monitoring procedures, and eventual sanctions for excessive deficits. The 224-page Vade Mecum on implementing fiscal discipline in the EU is hopelessly complex, to such a degree that no finance minister, let alone parliamentarian, fully understands what his or her country must abide by.

For populists, however, indecipherable rules made in Brussels are a simple, straightforward political target. In “Baron Noir” (Black Baron), a popular French TV series, a president engulfed in a financial scandal nearly escapes public indignity by mounting a coalition against EU deficit fines. With populism rising almost everywhere in Europe, reality may soon exceed fiction. For large countries, the threat of sanctions has always been a paper tiger. The difference now is that the EU’s bluff may be called.

Absent sanctions, what will ensure that participants in the eurozone behave? This is what Germany is understandably worried about. Whatever reservations one may have about Germany’s fiscal obsession, rules of the game are required to deal with unsustainable public-debt accumulation in a monetary union. Policy ambiguity cannot be relied on, in a system deprived of a strong power center. If no one knows what will happen if a country does not behave, the expectation may turn out to be that debts will be monetized – at a high inflationary cost.

At a recent conference in Berlin, economists debated what to do if the euro proves unsustainable. Prominent German scholars expressed the view that, absent credible sanctions, only the threat of forced exit could discipline wayward eurozone members. In other words, governments should be facing a clear choice: behave or leave.

Technically, this would not be hard to implement. To force out a delinquent country, the ECB could simply unplug its banking system from euro liquidity. That nearly happened in 2015, when Greece was on the brink of exit, and Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister at the time, considered pushing Greece out. It took a long, dramatic night of talks for eurozone leaders to agree not to do it.

Pushing a country out would, however, have dire consequences. The irreversibility of the euro may be a myth – nothing is irreversible – but it is a useful myth. If businesses and savers were to start speculating about the next exit, trust in the common currency would soon vanish. People would move their savings to protect them from redenomination risk. A German euro would be worth more than a French euro, which in turn would be worth more than an Italian euro. That’s why Mario Draghi, the ECB’s president, said in 2012 that he would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro’s integrity.

So, what if sanctions don’t work and the threat of exit is a cluster bomb that would hurt everyone? In a recent paper with French and German colleagues, we advocate making debt restructuring within the eurozone a credible possibility. We do not regard debt restructuring as benign, let alone desirable, and we do not advocate making it automatic or driven by numerical triggers.

But, in a system without sanctions, fiscal responsibility can be enforced only if two conditions are met. First, governments and those who finance them must face the consequences of irresponsibility – that is, ultimately, debt restructuring. Second, the ensuing financial disruption must be limited, so that policymakers do not want to avoid restructuring at all costs. This, in turn, requires a number of reforms that we spell out in our paper.

This idea elicits strong reservations, not only in Italy, where the policy establishment is obsessed with the country’s record indebtedness, but also in France, where debt repayment is regarded as the dividing line between advanced and developing countries. The memories of the Deauville summit – an ill-conceived regime for addressing excessive public debt hashed out by Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy – are still vivid. The French view is that debt restructuring should not be contemplated, even as a possible outcome.

But the French must confront the new reality. While the euro survived the financial disruption of 2010-2012, it is now confronted by a potentially more challenging political disruption. This threat must be faced.

Absent a shared consensus on the sanctity of rules, there are not many possibilities. One is a euro without an anchor, something Northern Europe would not want to remain part of for long. Another is a euro with a wide-open exit door, something that would quickly lead to another financial crisis. And still another is a euro with defined and predictable internal debt-resolution mechanisms. The latter option is, admittedly, not without risks, but it is certainly safer than the exit threat. France, and Europe, should choose the lesser evil.

Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Building a stable european deposit insurance scheme

Deposit insurance, like any insurance scheme, raises moral hazard concerns. Such concerns arising from European deposit insurance can be alleviated through a country-specific component in the risk-based premium for deposit insurance and limits on sovereign bond exposures on bank balance sheets. This column argues, however, that proposals to maintain national compartments in a new European Deposit Insurance Scheme are self-defeating, as such compartments can be destabilising in times of crisis.

By: Dirk Schoenmaker Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: April 19, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The debate on euro-area reform

A paper jointly written by 14 French and German economists set off a debate about the reform of euro-area macroeconomic governance. We review economists’ opinions about it.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: April 16, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Latvia’s money laundering scandal

Latvia’s third largest bank ABLV sought emergency liquidity from the ECB and eventually voted to start a process of voluntary liquidation, after being accused by US authorities of large-scale money laundering and having failed to produce a survival plan. What does it mean for the ECB?

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: April 9, 2018
Read article More by this author



Director's Cut: Developing deposit insurance in Europe

In this week’s Director’s Cut of ‘The Sound of Economics’ podcast, Bruegel director Guntram Wolff talks with Nicolas Véron, senior fellow at Bruegel, about the implementation of a European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS), one of the three pillars needed for the completion of banking union.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation Date: April 3, 2018
Read article Download PDF More by this author

External Publication

European Parliament

Cash outflows in crisis scenarios: do liquidity requirements and reporting obligations give the SRB sufficient time to react?

Bank failures have multiple causes though they are typically precipitated by a rapidly unfolding funding crisis. The European Union’s new prudential liquidity requirements offer some safeguards against risky funding models, but will not prevent such scenarios. The speed of events seen in the 2017 resolution of a Spanish bank offers a number of lessons for the further strengthening of the resolution framework within the euro area, in particular in terms of inter-agency coordination, the use of payments moratoria and funding of the resolution process.

By: Alexander Lehmann Topic: European Parliament, Finance & Financial Regulation, Testimonies Date: March 28, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Do wide-reaching reform programmes foster growth?

With growth gathering momentum in the eurozone, some have claimed this is the proof that structural reforms implemented during the crisis are working, re-opening the long-standing debate on the extent to which reforms contribute to fostering long-term growth. This column employs a novel empirical approach – a modified version of the Synthetic Control Method – to estimate the impact of large reform waves implemented in the past 40 years worldwide.

By: Alessio Terzi and Pasquale Marco Marrazzo Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 28, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author


Europe needs a strong Italy

Europe needs to have its Italian voice. A stable government is required not only to pursue domestic policies and remain fiscally prudent but also to negotiate on euro-area reform, priorities in the EU budget and intensifying competition in global trade.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 20, 2018
Read article

Blog Post

Breaking the Stalemate on European Deposit Insurance

Many EU-level reports have highlighted a European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS) as a necessary component of banking union, but none of these options has met sufficient consensus among euro-area countries. The authors of this blog propose to end the deadlock with an EDIS design that is institutionally integrated but financed in a way that is differentiated across countries.

By: Isabel Schnabel and Nicolas Véron Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation Date: March 5, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author



Euro-area governance: Where next?

Bruegel deputy director Maria Demertzis hosts this episode of 'The Sound of Economics', with Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs correspondent at the Financial Times, and Manfred Weber, chair of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, joining Bruegel director Guntram Wolff for a discussion of the future of euro-area governance.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 1, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Don’t put the blame on me: How different countries blamed different actors for the Eurozone crisis

Why did the eurozone have such difficulties coming to terms with its own shortcomings? The authors believe they have found part of the answer, through an algorithm-based cross-country media analysis.

By: Henrik Müller, Giuseppe Porcaro and Gerret von Nordheim Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 1, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author


The EU’s Seven-Year Budget Itch

On February 23, EU members began negotiations on the bloc's multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027. But, with all countries focusing on net balances – how much they receive minus how much they pay – will the composition of spending bear any relation to the EU’s stated priorities?

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 1, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Clouds are forming over Italy’s elections

While the prospect of a gridlock reassured investors about the short-term risk of an anti-establishment government, Italy still needs a profound economic shake-up and is in no position to afford months or years of dormant governments.

By: Alessio Terzi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: February 28, 2018
Load more posts