September has been a good month for the euro-zone. Mario Draghi committed the ECB to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds of troubled euro-zone countries. There are realistic plans for joint banking supervision. The German constitutional court backed the European Stability Mechanism (albeit with some reservations). And Dutch elections reaffirmed voters’ support for pro-Europe parties. There is a collective sigh of relief in Europe and around the world. European markets are rallying, and Spanish bond yields have already dropped and are expected to drop further in another auction on September 20.
So is Europe saved?
We think not. The problems underlying the European crisis were institutional. What we are seeing now are mostly short-term fixes, not true solutions to these institutional problems.
The roots of the crisis lie in the difficulty of operating a currency union without centralized fiscal authority. But that’s not all. The problem was made worse by implicit guarantees to markets concerning the sovereign debt of all euro-zone countries, which enabled Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain to borrow at sharply lower rates than before. This then enabled the dysfunctional political economy in Greece, Italy and Portugal (and to some degree in Spain) to persist with borrowed money and transfers.
This is not to deny the role of the global recession in triggering the fiscal problems or the fear of contagion that increased the borrowing costs of Italy and Spain, plunging these countries into a more severe macroeconomic crisis. It is certainly not to deny that austerity measures have been counterproductive or that with the ECB balance sheet behind them, these countries and their banks will have some breathing room.
But the point remains that Europe’s underlying problems cannot be tackled by short-term fixes. For the euro to survive and contribute to European economic prosperity in the medium term, Europe needs to follow the example of the United States as it transitioned from the Articles of Confederation of 1781 to the U.S. Constitution, which entailed strengthening the currency union with debt renegotiation (with the federal government assuming state liabilities) and more importantly, meaningful fiscal centralization.
And yet, there is no realistic plan for true fiscal centralization in Europe. Fiscal centralization doesn’t just mean better monitoring Greece’s austerity plans. It means a European organization with the power to set taxes and harmonize labor, product and credit market institutions. But this is not possible without some centralization of political and military power. It was crucial that with the U.S. Constitution, political and military power shifted to the federal government.
This is not on the cards for Europe, not least because Greece or France or Spain wouldn’t accept the shift of economic, political and military power to Germany that this would entail. So for the time being, we have to make do with short-term fixes, and in all likelihood, Europe isn’t saved just yet.