The eurozone is in grave danger, and something must be done, fast. This is the message I get from various corners of the EU commentariat. Economists are particularly pessimistic. But the immediacy of the crisis is something relative – I’ve heard many macabre predictions many times during the last two years.
So I am more interested in the possible impact of the crisis on the future of the European Union. This may sound like an “unknown unknown”, but to my opinion trying to solve the eurozone crisis without taking into account the impact on the EU institutions and the integration project is useless. So let’s see what the options are.
1. Monetization of debt
The excessive debt of peripheral eurozone countries can simply be monetized by the ECB by using the proverbial printing press. The downsides are clear: the threat of moral hazard and inflation. Moral hazard means that once the ECB starts to monetize debts, every eurozone Member State can point to this precedent and demand equal treatment (i.e. more printing of euros to cover unsustainable debt). This leads to the second danger – elevated inflation, although some claim that this is not very likely due to the recession. If monetization happens, it will obviously be accompanied with a form of fiscal union, because there will have to be very strong guarantees against fiscal profligacy. In the short to medium term this approach can save the eurozone, and the European project as a whole. The problems with this approach are twofold: first, it may lead to unsustainable EU fiscal institutions if Germany and other northern Member States push too hard in their desire to guarantee fiscal discipline; second, in the long term this may also mean that peripheral Member States will become even more uncompetitive if again Germany and other northern Member States fail to reform their economies and stimulate internal demand.
In conclusion this approach may lead to long-term mutations that may transform the European Union into an undemocratic and unjust sovereign. On the good side, it saves us from immediate harm.
2. Credit crunch and disintegration of the eurozone
If the ECB does not monetize peripheral eurozone debt, then we may expect consecutive bank runs, asset sell-offs and overall economic misery in the eurozone periphery. This misery will probably be contagious, spilling over to the eurozone core, the US, Japan, China, and all over the world. Sooner, rather than later, the eurozone periphery will reintroduce capital controls and will effectively pull out of the eurozone. The economic and social consequences cannot be reliably foreseen, but will be very damaging to the global economy. Politically, the EU may disappear.
3. The way forward
It is quite obvious that the eurozone core must be convinced to monetize peripheral debt. This solution will be very difficult to achieve, but it serves all interests. However, it must be done carefully in order to protect the European project from excessive German influence that may in the long term transform the EU into some ugly mutant. The peer pressure of G20, and the US in particular, will be instrumental in achieving this difficult victory over petty short-term interests.