The euro zone debt crisis shows that something is seriously wrong with Europe. But what is it?
Most financial professionals think the problem is economic. They have long considered continental Europe something of a mess – slow GDP growth, inept governments, smothering regulation and a culture that doesn’t “get” markets. European residents seem equally gloomy, especially about the economy. In the most recent Eurobarometer survey, 71 percent of respondents did not expect the crisis to be over two years hence.
The economic worries of both financiers and citizens are misplaced. Even if the slow patch does last a few more years, the European economy will continue to do what a modern economy is supposed to do. European consumers are basically as well off as Americans after adjusting for longer European holidays and different lifestyle choices. There is probably greater justice in the distribution of incomes and consumer goods in Europe than in the United States. The euro zone’s low trade deficits – less in total since 1990 than the United States ran in the last six months – suggest that Europe is globally competitive. Europe probably has a worse unemployment problem than the United States, but national governments are belatedly trying to remedy that.
Where Europe is really weak is not in economics but politics. A lack of political cohesion turned relatively minor financial problems – one small reprobate government (Greece) and two small careless ones (Portugal and Ireland) – into a disproportionately large struggle to avoid a devastating financial meltdown. Despite the risk, politicians and bureaucrats spent years bickering. They may have finally found the necessary toughness and solidarity, but there are enough unanswered questions to suggest that further crises are a lively possibility.
The indecision and discord needs to be kept in proportion. Politically, Europe is far more stable than it was a century ago, when a much smaller trigger set off the First World War. It is more unified – fiscally and financially – than it was in that war’s aftermath, when the anti-solidarity policy of reparations and the anti-flexibility of the gold standard wreaked havoc.