What should be the long-term vision for the euro zone? The standard answer is fully-fledged fiscal, banking and political union. Many euro zone politicians advocate it. So do those on the outside such as David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, who last week called on the zone to “make up or break up”.
The crisis has demonstrated that the current system doesn’t work. But a headlong dive into a United States of Europe would be bad politics and bad economics. An alternative, more attractive vision is to maintain the maximum degree of national sovereignty consistent with a single currency. This is possible provided there are liquidity backstops for solvent governments and banks; debt restructuring for insolvent ones; and flexibility for all.
Enthusiasts say greater union won’t just prevent future crises – it will help solve the current one. The key proposals are for governments to guarantee each other’s bonds through so-called euro zone bonds and to be prepared to bail out each other’s banks. In return for the mutual support, each government and all the banks would submit to strong centralised discipline.
But the European people are not remotely ready for such steps. Anti-euro sentiment is on the rise, to judge by strong poll showings by the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Germany’s insistence last December on a fiscal discipline treaty has stoked that sentiment.
An attempt by the region’s elite to force the pace of integration with even more ambitious plans could easily backfire with voters, particularly in northern Europe. They would fear being required to fund permanent bail outs for feckless southerners. Premature integration might not even help with the current crisis if it backfired with investors. They might start to question the creditworthiness of a Germany if it had to shoulder the entire region’s debts.