By Hugo Dixon
Hugo Dixon is Editor-at-Large, Reuters News. The opinions expressed are his own.
Both continental European euro-enthusiasts and British Conservatives received a boost last week when the German and UK finance ministers called for a rewrite of the European Union’s treaties. The goal, outlined by Wolfgang Schaeuble and George Osborne, is to kill two birds with one stone: shore up the euro zone and keep Britain in the EU.
A big problem with the euro zone’s one-size-fits-all monetary policy is that it risks fitting nobody. That, indeed, was a key cause of the crisis. Early in the century, countries such as Spain and Ireland were booming, while Germany was in the doldrums. Setting interest rates at a level that worked well for the euro zone on average had the effect of inflating the Spanish and Irish property bubbles while pushing up wages so their economies became uncompetitive. When the bubbles burst, the damage was devastating.
Semantics could help save the euro zone. There is a crying need to distinguish between fiscal austerity and structural reform. The endless austerity programs adopted by the GIIPS — Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain — threaten to crush their economies so much that they are socially unbearable. By contrast, reforming pensions, labor markets and the like would be good for long-term growth. A policy mix that emphasizes the latter and draws some sort of line under the former is needed to stop the euro crisis spinning out of control.
The euro zone will probably get another short-term fix at its summit this week. Exactly how the fix will work isn’t clear. But both Germany and the European Central Bank have softened their positions so much that some sort of solution is in the works. The ECB will probably cut interest rates and spray more liquidity at the troubled banking system; it may also step up its purchases of government bonds; and some scheme for assembling enough money to bail out Italy and Spain — probably by getting national central banks to lend money to the International Monetary Fund, which could then pass it on to Rome and Madrid – may be unveiled.
It is fashionable for pundits outside Germany to lambast its government, the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank for being inflexible or stupid or both. Can’t they see that all that’s needed is for the ECB to fire its bazooka by printing unlimited money, and the euro crisis would be over?