Opinion

Thinking Global

Angela Merkel, Europe’s weary mountaineer

Jul 6, 2012 14:44 UTC

To help illustrate Germany’s historic dilemma as it calculates the risks of rescuing Europe, Ronald Freeman, a London banker friend, conjured up an image of Chancellor Angela Merkel as a weary mountaineer leading a perilous rock climb. Still some distance from safety, Merkel alternates between shouting instructions to those hanging behind her on a taut and fraying rope, and wondering whether to take out her knife and cut loose some of the burden.

What Merkel must calculate, says Freeman, a former European Bank for Reconstruction and Development first vice-president, is how to get everyone to the top of Mt. Europe without imperiling herself. “Until Germany agrees to switch from specific and inadequate bail-outs of over-indebted sovereigns to the unlimited back-up that only the European Central Bank can provide, the crisis will not end,” he says, leaving countries like Greece, Spain and Italy dangling below an ambivalent Germany.

Investors last week applauded Germany’s agreement to provide weaker climbers the equivalent of a temporary ledge to stand upon: access to Europe’s permanent bailout fund to provide capital directly to troubled banks anywhere in the euro area. In return, governments agreed to give banking oversight to European authorities so that they could supervise and potentially dismantle banks.

Although the decision marked a change of German heart, it neither addressed the urgency of the crisis (the banking supervision won’t be put in place until year’s end) or the scale of capital required (the roughly 500 billion euros that would be available is less than a third of what the U.S. Treasury considers necessary). Beyond that, Merkel is holding the rope at a time when German public support for the single currency is eroding. A recent Pew survey shows that more than half of Germans say their country would have been better off without the euro, and only two in five Germans have a favorable opinion of the European Central Bank.

In a thought-provoking analysis of what they call “the new German question,” European Council on Foreign Relations analysts Ulrike Guérot and Mark Leonard, who is also my Reuters Opinion colleague, explain much of Germany’s indecisiveness during the ongoing crisis. “There is not yet a new national narrative about what Germany should be or wants to be – or what place in Europe it wants to occupy.” They see Germany as passing through a dramatic moment of self-examination and reinvention, a “kind of unipolar moment,” perhaps even laying the foundation for a new Sonderweg, or special path, where it is increasingly assertive in promoting European economic policies even as it charts its own relations with larger powers like China and Russia.

Are the financial markets really Europe’s savior?

Jun 11, 2012 21:23 UTC

If the euro is saved, the much-maligned power of global financial markets will deserve much of the credit.

The conventional wisdom among many on the intellectual left is that unbridled financial players threaten to destroy the European Union, one of history’s noblest, war-ending projects. The truth, however, is something else. To be sure, speculators lack noble motives, and global capital is a blunt instrument that tends to overshoot. But markets are forcing European leaders to fix their fatally flawed monetary union, a union that can only last with deeper economic integration and greater political (and democratic) legitimacy.

Last weekend’s agreement by Spain to accept a bank bailout, based on a European aid package of $125 billion, is a dramatic case in point. Senior Obama administration officials, in a series of urgent conversations with their European counterparts, warned that Spain posed the possibility of a “Lehman moment,” with global reverberations that no one could predict. If European leaders didn’t demonstrate to markets that they would pool their resources to address the banking meltdown of Europe’s fourth-largest economy, the contagion could have spread, what remained of U.S. and global growth could have evaporated, and the European Union itself would have been endangered.

In Spain, Germany is villain, not savior

Jun 4, 2012 20:30 UTC

MADRID – What brought me to Spain during the most threatening week of the country’s recent history was an invitation to speak about one of Europe’s darkest hours a half-century ago, pegged to the Spanish-language publication of my book Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.

One of Spain’s most senior government officials was quick to make the connection between 1961, when Germany’s postwar division was deepened by the Berlin Wall, and the historic moment today, when a reunified Germany, acting from its most powerful European perch since the Third Reich, will determine whether the continent will be newly divided – this time along North-South lines, with Spain outside the euro. But more sharply, this official – who won’t speak for attribution as he must deal daily with German counterparts – believes Germany’s actions (and, more frequently inactions) have put the euro and the European Union project itself at risk.

It is in that context, he said, that Spain has put forward an urgent plan for a European banking union, complete with a pan-European deposit guarantee fund and banking supervisor. The idea has now been endorsed by the European Commission, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, Italy, Ireland and others. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not followed suit. Spanish officials are lobbying hard for this idea because they believe it’s urgently needed, but also because they hope to force Germany’s hand in a manner that would move markets and reverse Spain’s downward spiral. So that his purpose couldn’t be missed, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy over the weekend surprisingly called for centralized control of national budgets in the euro zone – teeing up a crucial auction of Spanish treasury bonds this Thursday.

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