Tag Archives: Euro crisis

The Grand Old Duke of Athens

11 Jul

Alex Tsipras has caved in to the demands of Eurozone creditors. He rightly claims that he has no mandate to leave the Eurozone. However he also has no mandate to accept the creditors’ demands. In the referendum that he called, Tsipras convinced the Greek people to vote decisively against accepting an austerity package very similar to the one he is now recommending. The Greek parliament’s approval of the package last night is an empty formality that does nothing to conceal the final surrender of Greece’s sovereignty and with it any remaining pretence of self-government. The parliamentary majority that Tsispras commanded was made up of the utterly compromised Syriza and the opposition parties whose arguments the Greek people decisively rejected in the referendum campaign less than a week before.

The contradiction in Syriza’s strategy and its mandate has been fully exposed. From its election as a government to the referendum, Syriza convinced the Greek people to vote for something that was not possible: staying in the Euro without the austerity that was the condition of staying in the Euro. This strategy has now come unstuck, as it was bound to. Faced with a stark choice of leading their country out of the Eurozone or giving it up to the control of Eurozone leaders, Syriza has opted for the latter. At the time of writing, it is still possible that the Eurozone will decide to kick Greece out, notwithstanding Syriza’s capitulation. But whatever the outcome, democrats need urgently to assimilate the lesson of this political debacle.

Tsipras and Varoufakis claimed that they could use the Greek people’s support in elections and the referendum to increase their bargaining power in an intergovernmental forum. They discovered that there was no truth in this claim. They fatally misunderstood the nature of the Eurozone and the EU. These are not institutions in which different sovereign nations reach a compromise on their interests, as they erroneously believed going into the negotiations. They are institutions in which national governments agree to subordinate their national will and interest to a set of technical rules dictated by market imperatives. As Syriza discovered, this institutionalized self-limitation of national sovereignty by European governmental elites is implacably hostile to the idea that policy should be accountable to electoral majorities. The essence of the Eurozone and the EU is anti-democratic.

Instead of being straight about this with his supporters, Tsipras, like the Duke of York in the English nursery rhyme, marched the Greek people up to the top of the hill only to march them back down again. This futile manoeuvre failed to cover up his retreat, and it is likely to have a profoundly subversive effect on democratic politics in Greece and beyond. After months of populism Syriza have flipped and now do the work of the technocrats. Voters have been forcefully reminded that neither their votes nor their views count for much in contemporary Europe. Many will react to Syriza’s capitulation with resigned acquiescence, while others will simply turn away from representative politics in disgust. The worst of it is that many people, and not only in Greece, will take away the lesson that democratic political action is impotent in the face of market power.

To have any chance of reversing the effects of this disaster, democrats need to be realistic about the anti-democratic nature of European integration and recapture the idea of popular sovereignty from the populist right.

Peter Ramsay

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More German than Left

6 Jan

This post is the first in an occasional series on the European Left and the Euro-impasse that we will run over the course of the next few months. We shall begin with a series of posts from the editors and guest contributors on the German Left.

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More German than Left

The German Left has always been a lynchpin for the international left. For that very reason it has also been a disappointment. From the failed hopes of 1848 to Ferdinand Lasalle’s cooperation with Bismarck; from Bernsteinian revisionism to the SPD’s vote for war credits during WWI; from the failed revolutionary years of 1918-1923 and the split between communists and socialists in the interwar period; from post-war, Brandt-era ambivalence and indecision to the decisive abandonment of socialism by the 1980s, the German Left’s potentiality never quite measured up to its actuality. Nobody has been sharper on its failings than its own progeny. Marx’s famous critique of Lasalle, Luxemburg’s condemnation of reform, to name just two, mark not only the missed historical possibilities but the dashed hopes. There was a moment but it was never realized.

Today, Germany remains the center of Europe, and the German Left the only agent able to shape a different course than the current sadomonetarism emanating from the Bundesbank. The election of Hollande in France yielded the sop of high marginal tax rates, but within the context of a concession to austerity. Some brief sparks were ignited in Greece, during last year’s election campaign, but the leader of Syriza – Alexis Tsirpas – blinked and eventually caved into the prevailing ‘bail-out in exchange for cuts’ consensus. The SPD’s lukewarm reaction to Syriza, replicated in many other Left parties across Europe, contributed to its capitulation.

The historical difference now is that there is not much reason even to view the German Left as…Left. Angela Merkel’s recent appointment to a third term as chancellor, under a Grand Coalition including the SPD, involves a nominal turn leftward on condition that everyone accept more of the same with respect to the major economic issue of the day: the euro and its debt problems. Sabine Lautenschläger’s nomination to replace Jörg Asmussen at the ECB came with a promise to increase German pressure to focus on inflation rather than employment. As Wolfgang Munchau recently commented, among the rather narrow mainstream alternatives, the idea of debt mutualization and bank backstopping appears to have finally lost out to “austerity and price deflation.” The SPD, meanwhile, happy for scraps at the table, refuses to fight for leadership of Germany, let alone Europe.

The problem for the European left is that Germany is the core. Without the SPD breaking from its benighted belief that the rest of Europe needs to follow its decade of ‘virtuous’ wage-suppression, not to mention its ruinous embrace of European-wide internal devaluation, there is little wiggle-room for the rest. The dismal LTROs, ELA, and other monetary efforts, which receive only reluctant German support as it is, all come with the austerian string attached. The German Left has accepted the basic equation that since their workers have been sucking it up, it’s time for everyone else to do the same. This demonstrates a distinct lack of trans-European solidarity, let alone serious assessment of the possibilities. Moreover, the unwillingness of the German Left to articulate a clear alternative strategy means it tacitly participates in the increasingly nationalist terms in which the whole Euro drama has been cast. Ugly nationalist stereotypes have been trotted out to explain everything from ‘Mediterranean’ stagnation to the so-called dangers of eastern immigrants to the ‘virtues’ German prudence. In the absence of a conflict within Germany between concrete alternatives – alternatives that can be repeated across Europe – Germany appears unified around trying to punish the rest of Europe. And as Marx once said: “relations…appear as what they really are.” The German Left really is, at this point, more German than Left. The Left in Germany (and elsewhere for that matter) has never been rewarded for being the junior partner in a national coalition, but until it becomes willing to take risks and challenge its major opposition, it will remain what it appears to be. It could be more.

The Zombie Currency and the Fetters of Europe

4 Sep

Hobbes once said that money is the “Sanguification of the Commonwealth” Wherever it circulates, so it brings goods from those who produced them to those who need them, and in the process sustains the life of the body politic, the same way blood sustains the life of the body. If Hobbes was right, that is a bad sign for the euro. The euro was supposed to be the lifeblood of the European Union, circulating through and nourishing the political institutions of the Euro-Leviathan. Instead it is sucking the life out of it.

Part of the problem is that the euro was not just supposed to nourish existing institutions but conjure into being a set of institutions that had not yet been fully created. It was a political project through and through. It was supposed to compensate for the EU’s democratic deficit and confusion of powers: a kind of European version of post-Tiananmen China – economic vitality in the place of more democratic institutions. But, unlike China, the EU never went all the way to creating a highly coordinated, if undemocratic, Euro-Leviathan. What the euro promised was financial integration, macroeconomic stability, and technocratic peace. A common currency managed via European Central Bank monetary policy would bring borrowing costs down, given the implicit continental wide guarantee. This is exactly what happened at first. Sovereign debt yields converged rapidly, such that where Greek yields had been almost 25% in 1992 compared with German 7% yields, by the end of 2000, two years after the introduction of the euro, their yield were nearly the same. Credit flowed freely across borders, as did capital, consumer goods, and even labor.

But as we have seen over the past months, the background guarantee of supranational monetary support was not actually there, the Leviathan was a many-headed hydra, and the underlying economies diverged rather than converged. The ECB’s mandate is to control inflation not save banks or engage in fiscal transfers. There is no coordinated continental-wide fiscal policy. The responses to the recent crisis have been short-term, ad hoc moves, like the Long Term Refinancing Operations, in which the ECB loaned money to national banks to buy sovereign debt, in an attempt to keep yields low and increase liquidity.

The effect has been to extend the sclerotic features of the European political system into the economy, rather than to have that economy breathe life into the political institutions. Consider the following three facts, which together reveal just how rapidly the European economy has financially dis-integrated, even as the euro ghosts along preventing this dis-integration from becoming an economic reorganization:

  1. First, as everyone has noticed, sovereign debt yields have radically diverged to reflect not the strength of a continental economy with a coordinated economic policy, but rather dramatic differences in national economic potentiality. Germany is safe, France moderate, the PIIGS increasingly risky. (Note both the convergence from 1999-2009, and the rapid divergence from 2009 onwards. Graph from the ECB)

  1. Second, as Gillian Tett reported in May, cross-border private lending has seized up. An essential feature of eurozone financial integration had been the willingness of banks to make loans in one country backed by assets from another. Lending to Greek consumers were matched by German funds; lending to Spanish borrowers covered by French assets. Now, as Tett observes, “banks are increasingly reordering their European exposure along national lines…the fracture has already arrived for many banks’ risk management departments.”  Banks now demand that any loan to a particular country be backed by funding from that country. Where the economic strength of Germany thus facilitated borrowing, speanding and investment in weaker economies, it now subtracts from that same provision of credit. Given the economic contraction, Greece, Spain, Italy now have fewer good assets to put up against loans that now has to be backed nationally. This “asset-liability matching” is an indication that banks are already treating the european economies as breaking up, even if this break up is not registered at the level of different currencies able to register these different economic potentials. An April ECB report on financial disintegration notes that the standard deviation in interbank lending rates across countries has continued to grow and fluctuate wildly since 2009, and an August report confirms continuation of the trend in various financial markets: “the pricing of risk in the repo market…has become more dependent on the geographic origin of both the coutnerparty and the collateral, in particular when these stem from the same country.”
  1. Recently, the Financial Times reported corporations have had to seek financing from the corporate bond market, because bank loans are in short supply, and that the yields on corporate bonds are nationally divergent. According to the FT, “Interest rates paid by companies in the eurozone’s weaker economies have surged, highlighting the bloc’s fragmentation as the European Central Bank loses control of borrowing costs.” Further, this particular instance of fragmentation heavily favors large businesses that can sell bonds on corporate bond markets, and some countries have many more corporations with access to these markets than others. Money is going into already established avenues for investment, not new growth areas. Once again, financial markets are reflecting the fragmentation of the European economy.

In sum, diverging national bond yields, diverging bank loan structures, diverging corporate borrowing costs. The blood is running through the arteries of a foreign host.

The ECB is not so much keeping the euro alive as keeping it from dying. Public funding by the ECB is replacing private funding at the cost of sinking more and more money into going concerns, suppressing new avenues for investment. Banks are not lending to companies, they are investing in their own sovereign debt or parking cash back at the central bank. Major companies are sitting on cash hoards rather than investing.

The Euro is a zombie currency – a monetary undead, wandering around feeding off the flesh of living economic entities. Of course, there is an alternative to trying to goad skittish banks and bearish companies into investing. One could sequester savings and force investment through a massive, European wide investment plan. But that would require decapitating the zombie, or however else one finally kills the walking dead. The fetters of the EU political structure weigh too heavily on the economic forces of the Eurozone to allow such a radical act. There may be a European solution to the continent’s economic malaise, but it won’t come from the EU.

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