The European Union (EU) has temporarily solved the crisis involving the euro, the EU’s common currency, by bailing out Greece. Temporarily, because no one believes the problems are over.
Greece, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, is one of the 16 countries which use the common currency. To stop its financial problems from dragging the euro down, the 15 other eurozone countries worked out a â¬45bn emergency funding plan. They declared that they were prepared, together with the IMF (which is to guarantee a third of the sum), to give Greece a â¬30bn credit line if interest rates become too high for Athens to borrow the necessary funds on the financial markets. In return, Greece has promised to cut its budget by 10% of its GDP in the next three years. The deal has temporarily restored the markets’ confidence in the euro.
There are at least three reasons for skepticism.
First, it is simply impossible for Greece to cut its budget by 10% of its GDP in three years without having the option of devaluating its currency to make its products cheaper on the international markets. The Economist argues that the â¬45bn rescue plan has “merely bought time - three years, in effect, to contain the adverse consequences of a possible Greek default.” The magazine states, moreover, that Greece is in need of a rescue plan closer to â¬75bn.
Second, Greece is not the only eurozone country facing default. The budgetary situation in the other PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) and Ireland is equally precarious; that in France and Belgium is not much better. How are countries which might soon need help themselves, expected to help Greece? The blind cannot lead the blind. The main reason why France and Belgium agreed to help Greece is because they count on receiving help themselves when in need. Everyone, however, is expecting help from the same country: Germany.
The German newspaper Handelsblatt commented bitterly: “For the Germans it is no longer a question of whether they must pay, but how much.” Public opinion in Germany is just as embittered. Joachim Fels, head of research at Morgan Stanley, warns that the Greek debt crisis is setting off a chain of events that may prompt German withdrawal from the eurozone. “Obviously, we have not reached the end game yet. However, with the latest developments, such a break-up scenario has clearly become more likely,” he wrote in a note to clients.
George Soros even thinks that not just the euro, but also the EU itself risks breaking up. “The Germans have always made the concessions needed to advance the European Union, when people were looking for a deal. Not anymore,” he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “That’s why the European project has stalled. And if it can’t go ahead from here, it will go backwards. It’s important to understand that if you don’t make the next steps forward for the euro, the euro will go to pieces and the European Union, too,” he said.
Third and most important, however, is the basic flaw of the euro project. It is economically flawed because it is politically flawed, and it politically flawed because it is culturally flawed. The euro is doomed to fall because of insuperable cultural differences.
Ten years ago, the common currency was introduced for political reasons. The aim was to foster the political unification of the EU member states by removing economic barriers, such as different currencies, that existed between these states. This plan might have worked if the European states, especially those from the (predominantly Protestant) north and the (predominantly Catholic) south (plus orthodox Greece) had shared the same culture. In the southern countries, governments are characterized by a higher degree of corruption, which is generally accepted and, up to a point, even considered benevolent and beneficial, because it is compensated by the government’s inefficiency and sloppiness in collecting taxes. The southern citizens do not expect much from the state, but the state does not expect much from them either. Southerners do not trust the government, but the political system works and is not even perceived to be oppressive because the state in return adopts a laissez faire attitude: it does not worry about being cheated by the citizens. Outwitting the taxman is generally accepted behavior and may even make a man so popular that he can rise to the political top. This is what happened with Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
Before the euro was introduced, the states in Southern Europe made up for their losses in taxes by occasionally devaluating the currency as a method of indirect tax collection. The introduction of the euro, however, has made the latter impossible, and has put pressure on the governments in the south to improve their efficiency in collecting taxes. As the latter would make these governments hugely unpopular - by breaking the existing modus vivendi, a workable system which so far had not been perceived to be politically oppressive, they would in fact become oppressive - they preferred to accumulate huge budget deficits. When the euro was introduced, the EU authorities imposed upon the eurozone countries the obligation to keep their budget deficit below 3% of GDP and their government debt below 60% of GDP. To hide their real performance from the EU authorities, the southern governments cheated and fixed the figures in the same way that their own citizens had always been allowed to cheat.
The EU is now forcing the Greek government to clamp down on its citizens in a fashion which is incompatible with the political culture in Greece. If Greece fails to do so, the Germans will be forced to bail them out. The latter, however, is perceived by German taxpayers, who rebel against being forced to pay for the “cheating Greeks,” as unacceptable political oppression by the EU.
The northerners with their predominantly Protestant ethic expect a “high trust government” in return for not cheating on the government. The EU, however, has imposed on the northerners authorities who have cheated; the EU now expects these northerners to bail those cheaters out. The southerners, on the other hand, expect little from the government but are not expected to do much in return. The EU is now confronting the southerners with authorities which are about to put the fiscal screws on them. It is not clear yet at which end the system will snap - either the Germans leave the eurozone, or the Greeks and the other PIGS are forced out - but that the system will have to give at some end seems certain. When culture clashes with monetary politics, culture is bound to prevail.